This is the fifth and final installment in Dave Zuchowski’s series on discovering Canada’s lesser-known provinces by car. For more on the road less traveled, check out Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
After driving 160 miles and 2.5 hours from Regina to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan and checking into the Bessborough Hotel, what do I do? I immediately get back into my car and drive back out of town to Boomtown, one of four sites under the umbrella of the Western Development Museum.
There I was in the Bessborough, one of the last of the great Canadian rail hotels with five acres of gardens high on a bluff overlooking the South Saskatchewan River and no sooner do I splash some water on my face to freshen up than I head out again. Ah, the travails of the curious time-constrained travel writer!
Boomtown, however, proved quite a find. An obviously gigantic project for its builders, Boomtown simulates a typical settlement of 1910 Saskatchewan—all under one roof. Over 30 full-size buildings filled with period furniture line both sides of a replicated street dotted with old wagons, cars, buggies and other vintage vehicles.
If it weren’t for the other visitors dressed in contemporary attire, I’d have thought I was thrown back into a much earlier era as I wandered through everything from a telephone operator’s house, a harness and blacksmith shop, a general store and a dentist’s office to a detachment of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police, a hardware store and butcher and barber shops.
Adjacent to the town, a huge connecting building holds a collection of antique tractors and farm machinery and other areas tackle topics like the First Nations, a town fair, the Depression and rural electrification.
And, if you’re (or with) a shopaholic, try to keep out of the gift shop. It’s full of so many unique and irresistible items, including interesting Canadian and Saskatchewan products, that your credit card balance might be in danger of overloading before you leave. If you’d like to take a virtual tour of Boomtown, the museum website (see above) has several links worth checking out.
Back at the Bessborough, I decided to walk the few blocks to the dock of the Prairie Lily, a double decker riverboat named after Saskatchewan’s provincial flower. With owner Valerie Kingsmill at the helm, we set out on an hour-long cruise that took us under four of Saskatoon’s nine bridges. More impressively, the excursion gave us an up-close look at Saskatoon’s beautiful downtown core, several natural areas and some of the city’s ritziest residences—with everything narrated to keep us informed about the passing sites.
I capped my day off at Truffles Bistro downtown. Within walking distance of the Bessborough, the eatery was alive with patrons as I perused the sophisticated French influenced menu. Later I discovered that TripAdvisor contributors rate Truffles the number-one restaurant in Saskatoon out of 536 dining options and that chef Lee Helman uses as many provincial and Canadian ingredients as he can find. He also opts to create all his sauces, pastries and stocks in house.
Before heading out on day two of my visit, I took a look around the Bessborough. Is this 10-story historic landmark from 1932 a castle or a cathedral? The 32 gargoyles on the facade make you wonder. Named for the Earl and Countess of Bessborough, who visited in 1932, the hotel failed to open as scheduled due to the Great Depression and sat vacant for three years. Following a 1999 renovation, the hotel now regales in its 4-diamond status and hosts an annual jazz festival each June outdoors in its sumptuous gardens.
For a look at the pristine area surrounding the city, some tranquility and a bit of much appreciated exercise, I linked up with CanoeSki and veteran outdoorsman and ecology advocate Cliff Speer. We headed five miles upstream by car to our put-in on the South Saskatchewan River, then embarked on a thoroughly captivating and astonishingly serene adventure just a few miles from a hopping urban center.
Long sandy stretches along the river banks were home to hundreds of migrating birds in mid-September. As our canoes closed in, they hurriedly made wing, honking in unison. At one spot, geese by the thousands took off simultaneously, flying above and toward us like a gray cloud with a cacophony of tumultuous sound.
Speer has owned CanoeSki since 1989 and calls Northern Saskatchewan Canada’s last canoeing frontier. His brochure says it best: “Uncrowded, undiscovered and untouched, over 100,000 pristine lakes and rivers await your voyageur aspirations.”
Speer joined us for lunch at the Woods Ale House, 148 Second Avenue N., where we discussed his ecological interests and passion for wild, quiet places over a mug of great tasting Red Hammer draft. I was equally impressed with the menu that featured such innovative items as orange ginger bison skewers, chipotle sour cherry wings and jerked turkey pot pie.
A three-mile drive out of Saskatoon then took me to Wanuskewin (Cree for “living in harmony”) Heritage Park, home to 19 pre-white settler contact sites, some of which, at 5,000 to 6,000 years old, predate the Egyptian pyramids.
The walkway leading up to the interpretive center is lined with statues of buffalo, so configured to replicate a buffalo jump—an event where the animals were purposely driven by aboriginal people over the cliffs to their death. The park overlooks Meewasin Valley, site of a former buffalo jump which lies just outside the interpretive center.
After looking at the center’s exhibits and sitting through a video that explains the area’s history, I headed to the tipi rings and Medicine Wheel, just two of the park’s many ongoing archeological finds and said to be among the most exciting discoveries ever in North America.
I ended my day (and Canadian trip) with an incredible dinner at the Samurai, a Japanese restaurant inside the Bessborough, where chefs do acrobatic teppenyaki maneuvers tableside to the amazement of the patrons. Instead of culinary showmanship, I opted for the Samurai’s subtler sushi boat, a copious feast that arrived in the model of a ship and is big enough to serve two. To help connect me to just the right sake, I called on manager Sunil Poswal, a virtual sake sommelier, for assistance.
How emblematic that I should end my auto excursion through the Canadian heartland dining in a Japanese restaurant, which spotlighted not only our neighbor to the North’s multicultural diversity but also a sophistication that extends from coast to coast.
For more information on Saskatoon, phone 800-567-2444 or visit saskatoontravel.com. For information on Saskatchewan, phone 1-877-237-2273 or visit tourismsaskatchewan.com.
All photos in this story were taken by Bill Rockwell.
Check out more from Dave on his blog at pittsburghowlscribe.blogspot.com.