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Vacation Wonderland

Montreal hosts continual festivals–rock, hot air balloon, folklore, theater, jazz, film, dance, comedy, fireworks and kite flying–in the warmer months. Why then would anyone suggest a late fall or early winter vacation at a time when Le Bateau-Mouche stops cruising, Gray Line suspends all but one of its tours and the most punishing season comes fast and hard. Because when the sky turns gray the town glides to a different beat, but not much slows down. Montrealers replace shoes and sneakers with boots, skates or skis. Some of the excitement moves indoors, but streets and sidewalks remain crowded with a joie de vivre that defines the second largest French-speaking city in the world. The outdoor winter carnival, La Fête des Neiges, (end of January to early February) doesn’t take a back seat to the ones that occur when the temperature goes up.


The celebration of Christmas comes hard and fast and early, too. Seasonal activities in downtown Montreal start at the end of the second week in November and continue until after New Year’s. At the Museum of Fine Arts ethnic communities thematically decorate an exhibition of trees, storytellers introduce traditions of distant lands and choirs share memories of Christmas past.

Place Montreal Trust, a small downtown square, dresses up with a 60-foot high animated tree and a giant jigsaw puzzle assembled by enthusiasts. Last year a replica of the Titanic stretched 15 feet upward and 45 feet across the public space. In 1999 another puzzle, a likeness of a current popular subject, will be put together for display.

An annual show at the Planetarium, "The Star of the Magi," the tale of the wise men following a mysterious star, is woven into a tour of the world describing the rituals of ancient peoples in marking the dark days surrounding the winter solstice.

A small illustrated booklet printed by Destination Centre Ville and available from many of downtown’s 3,000 businesses and attractions lists some of the events that enliven Canada’s most cosmopolitan town during these magical weeks.

Docents, Musée du Château, Ramezay, Montreal (credit: Edwin Fancher)

With the Canadian dollar being chronically weak, the well-advised traveler might consider buying holiday gifts north of the border. Sainte-Catherine and Sherbrooke Streets are miracle miles of stores and the vast Ville Souterraine is landlord to 1,700 shops and boutiques. In inclement weather you can duck into this underground city and never know that the streets above may be dusted with a white blanket.

The genteel atmosphere of the legendary Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy emporiums demand a look-see if only to browse. On two Thursdays and Fridays each month, except December, at 11 a.m. and 5:45 p.m. Ogilvy engages I Musici, a string orchestra, to play in Tudor Hall, an intimate chamber paneled with glowing woodwork, on the store’s top floor. On Saturdays during December a classical instrumental duo adds holiday atmosphere on the main floor.


Anyone who paid attention during grade school history lessons may be able to extricate from memory the names of the earliest explorers of this St. Lawrence River island. Jacques Cartier climbed the mountain in 1535 and named it Mount Royal (Montreal) and Samuel de Champlain the "Father of New France" founded a temporary fur trading post here in 1611.

Later, Paul de Chomedey, Sieur de Masionneuve, intent on converting the Indians to Christianity, established Ville Marie here. The flourishing fur trade was more glamorous than missionary work and economics prevailed over religion. Benjamin Franklin visited the city in 1775 to find out why the populace had not welcomed the troops of General Montgomery in the name of the about-to-be-established United States.

Although Canada was formally organized as an English-speaking Confederation in 1867, Quebec and Montreal remained Gaelic in their points of view. However, English-speaking visitors find no difficulty communicating with natives for whom French is the preferred tongue and who switch easily from one language to the other.

When Mark Twain noted in 1881 that in Montreal "you couldn’t throw a brick without hitting a church," he could not foresee that its growth would include an Underground City where no one worships. What began as the construction of Place Ville-Marie beneath Christ Church Cathedral in 1962 spread to include 200 restaurants and 30 movie theaters as well as the aforementioned shops. Eighteen miles of subterranean malls on several levels connect 10 metro stations, two bus terminals, seven hotels, two universities, two department stores, 1,600 housing units, Olympic Park, Bonaventure show place, Place des Arts, and the Molson (home of the hockey team) and Convention Centres.

Underground City, Place Montreal Trust
(credit: Tourism Montreal/Daniel Choiniére)


Montreal is a city with a familiar ease that’s uniquely North American, yet is known for its European flair. You’ll find a bit of Paris, a dash of London, a touch of San Francisco and a pinch of New York. Without much effort you can walk in Centre Ville and in the 95-acre waterfront Vieux Montreal. The revitalized quartier of narrow cobblestone streets is home to Québecois intellectuals, artists and literati as well as government offices, historic sites and many of Montreal’s finest restaurants and boutiques.

