AS A CANADIAN expat in Asia, I’m asked frequently about where I’d go if I moved back “home”. Raised near Toronto, I’ve also lived in Montreal, Vancouver and Whistler. However, I attended McGill University from 1986-88, and its home city of Montreal is where I would live in Canada. It’s an excellent place to visit, too, as recognised by an eighth-place ranking on Lonely’s Planet’s Best of Travel 2013 list. The other North American city is San Francisco (ranked first).
Present-day Montreal (or Montréal – the French pronounce it “mon-ray-al”) was originally a Native American (Iroquois) settlement on the St Lawrence River, the vital trade and transportation route to the Atlantic Ocean from the Great Lakes. In 1535, Jacques Cartier became the first European to set foot on its shores. In 1642 a French mission was established, and the settlement that grew up around it was surrendered to the British in 1760 after a battle on the Plains of Abraham.
The city of Montreal was incorporated in 1842. The name refers to Mount Royal, now a massive public park that rises 230 metres above the skyline, with spectacular views, as well as hiking, biking and cross-country skiing trails.
The animosity between the French and English in the province of Quebec continues to this day, and Montreal certainly remains a focal point of this conflict. However, the recently elected mayor is an anglophone, English is spoken widely in the city and it never hurts to at least try to say a few French words (bonjour, merci, s’il vous plaît) when visiting shops and restaurants. There’s even a Chinatown area on the way from downtown towards Old Montreal, where you’ll hear Cantonese, Mandarin, Thai and Vietnamese conversations on the same street, perhaps even in the same restaurant.
Another terrific thing about Montreal is its location. Although being quite northerly (it can dip to below -20 degrees in winter), it can be +25 degrees at Easter and the summers are fabulous. The US border and New York State are a mere 60km away. My former McGill roommate was from Boston and he could drive to and from his hometown in a beat-up ’70s Toyota in about three hours; New York City is also a short drive – or flight – away.
To the west, downtown Toronto can be reached in four hours by VIA train, with a first-class section offering free drinks and snacks, while the commuter airline Porter operates flights to Toronto Island airport, which is a lovely way to fly between the two Canadian cities. Montreal is the headquarters for Air Canada, one of several high-profile Canadian investments by Hong Kong’s Victor Li. From here you can fly practically anywhere, including Cuba, something you can’t do from any US city.
Choosing a place to stay in Montreal can be difficult, mainly because you’re spoiled for choice. I prefer the InterContinental in Old Montreal and the Old Port, or right downtown at the Fairmont group’s The Queen Elizabeth hotel. There’s also a new Ritz-Carlton downtown that’s said to be quite impressive. I like the InterCon because it’s conveniently located and is in an historic building that exudes a lot of charm, yet has all the mod-cons you’d expect in a five-star hotel. Plus, if you go into the high-end shopping area adjacent to the hotel you can see a massive piece of the Berlin Wall. I’m not sure why it’s here, other than it makes you think, and I suppose it helps lend to the European feel of the city.
Whether you’re in Montreal for a few days or weeks, there’s plenty to do and see, eat and drink. Catch an ice hockey or Canadian football game. Or just go for drinks. A lot of drinks. There are several (in)famous bar and restaurant districts, such as Rue Crescent and St Laurent Boulevard, where you can enjoy yourself while hopping from place to place. With live music, spacious dance floors and patios, Montreal bars are epic. There are frequent music and other entertainment festivals to enjoy, as well as art galleries and shopping districts where you can also find many fashion boutiques – Montreal women are renowned for their beauty and style.
One of the most highly rated restaurants is Toqué! (pronounced toh-kay) on Jean-Paul-Riopelle Place near Rue Saint Antoine Ouest, just down the street from the InterCon. Co-owned by Grand Chef Relais & Châteaux Normand Laprise, this award-winning gastronomy restaurant is a must-visit when in Montreal. So too is Au Pied de Cochon (at the pig’s foot), which proudly celebrates all things pork and is a hit with Anthony Bourdain and many other celebrity chefs and gourmands. Be sure to have the foie gras poutine here.
Besides poutine, which is basically chips covered with gravy and melting cheese curds, Montreal is famous for its bagels and there are several places that claim to have the city’s best. If you love New York bagels, you’ll find they’re even better in Montreal, handrolled and baked in a wood-burning oven. My favourite place is Fairmount Bagel, up near the eastern entrance to Mount Royal Park.
Another delicacy you must try is Montreal smoked meat. Like bagel shops, many delis claim to have the city’s best and I tend to stick with the more established places such as Dunn’s Famous. Schwartz’s and Snowdon Deli also serve up excellent smoked meat, which is usually served on rye bread with mustard.
For something a little out of the ordinary, head to Rue Prince Arthur, a street lined with Greek restaurants that becomes a pedestrian mall in the evenings. The portions are generally huge and of high quality, plus you can bring your own wine to dinner, which along with beer can be bought at corner shops in Quebec. Some Greek restaurants still offer two-for-one lunches, which were much appreciated when I was a student.
My roommates and I also frequented Montreal’s strip clubs, but not for the obvious reason. These exotic venues are really quite, um, classy…but the main reason we went was for the excellent food buffets. Montreal, by the way, has legalised sex clubs but they serve a buffet of a different sort. One of the best-known is L’Orage on St-Hubert. Single men are welcome but will pay more for a “membership” than single women, or couples.
Montreal winters are notoriously harsh, which has led to an interesting solution – a massive underground complex in the downtown area. The Underground City, or RESO, is connected to several of the Métro stations (the subway cars in Montreal have rubber wheels). Covering something like 12 square kilometres, the Underground City offers an abundance of shopping and eating no matter what the weather is like outside.
Montreal is home to the Formula 1 Canadian Grand Prix, held this year on June 7-9 at Circuit Gilles Villeneuve on Île Notre-Dame, a man-made island accessible by Métro that’s also home to another of the city’s unique attractions: Parc Jean-Drapeau’s landlocked artificial beach that doesn’t provide access to the river. Not that you’d want to swim in it; there’s too much else to do and see in Montreal anyway!
And if you somehow manage to spend long enough in Montreal to get a bit bored, you can drive north to the many ski and recreation areas such as Mont Tremblant or east to the amazingly picturesque Quebec City. I’ve been coming to Montreal for more than 30 years and I’ve never tired of it. In fact, every visit reminds me of how much I want to live here again.