Five frosty days in Montreal; travel tips!

By Caitlin Kelly

It’s six hours’ drive from our New York home, door to door.

I lived in YUL for two years in the late 80s when I was a feature writer for the Montreal Gazette; I’ve returned four times in the past two years, twice for work and twice for pleasure. If you’ve yet to visit, it’s well worth your time and money, especially with the Canadian dollar at 75 cents U.S.

Even in winter!

Yes, it’s cold and windy. But if you’ve got warm outerwear, you’re all set. And if you need to buy some, Montreal offers plenty of fantastic and colorful options beyond the default of black nylon, like this red jacket from my fave Canadian brand, Aritzia or this cherry-blossom digital print wool scarf from 31-year-old Montreal brand Mo851.

One of the pleasures of shopping here is finding European brands and styles I can’t find in New York.

NB: City sidewalks can be appallingly, life-threateningly ice-coated — in a nation where lawsuits are rare(r) than the litigious U.S., it’s Yaktrax or bust! Walk like a penguin to be safe; lean forward and take small, slow shuffling steps, with your hands out of your pockets for balance.

Jose and I really enjoyed our break.

A few highlights:

 

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L’Express

 

L’Express

This classic  restaurant on Rue St Denis has been in business since 1980.

I love its simplicity: glossy burgundy walls, those globe lamps, a skylit back room whose walls are covered with beautifully framed images of its staff, a photo taken annually.

Food is classic French, the bread — so many baguettes they arrive in Ikea shopping bags — dense and chewy. I loved my PEI oysters, a glass of Sancerre and cacio and pepe. Jose loved his octopus salad and sea bass.

 

Arthur Quentin

Ooooooh. This store is filled with temptation for anyone with strong domestic urges: linen tablecloths and napkins, lovely china (French brands like Gien), glassware, Emile Henry cookware, spoons, teapots. Even something as basic and essential to making  a great vinaigrette as a small glass bottle with a lid. Also long in business  — since 1985! We splurged, buying everything from a glossy green crackleware teapot to new bowls, spoons and even a saucepan.

 

La Brise Du Sud

This shop offers a fantastic selection of bathing suits for men and women, and cover-ups and some of the prettiest lingerie I’ve ever seen. 3955 rue St. Denis.

 

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Dessert at Leméac

 

Leméac

Another simple room, another long-established locus of chic. This 18-year-old restaurant is on Laurier, in Outremont, an upscale French neighborhood. Delicious French food and great people-watching.

 

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This looks like a scene from Blade Runner! This is one of the views from BotaBota of a legendary piece of Montreal history and architecture, Habitat, built for Expo ’67

 

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One of the outdoor pools, by night

 

Bota Bota

Imagine a former ferryboat made into a spa. In the harbor. This place is amazing. You can go and just enjoy the waters — steam room, hot tub (on the roof watching CN freight trains rumble by and planes soaring into the blue), cold tub, showers, lots of spots to sprawl out and relax in silence. They offer a wide range of services (I treated myself to a hot oil massage and a scrub.) In its restaurant everyone sits in their white terry bathrobes, enjoying a cocktail, snack or a meal.

 

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Love this view, from our hotel room, 16th floor, looking north on Peel Street

 

Hotel Omni Mt. Royal

Have stayed here four times and love the nostalgia of seeing the condos across the street that replaced the brownstone where I lived for a year when I was 12, at 3432 Peel Street. Ask for a high floor (we like the 16th) with a mountain view and you’ll see the enormous cross atop Mt. Royal glowing in the distance. The location is terrific, with lots of shopping two blocks south on Ste. Catherine and plenty of nearby bars and restaurants (and the subway.) Rooms are elegant and spacious. I love the small dining room, which makes it feel much more intimate than a hotel with 299 rooms. Tip: For $15, with your Omni hotel key and ID, you can nip across Peel Street to the fantastic Montreal Athletic Association (admire its classic stained glass windows) and take classes or use their facilities; at 130 years old, it’s Canada’s oldest athletic club. 

 

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How gorgeous is this? Note the two enormous memorial walls listing all the soldiers working for the bank killed in WWI

 

Cafe Crew

This was once a bank. Three years ago it became a co-working space and cafe. With its coffered painted ceiling, inlaid marble floor and enormous chandeliers, its original 1928 elegance, all 12,000 square feet of it, is stunning. My grain bowl was delicious!

 

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Me, lacing up!

 

Skating at Beaver Lake

If I miss one part of my Canadian life, it’s outdoor skating on free rinks. It’s such great exercise and a fantastic way to get some sunshine and fresh air. This rink was so much fun! I brought my own skates (you can rent them) and you can get there by bus without a car. The age range was three to 70, and so civilized to have wide wooden benches to plop onto for a breather.

 

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Looking a little hesitant! I hadn’t skated in a year but I did warm up and speed up.

 

A fantastic guidebook is 300 Reasons to Love Montreal. This is a true treasure, with so many recommendations and so much to learn about this city. I dog-eared dozens of its pages!

