Weekend in . . . Montreal
The winters may be chilly, but the city offers lots of ways to escape the big freeze
Sunday Morning: Return to eternal summer inside the humid tropical forest of the Biod™me, a glass-roofed nature preserve containing multiple ecosystems. You might glimpse iguanas, frogs, bats, snakes, sloths and other exotic creatures as you wend your way among the dense vegetation, streams and stone caverns. Photograph: Robert Wright / The New York Times
W inter is right around the corner, and when the going gets cold – like -17 degrees
cold – Montrealers get resourceful. Some dodge Canadian winter amid the heated vapours of the city’s Nordic spas or the warming drinks of cosy bars. Others embrace it by skiing and skating in public parks, cheering the hometown Canadiens hockey team and ingesting hearty meals in the new wave of forest-like and lodge-inspired restaurants. And still others flamboyantly celebrate the frozen season, revelling at Igloofest (an outdoor electronic-music extravaganza), Montréal en Lumière (a food and entertainment festival) and sugar shacks (forest canteens that sprout during maple-syrup season), amid near-Arctic conditions.
Whether you are more interested in creative cocooning or winter worship, Quebec’s biggest city offers manifold amusements for the province’s defining season. Outerwear recommended.
Ready, set, snow Skate, ski or sled into winter at Parc du Mont-Royal.
The mountain it partly occupies is said to have provided Montreal’s name. The sprawling hilltop park is the centre of activities involving snow and ice. From December to March, Le Pavillon du Lac aux Castors rents skates (CAD$9/€6.33, for two hours), cross-country skis (€8.50 and up for one hour) and inner tubes (€3.50 to €6, depending on age, for the day), for the nearby outdoor rinks, trails and runs, some affording lovely city views.
Enchanted forest Reheat in the stylish confines of the new SouBois restaurant and nightclub. The underground space suggests a magical woodland
where avant-garde sculptural trees hover over a dining room of plank floors, shingled walls, raw-wood tables and Scandinavian-style chairs. The chef, Guillaume Daly, conjures magic too, metamorphosing rustic Canadian ingredients into innovative treats. The poutine is a gorgeously gloppy stack of greasy thick fries, piled like logs in a fire, and drenched with velvety warm Cheddar sauce, pungent mushrooms and an unctuous block of foie gras, while veal steak gets a funky crunch from spiced popcorn. For dessert, s’mores, replete with cubed marshmallows, jagged chocolate fragments and crumbled cookies. A three-course dinner for two costs about €78. Reservations recommended.
Canadian libations The staggering whiskey menu at the Burgundy Lion, a lively British-style pub with dark wood surfaces and frosted glass, offers further means to warm up. The more exotic specimens hail from Taiwan, Sweden, France and Switzerland, while Canadian representatives include Wiser’s Red Letter (€8.50), a mellow elixir with a hint of toasted nut. Down the street, candlelit La Drinkerie Ste. Cunégonde offers several Canadian beers as chasers, including Les Trois Lettres IPA (€4), a fragrant, floral brew with hints of clove and nutmeg.
Earth and sky Still chilly? Eternal summer awaits inside the humid tropical forest of the Biodôme, a glass-roofed nature preserve containing multiple ecosystems. You might glimpse iguanas, frogs, bats, snakes, sloths and other exotic creatures as you wend your way among the dense vegetation, streams and stone caverns. The trail then takes you into forest, mountains, Atlantic gulf and subarctic islands (complete with penguins). Next door, the
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium is a postmodern silvery structure shaped like two telescopes pointed at the sky. Within, two domed theatres take you on immersive sensory journeys across the cosmos with shows such as Dark Universe, about dark matter and energy, and Aurorae, about the Northern Lights. Admission to both facilities costs $33.50. Check the website (espacepourlavie.ca) for the film schedule.
If you can’t get to a real sugar shack, the “Sugar Shack” sampler (€8.50) at Eggspectation, a vast all-day breakfast and brunch hall on fashionable Rue Laurier Ouest, is a copious, calorie-rich substitute. Typical sugar shack fare, the dish heaps on fluffy scrambled eggs, sliced ham, baked beans, fried potato slices and unfilled sweet crepes along with ample maple syrup. The restaurant’s menu also encompasses everything from lobster macaroni and cheese (€13.50) to around 10 types of eggs Benedict.
Buy Canadian You’ve probably grown a size since that meal. Conveniently, the boutiques along Rue Laurier Ouest brim with Canadian-made garments to accommodate your expanded frame.