You can pick up a copy of a self-guided walking tour at the Tourist Information Service. This neighborhood and downtown are best explored on foot. Dorchester Square, housing the Tourist Information Service, is considered the heart of the city. Wander on Crescent Street, which crosses St. Catherine and segues from old row houses, filled with antique shops, to bars, cafés and restaurants that form the hub of the town’s vibrant nightlife.

To reach some of the other districts, a taxi is suggested.

Between 1850 and 1930 the Molson, Davis, Ross, Lyall and other upper class families who made Montreal a dynamic economic center inhabited the Golden Square Mile. McGill University also occupies part of this tract.

No district characterizes Montreal more than Le Plateau. Traditionally home to the French-Canadian working class, it welcomed waves of Jewish, Italian, German, Greek and Portuguese immigrants. The long streets lined with narrow townhouses have plain or brightly painted brick fronts and staircases that ascend from the sidewalks to the second floor apartments in a style that is typically Montreal.

People gather in the Latin Quartier fanning out from Rue St. Denis to enjoy theater, cinema and cafés. The Univerisité de Québec is headquartered here–hence, the groups of students–and the artistic colony circles St. Louis Square. Rue Prince-Arthur, closed to traffic and a pedestrian’s paradise, extends from the square.

Nearby Boulevard Saint-Laurent or the "Main" divides the town between east and west and showcases ethnic cuisine and Montreal’s own specialty, smoked meat.

Mont Royal, on the other side of the city, is an important landmark and a dramatic backdrop to downtown. The mountain has three summits–the first is occupied by Parc du Mont-Royal, the second by the Université de Montreal and the third by Westmount, a wealthy independent municipality that is part of the Montreal Urban Community. From several lookout points in the Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park you can see the entire cityscape. Fifteen kilometers of cross-country trails wend around the mountain and when Lac aux Castors freezes, it becomes a skating rink.

Chinatown and Little Italy merit visits, too.


Some of Montreal’s spectacular attractions are impervious to the seasons.

Of all the churches in the province of Quebec, the Basilica of Notre Dame in the vieux quartier is the most beloved and is often mistaken for a cathedral. Its neo-Gothic towers call to mind Westminster Abbey. Rose windows illuminate the startlingly ornate pine and walnut interior. A 6,772-pipe organ soars toward turquoise vaults studded with fleur-de-lis. Sacred Heart Chapel, a favored place for local weddings and the site of Celine Dion’s ceremony, is next to the basilica’s nave. Saint Joseph’s Oratory, a magnet for pilgrimages, has long attracted the faithful. In search of miracles, they gather here hoping that their prayers will be answered.

Basilica of Notre Dame (Credit: Basilica of Notre Dame)

Clustered in Maisonneuve are the awesome Olympic Stadium topped by the Montreal Tower, the world’s largest inclined tower, and the Biosphere, which recreates four natural ecosystems and their changing climates. With animals often hiding in the bush and water, it feels and smells like the wild. A shuttle bus ferries visitors to the nearby Insectarium and the splendid Botanical Gardens with 10 greenhouses sheltering precious orchids and bonsai.

A one- or three-day museum pass provides access to 18 museums and the Biosphere. Pointe-à-Callière, the archeological museum, rises above the place where the city was founded and the displays of remains of earlier settlements that were uncovered during 10 years of digs. "Crossroads of Cultures and Trade," a multi-media show, begins with the tale of the start of the colony and continues with a trip through time to the present day.

Musée du Château Ramezay offers a more personalized historical view of days gone by. Once the home of the governor, costumed docents escort small groups of guests through the rich collection of 18th- and 19th-century furniture, clothing, everyday objects and native artifacts.

Shows at the Just For Laughs museum are staged irregularly and a phone call is required to find out whether any comedians are performing. Opened in 1998, Dolls and Treasures is still in its first phase. Forty-six settings showcase five hundred 19th-and 20th-century dolls from the owner’s 3,600-piece collection. The scenes depict the magic of childhood, past and present.

A surprising number of entertainment choices–classical, rock, pop, jazz, blues, country, folk and Celtic music, English theatre and dance–take place daily. For the most detailed listings consult "The Gazette."


