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How do I love thee Montreal? Let me count the ways

  • Written by Deborah Stone

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A horse and carriage in Old Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
It’s easy to fall in love with Montreal. It’s a city that knows how to romance you in style.

First it flirts with you to get your attention. Then it begins to woo you, gradually easing its way into your heart and soul. Montreal, though, wants more from you than just a platonic relationship. It’s looking for a deeper commitment. You will be dazzled by its charms, bask in its rosy glow, and it will put out the red carpet to make you feel special. And before you know it, there’s a new love in your life.

So, how do I love you Montreal? Let me count the ways.

1. Montreal is a city for lovers with romance seeping out of every one of its pores. From fireside dinners in cozy restaurants to horse-drawn carriage rides down the cobblestone streets of Old Montreal, couples will find many places and activities to ignite or re-kindle their passions. Head to the top of Mount Royal to watch a glorious sunset. Catch the evening sound and light show at the magnificent Notre-Dame Basilica, where state-of-the-art multi media techniques bring to life the church’s heritage. Drink your favorite libation in the rooftop wine bar of the charming Auberge du Vieux-Port on the banks of the St. Lawrence River. Or for something more formal, try an afternoon of high tea served alfresco in the lush gardens of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel. This classic “Grande Dame” of Montreal is an elegant historic landmark with an old world charm that has hosted numerous celebrities and famous personalities over the years.

As you sip teas with names like Imperial Gunpowder and Blue Sapphire and munch on scrumptious scones, gourmet finger sandwiches and delicious sweets, look out at the pair of amorous ducks in the nearby pond for inspiration.

If you happen to visit the city in fall, grab your sweetie on a moonlit evening and head to the Botanical Gardens for the Chinese lantern exhibit. Each year, hundreds of lanterns illuminate the gardens at night, along with colorful dragon boats and other decorative displays. It’s the ideal spot for a romantic stroll.

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Above is a typical scene in Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
In the morning, enjoy your café and croissant at the Atwater Market, another Montreal icon. Then pick up a baguette and some cheese at La Fromagerie (try the Sauvagine, an award-winning buttery triple-cream decadence) for a picnic lunch later after you’ve taken a bike ride along picturesque Lachine Canal on the St. Lawrence River.

2. This city is a treasure trove of art, history and design, with its share of famous museums and galleries. You could spend days touring the Museum Quarter, visiting world-class venues that showcase art for all tastes. Founded in 1860, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of Canada’s oldest art institutions with a permanent collection representing art from Antiquity to today.

At The Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, you’ll find a wealth of Quebec creativity and work by leading contemporary international artists.

One of the finest historical collections in North America is housed in The McCord Museum of Canadian History and includes the most extensive First Nations collection in Quebec. Architecture buffs will enjoy the Canadian Center for Architecture, an international research center and museum recognized for the quality of its innovative exhibitions and the unique design of its building. Art and history are also found outside in the urban landscape. Bronze sculptures, statues and monuments dot the downtown corridor and you need only to look at the buildings and churches that surround you to see impressive examples of architecture from neo-Gothic and Gothic to Romanesque Revival and Victorian. With a history dating back to 1642, Montreal is one of the oldest cities in North America.

3. Montreal is a Mecca for shoppers. Whether you’re a browser or a serious buyer, this city will cater to your needs. It’s a shopper’s paradise with high-end, designer fashion and décor boutiques, jewelers, antique emporiums and stores specializing in international goods. A number of renowned designers make their home in Montreal and the city is regarded as the Canadian fashion capital. Brides-to-be will love Les Noces Couture Wedding Dress, a unique bridal gown boutique that has dressed many of Canada’s leading women for their special day. Birks Jewelry Store, Canada’s equivalent of our Tiffany’s, has a collection of diamonds that any girl would like as her best friend. Be careful though, you might be blinded by all the bling-bling and before you know it, you’ll want to take home a nice little souvenir in the store’s famous blue box. If you’re interested in work by local artists, don’t miss Marche Bonsecours. Fifteen boutiques, housed under one roof, showcase original creations by Quebec artisans and designers. For a different type of shopping experience, head down under to Montreal’s “Underground City.” Below the downtown core of the city lies a vast network of pedestrian walkways with access to hundreds of shops. Through a maze of connecting passageways lined with displays of art, you can walk for 20 miles underneath the city’s hub and find every type of store imaginable, in addition to restaurants, theaters and other entertainment attractions. This is also where the metro commuter trains and buses converge, making it a virtual rabbit’s warren for residents and tourists alike.

4. You’ll never run out of choices for accommodations in Montreal. There’s everything from large-scale brand name properties to small boutique hotels. Tourists in-the-know often make a beeline for the latter because of their charm and special character. Many of them are located in Old Montreal, a romantic, historic district with gracious 18th and 19th century stone houses and original cobblestone streets.

One of the jewels of Old Montreal’s hotel scene is Auberge Bonaparte, with its French-inspired furnishings and views of Notre-Dame Basilica.

Another, the Hostellerie Pierre du Calvet, built in the 18th century, is one of the most beautiful examples of New France architecture, characterized by massive crude rock walls and a steeply-sloped roof. Each of the inn’s nine rooms has its own personality, adorned by precious antiques that have been lovingly collected by the owner.

The Hotel XIX Siecle, with its spacious rooms and suites, is housed in a former bank built in 1870 and is right in the heart of this historic quarter, making it a convenient spot from which to access many of the city’s noted attractions.

