Situated between the Midwestern prairies and the Canadian Rockies, Calgary’s success and development are due, almost completely, to its oil industry. But North America’s petroleum capitol has become a surprisingly green place.

While the city’s economy remains closely tied to the extraction of black gold, it is not plagued by the side effects usually associated with the industry. In fact, Calgary has been building an impressive résumé of eco-friendly credentials.

Calgary came out on top in the environmental category of the well-known, annual quality of life study by consulting firm Mercer, even surpassing the enviable green scenes of Canada’s other major metropolitan areas.

Calgary’s image as an oil town brings to mind negative stereotypes, especially for eco-tourists. But the clean water and air that earned it such a high ranking in the Mercer survey are only two of Calgary’s Earth-friendly traits. Other green features range from the practical (great public transit and plenty of green hotel options) to the edible (organic restaurants and farmers markets) to the entertaining (a world-class zoo).

Calgary has managed to be practical about its economy — without the oil industry, there would be no Calgary — while growing its green culture and making it easy for residents and visitors to live an Earth-friendly life.

Sleep green

Calgary has several hotels with a respectable measure of environmental consciousness. Big names like Radisson, Fairmont and Marriott are all options for travelers who want a venue that gives them the chance to leave a lower-than-normal footprint during their Calgary stay. The Green Key Eco-Rating website gives a complete list of green hotels in Calgary and wider Alberta (the above-mentioned brands were all awarded four green keys out of a possible five).

Those who want to spend a longer amount of time in Calgary, or who want an alternative to the usual hotel experience, would do well to consider the O Hotel Suites . These high-end suites are furnished with high-efficiency appliances including convection ovens. Bath products come in recyclable packages, and low-flow toilets, faucets and shower heads keep water waste to a minimum.

During the warmer months, numerous campgrounds in and around the city make camping a viable sleeping option.

Go green

Like many other places with similar population numbers, most Calgary residents rely on cars. However, there is also an impressive public transit system . The light-rail network, known as the C-Train, has three lines that spike off of one main route. Most major sites in the city can be reached by rail, while those farther afield are reachable by bus.

Many of Calgary’s neighborhoods, including the central district, are walkable . Winter does not stop pedestrians from traversing downtown. The Plus-15 skyway system makes it possible to travel around the city’s core without having to step outside into Alberta’s winter winds.

Some Calgary-dwelling diehards ride bicycles year-round, but summer is the best time to take advantage of the almost unbelievable network of bike trails and on-street bike lanes. There are over 600 kilometers of bike-only paths throughout the city, with another 200-plus kilometers of bike lanes on city streets. This impressive system makes biking the most practical carbon-free way to get around. Bikes can be taken on public transit during non-peak hours.

Eat green

There are plenty of restaurants supporting local farmers and sustainable growing practices. The menu at the aptly named Farm focuses on simple dishes that change seasonally depending on what is available. An open kitchen adds to the down-to-earth vibe. Though Farm does not work exclusively with local growers, its products are sourced from sustainable farms.

Prince’s Island Park is home to the River Café , an eatery that offers quality organic fare sourced from local farmers or grown in a garden owned by the restaurant.

Organic enthusiasts who want to do their own shopping will be content at either of the two Calgary locations of the Planet Organic chain. The franchise sells organic food from Canadian growers. It has adopted Earth-friendly practices like using biodegradable bags and packaging materials.

Green culture

Calgary’s Mount Royal University is attempting to bring eco-tourism in central and western Canada to the mainstream by training the next generation of green-travel professionals. The school offers one of the more unusual degree programs in North America: a bachelor’s degree in “ applied eco-tourism and outdoor leadership .”

The Calgary Zoo is not only one of Canada’s premiere zoological gardens, it is also one of the more creative when it comes to conservation . Partnering with Alberta-based Civilized Adventures travel company, the zoo offers “ZooFaris” to exotic locations in Africa, Asia and Latin America. All proceeds from these trips go to the zoo’s conservation fund. Much of the fund’s money is sent to the Centre for Conservation Research, which seeks to reintroduce endangered species to Canada’s wildernesses and to preserve damaged or endangered eco-systems.

Calgary’s location offers easy access to the foothills of Canada’s Rockies. There are plenty of options for those who want to get out into nature, either on the prairie or in the mountains. Biking and hiking trails abound, and make Calgary a great base for eco-tourists.

Calgary is, surprisingly to many, an environmentally conscious city. Green-minded travelers who can push images of oil derricks out of their imaginations may find themselves pleasantly surprised by this progressive metropolis in Canada’s heartland.

Related on MNN: Visit our other destinations of the week.

MNN homepage photo: dan_prat/iStockphoto

Destination of the week: Calgary
North America's oil powerhouse also has some serious environmental cred.