The Laurentian Mountains, just north of the city and a short drive by car, is a celebrated resort during all seasons and deserved a half- or full-day excursion. Saint-Saveur with its authentic Quebecois charm and a population of just under 6,000 is the closest mountain community to Montreal. Small enchanting shops fill the winning streets. For a ski outing near town choose either Mont Habitant or Mont Saint-Saveur.


Part of Montreal’s appeal is its status as a gastronomic capital. The best meals are the ones prepared according to Gaelic traditions. Among 16 restaurants in North America voted five stars by Mobil Travel Guide, the two in Montreal, Beaver Club and Nuances, located in the Casino, serve French food.

Perhaps if you are tired and hungry, too, after trodding the cobblestone streets of the old quarter, you will be up to ordering the menu degustation at Bonaparte, giving you reason to linger in one of three period rooms. Done up with comfortable provincial touches, such as small empire lamps, stained glass, brick walls and greenery befitting a building dating from 1836, it is the romantic intimate place you hoped to stumble into in this part of town.

Every dish we ordered deserves kudos. For starters, mushroom ravioli floating on a sage-infused sauce was superb; the pungent fungi perfectly partnered with the strong scent of the herb and the eggy pasta melting in your mouth. Wonderful meaty snails and wild mushrooms in crisp filo dough napped with cream of pesto blended the flavors so well that they seemed destined to be together.

The chef also has a deft hand and finely tuned palate in executing a long list of entrees. Wild boar, a rarely offered item, was tender and tasty. Breast of duck marinated in maple syrup and accompanied by seasonal fruits was so good that it is hard to imagine the fowl being prepared any other way.

As the sweets land on neighboring tables you won’t be able to resist ordering one, too. The symphony of desserts looked fabulous, but the soufflé–a marbled cloud of chocolate and vanilla–turned out to be ambrosial.

Bonaparte, 443, rue Saint-Francois Xavier. Tel 514-844-4368. Open for lunch, Monday to Friday; dinner, 7 days. Moderate. www.bonaparte.ca

Some restaurant reviewers have a penchant for repeating in print what was said by patrons seated nearby. It won’t happen at the Beaver Club, one of the reasons why Canadian businessmen and politicians favor it. Elegant and refined with widely spaced tables, it offers privacy for those who don’t mind being recognized, but whose words are meant for their companions only.

The service is slow, but perhaps it is intentional for the food is rich. A delicious basket of house-baked breads was emptied as we waited too long for the appetizers. Two chefs (brothers) from the Rhone Valley were cooking that week, which may also explain the delays. However, what they offered was imaginative and well prepared with much filleting and flambéing at tableside.

Montmoison quail was stuffed with a hefty portion of foie gras. Grenobloise and buissonniére salad was a combination of sprightly greens with just the right amount of crunch and piquancy supplied by quail eggs, walnuts, truffles, lardons, and bleu cheese vinaigrette. Fillet of lamb and saddle of rabbit were marvelous. Les freres Coulard were no slouches in the dessert department either. Roasted pears and caramelized apple tart exploded with flavor.

On an ordinary night when the cooks are not imported from abroad, you can still enjoy a terrific meal overseen by John Cordeaux, executive chef, who has been awarded many honors.

The Beaver Club, The Queen Elizabeth Hotel, 900 René-Lévesque Blvd. Tel. 514-861-3511. Open for lunch and dinner, Tuesday to Saturday. Tel. 514-861-3511. Moderate. www.fairmont.com/queenelizabeth

Why is an herb garden growing on the roof of the casino? To supply Nuances with fresh ingredients to season dishes created in this remarkable kitchen. Again, here is a restaurant that shows off the finest of the city’s cooking. The intriguing odors of basil-tinged cream of mussel and leek soup burst forth when a puff pastry lid was split open. Coconut-dipped shrimp tempura was greaseless and accompanied by a zesty mango sauce and fruit salsa. Two renditions of duck on one plate pleased the eye as well as the palate. The breast was juicy and tomato, spinach and squid (red, green and black) duck-filled striped ravioli looked like a flag. A bitter chocolate sauce complemented roasted deer tenderloin and sides of mashed apples and celeriac chips.

Maple-flavored mille-feuille stood up like a high-rise and fig tart and prune ice cream were delightful.

The stunning fifth floor room overlooking the St. Lawrence has contemporary decor and beautiful table appointments. Service is attentive without being intrusive.

