Times Staff Writer

This city has some big-time explaining to do. Its collective curtain is about to be pulled for the whole world to see, but unlike the red-faced Great Wizard in the Land of Oz, it can't wait to tell the truth.

Ever since an enterprising trick roper named Guy Weadlick organized the first Calgary Stampede in September of 1912, Calgarians have lived with an image of their city in Alberta as a cowboy town where the locals hang out in neighborhood saloons and the preferred topics are bull riding and steer wrestling, not free trade.

That will change soon enough, however, since Calgary is serving as host city for the upcoming XV Winter Olympic Games (Feb. 13-28). Officials are estimating about 1.6 million people will visit Calgary during the Games.

Visitors looking for a honky-tonk good time are advised to leave their six-shooters at home; folks here are as partial to tailored business suits and good wine as their urban American neighbors to the south. Fact: Calgary has more computers per capita than any city in North America, except Houston, which just happens to be the city it is most often compared to, both in appearance and production.

One look at Calgary's imposing steel-and-glass skyline and it's easy to see why. Like the gawky teen-ager still trying to fit naturally into an evolving frame, growth has come quickly and dramatically to this city of 650,000, which makes it the fifth-largest in Canada.

"Seven years ago you could have counted 45 tower cranes working away in the downtown area," says a lifelong Calgarian, gazing out the window from a table at the revolving Panorama Room atop the downtown Calgary Tower.

In those boom days of the late '70s and early '80s, the city sold more than $1 billion a year in building permits to eager contractors anxious to capitalize on a population growth rate that averaged 8.3% a year between 1955 and 1986. If you haven't been here in 10 years, you may not recognize downtown.

The Tower (101 9th Ave. S.W.), identifiable as the city's post card landmark, stands 626 feet and bears a strong resemblance to the Seattle Space Needle. It costs $2.75 Canadian ($2 for youths 13 to 17,$1 for children 6-12, 5 and under are free) to take an elevator ride to the top and get a breathtaking view of the city and the vast Alberta plains beyond. Sunsets, especially, can be memorable.

Calgary is Canada's undisputed oil and energy capital. In fact, of the country's 620 oil companies, 590 are headquartered here. It's the oil, energy and beef ("The best beef I've ever had," a recent visitor told me) that has given Alberta a reputation as the "Texas of Canada."

For 10 days every July, at least, no one in these parts will dispute that. When it's time for the Calgary Stampede at Stampede Park, it seems everything in the city gets put on the back burner of the ol' ranch stove. Oil moguls, postal workers and cab drivers alike are instantly transformed into cowboys and cowgirls. It's Canada's biggest costume party.

The city's best-known country western hangouts, the Ranchmen's Club and the Longhorn, come alive. Days are filled with events like the Half Million Dollar Rodeo, Chuckwagon Races and Frontier Casino, and there is nightly grandstand entertainment. No wonder the Stampede is also known as the "Greatest Outdoor Show on Earth."

Next month an even bigger show hits town, and the same Olympic fever that gripped Los Angeles for two unforgettable weeks in the summer of '84 appears to be taking hold.

"Everybody's excited," says Mick Butson, a mustachioed bellman at the venerable downtown Palliser hotel, which sits next to the Calgary Tower. Butson's vigor and enthusiasm belies his more than 57 years, the last 27 of which have been spent in Calgary.

"Someone told me it was like the Stanley Cup, World Series and Grey Cup all put together. I can't imagine what it will be like."

Neither can Gus Kwaczek, a retired income tax auditor and one of 250 volunteers staffing the Calgary Olympic Centre. Kwaczek figures it's his first--and last--opportunity to be part of the Olympic Games. He and his wife will be one of a thousand couples square dancing during the opening ceremonies at McMahon Stadium.

Noting his former line of work, Kwaczek adds with a laugh: "Besides, I came here to make friends."

Kwaczek and other Olympic Centre volunteers such as Clare Goetz, she of the gray hair and perpetual smile, are making plenty of friends. It was Goetz who caught up with a visitor from California 20 minutes after he had left the Centre to give him an Olympic pin for a family member who collects them.

