Medicine Hat's historic Medalta Potteries site has much to see and explore (photo: Hubert Kang/Travel Alberta)

The Weekender: Medicine Hat

By Tracy Hyatt

Medicine Hat has earned a lot of ink in Alberta’s history books. It’s where natural gas was first discovered in the province, back in 1883. Abundant gas reserves, along with tax breaks and access to 100 kilometres of CPR track, subsequently sparked a regional industrial revolution, with factories churning out everything from bricks to crayons. Traces of that first boom are everywhere: Flour mills rise up from the South Flats neighborhood; century-old homes line First Street. Today, downtown Medicine Hat is experiencing something of a second life, with a clutch of inventive coffee shops, groovy retail stores, not-for-profits and more that are slowly transforming the area.

Any first-time trip to Medicine Hat should include a visit to Medalta Potteries. In the 1920s, the company was producing 75 percent of Canada’s pottery; its distinctive grey crocks, jugs, bowls and pitchers were sought after across the country. Production stopped in the 1950s, but the iconic factory and its beehive kilns still stand as a museum in Medicine Hat’s Historic Clay District. Visitors can marvel at the 30,000-piece collection of pottery and see the inner workings of a ceramic production line, or get their hands dirty in a pottery class. The site also hosts The Market @ Medalta every Thursday: Take home some honey products from Sweet Pure Honey and chewy beef jerky from Medicine Hat Meat Traders.

The Esplanade Arts and Heritage Centre similarly bridges Medicine Hat’s past and present. It houses a museum and archives dedicated to preserving the city’s history, as well as a gallery with both historical and contemporary exhibitions, and a pair of theatres that host everything from top Canadian musicians to touring dance productions to children’s entertainers. Definitely check the event schedule when planning your visit.

Outdoor pursuits include half-, one- and two-day jet boat tours of the South Saskatchewan River with River Bend Adventures. Have your camera ready at all times as you’ll whizz past hoodoos, coal seams and fossil beds found outside Medicine Hat’s city limits.

The city’s active cycling club also holds events pretty much every weekend. For $20, you can participate in the Tallest Teepee Tour, a self-guided road challenge featuring 12 different routes covering more than 550 kilometres. Consider it training for the Gran Fondo Badlands ride on June 23, 2018, with five routes ranging from 50 to 160 kilometres in length.

Or you could just scoot over to one of Medicine Hat’s many indie cafés. (It’s rumoured that there are more here per capita than in any other city in the province.) Start your coffee crawl at Madhatter Coffee Roastery and don’t forget to try their famous carrot cake. Inspire Café is another popular hangout—peruse the adjoining art studio and gallery while waiting for your cuppa.

When the sun goes down, head out for a tour of the city’s neon-signs. Most of them are concentrated along the TransCanada Highway, beckoning weary motorists to stay the night at motels. Hot tip: The best signs are those at the Ranchmen Motel, Satellite Motel and Imperial Inn.

Medicine Hat Madhatters Coffee Roastery
Madhatters Coffee Roastery (photo: Hubert Kang/Travel Alberta)

Diners in Medicine Hat have never had so many options. Skinny’s Smoke House, a barbeque joint helmed by pitmasters Todd Lindsay and Jeff Brewster, boasts considerably bigger platters. Think mountains of succulent beef brisket and pulled pork accompanied by heaps of coleslaw, cornbread and baked beans. Right next door is Zucchini Blossom Café, another casual stop that’s great for sandwiches and soup.

If you’re so inclined, the Camp Cookhouse and General Store is well worth the drive to Elkwater, 45 minutes southeast of Medicine Hat. Whether you’re there for breakfast, lunch or dinner, you’ll be spoiled for choice. You can stick to classics like hamburgers and sandwiches, or go out of your comfort zone with chicken confit or shrimp and grits.

Back in Medicine Hat, consider working off your meal by strolling the many downtown shops. Scope out maxi dresses, printed tees and romper sets at Second Street’s Shut Up N Wear It. A block over, Third Street has shoes, handbags and jewellery at Runwayz Boutique. And don’t forget to pop into the Medalta Potteries Gift Shop to take home some local ceramics and stoneware.

Travelling with a brood? Pack your swimming trunks and check-in to the Medicine Hat Lodge Resort, Casino & Spa. The family-friendly hotel has a massive indoor pool with a waterslide and hot tub. It’s also a favourite stop on the dinner-theatre circuit. Many shows that pass through Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto and Vancouver make an appearance here. Past performances have included Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor DreamcoatShirley Valentine and Fab Forever. In July, the resort will host Tina Turner impersonator Luisa Marshall’s tribute to the queen of rock ‘n’ roll.

Another accommodation option is Days Inn Medicine Hat located in the quieter part of town but just off the TransCanada Highway. Hotel perks include a complimentary breakfast—which should save you a few dollars to spend shopping downtown.

Medicine Hat is about 300 kilometres southeast of Calgary and an easy drive along the TransCanada Highway. Consider upgrading to a Plus or higher membership, which allows for extended towing distances, free passport photos, free fuel and delivery, and enhanced trip collision reimbursement. And don’t forget you can pay for your membership monthly for as little as $9 a month.

Stay for less
: AMA members can save 10% or more at Best Western properties across the country, including the Best Western Plus Sun Country in Medicine Hat.