Cranbrook, BC: Lonely Planet’s Missed Opportunity

What happens when a travel writer slams a town for having nothing to offer? The town fights back.

Rule #1 of Write Club: Never Piss Off the Locals.

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The person who wrote the blurb for Lonely Planet about Cranbrook—describing it as ‘a dusty crossroads’, ‘charmless’, with only one thing to offer—was obviously tired and grumpy the day he/she drove through town.  Too bad his mood stopped him from exploring a place that actually has plenty to offer.

The locals didn’t take too kindly to the dismissive description of their city.  Danielle Cardozo, Marketing and Promotions Manager at The Drive, was one person particularly perturbed. This go-getter/city councillor has deep roots in the area, and being the type to never sit idly by, she arranged for four Alberta food/travel writers to visit. They would be guests of various Kootenay businesses and Integra Air for a weekend in March 2016. As one of those writers, I’m here to tell you what the Lonely Planet contributor missed.

Starting with location. Cranbrook is more than “a dusty crossroads”.

City of Cranbrook - photo credit: Janice Strong Photography
City of Cranbrook – photo credit: Janice Strong 

Cranbrook is located in a valley in southeast British Columbia between the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Purcell Mountains to the west. The region is known as East Kootenay. The city is located on the west side of the Kootenay River at it’s confluence with the St. Mary’s River. People of the Ktunaxa (Kootenai) tribe lived here first, and settled on the banks of the river, for which it is named.

The scenery is stunning. Think snow-capped mountains, thick forests, rushing rivers, still lakes, pastoral meadows and breath-taking valleys. The area is perfect for outdoor adventurists: mountain biking, hiking, hunting, fishing, kayaking, sightseeing, rock climbing, and 20 minutes down the road puts you right at Kimberley’s ski hill.

How to get to Cranbrook: From Calgary it’s 4.5 hours via Trans Canada/Hwy 93, or about 4 hours via the Crowsnest Hwy. Great option is to fly with Integra Air, a boutique airline that offers daily flights from Calgary to Cranbrook.

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Our ride: Integra’s Jetstream

Taking Integra doesn’t take brains, here’s why: 1) the cost – today’s comparison between Air Canada and Integra (to and from Cranbrook on the same days) shows Integra $300 cheaper than AC. Of course, prices are subject to change, but the proof (here, at least) is most definitely in the picture; 2) No airport hassle – Integra’s hangar is located near to Calgary International Airport, but separate from, which means you can arrive 30 minutes before the flight, park 30 metres away from the plane,  not have to worry about security lineups, and you can pack a bottle of wine in your carry on;  3) mega-comfy seats – big bucket, leather seats with lots of leg room, and, 4) the little extras: they serve coffee and Bailey’s in the lounge before departure, wine and cheese on afternoon flights Wednesdays, and beer and pizza on afternoon flights Fridays.  Think about this: the Jetstream used for Cranbrook/Calgary flights seats 11 people. This means that you and 10 friends can take over the entire plane and feel like Robin Leach on Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous. That sounds like a buddy golf trip (Cranbrook has 7 world-class golf courses within 20 minutes of town) or a stag-ette in the making, if you ask me. The downside is that the flight takes only 45 minutes. This kind of luxury makes you wish it was a longer flight. Did I mention the price?

Integra vs AC

Every town has unattractive parts, Lonely Planet Contributor, but everyone knows you never judge a book by its cover, and a savvy traveler always looks beyond the obvious. Thankfully, the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel got a mention—it is definitely worth the stop! The building started off as the Cranbrook Railway Museum (in 1977) but changed to the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel in 1993, however, in 2015, the name changed to the Cranbrook History Centre, so, now that we’ve got that straight, let’s talk about all the good stuff this city has to offer. We’ll start with the past.

The Cranbrook History Centre is the best place to begin to get a sense of the area. You’ll learn of the Ktunaxa First Nations’ history, palaeontological and archaeological findings, 500 million year old trilobites, life in the 1800’s, and the legend of Myrtle, Tillie and Charlie Ed (later re-named Cranbrook Ed): the elephants who escaped the Sells-Floto Circus in 1926.  The Centre features two stunning artifacts from the C.P.R’s Royal Alexandra Hotel in Winnipeg: the gigantic mantle of the fireplace and the reconstructed ballroom. Stunning.

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The beautiful ballroom was disassembled in Winnipeg and reassembled here. It’s a magical room. You can almost hear the band playing. Best thing is, you can rent this room for special events.

The city was named by Colonel James Baker after his home town of Cranbrook, in Kent, England. The Colonel convinced the Canadian Pacific Railway to run the Crowsnest Pass Line through the area.  This is one of the reasons why Cranbrook is home to the Canadian Museum of Rail Travel, one of the finest historical railway collections anywhere.

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There are almost 30 rail cars here with half of them restored making this the largest collection of rail travel cars in North America. Even if you’re not a train buff, you’re going to enjoy this tour—a fascinating look at the Canadian rail history with cars from 1887 onwards. The highlight of our tour was experiencing high tea aboard the 1928 “British Columbia” Business Car.