The Centre (free admission) is a must-see; it offers visitors an array of Olympic exhibits, memorabilia, slide shows and hands-on activities, including a simulated bobsled run and ski jump.

Ever wondered what it feels like to jump off the top of a mountain and soar through the air, hurtling helplessly toward a snow-covered strip of land? Then try the ski jump and let your imagination move you.

Video screens throughout the Centre display ticket information, event schedules, Olympic Arts Festival information and multiple-choice quizzes (Question: How much does an Olympic luge weigh? Answer: 22 kilos).

The Arts Festival, patterned after the highly successful 1984 Olympic Arts Festival in Los Angeles, features performances in the fields of dance, music, theater, film, and literary and visual arts. It runs from Jan. 23 to Feb. 28, and is spread among 21 venues.

For Olympic Arts Festival ticket brochures and order forms, write to Olympic Arts Festival Tickets, P.O. Box 1988, Station M, Calgary, Alberta, Canada T2P 4E7, or call (403) 270-6088.

The Olympic Centre, located on the second floor of the Palliser Square building, adjacent to The Palliser hotel and Calgary Tower, is a good place to start a downtown walking tour (weather permitting, of course).

When you leave the Centre, cross the street, walk a block and check out the Glenbow Museum (130 9 Ave. S.E.), considered one of the six major museums of Canada. It's a combination museum, art gallery, library and archival center.

You'll find out quite a bit on subjects ranging from the history of Western Canada to the development of Buddhism in Asia. It's a slightly oddball place, too. Among the items on display are the war shirt owned by a Blackfoot leader named Three Suns, complete with holes acquired from knife slashes and arrows, and a bachelor's cabin where you can get a glimpse of what life was like for the single male in the pre-Cuisinart homestead days.

To coincide with the Olympics, the Glenbow is presenting a blockbuster exhibit--"The Spirit Sings: Artistic Traditions of Canada's First Peoples," a history of Native development and adaptation in Canada.

The program begins Friday and runs through May 1, with the museum offering expanded hours of 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily. They're expecting big crowds for this ambitious exhibit, but plenty of tickets ($6 general admission, $5 students and seniors) should be available each day.

Indian Names

The Indian influence on the city is considerable; note the names of such major highway arteries as Blackfoot Trail, Deerfoot Trail, Peigan Trail and Crowchild Trail. There are five Native tribes still living on the outskirts of Calgary: the Blackfoot, Blood, Peigan, Stoney and Sarcee.

When you leave the Glenbow, walk two blocks north on 1 Street S.E. (the museum is at the corner of 9 Avenue and 1 Street S.E.) and you'll reach the Olympic Plaza, where about 90% of the Olympic medals will be presented to the athletes.

Expect a high-energy atmosphere around the Plaza during the Games; an estimated 25,000 people per day will watch the medal ceremonies there. There's ice skating until the end of March on the frozen pond. The Plaza is lined on the 8 Avenue side by the four-year-old Calgary Centre for Performing Arts, an impressive multipurpose facility symbolic of the city's continuing cultural enrichment.

Head east along 8 Avenue and you'll be in the midst of the Stephen Avenue Mall, a five-block-long pedestrian thoroughfare that was once part of Calgary's original main street. It's lined with sidewalk cafes, hot dog vendors, fresh fruit stands, music stores and the ubiquitous Western wear and leather shops. In the summer, the mall is alive with concerts, festivals and Stampede breakfasts.

Devonian Gardens

At the end of the mall, just before you reach 3 Street S.W., you'll find the beautifully landscaped Devonian Gardens. If you don't spot them at first, don't fret; the Gardens are actually on the fourth floor of the Toronto Dominion Square shopping center.

Spread over 2 1/2 acres, this facility is a tranquil delight, a perfect place to pause. There's a skating rink at one end, plus gently flowing waterfalls, streams, fountains and a play area for children.

