by Linda Aksomitis
Old world pubs and patios. Windows and doors thrown open to the street. Laughter. Lively discussion. Classic buildings telling tales of gold and treasure. Paris? Rome? No, Whyte Avenue in Edmonton, Alberta’s Old Strathcona District.
My husband, David, and I, have specific tastes as tourists, and Old Strathcona comes out on top in weekend getaways for us. While Whyte Avenue’s historic surroundings certainly are part of the attraction, the Strathcona atmosphere suits our fun-loving lifestyle perfectly.
Our weekend started with check-in at one of Edmonton’s boutique hotels, the Metterra at 10454 Whyte Avenue, when the valet whisked the rental away, and hotel staff took care of the remaining details. From there it just got better and better!
We set out to explore Old Strathcona, which spreads out along Whyte Avenue between 102 and 109 Street, as well as a four-block section off of 103 and 104 Street. Incorporated as a town in 1899, its name comes from Lord Strathcona, an icon who embodied the spirit of the west, starting life simply as Donald A. Smith, but during the seventy-seven years between birth and being elevated to peerage by Queen Victoria in 1897, was a Hudson’s Bay Governor, Member of Parliament, railway financier and Canadian High Commissioner.
The spirit of Lord Strathcona is very much alive along Whyte Avenue, as we soon discovered. Hard worker, idealist, adventurer, Lord Strathcona was many things, but when he drove the last spike in the Transcontinental Railway in 1885, uniting 3700 miles of provinces and territories into a nation, he proved he was a visionary who could turn dreams into reality. The same thing is true for the many privately owned businesses along Whyte Avenue, who forestalled the wrecking ball and worked to create a cultural hub in Edmonton.
During a group tour I learned some of the buildings in Strathcona can trace their history back to the boomtown era when goldrush fever lured men from across North America into the Klondike. Thousands plodded with horses and wagons through Edmonton between 1891 and 1899, staking their life savings on dreams of gold nuggets. Businesses grew in response, and the Ritchie Mill, first opened in 1893, is the oldest surviving mill in Alberta and possibly the earliest of its kind in Canada. One of the buildings that took my eye was Strathcona’s Fire Hall, which was built in 1910, and is the only surviving fire hall of its age and type remaining in Alberta.
Many of the buildings, like the Dominion Hotel, retain their historic exteriors, while having been completely refurbished inside. I couldn’t resist peeking in and picking up some small gifts at the shops. Mind you, we made lots of intriguing stops along Whyte Avenue: When Pigs Fly; Chicken Scratch; The Plaid Giraffe; Shell Shock; and The Tin Box!
One of the amazing things about visiting Edmonton in the summer is the length of the days–when I checked my watch it was already 8 p.m. with a temperature still in the upper 20s (80s), and the sun high in the sky. A day’s shopping can certainly be more than anticipated, much to David’s dismay.
Souvenirs gathered, it was time to start sampling the entertainment along Whyte Avenue. First came something to drink, so we plopped onto stools at a table for two in Hudsons, and ordered mugs of beer, along with my bar favourites, hotwings (very hot I might add) and ribs. With so many options, though, there was no time to linger, so we worked our way to O’Byrne’s, which was reputed to have one of the best patios along with Celtic music. We weren’t disappointed either!
After a few songs we wandered back to the Metterra to drop off the camera, so we could scout out dancing spots for the evening, and were drawn to the almost-packed Julio’s Barrio and Mexican Restaurant right next door–lively Latin music pulled me in, while the mouth-watering smell of fajitas on the grill enticed me to sit down and order dinner to follow the appetizers we’d already eaten.
Conversations with the locals tipped us off to the “Blues on Whyte” pub in the historic Commerical Hotel, so we were soon off once again. We settled in right beside the dance floor, and at the first beats of the music knew we’d be there until long after dark finally fell, when we’d make the short trek back to the Metterra. We had it all: fabulous music, great service, friendly people (David even ended up coming home with a new hat he traded for), and conversation. What more can you want in an evening?
Our second day we explored more of Edmonton, but, like many other visitors we knew to this fine city, Whyte Avenue and the Old Strathcona district became our favourite memory to take home and share with friends.
If you visit:
Published September 7, 2006.