Published in Jan./Feb. 03 issue of Arrive magazine, Amtrak’s on-board magazine for the NE corridor

Cozy Up to Winter in the Underground City — The Charms of Montreal Indoors and Out

By Doug & Morri

You don’t have to “parlez-vous” to enjoy Montreal, but French adds a uniquely foreign flavor to this marvelously cosmopolitan city. Off-season rates, uncrowded attractions and fewer tourists make winter a great time to visit the world’s second largest French-speaking city after Paris. Known for its fine dining, great shopping and Old World charm, Montreal also knows how to beat the cold.

When snow piles up and the thermometer plunges, you can stroll leisurely in your shirtsleeves through Montreal’s extensive “underground city.” Some 20 miles of belowground walkways, linking 1,700 retail stores, 200 restaurants, 30 movie theatres and concert halls, 60 buildings and 10 métro (subway) stations, let you explore the city’s core without ever stepping out of doors.

If you stay at the Hilton Montréal Bonaventure, one of seven major hotels connected to the underground city, you can appreciate the hotel’s winter rooftop garden from the steamy vantage of its indoor/outdoor pool. After you towel-off and dress, take the tunnel to nearby 1000 de la Gauchetière, at 51 floors the city’s tallest building, where you can rent skates and take a spin on the glass-domed indoor rink. (Both buildings are connected to métro Bonaventure.)

Leave your coat behind, and shop sans the chill on (and under) Montreal’s famous Ste. Catherine Street. Les Ailes de la Mode — four floors of fashions and accessories surrounding an oval sky-lit atrium — is the trendiest new addition to a networked shopping concourse connected below street level for six blocks, from the upscale boutiques at Les Cours Montréal (métro Peel) to La Baie department store (métro McGill). Go crazy: with the U.S. greenback worth 50% more than the Canadian Loonie, everything is a bargain!

Don’t forget to sneak a peak aboveground at Place de la Cathédrale (métro McGill), considered by many to be the masterpiece of the underground city. To build the underground shopping mall, known as Les Promenades de la Cathédrale, the 19th-century Christ Church Cathedral above it was raised on pillars and preserved. Neo-Gothic mirrored windows of the modern office tower behind the cathedral echo its architecture and reflect the picturesque stone church back to passersby in the square.

Indoors has its appeal, but Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal) — the city’s historic birthplace — is worth braving the cold to explore. Soak up the history in a calèche, departing from Place d’Armes or Place Jacques-Cartier; snug under a fur rug, as your open horse-drawn carriage jingles through the narrow, cobblestone streets. Or plan a walking tour from any of three métro stops — Square Victoria, Place d’Armes and Champs de Mars — that service the quarter.

Old Montreal is in the midst of a revival. Elegant 18th- and 19th-century banks and commercial buildings are being restored for lavish condominiums, fancy offices and trendy new restaurants. Seven luxury boutique hotels have opened here in the past two years, some just last summer. Offering extraordinary comfort and unbeatable ambiance, they range in size from the nine antique-filled rooms and suites at the quaint Auberge Pierre du Calvet — conveniently situated across from the Chapelle Notre-Dame-de Bonsecours, whose Lady of the Harbor statue has been immortalized by Montreal crooner Leonard Cohen in his song Suzanne — to the ultra-chic, minimalist 120-room Hôtel St. Paul, where Cube, a new restaurant specializing in innovative market-fresh cuisine by chef Claude Pelletier, is garnering a following among the chic and upwardly mobile. Then there’s the 30-room Hôtel Gault. So spectacular is its sleek, contemporary décor, in sharp contrast to its ornate 1871 stone exterior, that Quebec cinéaste Denys Arcand’s chose it as a location for The Barbarian Invasions, the sequel to his highly acclaimed 1986 movie, The Decline of the American Empire.

If you crave a séjour in retro opulence, try Le St-James, Montreal’s most expensive and exclusive hotel. There, you can revel in the decadence of an era spanning the mid-1800s through the Roaring Twenties, when Montreal was the financial center of Canada. Ornate, gilt elevator doors salvaged from the old Waldorf Astoria hotel in New York City blend perfectly with the gold leaf, mahogany wainscoting and crystal chandeliers. Each of the 61 rooms and suites sports a unique mix of antiques, culled from the owner’s personal collection. Pop in for high tea, from 2 to 5 p.m. It is worth the $35 price (a mere $23 US!) to sample sherry, beluga caviar, smoked salmon and other goodies amid the palms and lush elegance of the Grand Salon, where you might rub shoulders with assorted Pooh-Bahs.

Or stay in a modern designer suite, with fireplace, at the Le Saint-Sulpice, a condo hotel abutting Notre-Dame Basilica, the magnificent Gothic-revival church where pop diva Céline Dion exchanged marriage vows. If you hurry, you can even buy your own suite. At writing, only five of the hotel’s 108 suites remained unsold. Owners share revenues with the hotel and can stay free for up to 67 nights each year. Start your morning with perfect Eggs Benedict downstairs at S, one of the city’s finest new eateries.

At the next corner, the 30-room Hôtel Nelligan (named for the early 20th-century Quebec poet, Émile Nelligan), draws movie stars, writers, artists and celebrities to its inviting atrium lobby bar — all exposed brick, warm dark wood and flattering lighting — and to Verses, where 28-year old chef Yann Turcotte is making his début and a name for himself with his unique spin on contemporary French cuisine using fresh Quebec venison, lamb, duck, guinea fowl and Angus beef. His tarte tatin (upside-down apple pie) flavored with Quebec maple syrup offers a perfect mix of sweet and tart to finish off a memorable meal.

