Canada

A Perfect Day In Montreal- An Almost 24 hour Itinerary

old montreal

This February, as most people were hunkering down, and bracing for the polar vortex that dumped snow along the East coast, sending temperatures plummeting below zero, we decided it was the perfect time for a trip to Montreal.

Polar Vortex

As we made our way by car through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Albany, Rochester, Ontario and finally Montreal, we watched the thermostat dip and bob.

15 degrees...

5 degrees...

0 degrees...

-2 degrees...

-13 degrees....

It was a sunny, and I mean, deceptively brilliant, afternoon at -13 degrees when we pulled into the underground parking garage at the Gouverneur Hotel at the Place Dupuis in the heart of downtown Montreal.

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Unsure of how it would all work out, traveling with a four year old and a one and a half year old in the middle of a snowstorm on the Eastern coast of Canada, we simply took a deep breath and forged forth.

Yes, it would be cold.

Yes, we would have to layer and wear boots.

Yes, this trip would require several hot chocolate breaks.

Yes, there was snow, and ice everywhere.

Yes, we probably should have gone to the Caribbean, but we didn't and in the end, I'm glad we didn't.

If you should happen to find yourself in Montreal in winter, fear not. The city is well equipped to handle whatever amount of snow or ice mother nature should decide to throw its way.

With easy to navigate streets and authentically delicious French style hot chocolate and espresso drinks on every corner, get out and forge forth anyway. The city will reward you!

We had a perfect day out and about in Montreal. Here's our almost 24 hour itinerary:

Breakfast at Juliette & Chocolat on Rue Saint Catherine

Juliette & Chocolat is a local favorite featuring.....you guessed it, chocolate. To be specific, you'll find traditional French pastries, sandwiches and salads with a chocolaty twist. Intimate, modern and relaxed, Juliette & Chocolat is one of those cafes that is both child friendly (as long as your little one isn't prone to running and screaming), first-date romantic, Sunday brunch chic and a haven for location independent laptop clad hipsters.

Stroll down Rue Saint Catherine

A main thoroughfare, Rue Saint Catherine is hip and eclectic. Frequented by university students, this young, bohemian strip is home to every type of restaurant imaginable, quirky shops and lively bars. *Warning- just because it is snowy and icy, don't expect that streets will be fully plowed and salted as in the United States. We had an adventure making our way up and down the busy Rue Saint Catherine.

Explore the Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec

Bibliotheque et Archives Nationales du Quebec

This library is so much more than a library. A massive and super modern architectural gem, the Bibliotheque Nationales du Quebec is a literary and musical multiplex. The children's section is massive. The boys enjoyed the listening and viewing station where they were able to watch short animated films in French. It was a great way to expose them to the language. They also enjoyed the magnetic poetry wall and reading picture books in French. If you're a lover of music, the library has an extensive listening section.

Visit the Notre-Dame Basilica

 In addition to being an active church with a large and tight knit community of worshipers, Montreal's Notre Dame basilica is a local historic gem and source of pride.  The site of many important events including Celine Dion's wedding, the historic basilica is open to visitors who wish to take a moment of quiet repose, admire the collection of religious art and take in the astounding architecture. Visitors are also welcome to attend mass.

In addition to being an active church with a large and tight knit community of worshipers, Montreal's Notre Dame basilica is a local historic gem and source of pride.

The site of many important events including Celine Dion's wedding, the historic basilica is open to visitors who wish to take a moment of quiet repose, admire the collection of religious art and take in the astounding architecture. Visitors are also welcome to attend mass.

 We met up with my friend Lynne for lunch and she suggested Olive et Gourmando. I'm so glad she did!  The cozy eclectic and artsy interior was charming. The delicious food disarming! And the smell of baking bread, chocolate and wine- it was out of this world.  The Kale Cesar made me so happy.  The wine list was extensive (most bottles hailed from France). Also extensive was the list of local apple ciders.  The fresh French pastries are worth a mention, so many types of croissants and cookies take up space in the shiny glass display case.  It was so cozy inside, I almost forgot about the sub zero temperatures outside... almost.

We met up with my friend Lynne for lunch and she suggested Olive et Gourmando. I'm so glad she did!

The cozy eclectic and artsy interior was charming. The delicious food disarming! And the smell of baking bread, chocolate and wine- it was out of this world.

The Kale Cesar made me so happy.

The wine list was extensive (most bottles hailed from France). Also extensive was the list of local apple ciders.

