Travel: Northern Exposure

Experience old-world charm and urban sophistication in Montreal.

Retreat from the heat and savor the joie de vivre in the romantic old-world charm of Montreal.

Originally built in 1900, the ultra-chic Hotel St. Paul is a perfect example of the magnetism of Montreal. Here’s a hotel that manages to combine traditional European charm with a sophisticated, urban style, in a city that does much the same. The restoration of the hotel focused on the sleek lines of cool modernity but without sacrificing comfort. The harshness of stone and raw metal is balanced by flowing curtains of silk. Perfect cubes of soap sit by the bathroom sinks. Soft, monochromatic tones create a serene atmosphere. Then there is the bathtub—high, wide, and deep enough for two.

“Il fait chaud, non?” commented the doorman as I stepped out into a cool 77-degree day. In a city where the day before it had registered below 60 degrees this might have been true, but little did he know that I’d left my kids behind sweltering in the Dallas heat as I headed north for some Canadian-style “C & C.”

Once in a while, everybody should make room in their lives for a little “culture and cuisine.” It can beat the heck out of a sand-impregnated, sunscreen-stained paperback on all but the most desolate tropical island, and in Montreal, there’s more culture than a U.N. summit—plus an island. In fact, perched in the the middle of the St. Lawrence River, Montreal even has a beach or two. Adding to the C&C factor are more than 5,000 restaurants, free festivals, and government-sponsored activities reflecting at least 80 different ethnicities. The city boasts more than 75 public parks with places to dance, ride, picnic, and stroll in the summer and cross-country ski, toboggan, snow shoe, and skate in the winter.

In the summer, crowds spill out from cafe terraces, and bicyclists and inline skaters maneuver around the winding 100-year-old stonewalled streets and parks. Even the police spend spring and summer months on bikes and skates, while canoes, kayaks, and sailboats cruise along the banks of the St. Lawrence.

The “heat wave” of summer is the perfect time for outdoor celebrations of all kinds. Whole regions of the city, streets, and bridges close for weeklong biking events, comedy festivals, and the St. Lawrence River fireworks competition. Plus, the world-renowned International Jazz Festival (now in its 24th year) runs from June 26 through July 6 and features headliners like Dallas’ Norah Jones, Ray Charles, Mark Knopfler, and Bobby McFerrin.
Montreal is a sensuous city. Nothing compares to the sensation of being tickled by fluttering wings as thousands of butterflies settle around your head and shoulders in the unique Insectarium de Montreal. This experience is just one of several to be enjoyed in a parkland area of town that also houses the four ecosytems of the Biodome, complete with free-ranging birds and animals, the Botanical Gardens celebrating Quebec’s 11 Amerindian and Inuit nations, and the respective jardins of China and Japan.

I paid an enthralling, heart-stopping visit to the magnificent son y lumière show staged in the heart of the Notre-Dame Basilica. With foundations bedded in the late 1600s, the main body of the church, designed along the lines of Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, was completed in the 1800s. Nearly every moulding, statue, pulpit, and interior architectural embellishment—including the elaborate altar—was painstakingly hand-carved from local woods. In the summer, the Basilica is home to the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and the site of many free concerts outside on the broad steps leading down to the Place D’Armes.

Montreal pleases your eyes and your ears, but also your pocketbook. When you go shopping, you’ll smile when you convert Canadian dollars to U.S.—a process that ensures at least a 35 percent reduction. Even though there is a 17 percent tax, diligent travelers who save receipts can apply for a refund at the airport or on the Internet. Plus, many of Montreal’s smaller restaurants operate on a BYOB basis, making it easy to enjoy a fabulous meal for two for as little as $40.

And fabulous meals are abundant in Montreal, like my dinner at Cube, the nouvelle Quebec-cuisine restaurant on the main floor of the Hotel St. Paul. Fresh seafood, game, duck, veal, and wonderfully fresh local produce are refreshingly simple. My local friend Geneviève and I took our seats in the crowded but well-spaced dining room. Whether it’s in English or French, conversation in Montreal is constant, and it is always animated. In every voice I heard, there was an honest-to-goodness sense of enjoyment that I haven’t witnessed outside of Paris or London.

Rather than choose from the a la carte menu, we opted to sample the chef’s recommendations summarized in five courses. As an amuse-bouche, two sea-fresh, plump, and creamy Blue Point oysters were delightfully spiced with sake, a sprinkling of fennel pollen, and a twist of candied blood orange. Then we enjoyed a small chilled lobster, roasted beets, and duck prosciutto salad, followed by the warmth of pan-seared duck foie gras with a pear chutney, zests of candied blood orange, and a crouton slice of mini brioche.

As a surprise inter-mezzo, we shared a fantastically subtle blend of flavor and texture from a dish of veal sweetbreads on a brandade of snow crab with Jerusalem artichokes. The entrées were stellar: a thick steak of wild striped bass on braised baby bok choy with a lemon confit risotto and a deliciously glazed magret of duck breast served with farro, cauliflower rapini, and passion fruit. With the last of our wine we enjoyed a pairing of four local cheeses—Kenogami, Mont Fleuri, Barbiche de St.-Roch, and a creamy sharp Bleu du Ciel.

The next day, I lunched with another resident friend downtown at Ferreira, where we enjoyed a perfectly delicious soupe de poisson; fresh grilled sardines; a light, dry white wine; and, as everywhere in Montreal, the best chewy-yet-crusty fresh bread I have tasted outside of Les Halles. We finished with a glass of late-bottled port of the same name as the restaurant. Under the direction of Chef Marino Tavares, this cafe is a stylish ambassador of traditional Portuguese specialities. During my entire stay, I was overwhelmingly impressed by the love Montrealers have for their home. Whereas an outsider may wonder about the bizarre provincial laws (apparently colorblind dogs are banned from relieving themselves on red fire hydrants, and you can only move your house or apartment on July 1), residents only have praise for the city.

That evening, Geneviève, her mother, and I ate at Au Pied de Cochon in the Plateau Mont-Royal district where we feasted on plates of meat, choucouterie, smoked meats, sausages, offal, and more foie gras than I have ever eaten in my life. Bite-sized bits were flash-fried in a bread coating; other livers were salt-cured, thinly sliced, and served with cheese and arugula on a pizza-style crust; and more came piled high on a bed of pommes frites smothered with traditional rich poutine gravy and slices of local cheese. In the winter the kitchen warms the soul with roasted lamb shank, boudin, and steaming cassoulets, and in the summer the restaurant morphs into an open-fronted cafe serving pyramids of fresh fish and shellfish.

So the next time you plan an island getaway, remember that in Montreal you can enjoy your R&R with the added richness of cool European C&C piled high on top.

Robert Fox is a former hotel and restaurant critic for Egon Ronay in the United Kingdom.

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