Experience your own private playground at Olympic National Park
Written by Deborah Stone
I like visiting our country’s national parks when the masses aren’t present. I go to these treasured playgrounds to reconnect with nature and find inspiration. And crowds are a distraction I’d rather do without. Sometimes this means exploring these places when the weather isn’t optimal or when services are minimal.
Photo by Deborah Stone Olympic National Park is a haven of natural beauty and grandeur.
I’ve always found, however, that the advantages of having such special havens of beauty and grandeur mostly to myself far outweigh any of the off-season disadvantages.
Take my recent trip to Olympic National Park as an example. My husband and I headed over there for a long weekend in late February when daytime temps average in the 40s and rainfall is at its most plentiful.
Many of the facilities are closed during this time, so there are fewer options for accommodations. But, there are two choice properties open year-round, Lake Quinault Lodge and Kalaloch Lodge, which offer two distinct landscapes for visitors. Historic Lake Quinault Lodge, which dates back to 1926, is located at the southwest end of the Olympic National Park.
This handsome timber structure sits on the banks of a majestic glacier-carved body of water, surrounded by the mossy old growth trees of the Quinault Rain Forest, one of only three temperate coniferous rain forests in the Western Hemisphere.
Based here, you’ll be able to roam the Quinault Valley, known as the "Valley of the Giants," where you’ll see the largest Sitka Spruce tree in the world, along with other recognized giants of Hemlock, Douglas Fir and the mighty Western Red Cedar.
Hike one of the fifteen well established trails in the area and keep a keen eye out for wildlife, like the stately Roosevelt elk and the black tail deer, while taking in awesome views of the surrounding Olympic Mountains.
The Quinault Valley receives an average of 12 feet of rain per year, which is responsible for nourishing this complex temperate rain forest ecosystem.
Photo by Deborah Stone Serenity abounds at picture pretty Kalaloch Lodge.
So make sure to take your waterproof gear no matter when you visit. The lodge itself is a handsome property with comfy rooms (some which are pet-friendly), a cozy lobby, spacious outdoor veranda and the all-service Roosevelt Dining Room with its spectacular view of the lake.
This restaurant shines, particularly at dinner, when guests are treated to a variety of tasty regional specialties, ranging from salmon and other fresh seafood dishes to steak, chicken and pasta selections.
There’s also an indoor swimming pool, game room and sauna on site and a general store conveniently located across the street that sells everything you need for a picnic lunch.
People tend to congregate in the lodge’s lobby during the late afternoon and evening hours.
They read, play board games, plan their next day’s hikes or doze off in front of the crackling fireplace.
It’s a scene right out of a Currier & Ives picture. To experience a totally different environment, head twenty odd miles north of Lake Quinault to Kalaloch on the scenic coast off U.S. 101.
The lodge and its cabins are perched on a bluff above the ocean, where you’ll go to bed at night lulled to sleep by the sound of the waves outside your door.
In the morning, grab your cup of coffee and stroll right down the path to the beach. You can walk for what seems like miles along this wild coastline with its endless natural wonders.
And if you’re here off season, you’ll most likely have your own private beach.
Over the years, large logs and driftwood have piled up against the bluff, creating numerous ideal spots to sit and breathe the salty air while contemplating this exquisite landscape.
Sunrises and sunsets are especially poetic moments with scenes that rival Impressionist paintings. And the tide pools that form provide a fascinating glimpse of the diversity of marine life that lies beneath the surface of the sea.
If you’re lucky, you’ll see a whale or two breaching and maybe a sea lion sunning itself on the rocks.
I guarantee you’ll spot a few bald eagles soaring above.
At Kalaloch, the focus is the beach. And people choose to stay at the lodge because of its lack of pretense.
The charm of this property lies in its simplicity and naturalness. You’ll find rustic comfort in the cozy cabins, several of which come with kitchenettes and fireplaces.
And in each you’ll find a beach guide, tide tables and a pair of walking sticks. What you won’t see are any in-room TVs or telephones. In an effort to provide a serene escape, these "distractions" are purposefully absent.