You can take a quiet stroll or sit on a bench and read a book. If the Olympic crowds start to get to you, this is your antidote. The Gardens are open every day from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. and admission is free.

If you plan to see Calgary with a car, here's a warning: Be alert for the constantly changing one-way streets, especially in the downtown area. Also, the signal lights at intersections are difficult to clearly distinguish because of their thin, horizontal shape. Approach with caution.

You'll need a car to visit the Tyrrell Museum of Palaeontology, but if you have even a casual interest in dinosaurs, it's worth the 1 1/2-hour drive northeast to the city of Drumheller.

This is a gem of a museum, encompassing 120,000 square feet, with artistically assembled displays organized chronologically by ages in time. Allow yourself at least two hours to explore.

The plains throughout Alberta are rich in dinosaur fossils, and no area is richer than the Drumheller Valley, where the Museum was built, adjacent to the Red Deer River, a little over two years ago. The surrounding badlands give the area a truly prehistoric look. From Feb. 8-29, the Museum will be open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. It's free, too.

For true dinosaur aficionados, Dinosaur Provincial Park (where parts of the movie "Quest for Fire" were filmed) is another 62 miles southeast of the Tyrrell Museum on the so-called Dinosaur Trail.

There's an ethnic diversity in Calgary that may surprise you. The Asian influence, in particular, is considerable. Calgary's Chinatown, established by Chinese immigrants who came to Western Canada to work on the railroads, is thriving along the Bow River downtown at Centre Street. There are large numbers of Vietnamese, the first of which arrived just within the past decade as refugees, and natives of Hong Kong and Macau.

Peking-Style Restaurants

If you're like me and you begin to quiver after a few days without eating Chinese food, relax: There are some 60 Peking-style restaurants in Calgary alone. Peking and Sichuan are clearly the preferred choices over, say, Cantonese, which hasn't caught on here yet.

John Gilchrist, marketing manager of the Glenbow Museum and a respected food critic for the Canadian Broadcasting Co. in his spare time, characterizes Calgary's dining personality this way: "There is a lot of breadth, not a lot of depth."

Gilchrist, who has written an excellent book on dining in this area ("My Favourite Restaurants in Calgary and Banff"), raves about a relatively new Peking-style establishment called Leo Fu's (511 70th Ave. S.W.). He says the Peking shrimp is "dynamite."

You can also find plenty of Italian eateries (very popular among Calgarians; try Da Guido's, Chianti Cafe or Topo's), plus Swiss/French, Greek, Hungarian, Portuguese, Ukrainian, even Cajun/Creole. And, of course, there are plenty of those ever-popular steak houses like Hy's and The Keg, proudly serving Alberta beef.

Calgary does have its culinary limitations, however.

"There's not a decent Mexican restaurant around," Gilchrist told me. "Tell people to stock up on burritos before they get to the border."

No need to stock up on chocolate, however . . . not before you get here, that is. Calgary has one of the best chocolate shops anywhere--Bernard Callebaut's, which specializes in outrageously good Belgian dark chocolate. There are three stores in town (they make the stuff at the 907 17 Ave. S.W. store), plus one in Banff. Calorie counters, here's your caveat: Once you set foot in the place, it's over; you're buying.

Local 'Designer' Beer

Another Calgary favorite, this one of the watering hole crowd, is Big Rock beer, a good local "designer" brew (i.e., no preservatives or chemicals).

To satisfy your visual appetite, don't miss the view from Scotsman's Hill. You'll get great shots of the Calgary skyline, with the eye-catching Olympic Saddledome (site of the Winter Games hockey competition) prominent in the foreground, just beyond the Elbow River, and the Canadian Rockies beckoning in the distance. You can also clearly peek in on the action at Stampede Park; indeed, many people come to the hill to do just that in the summer. It's at the corner of Ramsay Street and 6 Street S.E.

