Thoroughly modern Montreal

Posted Wednesday, Nov. 27, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
If you go Getting there: American Airlines operates a daily flight to Montreal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Airport, with round-trip fares from about $600. You can also consider making Montreal part of a larger trip to the northeastern United States — and enjoy the scenic drive from New York City (six hours) or Boston (five hours). Where to stay: Le Place d’Armes Hotel: 55 Rue Saint-Jacques West; Rooms from $191 per night. Where to eat: Sinclair: 414 Saint-Sulpice; Venti Osteria: 372 Rue Saint Paul Ouest; Lawrence: 5201 St. Laurent Blvd.; Bocata: 310 Rue Saint Paul Ouest; Good to know: • Don’t worry too much about your middling French — just about everyone you encounter in hotels, shops, restaurants and museums will speak English and French. (They will, however, appreciate even your stumbling attempts to master the French plus-que-parfait.) • After years of a rising Canadian dollar that made our neighbor to the north a very expensive place to visit, the tide seems to be turning in the other direction — according to experts, because Canada’s once-hot real estate market has finally cooled. One American dollar buys you $1.04 Canadian dollars — compared to about 98 cents Canadian this time last year.

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MONTREAL — It’s a brisk, overcast morning in early November, the kind of day where you would much rather be huddling under the covers and watching old movies, but our tour guide, Nadia, is marching across the Place d’Armes square in Montreal, insisting that we check out a church.

“Visitors sometimes don’t want to bother because they think they’ve already seen all the great European churches,” Nadia tells us, sensing our hesitation. “But I tell them, ‘This one you need to go inside.’”

On approach, the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal is indeed nothing we haven’t seen before: a Gothic revival stone church, with soaring towers on both ends, and statues of the Virgin Mary, John the Baptist and St. Joseph over the three entry arches. But we shrug off our initial indifference — it helps that the tour guide has let slip that this is the church where Celine Dion got married in 1994, and we are suckers for such pop-culture trivia — and follow Nadia inside.

And we are instantly rewarded with one of the most breathtaking visions in North America. Designed in the late 19th century, and inspired by La Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, the interior of the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montréal features blue-colored vaulted ceilings studded with 24-karat gold stars; a soaring altarpiece, bathed in blue, gold and purple light; and countless religious statues carved from pine wood.

Nearly 30 minutes later, as we were still taking in the church’s many eye-popping details (spin around and look up, and you’ll also spy the 7,000-pipe Casavant Frères organ, built in 1891), Nadia gives us a “See, I told you” look, and we can only nod our heads in agreement.

Turns out that this glorious space — and, indeed, all of Montreal — offers a lot more than initially meets the eye.

Truth is, we had hoped to be in Paris. After a long and stressful year, one where we never got to take a proper summer vacation, my husband and I declared that we needed a wintertime getaway. Somewhere romantic and exotic. Somewhere the two of us could feel briefly disconnected from the English-speaking world.

Cinematic visions of Paris — berets on our heads to keep us warm; snow flurries drifting past the Eiffel Tower — soon flooded our imaginations.

Alas, reality quickly set in. Family obligations and budgetary considerations meant that we’d only have four days for our getaway — hardly enough time to justify a flight across the Atlantic.

That’s when we stumbled upon the idea of Montreal, Canada’s second-largest city, located in the French-speaking province of Quebec. Our hope was for a trip rich in both history and creature comforts — a place where we could enjoy being tourists during the day but then relax at cosmopolitan restaurants at night. Affordable, easily walkable and an increasing magnet for foodies, Montreal more than fit the bill — and it allowed us to occasionally practice our decidedly clumsy high school French.

Settled by French missionaries in the mid-17th century, Montreal is actually on an island, right where the Saint Lawrence and Ottawa rivers meet. But whereas Canada’s next biggest city, Toronto, mostly looks like a more modestly-scaled version of American cities like New York or Chicago, Montreal has a style all its own; it’s a place where Old Europe and New World harmoniously bump up against each other.

And while it’s more conventionally regarded as a spring or summer destination, we discovered any number of benefits to visiting in the off-season of late autumn.

We checked into the Le Place d’Armes Hotel, just across the square from the Basilique Notre-Dame de Montreal. Sited in three neoclassical buildings that have been renovated into a modern boutique hotel, Le Place d’Armes — with its on-site spa; swanky and bustling cocktail lounge; and pool table in the lobby — could be a vacation in its own right. But it also proved the perfect launching point for sightseeing in “Old Montreal.”

You could spend an entire day wandering the narrow cobblestone streets in this part of the city, where most of the buildings date to the 19th century. Visiting when we did, with few other tourists around, we felt as if we had stepped into a time machine.

