A Love Letter to Montreal

My relationship with the city of Montreal is best described as a romance between “him and her.” I recently returned to Toronto from a press trip which would be my fourth visit (we’ll call them dates) to Quebec’s most cosmopolitan city. I have always been fascinated by Ms. Montreal. I’ve had a crush on her for years but felt we were both misunderstood. I can’t say I haven’t felt a bit jealous of her at times, sometimes aroused even, communication can be a challenge…ah Francais. It was never love at first sight.

I first visited Montreal like all Ontario middle school students do on a cross cultural Quebec Trip championed by my French and History teachers. I recall parent chaperons yammering on about Celine Dion, standing inside a few massive Catholic Cathedrals and snacking on maple candy during long bus journeys which I complimented with beats from the new All Saints album which played on repeat in my fancy DiscMan. My second visit was during Christmas break in 3rd year University when I ran around the city with a friend in a wild snow storm while visiting the art gallery, gobbling up cheap eats and suffering through sleeps in a hostel dorm room.

Our last encounter was my final stop on a three year around the world trip. I had spent the last month backpacking from Sydney Australia through Fiji, Hawaii, Vancouver, Chicago, DC, New York and Boston. Montreal would be my final vagabond moment before arriving back in my home town of Toronto. This particular trip was good fun as I lived with two locals that I met in Laos while galavanting through South East Asia. Memories included lunch at Schwartz’s, Bagels at St. Viateur, Poutine at La Banquise and a wild and wonderful evening at the Just for Laughs Festival. My three experiences in Montreal as a collection of memories seem rather fragmented, rushed, poorly thought out and perfectly represent how we engage with a city during different seasons of our lives. My relationship with Montreal had been half hearted. She needed more of my attention…

This Fall I found myself planning a press trip to Montreal with Quebec Tourism and wanted to be certain the itinerary included a proper survey of the cities very best culinary tourism experiences. This time around I did not arrive on a school bus, nibble on cheap eats like a university student or sleep on a pull out couch. I decided it was high time I took  Ms. Montreal on a proper fancy date.

I enjoyed the quick 70 minute flight from Toronto City Airport on Porter Airlines which offered up stunning views of rural Quebec covered in winters blanket. I was picked up in a white stretch limo at the airport which zoomed along the highway to Old Montreal where I would be spending the next three nights at Hotel Nelligan. I checked into the King Suite and quickly took snap shots and a video of my new home.

No rest for the weary! I quickly unzipped my suitcase and ripped off my clothes, threw on some long johns, a warm sweater and fastened a fuzzy winter hat on my head before booking it to the hotels lobby where I met with a private tour guide. We would spend the next three hours zooming across the city in a Montreal Tourism-mobile.

We made our way through China Town to the cities famous Jean-Talon Market which was originally opened on the site of a lacrosse field in 1933. In the heart of Little Italy, Jean-Talon Marche served as a bus station in the 1960’s which explains the concrete platforms where vendors now sell their farm fresh produce. After a major face-lift in 2004, it has now become North America’s largest outdoor public market, and a must see on any culinary tourists check list. Before running through the belly of the beast we stopped by Le Marche des Saveurs du Quebec, a little food market specializing in the finest foods produced throughout the province. Highlights included a wall covered in maple syrup, fridge showcasing hundreds of microbrews, a charming cheese counter and a wine boutique featuring a few exclusive bottles of cider.

A hop, skip and a jump and we found ourselves standing in the heart of the market. We had arrived shortly after 2:30pm on a Thursday in the middle of winter so the space was not as near as robust as it would be on a weekend in the peak of summer when some 300 truck farmers from across the province hawk their bounty for the cities hungry kitchens. We enjoyed a charming stroll being sure to say hello to local mushroom foragers, apple farmers, cranberry enthusiasts, colourful flower shops, fromageries and quintessential French bakery.

Our next stop was “perfect timing” for a cold winters day as we sipped on a cup of rich hot chocolate at Grandbois on St. Viateur followed by a visit to the handsomest kitchen supply store in the city, Les Touilleurs on Avenue Laurier in Outremont. The sun was just starting to set so we zoomed up to Mont Royal to grab a few quick snap shots of the city before the crisp and cool of Montreal’s winter evening descended upon us. That night I made my way to Hotel Nelligan’s Vereses Restaurant and Bar where I sipped on cocktails and nibbled on my first fine feast.

