The Wonderful Azuridge Hotel and Alberta's Cowboy Trail

by Jim Byers

I wasn’t remotely prepared for this.

I had finished a couple days in Calgary and Banff/Lake Louise following the Stampede and was headed south for a drive along the famous Cowboy Trail. Rather than drive too far, I elected to try a night in Priddis, just a bit outside of Calgary, at Azuridge, a luxury boutique hotel folks had told me about.

I had no idea what to expect as I rolled past lush farms in the foothills southwest of the city. But I soon found myself arriving at a large black gate on a dirt road not far from the Spruce Meadows equestrian centre. I wound my way past a pretty meadow where an owl was hunting for mice and pulled up in front a pair of huge, modern buildings that were simply out of this world; massive stones and timber beams and huge panes of glass allowing guests to gaze west towards a fabulous garden and a pond and a large gazebo, with the view stretching out to rolling hills dotted with deep green grass and out towards the Rockies.

After saying hello to my butler (who I didn’t really need), I put my bags in my room and was soon greeted with a drink they call a “Dangerous Diamond,” a mix of sparkling wine with soda, St. Germain liqueur, Bols liqueur from Holland and large blue crystals that bobbed and weaved in my glass. I was told it had something to do with molecular gastronomy but I was too busy being mesmerized by the little crystal blobs to ask questions.

I was told the place was built on a 13-acre piece of property by a former Calgary furniture store owner as his private home, along with an adjoining guest house. But it’s been a hotel for a couple years now, with seven suites in the main building and six in the guest house. The main building is called Sapphire Hall and the guest home Emerald Manor. All rooms are named after various crystals or gems and there are colour schemes to match the names (e.g., brilliant blue-green in the Aquamarine Suite). They also have brought in floors from a former Calgary bank building and the altar from a Catholic Church that some foolish person was throwing away.
There’s an enormous dining area with an open kitchen and a table fashioned from a rare African tree called a Bubinga.

I had the Pearl Suite, which was sleek and spacious with lots of dark wood and lots of white and silvery shades. There was an enormous spa tub and a bathroom counter longer than a 1970’s Cadillac, plus a large shower and a balcony overlooking the gardens and pond. Not to mention an Apple TV, iPod docking station and other great gadgets.

Some suites are family style with a loft, which comes supplied with a tent for the kids to pretend they’re camping. Just in case they’re bored, you also can order up an XBox for some electronic stimulation. There’s a life-size likeness of a Tyrannosaurus Rex on the building grounds, too.

I got up in the morning and was treated to a luscious frittata with eggs, red peppers, fior de latte and chicken sausage. After that it was time to work off at least the peppers, so I climbed the wooden water tower behind the main building. It’s not a bad climb and the views are wonderful.

They also have a gym and plenty of space for weddings and special events, as well as a theatre room and other amenities. There’s no pool yet but they’re adding a spa and hot tub. The lobby area in Emerald Manor has a huge fireplace where you can roast marshmallows.

“It’s starting to happen,” GM Clarence McLeod tells me over coffee. “It’s a great place for a girl’s getaway or for cooking classes or a special event. We have the option for in-room massages, and we’re getting celebrities checking in. Steven Spielberg was here, so was (Olympic champion show jumper) Eric Lamaze."

I could’ve spent days wandering the grounds and checking out the barbeque (and beer taps) in the swish hotel gazebo, but it was time to mosey down the Cowboy Trail.

The countryside south of Azuridge is spectacular, with deep green rolling hills in June and early July and small ranches and farms with red painted barns nestled into perfect valleys. The landscape looked almost like Ireland with the spring rains they had.

The last time I was in Turner Valley it was to taste the fabulous new products at Eau Claire Distillery, including a ridiculously smooth vodka. This time, it was a lunch stop next door at legendary Chuckwagon Café for their famous Alberta beef burger. For about $13 I have a six-ounce hamburger with mushrooms, grilled onions, cheddar cheese and bacon, plus homemade red relish. It’s hugely messy and hugely delicious. I also get skin-on, skinny fries that were just the way the good Lord intended fries to be made.

There are steer heads on the wall and paintings of native leaders, as well as old-time wood panelling. It’s a very cowboy/small town kind of place but I notice on this day that ball caps outnumber cowboy hats, even though I’ve worn the spiffy one I had purchased the night before the Stampede.

South of Turner Valley I pass a monument to a former oil town called Little Chicago (and later named “Royalties”), which was a happening place in the 1930’s and 40’s. I find later that former residents had the monument built so folks would remember what happened here.

For some reason, folks have taken to putting old baseball caps on top of fence posts on the right side of the road as I head south; pink and green and brown and black. On the east side, the posts are unadorned. I have no idea why. And there’s no around to ask, so I leave it as one of those great little mysteries that make travel – and life – so much fun.

The scenery is spectacular in this part of the province. The highway dips and drops and slithers and snakes its way through wide valleys under that famous Alberta sky.  There’s a delightful drop in the road south of Longview.
I slide past Bar U Ranch, said to be the only National Historic Site in Canada that commemorates the history and importance of ranching in our great country. There are spiffy historic buildings and tons of history to absorb, as well as friendly workers happy to offer a warm “howdy” and explain the site.

As I roll south I note striking purple wildflowers and yellow, daisy-like blossoms in the fields around me. The ranches thin out a bit and suddenly the Rockies are riding shotgun as I head south.

A great trip.

To read more from Jim Byers, visit his website

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