Chic insulation abounds at La Canadienne, where ladies can score weather-treated knee-high suede boots (€320), a long quilted silvery jacket with a fur-lined hood (€800) and much besides. Solid-coloured garments to wear underneath can be found in the eponymous boutique of the veteran Montreal designer François Beauregard, including stretchy jersey T-shirts in autumnal colours (€35) and dark blue 1940s-style trench coat dresses (€135). Strut the ensemble to Juliette & Chocolat, a cafe serving some 20 types of hot chocolate, complete with tasting notes (€4.75 to €6).
Chromatherapy With its colourful collections of art and antiquities, the Musée des Beaux Arts de Montreal illuminates even the gre
yest Montreal days, notably in the ground-floor galleries of 19th- and 20th-century painting. Mediterranean sun, sea and palms radiate from Matisse’s Seated Woman, Back Turned to the Open Window, a 1922 canvas set in the French Riviera city of Nice.
Almost adjacent, the disassembled, fractured and explicitly naked couple in Picasso’s erotic Embrace (1971) generates a different kind of heat.
A kaleidoscopic array of iconic furniture and housewares fills the multi-level design pavilion, from burgundy Arne Jacobsen Egg chairs to candy-coloured Ettore Sottsass bookshelves to space-age 1970s red televisions from the Victor Company of Japan. A sleek yellow Ski-Doo snowmobile from 1961 begs to be borrowed for a joy ride. Admission: €14 and €8.50, depending on exhibition.
North stars Canadian pride suffuses the friendly, lively new Manitoba restaurant. Animal furs and raw logs decorate the industrial concrete room, and indigenous ingredients from the Great White North fill the chalkboard menus. Among the starters, the plump baseball-size dumpling spills out shredded, succulent pork tongue and flank into a tangy broth floating with crunchy daikon, for a Canadian-Chinese mash-up.
For main courses, thick deer steak gets a zesty drench of red wine sauce infused with Labrador tea, and crunch from root vegetables such as candied carrot and smoked onion. Maple syrup-smoked bone marrow is topped with berries, onion and Japanese mushrooms for a sublime hunter-gatherer hybrid.
A three-course meal for two is about €70.
Liquor laboratory Tucked across from Parc La Fontaine (a favourite ice-skating spot), Lab is a dimly lighted speakeasy of brick and dark wood where the mad mixologist Fabien Maillard and fellow “labtenders” ceaselessly research new cures for your sobriety. Who else could invent the Jerky Lab Jack (€10), a concoction of Jack Daniels whisky, Curaçao, cane sugar and bitters flavoured with barbecue sauce?
It’s a gulp of the American south, flamed with a blowtorch and delivered under a miniature clothesline hung with beef jerky. Continuing toward the Equator, Caribbean flavours infuse the dozens of specialty rums (from Cuba, Jamaica, Trinidad, Grenada and beyond) and cocktails such as Bébé Dragon, a blast of Barbados rum, house-made ginger syrup, lemon juice, lemon-lime soda, mango and basil (€10). Reserve spots online. Sunday
Vintage voyage Finally: a place stocking those stag heads, Lego figurines, cowboy paintings, flapper hats, snow shoes, lace doilies and neon signs you’ve had trouble finding. Near the last stop of the Metro’s blue line, Marché aux Puces Saint Michel is a vintage shopper’s Shangri-La. The sprawling, dusty, musty two-level labyrinth-like flea market holds hundreds of stalls selling the contents of seemingly every Canadian attic and basement. Kiosk 216 has an impeccable collection of vinyl LPs, from the
Valley of the Dolls soundtrack to Serge Gainsbourg’s Grandes Chansons de Gainsbourg, while Artiques (kiosk 219) sells well-maintained pinball machines, jukeboxes, pipe organs and radios.
For gents needing winterwear, La Garette d’Anna (kiosk 358; facebook.com/LaGaretteDAnna) sports an extensive collection of bomber jackets, capes, police caps and pith helmets. Haggle.
Ship shape Norway, Sweden and Finland have mastered the art of stylishly dealing with cold weather, and Montreal has paid homage to these experts with numerous Nordic-themed spas around town. The most innovative is Bota Bota, a former ferryboat that was remade in sleek contemporary style and reopened as a wellness facility in the winter of 2010.
Spread over five decks, the indoor-outdoor spa offers massages and facial treatments, but the core experience is the “water circuit” (€25-€50, depending on day and time). Sweat out the weekend’s toxins in a Finnish sauna or hammam; plunge into one of the cold pools; and finally chill out in one of the relaxation areas or the restaurant. The 678 portholes and numerous wall-size glass panels afford superb views of the city skyline, though the best vantage point is the external heated whirlpool bath. There might be no warmer spot amid wintry Montreal.
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