The following morning the sun was shining, the skies were a brilliant ultramarine and the temperature was frighteningly cold. I bundled up as best I could and spent the next hour chattering my teeth while snapping photos of the old school architectural inspirations found throughout Old Montreal. Weaving my way past the awe inspiring classical architecture of Notre-Dame Basilica was a nice juxtaposition to the spectacular modernist Caisse de Depot where I found refuge for a warm up. I was delighted to spend the early afternoon enjoying a lovely lunch with Catherine from Montreal Tourism at Normand Laprise’s Relais & Chateaux Toque!

After lunch I rushed back to my suite to meet Mike Moore who had flown in from Toronto to galavant around the city with me for the weekend. Shortly after he arrived we hopped on the metro and made our way to Montreal’s Museum of Fine Art. We enjoyed a brisk, hour long tour through the galleries permanent collection which offers a broad showcase of  North American contemporary art and design as well as classic collections from Asia, Africa and Latin America. Once finished at the gallery we had one hour until we had to arrive for that evenings restaurant review. I will never forget marching what seemed like forever in the coldest conditions imaginable. My ankles felt like they might snap and my inner thighs were numb with frostbite. This arduous pilgrimage made our feast at Au Pied Du Cochon that evening an unforgettable one. We had certainly worked for it.

After stuffing ourselves with the finest fat we headed back to our suite where we sipped on Pinot Noir with Brendan Healy, Artistic Director for Buddies and Badtimes Theatre who was in town teaching at the National Theatre School. We spent the evening running about The Village trying our best to tap into the cities vibrant queer culture.

The following morning Mike and I enjoyed breakfast in bed at our leisure. Room service at the Hotel Nelligan was like clockwork and arrived hot out of the kitchen ready to be devoured. Mike enjoyed an omelette prepared with fine herbs and forest mushrooms while I opted for a crepe stuffed with apples, walnuts and sticky maple syrup. Our team of two flourished into an adventurous threesome when Andrew Bathory arrived. Our little trio’s first stop that morning would be at the Scandinave Spa. I visited their sister property in Mont Tremblant this past summer with my mother and was looking forward to contrasting the two experiences: outdoor serenity meets urban retreat. The city spa offers an intimate experience which showcases a contemporary space where one can invest in a little rest and relaxation.

I felt as though my body were made out of wet noodles when I wobbled out of the sauna and into the change room. While I had been sipping on herbal tea over the last few hours I found myself dreaming of a hearty lunch. No trip to Montreal is complete without a stopover at Schwartz’s for their infamous Montreal Smoked Meat. Another item checked off my Montreal Culinary Tourism Agenda!

Once finished sucking the mustard off my fingers and plopping the last dill pickle morsel into my mouth we found ourselves in a taxi bound for Snow Village Canada located in snow covered Parc Jean Drapeau. Over the next hour we enjoyed an exclusive private tour by a friendly member of the Snow Village team. Montreal’s distinctive concept was developed and launched by Scandinavian innovators and includes an Ice Hotel offering 10 standard rooms and 15 prestige suites, igloos, a restaurant accommodating 100 guests and a bar with terrace seating up to 250. Oh, and they have an Ice Chapel where couples have an unforgettable (and chilly) opportunity to get married in a mini cathedral made of ice. Frigid Romance!

That evening we had a fabulous night out in Montreal’s Old Port. We started off with a 6pm reservation at the spectacular L’Auberge Saint-Gabriel which features awe inspiring contemporary Canadian design and a celebration of a distinctly Quebecois haute cuisine. Once finished dinner we bundled up and headed to Igloofest. I was captivated by the concept: a wild and wonderful electronica music festival in the middle of a blizzard. Such a distinctly Canadian experience. The festival has forged a reputation for itself through its punchy visuals and architectural concept, an ambitious DJ lineup and an enchanting igloo village. Thousands of ravers dressed in snow suits danced in an ocean of snowflakes. We spent the majority of our time in the VIP Media Zone sponsored by Sapporo and Tia Maria. Our balcony provided an excellent spot to shoot photos of the dance-tastic crowd. On our way home we picked up two hot waffles covered in maple butter and pipping hot cups of spicy apple cider. I’ll never forget that quintessential Montreal moment at midnight.

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  1. I am still dying to go to Au Pied du Cochon….I have heard nothing but amazing stories! Sounds like your whirlwind trip was amazing…but then, how could it not. Afterall, it is Montreal! You have hit on all the places on my winter in Montreal Bucket List and many others. Having just lived it up last weekend…I can’t wait to go back for more.