Some folks bring food with them and prepare their meals in their cabins. Others take advantage of the lodge’s restaurant or on-site general store, which is stocked with groceries and assorted sundries, and also sells espressos and smoothies.
Photo by Deborah Stone Dramatic sea stacks appear as sentinels of the coastline.
The restaurant is a bit on the pricey side, most notably at dinner, and the quality of the food isn’t anything exceptional, but the views of the ocean can’t be beat.
From Kalaloch, it’s only 20 miles to the Hoh Rainforest, a mecca for hikers. On your way, stop at picturesque Ruby Beach to see the dramatic sea stacks. Known as "ghosts of former islands," these mammoth rocks are actually remnants of eroded cliffs that loom out of the water and appear as sentinels of the coastline.
The beach got its name for its often garnet-colored sand. Once you’re in the Hoh, stop at the visitor center to learn a bit about the area and get trail advice from the helpful rangers.
For a quick and easy introduction to this unique ecosystem, take the Hall of Mosses path. It’s a short three-fourth mile loop that will lead you into the older part of the forest.
The primeval spirit is strong among these massive trees that seem as old as the earth. Moss hangs like beards off their shaggy branches and the light plays peek-a-boo in the leafy canopy overhead. Then head out on the Hoh River Trail to explore more of this verdant paradise.
You’ll meander past waterfalls and creeks as you follow the sometimes teal, sometimes gray river. And in the distance, you’ll see the snowcapped peaks of the Olympics.
We hiked for several hours and came across just a handful of people on the trail, giving us once again the impression that this natural playground was ours alone.
Although the Hoh Valley is known as one of the wettest places in the country with an average 140 inches of annual rainfall, we didn’t get any liquid sunshine during our visit. However, there’s always a condensed mist that can be felt when you’re in the rainforest. Somehow it only adds to the mysterious and eerie quality of this distinctive setting.
It’s no wonder that author Stephanie Meyer used this locale as part of the backdrop for her popular "Twilight" series. There are many other gems within the Olympic National Park. It’s a vast place with three distinct areas, the mountains, forest and coast, giving visitors a range of options to explore. Just don’t try seeing it all at one time. Like fine chocolate, it’s best appreciated and savored in small pieces.
Salmon and eagles and bears, oh my!
Written by Deborah Stone
As we rounded the bend, we saw them. A mother grizzly bear and her cub were combing the banks of the river looking for their next snack. Mama saw us and flicked her ears to let us know she was on to our game, but then she pointedly ignored us and continued her search with her young’un dutifully following behind.
Photo by Deborah Stone Petunia and her 2-year-old cub in search of a salmon snack.
I gazed at these majestic creatures in an awe-filled silence, drinking in every detail of this memorable, stirring moment.
"That’s Petunia and her 2-year-old son," Gary said later after the bears had left the area. "They’ve both got those same exact halos around their necks."
Meet Gary Zorn, the Cariboo Mountains "Bear Whisperer," a man who has devoted his life to studying the social hierarchy, habits and body language of these creatures, while communing with them in their natural habitat.
Gary and his wife Peggy own and operate Ecotours-BC, a Canadian adventure tour company specializing in offering unique and intimate experiences for guests interested in viewing wildlife and learning about the natural history of an unspoiled wilderness.
The Zorns were in the ecotourism business long before "green" became a buzz word in the industry.
"We’ve been preserving the environment and showing it to folks for over 30 years now," explains Peggy. "And that’s what ecotourism is really all about. It’s about providing opportunities for people to interact with nature, while educating them about their environment."
The Zorns operate their business out of Likely, British Columbia, a tiny hamlet deep in the heart of the Cariboo Mountains region, approximately three hours from the province’s northern capitol, Prince George.
The area is located within a rare, temperate interior rain forest. It’s a region of dramatic scenic beauty, dominated by high mountain peaks and glaciers, densely forested valleys, thundering waterfalls, and picturesque lakes, including Quesnel Lake, the deepest fjord lake in the world. This diverse landscape provides habitat for hundreds of species of birds and animals, including one of the largest concentrations of mountain grizzlies in North America.
