Winter Destinations: Montréal

montreal2.jpgYou go to Montréal to celebrate winter, not escape from it. That said, Canadians are skilled at figuring out ways to beat the cold without going into hibernation. Montréal’s ever-growing underground city, for instance, allows denizens to shop, eat, and entertain themselves with nary a worry about winter’s chill. For aboveground adventures, wear a hat and plenty of warm layers. Expect temperatures in the 8-22 Fahrenheit range in January, and February is a bit colder.

Day One: Vieux-Port
Get your historical bearings at the Pointe-a-Calliere (Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History). The museum stands above exposed ruins of the earlier city. Start your tour of this subterranean complex by viewing the remnants of teh city’s first Catholic cemetery, then cross the bed of the Little St. Pierre River via a stone bridge and walk though the vaulted stone tunnel into an underground room — an “archaeological crypt” — where you can see the original fortified walls of Montréal.

For lunch, head to Place Jacques Cartier, the large public square at the heart of the Vieux-Port (Old Montréal). The square is lined with restaurants and cafes. In the mood for a little shopping? Make a beeline for rue Ste. Catherine, which is filled with shops and restaurants. Next, visit the Chapelle de Notre Dame de Bon-Secours, known as the sailors’ chapel because of the dozens of wooden model ships suspended from the ceiling (they were made and donated by sailors in gratitude for safe voyages). The beautiful ceiling murals of the life of Mary were discovered hidden under whitewash during a 1998 restoration.

Day Two: Back to Nature, Montréal Style
Visit the Biodome, a zoo, aquarium, botanical garden, and more. Start your tour in the Tropical Forest and glory in the warm, humid air. Then dive beneath the ocean in the St. Lawrence Marine ecosystem. Admire the fish and resurface to the noisy sounds of sea birds swooping through the salty air. Prepare for reentry by visiting the arctic exhibit, where you can watch penguins waddling about.

In the Botanical Garden you’ll find 10 large greenhouses that shelter tropical and desert plants plus bonsai and penjing (Chinese bonsai, which are in the “Garden of Weedlessness” greenhouse.) Focus your tour on the greenhouses, but do venture outside to visit the six-and-a-quarter-acre Chinese Garden, the largest Chinese garden ever built outside Asia. Finish the day in the Insectarium, which displays some of the world’s most beautiful (and scary) insects.

If you really want to switch gears, treat yourself to a glam evening at the Montréal Casino, which is interesting even if you don’t gamble. It’s a striking place, with ponds, brooks, and waterfalls inside and out. In addition to Nuances, one of Montréal’s finest restaurants, the casino encompasses cabaret shows, more than 2,000 slot machines, 112 gaming tables, assorted Keno lounges, electronic horse-racing tracks, electronic bingo, and other money-sucking fun.

Day Three: Back to Old Town
Back to Old Town, but this time walk rue St. Paul, one of the most picturesque and oldest streets in town. There are many unique shops here, so bundle up and take a few hours to browse. For lunch have some poutine, a much-beloved local snack consisting of homemade French fries covered in cheese curds and gravy. For classic and innovative interpretations of the dish, head to Chez Claudette, at the corner of Laurier near St. Denis.

Then visit the Bonsecours Market, home to trendy boutique stores and art galleries. Wrap up the day with a tour of nearby Notre Dame Church, one of the most beautiful churches in North America. Built in 1829, Notre Dame has a stunning vaulted ceiling emblazoned with thousands of 24-karat gold stars, stained-glass windows telling the history of Montréal, and a pipe organ with more than 7000 pipes. Definitely a must-see.

Where to stay
Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth is an attractive, centrally located, historic hotel. Ask for a room with a view of the Cathedral of Mary Queen of the World. Beatles fans will want to book the Lennon suite (Suite 1742), where John Lennon and Yoko Ono stayed during their famous “bed-in” during the late 60s, and where the song “Give Peace a Chance” was recorded. The suite is decorated with John memorabilia.

Where to eat
Normand Laprise, one of Montréal’s celebrity chefs, focuses on classic food with an interesting twist at Toque. Choose the tasting menu to get a real feel for the Chef’s culinary skills (make your reservation a week or two in advance). Another must: an authentic Montréal smoked meat sandwich as served at Schwartz’s, a busy deli on St-Laurent boulevard.

Michelle Delio