What’s remarkable about Montreal, though, is the way the modern age keeps bursting through the antiquated facade. We were particularly taken, for instance, with another hotel in the area, LHotel — a renovated bank building, originally built in 1870, whose outside and lobby features dozens of works of modern art, including one of Robert Indiana’s LOVE sculptures and prints by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein.

That same new-old mix carries over to Pointe-à-Callière, Montreal’s Museum of Archeology and History. This time it’s the structure that’s contemporary — the main glass-and-stone building was completed in 1992. But journey inside and down a flight of stairs, and you find yourself in the “archeological crypt,” the preserved grounds where the earliest Montrealers would have lived and traded in the 1600s.

In addition to its permanent installations focused on the history of the city, Pointe-à-Callière also hosts temporary exhibitions — such as the entertaining one devoted to the Beatles’ sole concert in the city, in 1964, that was on display when we visited in November. (Turns out that the Fab Four spent fewer than 11 hours in the city, though from this elaborately detailed exhibit you would think they were lifelong residents.)

Beyond Old Montreal, our tour continued to the part of town known as “the islands” — two smaller islands separated by bridge from the main city. It’s here that you will find, arguably, Montreal’s most iconic site, the Biosphere, a 200-foot-tall, 250-feet-in-diameter steel orb designed by the famed American architect Buckminster Fuller for the 1967 World Expo. (A museum focused on the environment, and contained within the sphere, opened in the mid-1990s.) It’s on the islands, too, where visitors to Montreal from January to March will find the city’s “Snow Village” – a restaurant and full-service hotel carved entirely from snow and ice. Apparently it’s a lot less frosty than it sounds, and with rooms available from about $200 per night, surprisingly affordable.

Dining in the city

All this traipsing around town, multiple days in a row, naturally worked up a serious appetite. And, indeed, I had been hearing noises that Montreal’s food scene had vastly improved in the 18 years since I was last there (all I remember from that trip is plate after soggy plate of poutine, or french fries topped with cheese curd and brown gravy). As luck would have it, our November visit coincided with the Taste of Montreal, the city’s version of “Restaurant Week.” That meant we’d be able to try a number of top-rated spots that were offering set, four-course menus for $29 or $39 per person.

Let’s get the criticisms out of the way first: The restaurants we tried were occasionally ambitious to a fault (at Lawrence, in the trendy Mile End neighborhood, the charcuterie plate contained more combinations of pig, rabbit and fat than would seem mathematically possible); and while we always appreciate restaurants that use local ingredients, we did wonder why maple syrup seemed to turn up in virtually every third dish on some of the menus.

Despite these rough edges, though, the city’s restaurants offer considerable pleasures: At Venti Osteria, in Old Montreal, for instance, we had a marvelous plate of baccala, or cod, usually served dried and salted, but here delicately pan roasted and unexpectedly silky; at Sinclair, located in the boutique St-Sulpice Hotel, we marveled over the leek soup and a perfectly cooked duck confit.

Most satisfying of all was the inviting and relaxed hospitality — something you’d be hard-pressed to find at equivalent high-end places in Europe. At another Old Montreal restaurant, Bocata, we found ourselves curious about a wine on the carefully curated list from the former Soviet state of Georgia.

We eventually settled on a different wine, but in between our appetizer and main course, the sommelier arrived with a sample of the Georgian wine for us to taste, along with a plate of Iberian ham that he said paired perfectly with it. Even though it was a crowded Friday night at the restaurant, he lingered, chatting with us, and sent us home with a half-dozen suggestions of wines we should try.

By our final day in Montreal, we definitely felt we had unplugged from our regular grind and journeyed far away, even if we were only about an hour from the New York state border. But we were still searching for that which is the hallmark of any romantic getaway — a sense of pure relaxation. That’s when we stepped out of the chilly wind and into the Scandinave Spa, a day spa inside a 1960s building just across from the St. Lawrence River.

At first it seems like a million other spas you’ve been to — here’s your robe, here are your flip-flops, over there is the juice bar — until you step inside the co-ed baths area and are plunged into almost complete silence. The lights are low; the only sounds you hear are the rushing waters of the whirlpool. You begin in a steam room before plunging into an ice-cold bath, and then rest for 10 minutes in a low-lit “relaxation room” — before starting the cycle again. After an hour on this “water circuit,” we each had private massages that were among the most calming we’ve ever enjoyed.

Inspired by the public baths of Europe, Scandinave — where spa packages are available for as little as $89 — seemed the perfect summation of our time north of the border.

Here is a city old-fashioned yet vibrantly modern; sophisticated yet approachable. And while we may have started our trip thinking of it as a compromise because we couldn’t go to Paris, we ended the trip thinking otherwise: Montreal deserves a place on any proper list of the world’s top-choice destinations.

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