 

Don’t miss Montreal’s Atwater Market

By Caitlin Kelly

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Our final morning in Montreal, I insisted we pay a quick visit to one of my old haunts, the enormous market down by the Lachine Canal that sells an astonishing array of produce, meat, cheese, flowers, chocolate, tea, coffee — you name it!

 

 

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While Montreal has multiple markets, we chose this one and it was a perfect fall day, with people of all ages arriving with babies and dogs.

 

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Because we were traveling and staying in hotels, I didn’t buy much food — a piece of cheese, some apples and bananas, home-made mustard, maple popcorn and some astounding chocolate. The friends we were heading to visit in Ontario are about start building a new home, so a set of chocolate tools (!), like a hammer and saw, seemed like a good house gift.

 

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Of course, this being Quebec, many of the signs are in French, but everyone will speak some English, if not fluently.

 

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Pies: Pumpkin, apple, blueberry, sugar, maple sugar

 

There are 100000 sorts of things made with maple syrup and Montreal bagels, which are completely different from the doughy ten-ton things New Yorkers love to boast about — these are lighter and chewy and boiled then baked.

 

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Scary meringue ghosts for Halloween!

 

 

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Canada’s legendary food — poutine — cheese curds and gravy

 

 

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Three cheeses for $12.99

 

 

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An apple-grower’s van

 

 

 

Three October days in Montreal

by Caitlin Kelly

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I had so much fun in Montreal in September, we came up again — this time by car — to celebrate my husband’s birthday and to enjoy the city in warm, sunny weather. (We’ve been here in February, and it’s an adventure, but the wind and cold and snow can be really daunting.)

We stayed again at the Omni Mont-Royal, on Sherbrooke Street, whose central location is terrific, with lots of great shopping within a two or three block walk.

 

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There are nearby excellent restaurants, like the freshly made pizza we had at this place on Peel Street, sharing a delicious antipasto, an oven-fresh-made pizza and three glasses of red wine.

This visit I went down to Notre-Dame Ouest to check out its small section of antiques stores and loved the mix I found.

The selection at L’Ecuyer, at 1896 Notre Dame Ouest, is the best and most affordable, (the other shops are priced at $1,000 or much more for their material), and the owner has a great selection of china, glass, paintings and hand-made textiles. He specializes in vintage suitcases and they’re fantastic. I saw everything from a zebra skin rug ($1,200) to a spectacular 18th century walnut armoire ($7,000) but also many smaller items for much less.

Like many along this strip, he rents out his items to television and film crews — he’d just loaned out several paintings that morning to a movie starring Kathy Bates and Felicity Jones being filmed locally.

We treated ourselves to dinner at Lemeac, far from the tourist trail, in the elegant residential Francophone neighborhood of Outremont. Diners ranged from hipsters in their 20s and 30s to a woman in a gold turban in her 70s or beyond. As we left at 10:30, a line-up filled the doorway…

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I took a spin class at the Montreal Amateur Athletic Association, whose drop-in rate is $30, (but $15 for some guests of local hotels, like ours.) The classroom was large and sunny, on the top floor, and — like everything in Montreal — offered in a mix of French and English.

The MAA is in a gorgeous pair of buildings from 1905, with two lovely period stained glass windows that glow at night; the lobby contains a fantastic, huge period photo mural from 1890 — celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Montreal Snowshoe Club.

The club has been open since 1881 and is well worth a visit. Much more fun than a tedious hotel gym!

One of the things I most enjoy about Montreal is how damn stylish its women are — especially those 50 and beyond. Oh la la! Great haircuts. Great hair color. Chic, minimalist clothing in gray, black, cream and beige. Lots of them wearing cool sneakers, studded with black crystals or a fur pom-pom.

I find it really inspiring.

We shopped at two Canadian retail legends, Browns shoe store (men and women) and Aritizia, a privately-owned Vancouver-based chain also sold online and in the U.S. that sells women’s clothing. Its colors are mostly limited to solid burgundy, olive, dark green, black, gray and a mid-pink, many in knits; prices are reasonable for the quality with many items below $100 to $150. I also appreciate their sizing, some of which easily and stylishly accommodates me (between a 12 and 14) without screaming this is a plus-size garment!

I’ve gone twice now to the salon La Coupe, at the corner of Peel and Sherbrooke, for cut and color; the color was fantastic and well-priced. The space is dead simple, even basic — black, gray and white — but offers a variety of services and has been in business since 1967.

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Walking the city offers lots of architectural surprises; be a tourist and look up to find some unusual sights, like this gray stone building now housing McGill’s alumni association that used to house a distiller’s headquarters. It looks like a Scottish castle!

Visiting Montreal is like a quick, easy trip to France, with many of the same charms and pleasures; this is Alexandre et fils, where I ate in the mid 1980s when I was a feature writer at the Montreal Gazette and lived nearby — three of my former colleagues still work there.

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