Story and Photos by Esther Amis-Hughes
This small town in Canada is quite literally the best place in the world! It is more like a giant movie set than New York; there are better museums than London, and it definitely boasts the most ‘atmospheric’ location for a cheese toastie!
‘Drum’ is about 135 kilometers east of Calgary, in Alberta, Canada. This drive is the perfect way to appreciate the contradictions in the Canadian landscape. Calgary is on the cusp of the rockies, which smolder menacingly in the distance, reminding the growing city that they were there before Calgary became a force to be reckoned with, and they’ll be there long after.
Leaving Calgary, the mountains fade in the rear view mirror and suddenly the landscape drops away to reveal nothing. Stretching way into the horizon are the huge green plains of the Alberta prairie, which is so still it seems to be holding its breath. This is enchanting for about 10 minutes, but then it becomes like the illustration in a children’s book, unbelievably bright and unchanged.
Just as we reach Drumheller, the landscape changes one final time. Big nobbles of gnarled grey rock shoot up from the grassland as we descend into a valley that more resembles the moon than anywhere on earth that I’ve ever been.
We stay at Heartwood Inn and Spa, a B&B that I cannot recommend highly enough. It is run by a husband and wife partnership who do everything to make the weary traveler welcome – our room (their best value – by which I mean the cheapest!) is spacious, with a huge bath at one end of it. The building itself is beautiful, clad in bright blue wood, and what’s that in the garden? Oh a dinosaur.
Yup, a life size dinosaur just hanging out in the garden. Pretty much a must for all boutique guesthouses and I’m pretty sure all dinosaur-less B&Bs will be a disappointment to me from now on. Coming in a close second to the carnivorous garden guest is the breakfast. Wowser! Our host asks what we would like and gave us an option of French toast or French toast. Being allergic to egg, I say we’ll sort out our own breakfast, but our host takes this as a challenge to serve me the most amazing (egg free) fruit, toast and yoghurt combo I have ever had. And The Photographer tells me that the egg breakfast is also delicious – either savoury French toast (mushroom, asparagus and bacon) or sweet (syrup and berries). Breakfast is eaten with the other guests, and served with plenty of fresh coffee and enlightening conversation.
We ask our hosts what we should do in Drumheller, and are sent off on the ‘Dinosaur Trail’. The complete absence of any dinosaurs is the only disappointing things about the trail, which takes in several unique sites that only Drum could boast. The first stop is the much more appropriately named ‘Little Church’, a roadside church with six one man pews. Cue lots of humorous photography. Next, Horse Thief Canyon, a real taste of the Alberta Badlands, where the bland but colourful prairie landscape drops dramatically away to reveal a great scar in the land, with huge mountainous lumps. From the top you can see from miles, but clamber down to look closely for those famous fossils that give the trail its name and its easy to feel like you’re in another world, (and totally loose your bearings.)
Talking of being in another world, our next stop was also completely new to me – the cable operated Bleriot Car Ferry crosses the Red Deer River, at a point where it is so narrow I was wondering if I could jump across. The kind, three fingered operator chatted to us all the way over (it was painfully slow, so it took at least 3 minutes) and waxed lyrical about his job. I found myself wondering if we were his only customers that week. The smallest church, the quietest car ferry and no dinosaurs – so far this was road trip was sounding like the bin in the offices of the Guinness World Records.
We drive back towards Drumheller and out the other side towards Wayne, a ghost town with a population of 27. It looks like everyone left the minute they stopped mining coal, and didn’t take anything with them. The best thing about Wayne is ‘Last Chance Saloon’, the Lonely Planet’s recommended Top Choice restaurant in Drumheller. It’s no top choice restaurant, but it is my recommendation to anyone who goes to Canada! Have a warm pepsi and cheese toastie (that’s what we call it in Yorkshire! You might know it as a grilled cheese sandwich) amongst the relics – which range from old pianos and static customers who are so still I thought they might be dead – to actual bullet holes in the wall from real dead customers who didn’t pay.
From ’Last Chance’ we progress from cowboy territory, to alien planets. The hoodoos are a crazy moon like formation of precarious columns, with a flat shelf on top. Apparently, in Blackfoot and Cree traditions they are believed to be frozen giants who come alive at night. I like them even more knowing this.
We arrive at our final destination unsure what to expect: Atlas Mine is a former coal mine which is now a historic site. Living in Yorkshire, England I am familiar with mining memorabilia and it was eerie to see this completely disused and deserted mine, left to rust. It is so familiar, but in such foreign surrounds. I stand under the rickety wooden tipple tower, sheltering from the sudden and torrential rain, and think about all the Brits and Europeans who moved to Drumheller to mine coal.
When natural gas and oil were found in Northern Alberta, the demand dried up and the migrant workers had to move away to find new jobs, breaking up the mining communities they had built around the Pit. In Yorkshire people stayed (the disadvantage of a small country I guess) but the communities also dispersed.
We head back to Heartwood to find that in our absence another Velociraptor has appeared in the garden. Is this for real? It’s like they’re following us.
Day two in Drum and we do what most people do on day one – head to the world famous Royal Tyrrell Museum of Paleontology. As interest in coal waned, tourism became a big market for Drumheller, and the town has built up a powerful brand around the famous by-product of their now redundant fuel: fossils. Now the dinosaurs make sense. Turns out a full size dinosaur in your garden in Drumheller is the equivalent of a full size BBQ in your garden in Australia. In fact, in the center of Drum is the ‘world’s biggest dinosaur’ – a 26M tall T-Rex, and this really is in the Guinness book of world records.
If the plastic dinosaurs are cute but frankly a bit cheesy, Royal Tyrrell is the exact opposite. It is an academic institution, with very well presented galleries and films. Staff sit in the galleries cleaning fossils and answering questions, and breathtaking fossils fill every room.
The Museum runs educational excavation activities, we head to ‘Dinosite’, which, despite assurance from staff that it is for ‘all ages’, appears to be for children. I don’t care – give me a trowel and a tray and I am ignorant of the fact that I’m the only person over 4 foot tall! Our guide traipses us across the Alberta desert (yet another landscape in this schizophrenic region), shows us recent dig sites, and takes questions from adults and children alike.
And, as if dinosaurs, hoodoos, and canyons aren’t enough, it is Canada day, so we see the whole town take part in a drive through parade (more people take part than watch!). The highlight of this is the Heartwood Inn offer: a small white convertible driven by a blonde groom and his brunette bride. It was only the handwritten sign on the car that helped us to recognise them – it was our very own Wills and Kate!
As we leave Drumheller, after only 48 hours, it is hard to shake the feeling of other worldly-ness. In fact I write this now, looking at photos of deserted mines and empty car ferries, of breakfast with dinosaurs, of ghost towns and bullet holes, and I feel compelled to tell everyone about this remarkable little place… just so someone else can tell me it wasn’t all a dream
Esther Amis-Hughes (aka Travel Bug) loves to travel and write. She and her companion (The Photographer) have traveled (and been ill) on all five continents. Check out Travel Sic for more adventures and tips.