Most of the Zorn’s guests come to this remote piece of paradise to see the wildlife, but according to Peggy, they leave with so much more.
She says, "They usually go away with a greater appreciation and respect for this special environment and all that it offers, as well as an understanding of how important it is to preserve it for the future."
The bears, of course, are the star attraction. And Gary, your guide extraordinaire, will do his utmost to ensure that you have an unforgettable encounter with these impressive creatures. He’ll introduce you to the Cariboo Mountain grizzlies in their wild, natural habitat, out on the Mitchell River.
The grizzly bear is one of the largest predatory and most solitary animals on the planet. Characterized by its razor sharp claws, tell-tale hump over the shoulder and dished nose, this creature is regarded as the signature species of the Canadian wilderness.
On an Ecotours-BC bear viewing adventure, you’ll rise before dawn, eat one of Peggy’s hearty breakfasts and then take a prop boat down to the north arm of Quesnel Lake.
There you’ll transfer to a jet boat and head toward Mitchell River, where the bears congregate to feast on salmon.
Each year, the salmon return to the area to spawn and the bears are there ready and waiting. They gorge themselves on the fish in preparation for their winter hibernation. This event provides exceptional bear watching and photography opportunities for visitors, who come from all over the globe to catch sight of this natural phenomenon.
They also get an added bonus, as along with the grizzlies, the river is lined with bald and golden eagles, feeding on the salmon carcasses. It’s quite a show and truly an adventure of a lifetime. There’s nothing that can prepare you for seeing bears up close in the wild.
Grizzlies, in particular, have a larger-than-life presence that renders viewers speechless. This is a good thing, as one of the cardinal rules of wildlife viewing is silence. It’s imperative when you see the bears that you remain quiet in order not to startle or agitate them. This rule also applies to when you’re moving along the river.
Gary, in full wader regalia, basically walks the boat through the water, as it is the only way to come upon the bears without them being aware of your presence ahead of time.
Voices and motor noises would scare them off long before you had the chance to see them.
Early on in my trip, we spied several bears from a distance, but by the time we got to them, they had already left the area.
Hours went by without another spotting and I began to despair that I would ever see a grizzly up close. Gary needed to remind me that patience is another rule of wildlife viewing.
He said, "You need to remember that these are wild animals, roaming freely in their natural habitat. They don’t show themselves simply for your entertainment. They don’t just appear on command. You have to be patient and persistent and then maybe you’ll be rewarded. But, there are no guarantees."
I heeded his words and decided to just lie back in the boat and bask in the peace and tranquility of my surroundings. I told myself to slow down and enjoy the experience of being in the present, without thinking about goals and must dos.
While we waited, I watched proud eagles soar overhead and took the time to listen to Mother Nature’s conversation. I also observed my guide and took cues from his calm, yet constantly aware behavior.
As someone who has lived in the great outdoors for most of his life, Gary has developed acute senses. He sees and hears things that others don’t because they’re not attuned to the rhythms of the wilderness.
"Listen and watch closely," he says. "There’s always a story that’s being told. Hear the birds screeching, look at the way the fish move in the water and take note of your surroundings. Look for things that might be out of place."
Gary emphasizes the need to understand an animal’s habits and its behavior patterns in order to become a proficient wildlife observer, but he stresses that this type of knowledge only comes with experience. He adds, "You can read all the books in the world, but experience is truly the best teacher."
After spending years in this environment, Gary knows most of the bears in the area intimately from their unique habits, temperaments, family units and colorings. He has given names to many of them: Albert, the elder statesman, twins Homer and Jethro, Sad Little Bear, Happy Little Bear, Elmo, Grouchy One, and of course, Petunia, the featured star of my experience. While amongst the bears, he tries to think like them. And when he talks to them, which he often does, he speaks softly in a monotone voice, often inserting his own special brand of humor into his comments: "Hey, bear, how’s the fishin’?" he might ask. Yet, he can convey a stern command when necessary, saying "Enough bear, back off now," if the animal is getting too close for comfort.