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Here’s something really cool: I read about nearby Fort Steele Heritage Town, one of BC’s most important heritage attractions. Horse-drawn wagon rides, pioneer farm demonstrations, gold panning, ice cream making, live theatre, yeah, it’s all here. Have your wedding here, a birthday party, bring the kids to see the rare breeds of livestock. Stop in at Mrs. Mather’s Ice Cream Parlour for some famous Fort Steele Cinnamon ice cream. This is on my ‘next time’ list!

If you’re looking for a tour that involves something stronger than tea and ice cream, though, Fisher Peak Brewery should be on your ticket. The Brewery is located in The Heidout restaurant just a short hop from the History Centre making this a great place to stop for lunch and a beer after learning about Cranbrook’s lore.  Chef Rusty is an enthusiastic cook who comes up with some pretty creative dishes. The menu features lots of pub grub (but healthy fare too), dessert and of course, locally brewed beer.

Top L: roast beef stuffed Yorkshire Pudding Top R: Deep-fried pickles Bottom L: Loaded baked potato-topped hot dog Bottom R: Porter Tiramisu
Top L: roast beef stuffed Yorkshire Pudding. Top R: Deep-fried pickles
Bottom L: Loaded baked potato-topped hot dog. Bottom R: Porter Tiramisu
Fisher Peak beer tasting and brewery tour at The Heidout
Fisher Peak beer tasting and brewery tour at The Heidout

Nice touch: The Heidout showcases quite a few old replica posters from 1926 that tell the story of Myrtle, Tillie and Charlie Ed.

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More good food can be found up the road at Hot Shots Cafe which serves refreshingly innovative breakfast, lunch, marvellous lattes, and then Thai food in the evenings. The room is bright and busy. Seems everyone in town comes to Hot Shots in the morning, and I can understand why: fantastic coffees and big breakfasts will fuel your outdoor activity-filled day, plus it’s the only place I know where you can have a Nutella and banana grilled cheese with a strung out squirrel on the side.

Hot Shots menu
Flavourful breakfasts and inventive cold coffees at Hot Shots.

Campers and barbecue enthusiasts need to know that Cranbrook has one of the finest meat shops in the country, and that’s no exaggeration. Rick Armstrong learned how to process meats and make sausage from an old European butcher in 1984. Nine years later, he and his wife Corrine opened up their first shop, and they’ve hardly rested since. There is no website for Rick’s, no Facebook page, no Twitter account. The Armstrongs are hard-working people with unshakable integrity. Noses to the grindstone, no shortcuts, no pre-mixed seasonings, no filler, no commodity animals; if the animal isn’t raised to Rick’s standards, he doesn’t want it in his final product. These are people you need to support because there are not many like them left in the food industry. Plus, his jerkies, sausages, and cured meats are phenomenal—all cut, mixed, cured and smoked on site.  Rick’s Fine Meats & Sausage: 1350B Theatre Rd, Cranbrook, BC. Phone:(250) 426-7770.

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Corrine and Rick Armstrong. Even a broken leg can’t stop Rick from coming to work.

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If you’re looking for a sit-down meal that someone else has prepared, you need to mosey on down the road to the Smokehouse at St. Eugene Mission Resort.

Bison ribs, chicken, brisket, beans, even beets: anything that wasn’t nailed down, got smoked the night we dined, and it was a sweet, succulent, lip-smacking experience, made better by impeccable service and all-BC wine pairings. Chef Ronnie Belkin is a ringer. He is unassuming, humble and insanely talented.

Left: baked beans Top R: smoked brisket Bottom R: beer can chicken
Left: baked beans Top R: smoked brisket Bottom R: beer can chicken
Smoked Platter: Top - smoked oysters, bottom - smoked duck, left - smoked salmon, top left - bannock crostini
Smoked Platter: Top – smoked oysters, bottom – smoked duck, left – smoked salmon, top left – bannock crostini

St. Eugene Mission, once a residential school, now operates as a resort in partnership with the Ktunaxa Nation Council. Read past Chief Sophie Pierre’s story about the building’s transformation. The BCAA three-diamond awarded hotel is home to a fitness club, casino, wedding chapel, and a Les Ferber-Designed golf course. The health club features a steam room sauna, fully-equipped gym, and outdoor heated pool. The resort offers very attractive guest rates, special event and golfing packages.  If you use Integra Air from Calgary, you could fly hassle-free (and in style) and be golfing in the Rockies in 1.5 hours.

St Eugene and golf course

After a day of touring the local sights and over-indulging on food and drink, you better believe this bed felt as good as it looked.

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So, as you can see, I managed to find a few places worth exploring in and around Cranbrook, and the only dust I saw was on the boots of this cowboy at the airport.

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Let’s try again, Lonely Planet. I’ll help.

Cranbrook is a small city with a fiercely beating heart; a city whose food purveyors are recognizing the value of creating good, locally-focused food, organic specialty coffees and craft beer, and whose small business owners are known for their hard work and integrity. Cranbrook is an outdoor adventurer’s paradise, a city rich in First Nation history, and bygone days of silver and gold mining. Nestled in the East Kootenay region, flanked by glacial rivers, guarded by the majestic mountains and nurtured by nature’s bounty…

I could go on, but how’s that for starters?

Feature photo: Janice Strong (www.janicestrong.com)
For more photos from our weekend, search Twitter and Instagram using #YYCtoYXC.

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