72 Hours in Montréal
By Susan McKee
Montréal has many advantages for the North American traveler. It’s a quick flight for one thing; less than half the time required to get across the pond from anywhere in the States. The city is truly bilingual so English-only speakers will have no language troubles. It’s less expensive; not only for airfare but also for everything else a tourist needs, from hotel to restaurants to museum admissions. Because it’s so accessible, it can be a weekend getaway if that’s all the time your client has to spend on vacation. And, you don’t need a car: public transport (both Métro and bus) is just fine, and there are public bicycle stands everywhere.
My visit to the largest city in Canada’s Québec province last May gave me a real taste for all it has to offer. The city is best understood as a collection of 29 distinct and named neighborhoods. It’s easy to tell when you’re moving from one to another as the style of both the street signs and lampposts change accordingly. I was staying in Vieux-Montréal, the historic heart of the city where the first settlers arrived in the mid-17th Century.
A quick way to get an overview of the city’s history is through the light and sound show (www.therewaslight.ca) inside the Notre-Dame Basilica, erected in the early 1800s. Headsets provide narration in English, French, Mandarin or Spanish. Nearby, the Château Ramezay Museum (www.chateauramezay.qc.ca) outlines everything in more detail, from Amerindian prehistory to the beginning of the 20th century.
Mystery readers have no doubt seen Montréal through the eyes of author Kathy Reichs’ Temperance Brennan, the forensic pathologist who also headlines the television series, “Bones.” Auto racing fans of course know Montréal as the site of the North American Grand Prix, held each June. What’s surprising is that fans can actually drive the road course when it’s not being used for race-related activities.
Another gem is the Montréal Botanic Garden (www.museumsnature.ca), with more than 180 acres, featuring 10 exhibition greenhouses and 30 outdoor gardens. Tourism Montreal (www.tourisme-montreal.org) details virtually endless choices.
With a multitude of nationalities calling Montréal home, the foodie scene is thriving. The city’s bagels are a special treat. Smaller and lighter than their New York counterparts, they’re boiled in honey water before being baked in a wood-burning oven. Buy yours at St.-Viateur Bagel (the first shop opened in 1957). Montréal’s ice cream also draws raves. One to try is Le Glacier Bilboquet.
My dinner at Europea (www.europea.ca ) downtown was one of my all time favorites. Each of the courses on the tasting menu was superb, from the “lollipop” of goat cheese, the “sip” of eggnog served in an eggshell, to the fois gras in espresso emulsion, veal cheeks and lobster ravioli. Finally, there was a trio of desserts alongside a cloud of pink cotton candy (made on site, of course).
Montreal’s city markets are a great place to wander. Atwater, near downtown, was filled with flowering plants during my visit. At Jean Talon, there’s a shop called Marché du Vieux St.-Paul that features all sorts of regional specialties including a blend of sea salt, peppercorns and granulated maple syrup that’s magic on grilled salmon.
Bicycles are a favorite way to get around Montreal for locals and tourists alike. The innovative short-term rental scheme, Bixi (http://montreal.bixi.com/accueil), makes it easy for visitors. There are 300 stations around the city. With a swipe of a credit card, select one of the thousands of bicycles available for $5 per day, and you’re off. It can be returned to any Bixi stand. Take a tip from the natives and load your bike onto the front car of the Métro (any time outside of weekday rush hours) and for the uphill climbs.
If your clients are museum aficionados, suggest that they buy a Carte Musées Montréal (www.museesmontreal.org), which, for $45, gives access to more than 30 attractions. For $5 more, it can include a three-day Métro pass.
My two nights were spent at the Place-d’Armes Hôtel and Suites (www.hotelplacedarmes.com), 55 Saint-Jacques Street. This charming boutique property, converted from two historic office buildings, has a restaurant menu designed not only according to region but season as well. Visit Aix Cuisine du Terroir (www.aixcuisine.com). The street-level bar, Suite 701, is the breakfast room by morning.
U.S. citizens need passports to return to the U.S. these days. The Canadian dollar is close to parity with the U.S. dollar, but your clients still should hit the ATM when they land or plan to change money (the Canadian $1 coin is called a “loonie”; there’s also a $2 coin). Remember that although Canada uses the same area code system as the U.S., you’ll pay a premium to call back home.