In all his years, Gary has never been attacked by a bear. He maintains a constant and vigilant respect for these massive and powerful creatures and his most often repeated advice when encountering a bear is: "Grizzly bears are wild animals. Remain calm. Never run from a bear."
When you’re not out viewing the bears, you might be engaged in other activities with the Zorns, such as hiking amid the alpine, trekking through ancient old growth forests, birding in the wetlands or taking an interpretive history tour of the Gold Rush Trail.
Guests stay at Pyna-tee-ah, the couple’s comfortable lodge in Likely. It’s an inviting, homey place, complete with a friendly resident dog, Trouble, and two charming cats, Whiskers and Callie. You’ll find Peggy presiding over the kitchen, where she prepares delicious, healthy meals to satisfy appetites of any size and type. It’s here that the guests usually congregate before dinner to sip some wine, compare their experiences and hear Gary tell his engaging and often humorous bear stories. The man has a wealth of knowledge about flora and fauna, and the natural history of the area. And he takes great joy in sharing it with others.
After dinner, folks move into the spacious front room to continue their conversations in front of the cozy fireplace or to peruse the Zorn’s collection of quality photos, books and articles about wildlife and local points of interest.
Peggy and Gary are gracious and hospitable innkeepers, who sincerely enjoy being hosts.
"What I like most about doing this are the people," comments Peggy. "We get folks, of all ages and backgrounds, from all over the world. They have such interesting stories to tell. And it’s fascinating to hear their reasons for wanting to get back to nature."
The Zorns have created more than just opportunities to discover and connect with nature. They have set the stage for renewal and rejuvenation.
"We believe that this environment can refresh your soul and cleanse your inner spirit," says Peggy. "It has the power to enlighten and redefine one’s inner self. And it can have a profound and lasting impact, as it can change the way people view the world around them."
Escape to The Edgewater, rediscover Seattle
Written by Deborah Stone
Air travel can be a hassle these days, with long lines, strict security measures, endless delays and overcrowded planes. And if you opt for a road trip, there’s the cost of gas, which can put a serious dent in your wallet. Then there’s all the passport confusion with regards to crossing borders. Sometimes, it’s just easier to stay home.
Fine food and unforgettable views makes for a memorable experience. The Edgewater’s famed Six Seven gets high marks for serving up world class Pacific Rim-inspired Northwest cuisine. Photo courtesy of Edgewater.
But, in my experience, the vacation mentality doesn’t usually kick in unless you get away from your day-to-day surroundings. If you’re home, it’s too easy to get caught up in projects around the house or sucked into answering e-mails for work.
The solution: Pack your bags for a stay in downtown Seattle and become a tourist in your own city. Though there are many hotels in this fine town, there’s only one perched right on the bay, The Edgewater.
A Seattle landmark since 1962, The Edgewater, at Pier 67, has the interior trappings of a luxury mountain lodge, yet sits in the middle of the city. The place takes full advantage of its location and offers stunning panoramas of the Olympics and Elliott Bay, with a colorful parade of ferries and sailboats that can captivate even the most hardcore natives.
As you walk into the lobby, the view from out of the floor-to-ceiling windows immediately commands your attention. You’ll be drawn to it like a magnet and as you gaze out at the picture perfect scene, you’ll feel as if you’re standing right atop the water, which, in fact, you are!
Unlike some hotels where the lobby is simply the place to register and check out, at The Edgewater it’s a true gathering place for guests. They sit in comfy chairs in front of the windows or curl up by the cozy fireplace, where they chat, sip a glass of wine, read, play cards or doze off contentedly. It’s a surprisingly relaxing and unpretentious atmosphere for an urban hotel and you, too, will find yourself seamlessly easing into that vacation mode once inside this hotel’s “living room.”
Recently renovated guestrooms offer stunning views of Elliot Bay or sparkling city skyline vistas. They feature river rock fireplaces, hand-crafted knotty pine furniture, overstuffed chairs and the hotel’s signature bear footrest, bathrooms with flagstone floors and European spa showers (some even have claw-foot tubs), plush Ralph Lauren bedding and a host of extra amenities.