Sit on one of the wooden benches atop the bluff and, if you've returned to Calgary for the first time in a few years, take a moment to marvel at the city's physical and cultural evolution. If you're a first-time visitor here for the Olympics, breathe the clean, bracing air and say hello to the people. This is a place where they say hello right back, usually accompanied by a smile.

The people of Calgary were finally awarded the Olympic Games on their fourth try. Now they're out to prove something to the world.

"We've got a pretty city," says Kwaczek, "and it's damn time we showed people."

Spoken like a true Calgarian, eh?

For those spontaneous souls still hoping to see the Olympics in person, here are the latest developments:

Accommodations: Due to cancellations by major corporations and sponsors, some 400 to 600 hotel rooms, mostly on the outskirts of Calgary, have recently become available. But they won't last long. The downtown core area remains solidly booked. Prices average about $150 Canadian ($120 U.S.).

Call the Olympic Housing Bureau at (403) 262-6630 from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. weekdays and 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekends; they'll be open 24 hours during the Games. A spokesman says the best bet for last-minute travelers is to book rooms in the Banff-Lake Louise area. Banff is about 80 miles west of Calgary. Call Banff/Lake Louise Central Reservations at (403) 762-5561.

Tickets: About three-quarters of all event tickets have been sold. That means approximately 400,000 still remain. Premium events such as the opening and closing ceremonies, figure skating and speed skating are sold out. So are all U.S. hockey games. But tickets to early round competition in most other sports are available.

With a VISA card, you can order tickets by calling (403) 270-6088. Get ticket order forms from the Canadian Consulate General's office, 300 S. Grand Ave., Suite 1000, Los Angeles 90071, phone (213) 687-7432. Prices range from $20 to $75 Canadian.

Tour Packages: Olson-Travelworld of Los Angeles, the official travel agency of the Calgary Winter Olympics, had been offering six packages, 6 to 18 days, priced from $633 to $2,475 per person. These are sold out and Olson is assigning requests to wait lists. Call (800) 421-2255 or (213) 670-7100. Other companies are putting together Olympic packages, however. For help in contacting them, call the Los Angeles office of Travel Alberta at (213) 625-1256.

Airlines: Air Canada and Delta offer daily direct flights from Los Angeles to Calgary, a 2 1/2-hour trip. Air Canada (one flight daily, two on Saturday) has very limited space available in its excursion class for $266 round trip, depending on advance-purchase restrictions. There is also space left in the coach ($422) and business ($452) classes. Delta (one daily nonstop, three daily one-stops) has seats open in its coach class, costing between $168 and $438 round trip. Call Air Canada at (800) 646-8848 and Delta at (213) 386-5510.

Car Rental: Six major car rental companies serve the Calgary International Airport--Hertz, Avis, Budget, Thrifty, Tilden (which is National in the United States) and Rent-Rite. Hertz, Avis and Tilden are completely booked during the Olympics (though you can check periodically for cancellations), while the others indicated some availability.

Expect to pay about $50 Canadian per day in the mid-size category, with 100 free kilometers (62 miles). Budget has full-size cars for $49.95 per day and $340.99 per week, with unlimited mileage. Call Budget at (403) 263-0505, Thrifty at (403) 250-7233, Rent-Rite at (403) 273-7300.

Public Transportation: Calgary has an excellent system. You can ride the light-rail C-Train free in the downtown area. There is an extensive bus and subway system. Regular transit fares are $1.25 Canadian for adults, 75 cents for juniors (ages 6-14). Children under 6 ride free. The transit system will have expanded hours during the Olympics.

Note: Event tickets include free transportation to and from the seven Calgary venues on the day of the event. It'll cost $15 Canadian round-trip for bus service from downtown to the two other venues, both about 60 miles west of Calgary--Nakiska at Mt. Allan (downhill and freestyle skiing) and the Canmore Nordic Centre (cross-country skiing and biathlon).

For general Olympic information in Calgary, call (403) 277-8888. The helpful Calgary Tourist & Convention Bureau is at 237 8 Avenue S.E., phone (403) 263-8510.

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