In Old Montreal, discoveries are around every corner: a plethora of excellent restaurants, bistros and boutiques; churches; small museums, like the one devoted to Quebec landscape painter Marc-Aurèle Fortin and the Château Ramezay, a former 18th-century governor’s mansion; charming streetscapes like the one offered on gently winding de la Commune, with its restored 19th-century facades bordering the waterfront of the St. Lawrence River and the Old Port. This street features a recreational area with an outdoor skating rink and wide pedestrian walkways. Not to be missed is the silver-domed Bonsecours Market, a restored Classical Revival edifice that now houses a treasure trove of boutiques showcasing Quebec’s top designers and artisans.

The “underground city” enters a time warp at Pointe-à-Callière, the award-winning architectural museum located on the actual spot where, in 1642, Sieur de Masionneuve and Jeanne Mance founded a small French colony called Ville-Marie (now Montreal). Wander through belowground digs displaying vestiges of Montreal’s earlier periods. A superb multimedia show dramatizes the city’s history from prehistoric times to the present day. To continue your trip down memory lane, head uphill to the McCord Museum, home to one of North America’s most significant historical collections, including First Nations’ artifacts, toys, period clothing and the Notman Photographic Archives, which chronicle Montreal life from the mid-19th to the early 20th century with astounding artistry and detail.

Most major Montreal museums, galleries, theaters and other attractions are at or near a métro station.  Like the underground city itself, the métro is safe, clean, modern, brightly lit and extensive (65 stations, four lines, 41 miles, plus 179 interconnected bus routes). So do as Montrealers do; duck the traffic, pocket your cab fare and take the BMW — Bus, Métro, Walk — to get around town.

© 2003 Doug & Morri Productions. Doug Long and Morri Mostow (www.dougandmorri.com) are freelance travel writers and broadcasters.

Tips to help you make the most of your winter stay in Montreal

*      Visit the Centre Infotouriste, your best bet for tourism information. Pick up a free “Official Map for Visitors,” which includes a map of the underground city (as does the free pocket-sized “Plan du métro,” available at any métro station).

*      Pointers for navigating the “underground city”:

*      Directions belowground can seem counter-intuitive (you think you should head right when signs point left). Routes may sometimes seem circuitous, but the signs are correct.

*      To avoid getting lost, use an underground map and plan your route in advance!

*      Remember: the link between buildings is always one level below street.

*      A two-day “Museums Pass” ($20 CDN.) gives you access to 25 museums over a three-day period. (Available at all participating museums, Centre Infotouriste and some hotels.)

*      Great value: a one-day, three-day or weeklong métro pass.

*      Montreal restaurants always post their menus outside, so you can compare offerings and prices before you dine.

*      Pick up a copy of Lesley Chesterman’s Flavourville ($16.95 CDN), the definitive guide to Montreal’s very best restaurants.

*      The two-cheek kiss is a de rigueur greeting among friends and business acquaintances of the opposite sex. Kiss left, then right, to avoid bumping heads.

*      Montreal can be slushy in winter, so pack waterproof footwear.

*      You cannot turn right on a red light in Montreal.

*      Links

Centre Infotouriste
1001
Dorchester Square
(514) 873-2015 or 1-877-BONJOUR

Tourisme Montréal
www.tourism-montreal.org

Vieux-Montréal (Old Montreal)
www.old.montreal.qc.ca

Vieux Port (Old Port)
www.oldportofmontreal.com

Atrium (indoor skating)
Le 1000 de la Gauchetière
(514) 395-0555
www.le1000.com

Hôtel St. Paul and Cube restaurant
355 McGill
(514) 380-2222
www.hotelstpaul.com
$200 - $500* per night

Auberge Pierre du Calvet
405 Bonsecours
(514) 282-1725
www.pierreducalvet.ca
$235 - $265* per night, including breakfast

Hôtel Gault
499 Sainte-Hélène
(514) 904-1616 or 1-866-904-1616
www.hotelgault.com
$275 - $700* per night, including breakfast

Hôtel Le St-James
355 Saint-Jacques
(514)-841-3111 or 1-866-841-3111
www.hotellestjames.com
$325 - $5,000* per night

Le Saint-Sulpice and S restaurant
414 Saint-Sulpice
(514) 288-1000 or 1-877-SULPICE
www.lesaintsulpice.com
$249 - $1,299* per night, including continental breakfast
Purchase price: $194,000 - $240,000 per suite

Hôtel Nelligan and Verses restaurant
106 St-Paul West
(514) 788-2040 or 1-877-788-2040
www.hotelnelligan.com
$195 - $450* per night, including continental breakfast and evening wine with canapés

Marché Bonsecours
350 Saint-Paul
(514) 872-7730
www.marchebonsecours.qc.ca

Pointe-à-Callière Montreal Museum of Archeology and History
(métro Place d’Armes or Square Victoria)
350 Place Royale
(514) 872-9150
www.musee-pointe-a-calliere.qc.ca

McCord Museum (métro McGill)
690 Sherbrooke Street West
(514) 398-7100
www.musee-mccord.qc.ca

*Low season rates. All prices in Canadian dollars. Taxes extra.