If you want to splurge and get a dose of history at the same time, ask for the Beatles’ Suite, room 272.
The Fab Four once stayed at The Edgewater, back in 1964, on their first world tour. The hotel had to install cyclone fencing around its perimeter to keep screaming fans at bay. Some avid groupies even tried swimming across the bay to reach the band members.
Visitors at The Edgewater can curl up by the cozy fireplace, where they chat, sip a glass of wine, read, play cards or doze off contentedly. Photo courtesy of The Edgewater.
Ironically, the Beatles were not accepted as guests at any other hotel in Seattle, but The Edgewater happily hosted them. Their visit put the hotel on the map and also led to its fame for being the hot place to stay in Seattle for such legendary rock groups as Led Zeppelin, The Rolling Stones, KISS and Black Sabbath.
In the Beatles’ spacious 700 square-foot suite, three panoramic windows offer full views of Elliot Bay. You’ll be surrounded by a photo gallery of the Fab Four, including the famous picture of the group fishing out of the hotel’s window.
There’s also a library of books on the guys, as well as a collection of their CDs, to set the proper mood. And if you’ve forgotten where the lads once hailed from, there are British flags adorning the pillows to remind you of their roots.
Although there are numerous great restaurants in the area from which to choose, the hotel’s famed Six Seven gets high marks for serving up world class Pacific Rim-inspired Northwest cuisine.
Award-winning chef William Koval integrates local ingredients, native herbs and regional seafood to create flavorful dishes, such as Miso Halibut with sweet potato, shitake mushrooms and spinach or Seared Turbot with braised artichokes, asparagus and smoked bacon.
Starters include such delights as Trio of Tuna in a sashimi rice paper roll or Walla Walla Asparagus Soup with jumbo crab.
If you have room for dessert, try the sinful Chocolate Pot du Crème with espresso gelee and vanilla bean ice cream.
As you walk into the lobby, the view from out of the floor-to-ceiling windows immediately commands your attention. Photo courtesy of The Edgewater.
The restaurant also prides itself on its extensive wine-by-the-glass list of Washington wines.
When the weather’s fair, opt to dine alfresco on the patio where you can watch Washington State ferries cruise by as the sun paints a vivid orange backdrop in the sky. Fine food and unforgettable views makes for a memorable experience.
The Edgewater’s ideal central location puts visitors in the heart of Seattle’s premiere attractions within minutes.
Hit the pavement for a short walk south along the waterfront to Pike Place Market and watch the fish-slinging with the rest of the tourists or venture north to the new Olympic Sculpture Park.
If being on the water is more your style, then hop on a ferry for a ride to a nearby island or take an Argosy cruise around Elliot Bay and the Seattle harbor.
You can also shop till you drop, browse eclectic galleries and visit a variety of different museums, all within blocks of the hotel.
For the proverbial tourist treat, Ride the Ducks, take the elevator to the top of the Space Needle or get a glimpse into the city’s heritage on the Seattle Underground Tour in historic Pioneer Square.
And if you’re a theatre-goer, take in a show at one of the many venues that dot the downtown corridor. Nearby Myrtle Edwards Park, with its 1.25-mile winding bike and pedestrian path along the bay, offers a beautifully landscaped space that makes a peaceful sanctuary when you’re looking for a change of pace (The Edgewater will even provide you with a courtesy bicycle if you want to pedal your way around town).
We live in an exciting city that attracts millions of visitors each year. It’s easy to take it for granted when you’ve lived here a long time.
For your next vacation destination, take the hassle out of travel and escape to the Edgewater for an opportunity to rediscover Seattle.
The Edgewater Hotel: (206) 728-7000 or www.edgewaterhotel.com.
How do I love thee Montreal? Let me count the ways
Written by Deborah Stone
It’s easy to fall in love with Montreal. It’s a city that knows how to romance you in style.
A horse and carriage in Old Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
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.
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.
Above is a typical scene in Montreal. Photo by Deborah Stone.
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.