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Go insanely fast - in any season

With ski jump towers as a backdrop, mountain bikers hit some of the 16 miles of trails at Canada Olympic Park. With ski jump towers as a backdrop, mountain bikers hit some of the 16 miles of trails at Canada Olympic Park. (Jenelle Schneider/The New York Times)
By Diane Daniel
Globe Correspondent / May 31, 2009
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CALGARY, Alberta - Just listening to the description of what bobsleigh riders at Canada Olympic Park have in store for them made my stomach flip.

"There are 14 corners," said the guide at the 1988 Winter Olympics track. "The first three are nice little corners, then you get into corner four, where there's lots of speed and pressure, then five, six, and seven all come together and in eight you get to rest."

The "rest" lasts a few seconds before riders hit the "Kreisel corner." Kreisel is German for "spinning top," which should tell you something. Finally after corner 14 "you get the long finish."

"The best way to describe it is like a whip," said employee Matthew Spataroa, a Melbourne transplant. "Afterward people say 'Never again,' or 'Where do I sign up next?' "

Instead, I was on the park's stress-free Olympic Odyssey Tour, an audio tour that takes visitors through the 206-acre park.

While it has been decades since Calgary hosted the Winter Games, the site has become a huge all-season draw as well as a training center for athletes. Next year, Vancouver hosts the XXI Winter Games, practically next door in British Columbia. The Calgary Olympic Development Association, which owns and oversees the park, last year launched a $276 million expansion of the training facilities. The centerpiece of the project is a new state-of-the-art sports complex that includes four hockey rinks, a gymnasium, and a high-performance fitness center.

The park draws about a million visitors, making it Alberta's second-largest tourist attraction after the Rocky Mountains. Many only sightsee, which could include the audio tour, a look at the Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum, and a glass elevator ride to the top of the ski jump tower. At 296 feet, it's the highest vantage point in the city. From there you can see all of Calgary and the Canadian Rockies an hour north.

From the tower's observation deck, you can board the Skyline at the Park, a zipline ride designed to simulate the feeling of ski jumping. The gnarliest of the three ziplines is 1,640 feet long with a vertical drop of more than 328 feet at speeds up to 87 miles per hour. That's like falling from a 25-story building.

Or you can just watch. The ziplines, which opened in 2007, are year-round; most other outdoor activities are seasonal. In winter, about 300,000 people visit to ski and snowboard. Competitions are held on the ski jumps, moguls, and a half-pipe said to be the largest in the world. It has a 22-foot radius and a slope pitch of 17.5 degrees. Lessons are available for skiers and boarders, and equipment can be rented.

When the snow melts, the area turns into a giant mountain-bike park, featuring about 16 miles of single and open track trails, an obstacle course, a trials park, beginning BMX track, and free-ride stunts. There are lessons, clinics, camps, race leagues, and rentals.

New to the slopes last summer was Z-Trip. It's a zorbing ride, where up to two people are strapped inside an 11-by-11-foot clear, inflated ball and get bounced down a hill. There's also a water version, with riders getting sloshed about.

Indoors, I visited the Hall of Fame and Museum, two floors of exhibits containing artifacts highlighting Canada's participation in the Winter Olympics since they began in 1924, including a collection of Olympic torches and antique ski equipment and clothing. Flags on display represent each of the nations that competed in Calgary.

At the Ice House, where indoor luge rides are offered in the summer, I explored the track and equipment on display. The audiotape narration was fascinating, a mix of information coupled with sounds of lugers.

Meanwhile I was lucky enough to happen upon Calgarian Herb Kruschke and his son Peter, 7. They were waiting for Peter's brother, Jack, 13, who had just finished a race with Canada's Olympic luge development program.

"I got the chance to go on the tourist luge last year to see what it was like and it was super fun," Herb Kruschke said.

Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.

If You Go

What to do

Canada Olympic Park

88 Canada Olympic Road SW

403-247-5452

www.canadaolympicpark.ca

The Olympic Odyssey Audio Tour package ($10-$15, family $45) gives admission to Olympic Hall of Fame and Museum, ice house, bobsleigh track, ski jump tower, and in summer, a chairlift ride. Ski and snowboard in winter ($28-$32), mountain bike in summer ($13-$25), try the zipline ($50), zorb ($30), bobsleigh ($150), and luge ($6).

Where to stay

Fairmont Palliser

133 Ninth Ave. SW

800-441-1414, 403-262-1234

www.fairmont.com/palliser

This elegant landmark opened in 1914. Doubles from $129.

Lions Park Bed & Breakfast

1331 15 St. NW

800-475-7262, 403-282-2728

www.lionsparkbb.com

A homey inn near the trendy Kensington neighborhood. Doubles from $75.

Where to eat

River Cafe

Prince's Island Park

403-261-7670

www.river-cafe.com

Park setting on the Bow River is great in any season. Lunch $16-$26, dinner $24-$45.

Nellie's

738 17th Ave. SW

403-244-4616

Popular restaurant with five other locations. Breakfast and lunch only, $3-$10.50.