Urban fun in cool Kensington area of Calgary

CALGARY – From old school to new age, and from Brazilian coffee to Chinese statues, Kensington is one cool shopping destination.

I didn’t know a lot about the area prior to a visit I made to the wonderful Kensington Riverside Inn a few months ago (more on that later in this blog). But I had an awesome time checking out a very urban – and urbane – part of a city that doesn’t get enough credit for its hip neighborhoods.

I started my walk around Kensington Ave. and 10 th St. NW, checking out the tattoo shops (I didn’t indulge, just looked) and looking over some exotic and sweet-smelling East Indian food.

It’s not my cup of green tea, but I also wandered into New Age Books and Crystals to admire their offerings, such as Green Smoothie Revolution. There’s plenty of jewelry and incense on hand in case you want to fetch that black light out of your attic and fire up the White Album.

The House coffee shop is one of those places that, in my mind, a really cool neighborhood has to have. Starbucks and Timmies are just fine, but to be a truly hip part of any town you have to have an independent coffee place, preferably with cool furniture and people who don’t chicken out when they walk past the tattoo parlour.

That’s what you’ll find at The House. It’s a non-profit joint billed as a “Coffee Sanctuary” (how hip is that?) and they serve up direct-trade, fair trade and “Rainforest Alliance” coffee; everything from Brazilian Sete Cachoeiras to Colombian Huila. If you’re there around lunch time, try the Old Faithful bagel sandwich (still have) with ham, smoked cheddar, apple and radish sprouts. When I was there a couple of small kids were playing in the children’s area, which has games and a small slide. In another corner, a young woman with purple hair (also a sign you have a cool coffee shop) was reading a thick, important-looking book.

They have live music several nights a week and, at least last time I was there, even offered a “Kids’ Bridge Night.”

Down the road I wandered into Kismet clothing (see photo below), where Annabel Tully sells everything “from casual to cocktail” for Calgary’s most stylish women.

“We stress unique lines from Canada and a bit of Europe,” she tells me. They only buy one of each design so you won’t likely see your neighbour in the same outfit when you hit that big fund-raising party or slide into that first Stampede party of the summer.

They’ve been in the area 16 years, I’m told, and have a ton of repeat customers buying dresses, shoes, Echo Touch gloves, cool socks by Hansel from Basel and sleek Melie Bianco purses.

“We sell everything but underwear,” Annabel tells me. I take her word for it.

I also see a number of things I think my wife would like. But, like many women, she prefers to buy her own clothes and accessories versus having them purchased by a guy who likes nothing more than a pair of shorts and a Hawaiian shirt.

More to my personal shopping pleasure was a stop at Hot Wax , where they stock a vast array of great records; Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Mardi Gras,” a late-in-their-career offering I had forgotten about, as well as vinyl and CD’s from The Regents, Merle Haggard, Velvet Underground, The Bee Gees, and lots more. The website describes the store as “Part flea market, part hipster’s paradise,” and that sounds about right.

I have a great time poking around Manana Imports and Gifts. They sell a wild variety of stuff; masks of the Hindu God Ganesh, Buddha figures, wool scarves, Putamayo World Music CD’s and new world flutes.

The owner, Steve Burger, shows me his business cards, which are fashioned from old paper money from countries such as Myanmar and Nepal. Very cool.

“Calgary is more eclectic than people think,” Burger tells me. “It’s quite international and cosmopolitan. It’s a complete change from the monoculture it used to be.”

I wander up 10 A St. NW and admire cool homes I’d love to live in; big old places painted sunny yellow or deep red with big porches that call out for a cup of coffee and a newspaper on a warm summer’s morning.

The Kensington Pub beckons but I’ve got work to do and no time for a local beer. Which is a shame, because it’s a fine looking establishment with doubtless a few stories to tell.

Back on the main drag I spot Oliv, where you can do olive oil and balsamic vinegar tasting, and Peppino’s Italian deli, where they sell gourmet sauces and pasta. I wander briefly into Metro Element and admire the lovely home décor offerings; great paintings I’d love to hang in my home and colourful pillows and sleek sofas.

I bed down for the night at the Riverside, which has a sleek, grey/blue exterior and 19 chic and sophisticated rooms and is billed as Calgary’s original boutique hotel.

My room featured striped grey, black and beige carpeting, gold and black wallpaper, sleek charcoal chairs and a matching headboard with a brilliant white duvet and a gas fireplace. They have Aveda products and a marble counter in the bath and a terrific shower, plus an iPod dock a large TV and a great work desk and some of the softest sheets I’ve ever laid my tired bones on.

It’s enormously attractive, which probably is why it’s one of only two hotels in the province to earn the Relais and Chateaux marker (the other being the Post Hotel and Spa in Lake Louise).

On top of all that, there’s free parking and breakfast is included. If you think you’ll be up prior to 7 a.m., they leave hot coffee in a Thermos outside your door along with the morning paper. That’s something I’ve never seen at any other hotel, and I’ve spent years travelling the world in this job I’m fortunate to have.

I didn’t get a chance to try their restaurant for dinner, but it’s been named one of the top ten in a city that is increasingly known for great food (LINK!). I do get to try breakfast, however, feasting on their famous lemon ricotta pancakes.

Their sister property is the equally sleek and stylish Hotel Arts downtown, where you’ll find the wonderful Raw Bar by the talented Duncan Ly, a super-good guy.

To me, the casual exterior and general feel at the Kensington Riverside is like someone dropped a really classy country inn into a big city. I’ve tried to think of anything equal to it in Toronto or Montreal, or even Vancouver, and I can’t quite find it. To me, it’s one of the truly unique and special hotels in Canada.

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