On the same premises Le Cabaret du Casino provides entertainment and dining.

Nuances, Casino, 1, Avenue du Casino. Tel. 800-665-2274, 514-392-2708. Open for dnner, 7 nights. Moderate. www.bar-resto.com/casino

The only meal that we ate that was disappointing was one at Le Soubise, a French and Italian restaurant. Too bad, as it started off pleasantly enough. The service was excellent and the apron-clad owner was out front greeting customers as though he was welcoming them into his own unpretentious home.

A large Caesar salad served in a taco shell was tasty, its tangy dressing striking just the right balance of ingredients. Likewise, a hot appetizer of vegetables marinated in balsamic vinegar and cleanly fried could not be faulted. Arragosta fra diavolo (lobster and pasta) and seafood arrabbiata in tomato-based sauces were drenched in oil. Tough and tasteless tuna, the fresh catch of the day, had the earmarks of frozen fish and was inedible. The fruit salad was over the hill.

Le Soubise does have a following and it was enjoyable to hear guests singing "Joyeaux Anniversaire" as a sparkler-topped birthday cake was brought to their table.

Le Soubise, 1184, Crescent. Tel. 514-861-8791. Open Monday to Friday, lunch; Monday to Saturday, dinner. Inexpensive to moderate. www.bar-resto.com/soubise

The 360-degree view from the expansive windows of Tour de Ville is the lure at this revolving restaurant 26 floors above the ground. Built on two levels, you can stop by the bar for a drink or go upstairs for a full meal. Order from a regular menu or select the buffet that looked as though it offered more in the way of quantity than quality, the cooked-to-order pastas and some of the hot dishes not withstanding.

Tour de Ville, Radisson Hôtel des Gouverneurs, 777, University St. Tel. 514-879-1370. Open for dinner, Tuesday to Saturday. Live music in the lounge, Wednesday to Saturday from 9:30 on. Inexpensive. www.bar-resto.com/delta/tourdeville/

If you venture to the Laurentians, the farmhouse setting of Crêperie à Gourmandise Bretonne is a lovely place to have lunch. Oversized crepes with sweet and savory fillings make a satisfying repast.

Crêperie à la Bretonne, 396, rue Principale, St. Sauveur. Tel. 450-227-5434. Open daily for lunch and dinner. Inexpensive.


There are several world-class hotels in Montreal, but two sleeping beauties have an identity that is particularly "Canadien." Heads of state and celebrities favor the Ritz-Carlton, a legend since Caesar Ritz opened it in 1912. Luxurious public spaces, such as delightful parlors and a garden, draw the local haute monde and an international clientele. Renovated over the years to maintain its high standard of comfort, the rooms have antique furniture and marble baths.

Ritz-Carlton, 1228 Sherbrooke St. West. Tel. 800-241-3333, 514-842-4212. Rates start at $139. www.ritzcarlton.com

At the Queen Elizabeth, Montreal’s largest hotel with over 1,000 rooms, the 18th and 19th floors, Entree Or, have just been refurbished and appeal to guests who wish exclusivity. Complimentary breakfast and hors d’oeuvres in the evening are served in the lounge.

A magnificent lobby with fine shops, a gym and salon, a downtown location and direct access to the Underground City are some of the pluses here.

Queen Elizabeth, 900 René-Lévesque Blvd. West. Tel. 800-441-1414, 514-861-3511. Special rates are sometimes as low as $80. www.fairmont.com/queenelizabeth

The 30-room, some are suites, Auberge Bonaparte opened in January 1999 and is sure to be a hit as soon as the word gets out. The fanciful B & B was built from scratch in a gutted old building, but is faithful to its origins. The design was carefully researched and the furnishings are copies of the style of Louis Philippe. A full breakfast from the fantastic kitchen of Restaurant Bonaparte comes with those divine high-ceilinged rooms.

Auberge Bonaparte, 443, rue Saint-Francois-Xavier. Tel. 514-844-1448. Rates are $99. Winter AP packages are available. www.bonaparte.ca

Le Réseau Teltour Network is a reservation service that covers 35 destinations in Quebec province, placing guests in B and Bs with one to five rooms and small inns with up to 10 rooms.

Le Réserve Teltour Network, Inc., 133, rue Chapleau, Terrebonne. Tel. 888-459-5002, 450-492-5275.

Fall 1999