1997 travel guide leads Edmonton writer on odyssey through City of Champions

A Lonely Planet travel book from 1997 left one Edmonton writer with a mouthful of cream of broccoli soup, a reminder of how far the city has come, and a desire to explore more Canadian cities.

Lonely Planet guidebook in hand, Michael Hingston explored Edmonton's former hotspots

( Edmonton Economic Development (EEDC))

Eating cream of broccoli soup in a windowless room of the bowels of the legislature basement.

Searching for long dismantled statues of sex workers in the West Edmonton Mall.

These are just some of the sights and sounds Edmonton writer Michael Hingston took in after following the advice of a 1997 Lonely Planet travel guide for Edmonton. 

"I actually didn't live through Edmonton in the nineties, so for me, it was a chance to get familiar with a snapshot in the city's past," Hingston said during an interview on CBC Radio's Edmonton AM. 

"There is a lot more money, a lot more people and generally a lot more self esteem in the city, and to compare that and realize all that's happened in just 20 years, it really is kind of amazing." 

I actually didn't live through Edmonton in the nineties, so for me, it was a chance to get familiar with a snapshot in the city's past.- Michael Hingston

The bizarre odyssey came two years ago, as an assignment from Hingston's editor: find an old Lonely Planet book and follow it to the letter.  

But when his editor was fired and the paycheck never came, Hingston refused to let his article gather dust. 

Instead, he's revived his travel tale, and has plans to put the guide to work in cities across Canada.

Hingston said the guide took on a strangely sarcastic tone in the 20 or so pages it dedicated to the City of Champions.

Micheal Hingston is a writer and novelist based in Edmonton. (Micheal Hingston )

"I got the sense that they were a little less interested in the Edmonton section. But when you're doing Canada you can't avoid it, you have to send someone here," Hingston said.

"They would recommend things and then immediately undercut why you shouldn't actually go there. I got the sense that the pickings were a little slim in certain areas, especially in the downtown at the time." 

Despite the gloomy overture, Hingston set out to see how Edmonton 1997 stacked up against its present day counterpart.

His first stop? the legislature cafeteria, for the cream of broccoli soup.

Discovering downtown

Hingston had no idea the eatery even existed and thought the recommendation was "insane." The guide had the eatery on its top ranked list of places to see in downtown Edmonton. 

"This was their ringing endorsement, I believe the wording is 'plain but decent food,' and this is the first thing they recommend to eat in Edmonton," he said.

A lot of the stuff has changed over the years. And the turnover is incredible, in all those sections, half the things you look for are not even there anymore.- Michael Hingston

"And the building is underground and difficult to access at the best of times, so it doesn't start off on the best foot." 

Other downtown hotspots in 1997 included Audrey's Books, which remains open on Jasper Avenue, and a street corner which boasted trees and benches. 

The corner, Hingston said, lived up to the hype. The trees and benches are still there, but many other recommended spots have closed, lost to redevelopment. 

"A lot of the stuff has changed over the years. And the turnover is incredible, in all those sections, half the things you look for are not even there anymore." 

Lonely Planet's downtown recommendations

  • Edmonton Art Gallery  —  Still there, but rebuilt as the Art Gallery of Alberta
  • Map Town  —  Gone
  • Silk Hat  —  Still there, now called The Hat
  • Nest  —  Gone
  • Bistro Praha  —  Still there
  • Goodfellows  —  Gone
  • Sherlock Holmes Pub  —  Still there
  • La Crêperie  —  Still there
  • Harvest Room (Hotel Macdonald)  —  Still there

Wandering Whyte Avenue

Citing a positive mood change downtown since the publication of the guidebook, Hingston said he expected the same vibe on Whyte Avenue.

What he found there was no small amount of regret over how the area had changed over the years.

Hingston said Old Strathcona businesses who made the list in 1997 are feeling pessimistic about high rents and commercialization in the district. 

"I've long been under the impression that in the '90s, Edmonton was at its nadir as a city," Hingston said in his article.

"It didn't occur to me to consider what might have been special about the place back then, or what has been lost in the years since." 

Lonely Planet's Old Strathcona recommendations

  • Rutherford House  —  Still there
  • Greenwoods' Bookshoppe  —  Gone
  • Model & Toy Museum  —  Gone
  • C&E Railway Museum  —  Still there
  • Telephone Historical Centre  —  Still there, new location 
  • Uncle Albert's —  Gone
  • New York Bagel Café  —  Moved to Gateway Blvd.
  • Veggies  —  Gone
  • Strathcona Gasthaus  —  Gone

A walk back in time at West Edmonton Mall

Hingston then headed to the city's most legendary shopping mall. 

How could he possibly resist after reading this:

"'West Ed' is really something else," says the guide. "More than just the world's largest shopping mall and largest indoor water park, it's a self-contained city complete with roof. You could live, OK, exist, inside for years." Ouch.

Upon arrival — as directed by the guide — Hingston set out to find statues of sex workers at the "ersatz New Orleans Bourbon Street," but found the indoor strip dismantled.

The gaudy street is gone, remodeled years ago, into something much less risqué. 

Sadly, Hingston says, the fabled statues were auctioned off to the public in 2011.

Hingston is now taking his trusty guide on the road, and plans to eventually write a travel book of his own. 

"I'm going to take it to any city that will have me. I've done Edmonton and Calgary, and I'm going to Vancouver and hopefully carry on," he said. 

"Every place that I've gone to so far has been totally fascinating."