TRAVEL: Join the cowboy trail in Canada
Cherry Wilson gets a-stomping at Calgary Stampede.
Green fields sprawl as far as the eye can see and I stand, mesmerised, as a herd of around 50 majestic horses gallop across them.
A cowboy is directing them down a hill - it feels like I’ve just stepped into an old Western movie.
Despite the wind and rain, I’m transfixed by the incredible scene and the grace of these amazing creatures, which have been bred for years on one of the famous ranches in Alberta, western Canada.
Some of them will be taking part in what has long been billed ‘The Greatest Show On Earth’ - the Calgary Stampede.
The event takes place every July, with cowboys from across the globe descending on the city of Calgary for the ultimate test of their skills, including braving the backs of rodeo bulls as they buck wildly in the air.
Brave or stupid, I can’t make up my mind, but I’m certainly impressed by their courage.
The hotly-anticipated challenges also include steer wrestling and bareback racing. Contestants appear by invitation only, to fight for their share of prize money totalling £1.6m.
Now in its centenary year, the organisers pulled out all the stops for the 2012 festival (July 6-15).
As well as the usual opening parade, flagship rodeo events, funfair, host of entertainment stages and X Factor-style stampede talent search, to mark the special anniversary there’s a spectacular firework display and star-studded music concert, headlined by Canada’s very own country superstar, Paul Brandt.
The Stampede is a major visitor draw for Calgary, attracting spectators from near and far, and one of the few times of the year that the destination falls under the spotlight. Last year our very own Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, Prince William and Kate, headed to the event, and were photographed in their jeans and stetsons, soaking up the atmosphere.
There’s no doubt it’s a highlight in any cowboy’s calendar, but there’s a lot more to the region than saddles and boot scootin’, as I discovered.
I may not qualify to compete in the Stampede, but I can certainly get into the spirit of things - starting with a trip to the famous Smithbilt hat company, where I picked up an authentic white cowboy hat.
Next it was off to the world-renowned Alberta Boot Company, for a pair of proper cowboy boots. Now I really feel the part when I head out to find a line dancing bar.
Though tradition is whole-heartedly embraced in Calgary (which you can witness in full glory at Heritage Park Historical Village - Canada’s largest living historical village), the city itself has undergone something of a transformation in recent decades.
Chic restaurants, boasting impressive menus and wine selections, now line the streets. A notable example is Rouge, situated in the former home of Alfred Ernest Cross - one of the four men who financed the first-ever Stampede.
The city certainly has a sophisticated side, and if you prefer your hotels more polished than Wild West, a good choice is the Hyatt Regency.
The 600ft Calgary Tower, which offers stunning views across the city, is just a 30-second walk away, and historic Stephen Avenue, featuring nine major shopping centres, is across the street.
With new theatres, festivals and art exhibitions springing up around town, it’s easy to see why Calgary was named Canada’s Capital of Culture for 2012.
No trip would be complete without venturing into the stunning surrounding countryside, though.
This part of the world is a natural adventure playground, teeming with opportunities to hike, fish, ride, paddle and climb. The Banff National Park and Canadian Rockies are within easy reach, too.
I headed to Kananaskis Country, a few miles outside the city. Getting there required a drive through snow-topped mountains and a breathtaking, untouched landscape.
There are dozens of peaceful ranches dotted around, such as The Delta Lodge, situated among 1,500 square miles of towering mountains.
The high-rise buildings and bustling energy of Calgary seemed a distant memory as I checked in. Here I was surrounded by nothing but crystal blue lakes, luscious green trees and the odd mountain sheep.
The Rafter Six Ranch, just a 40-minute drive from Calgary, is also perfect for exploring the region and all it has to offer.
If you book early enough, you can stay in one of the ranch’s cabins or chalets, but visitors passing through for a few hours are also welcome.
There’s a treetop rope obstacle course which is guaranteed to have you crying - either with laughter or terror!
But best of all, you can get a taste of life in the saddle. The closest I’d ever come to being a cowgirl was riding a donkey in Blackpool, but at Rafter Six I was made to feel like a natural.
Their horses are trained to the highest standard and can even be trusted with children as young as three.
Our hour-long trail took us through neighbouring fields with the Rocky Mountains in the distance.
More seasoned riders can enjoy day-long rides and even camp out overnight with a campfire supper under the stars.
For the seasoned pro or cowboy novice, a visit to Calgary is guaranteed to be a trip of a lifetime. Just don’t all stampede at once... Yee-ha!
Key facts - Calgary
:: Best for: Stunning landscapes and action-packed adventure.
:: Time to go: Year-round, but July for the Calgary Stampede.
:: Don’t miss: Heritage Park Historical Village is well worth a visit.
:: Need to know: Alcohol is expensive, so take plenty of Canadian dollars if you’re planning nights out.
:: Don’t forget: A rain jacket and, of course, cowboy boots.
Cherry Wilson was a guest of Canadian Affair, which offers seven-night Alberta stays from £1,073, incl direct flights ex-Gatwick into Calgary, five nights room-only at the Sandman Hotel (twin share) in downtown Calgary, and two nights at Rafter Six. One week’s car hire from £189. Prices apply for late August.
Ex-Manchester from £1,063, ex-Glasgow from £1,025.
For reservations call Canadian Affair on 020 7616 9999 or visit www.canadianaffair.com
For more information on Calgary or the Calgary Stampede visit www.visitcalgary.com and www.calgarystampede.com