If reminders of a by-gone era aren’t your thing, take a look at the Hotel Gault, an award-winning property that partners charm and chic in a vintage office building. Its minimalist and spare décor is very hip (check out the “orange slice” chairs in the lobby), which makes it a magnet for the arty set.

When you want to hobnob with an haute clientele, the Saint James is the place. This luxury boutique hotel makes its home in the historic Merchants Bank Building. As soon as you step inside, you sense that you’ve “arrived.” There’s a private club feel to this handsome property with discreet service the key to its attraction for high profile corporate clientele and rock star personalities (think Mick Jagger and Madonna). Opulent fine art and period furnishings line the corridors, public areas and rooms. And be sure to check out the underground, candlelit spa, which was formerly the bank’s vault.

5. It would be hard to find another city in Canada with more exceptional food. It’s next to impossible to get a bad meal here.

Because Montreal has become a melting pot of people from all over the world, it offers food for every kind of palate and budget. There are almost 5,000 restaurants in the city, serving 80 different types of national, regional and international (Greek, West Indian, Iranian, South American, Thai, etc) cuisines.

You can have a classic French meal at Au Bistro Gourmet or at Restaurant les Remparts in Old Montreal. For excellent Szechwan cuisine, try the acclaimed Piment Rouge. Steak lovers will enjoy Moishe’s, a Montreal landmark, and for a taste of Italy, head to Tre Marie in Montreal’s Little Italy.

In addition to its numerous other ethnic and traditional specialties, the city is also famous for its bagels, poutine and smoked meat.

Montreal bagels are made with eggs and are baked in wood ovens, as compared to the ones you find in New York, which are made with water. I found them to be hearty and flavorful and much less spongy in comparison (try the “real” thing at the Fairmount or St-Viateur Bakeries).

I had never heard of poutine until I was in Montreal. It’s a classic French-Canadian dish comprised of French fires smothered in brown gravy and cheese. I confess that I did not approach poutine with the same great gusto that locals have when they eat this concoction! I prefer my steak frites unadorned.

When you want to splurge on an evening out, go to Nuances, the prestigious 5-diamond award restaurant housed in the Casino of Montreal. The Casino, a tourist attraction in itself, is in the former French Pavilion built for the 1967 World’s Fair. Nuance’s sophisticated, innovative cuisine is a heavenly feast for the senses and the epitome of gourmet dining. The restaurant’s elegant décor and breathtaking views of the city and the St. Lawrence River make it a memorable setting for a romantic evening out on the town.

Another spot with unparalleled views of Montreal and excellent food is Altitude 737.

6. Though Montreal is a major urban center with a population base of 1.8 million, you’re never far from nature and open green space.

Parks abound and access to water is never an issue (Montreal is an island, surrounded on all sides by the St. Lawrence River).

You also don’t have to travel far from the city to reach the countryside. Within an hour, you’ll discover quaint towns, miles of hiking trails, lakes, rolling hills and bucolic scenery that will instantly put you at peace. It’s a great place to escape for a day, but to truly recharge your batteries, plan an overnight at one of the many country inns that dot the landscape.

I recommend the Auberge des Gallant. This oasis of tranquility is nestled in the seclusion of Rigaud Mountain, yet just 45 minutes from Montreal.

The Gallant family has created a special place that’s off the beaten path, in the heart of a bird sanctuary, surrounded by spectacular gardens. A gourmet restaurant, luxurious and spacious guest rooms with all the amenities and a pampering spa are just some of the treats guests will find at this charming inn. Madam Gallant believes in hedonistic getaways. Deprivation is a bad word in her vocabulary and she will spoil you until you, too, agree with her wholeheartedly. You will scale the culinary heights with the creative cuisine in the inn’s dining room, drink the best Canadian wines and relax and rejuvenate with state-of-the-art spa treatments.

Try a vino-therapy facial with Pinot Noir and Tuscan Chianti wines, grapeseed oil, honey, lavender and rosemary. It’s haute cuisine for the skin and you will emerge glowing and “drunk” from all the wonderful smells. If you can leave your Jacuzzi or that comfy chair by the fire, head outdoors to stroll the nature trails that meander through the inn’s 400-acre property (in the winter, these are groomed for cross-country skiing). If you’re fortunate to come in the early spring, you’ll get to take part in “sugaring.”

Each year, during March and April, the Gallant family opens their sugar shack to visitors and locals to celebrate maple syrup production time. Large-scale brunches using the product in every possible way are held on the weekends at the Gallant’s beautiful sugar shack. “Shack” is a very misleading term for the handsome log structure that looks like it could have come out of a Currier & Ives print.

For a bit of trivia: 80 percent of the world’s supply of maple syrup is produced in Quebec.

7. Finally, I love the people of Montreal. Before I visited, I pictured the residents as comprising two separate groups: the Francophones and the English. My provincial view was quickly turned on its head when I saw the cultural potpourri that spilled out onto the streets of this lively city.

Many people are bilingual now and over one in four Montrealers is an immigrant. Inhabitants embrace one another’s cultures, which has brought a richness of character to the city.

They also take pride in their roots, which is evident in the care they’ve taken to preserve their old buildings and traditions.

I found Montrealers to be hospitable and warm, with a wonderful sense of humor. They love life with a passion and their enthusiasm and vitality are contagious. Montreal has cast a spell on me. I’m hooked on this enchanting city with its carefree ambiance and wonderful “joie de vivre.” And I promise you, it won’t be long before I return.

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