A trusty Montreal escape hatch from the winter chill is the cavernous sprawl of the Underground City in downtown, a staggering labyrinth of shopping centres, hotels and museums. With over 32 km of tunnels, the underground city was first built in the 1960s as the metro train system was being developed, but has been expanded to incorporate a variety of plazas, connecting up over 1000 retailers and restaurants.
It’s considered the biggest underground city in the world. I have to admit I found it incredibly easy to get completely lost in – which apparently is part of its novelty. If a serious dose of retail therapy is on your agenda, above ground, glide your way along Rue Saint-Catherine, where a procession of glossy stores and chic independent retailers beckon like a tractor-beam.
While I wandered with enchantment through Vieux-Montreal, I ventured down Rue Saint-Claude to the colossal emporium of the 150-year-old Bonsecours Market. A totem of French-Canadian architecture, the market’s mission has evolved over the decades and now specialises in high-end cafes, handicrafts and designer boutiques. Pop into Ricchi who showcase skillfully-crafted Inuit art made from Baffin Island rock.
Montreal is nothing if not a foodie city. From the celebrated French-Canadian bistros of the Latin Quarter and Plateau to the convivial patio eateries of the Crescent, Montreal has more restaurants per capita than New York City. For cheap eats, Montreal’s culinary classics tend to be of the greasy kind, headlined by cheap and cheerful poutine. Unofficially the region’s go-to comfort food, poutine consists of french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy. A plate of it doesn’t look particularly appetising, but once you’ve had your first bite, you’ll never want to have fries any other way. It’s packed with flavour and calories.
When it comes to great bakery battles, Montreal and New York fiercely contest the bragging rights over who has the best bagels. A Montreal bagel is smaller, denser and sweeter than its New York counterpart, with a larger hole. They’re hand-rolled, boiled in honey-infused water and always baked in a wood-fired oven. If you want to sample bagel royalty, head to Fairmount Bagel. In 1919, Isadore Shlafman arrived in Canada and opened the first bagel bakery in Montreal.
Today, his grandchildren run the family business, from the classic onion bagel to the more recent additions, like the chocolate chip & orange zest bagel. Another Montreal staple is the smoked meat sandwich. Few things in life are just as good as four-inch-thick smoked beef sandwich, with a side of coleslaw and fries. Still going strong after 90 years, Schwartz’s is Montreal’s legendary smoked-meat parlour on St. Laurent Boulevard. The lines constantly billow outside this storied deli where the staff of Schwartz’s credit the unique flavour of their smoked meat to the mandatory 10-day meat curing time, and the brick smoke-house covered with 80 years of build-up.
Chic style and sparkling hospitality go hand-in-hand at Loews Hotel Vogue, a celebrated Montreal property, located in the Golden Square Mile just off the shopping glitter-strip of Rue Saint Catherine. Featuring over 140 guestrooms and suites, the elegant hotel exudes an unmistakably boutique spirit. My guestroom was soothingly decorated in neutral greys and taupes, with vivid accents in slate blue.
Framed vintage Vogue magazine covers, hanging from the walls, underscore the hotel’s style-conscious street cred. Designer highlights include the Eileen Grey tables and furniture in dramatic zebrawood. Tech-toys are to the fore with complimentary Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, coffee-maker, iPod docking station, and flat-panel TVs—in both the guestroom and the bathroom, where are enjoyed a languid soak in the marble jacuzzi.
Appointed with a stained-glass dome ceiling, the on-site restaurant La Société lustily showcases Parisian bistro-style cuisine. Breakfast, lunch and dinner options are available. I also enjoyed the swish lobby bar, Lux Lounge, for great people watching and supreme mixology. All in all, a most memorable hotel, in the heart of Montreal. www.loewshotels.com
Travelling by train is a thrill in Canada, particularly if you’re shuttling between Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. I explored Ontario & Quebec with a Canrail Corridor Base Pass, which entitled me to 7 trips over 21 days. A variety of passes are available, depending on how many trips you’re planning. VIA RailCanada trains are efficient, comfy with complimentary on-board wifi and in-seat, on-demand entertainment. Pre-purchase a great value pass to suit. Contact Rail Plus, the experts in rail for your ticket to ride. www.railplus.co.nz
If you’re planning some intrepid sightseeing, purchase a MTL passport that gives you access to 21 activities, museums, attractions around the city and free access to public transportation.
By Mike Yardley.