The fresh French pastries are worth a mention, so many types of croissants and cookies take up space in the shiny glass display case.

It was so cozy inside, I almost forgot about the sub zero temperatures outside... almost.

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Spa Break at Bota, Bota, Spa-Sur-L'eau

 Located quite literally on a boat at the old pier, the Bota Spa is a relaxing and warm oasis of rejuvenation in the heart of Old Montreal. One step onto the boat spa and you're transported to another world! A warm, eucalyptus scented world where dreams of Zen easily come true. You can spend a few hours or the entire day on this docked spa boat which boasts a wonderful restaurant, massage services, hot tubs, whirlpools, saunas and other forms of relaxing entertainment.

Located quite literally on a boat at the old pier, the Bota Spa is a relaxing and warm oasis of rejuvenation in the heart of Old Montreal. One step onto the boat spa and you're transported to another world! A warm, eucalyptus scented world where dreams of Zen easily come true. You can spend a few hours or the entire day on this docked spa boat which boasts a wonderful restaurant, massage services, hot tubs, whirlpools, saunas and other forms of relaxing entertainment.

Hot Chocolate Break at Cacao 70 Atwater

Rumored to have the thickest most delectable hot chocolate in town, Cacao 70 Atwater is the perfect way to recharge in the middle of or end a busy day in Montreal.

At let's face it, you deserve some delicious fuel after all of that walking!

 

Regardless of the season you visit Montreal is an amazing city!

This was probably my 8th or 9th visit. For whatever reason, I have only experienced Montreal in the winter. The city is spectacular blanketed in snow, but I look forward to a summer visit as well sometime soon so I can take in the long, lazy, sidewalk cafe studded summer evenings.

A new take on an old favorite!

Have you had the pleasure of a visit to Montreal? Would you consider vacationing there?

No Trip to Montreal is Complete Without a Visit to the Notre-Dame Basillica

Notre-Dame Basillica

Perhaps it's the colors- vibrant sea foam green, dark cherry wood, coquettish robins egg blue and sharp accents of gold. Or the aroma, frankincense, welting max. There is a warmth all around, the energy of tranquility and peace resonate from within.

Whatever it is, Montreal's famed Notre-Dame Basilica is a true refuge and a work of astounding beauty.

No Trip to Montreal is Complete Without a Visit to the Notre-Dame Basillica

Built in 1824, the Notre-Dame Basilica is easily one of the most impressive structures in the historic district of Old Montreal.

Known in a more modern context as the place where Celine Dion got married, the Notre-Dame Basilica is home to a large collection of priceless religious art and archaeological finds.

Visited by Pope John Paul II, the Notre-Dame Basilica has been host to many prominent historical events and in 1989 was assigned the designation as a National Historic Site of Canada.

Despite the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Basilica, it runs as an active church. For the people, the Basilica offers a full host of religious services from mass to marriage, baptisms and funerals.

A site frequented by religious pilgrims, the Basilica is also open, for a nominal fee, to tourists.

I find during my travels that there are few things, more grounding and calming than visiting religious sites. I've visited mosques and temples, basilicas and shrines, each one, regardless of the religion it was attached to, resonated that special energy that comes from being in the presence of the "Divine." The Basilica is not just for Catholics or Christians.

Located in the heart of Old Montreal, the Notre-Dame Basilica is within easy walking distance of the water, restaurants and shops.

The cobblestone streets of Old Montreal are historic and unique. There's so much to do in the neighborhood, which feels like a suburb of Paris.

I still don't know if it's the colors, or the aroma, the stained glass, the velvety seats, but I am called again and again to the Notre-Dame Basilica. This wasn't my first visit and I'm sure it won't be my last. Montreal, is one of the most charming and unique cities in North America!

The Notre-Dame Basilica

11o Rue Notre-Dame O, Montreal, QC

Things I Admire About the City of Toronto

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In the beginning of June, I attended  the TBEX (Travel Blog Exchange)  conference in Toronto. Growing up in Rochester, New York, I was no stranger to Toronto. A few hours over the Buffalo/Ontario border, Toronto was my first "Big City," my first "International City." I saw my first four musicals in Toronto, I got drunk for the first time in Toronto (yay 19!), but after leaving Western New York for its swanky cousin Manhattan, my fond memories of Toronto were forgotten, filed away under the "I used to live near Canada" chapters of my life.

 

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My re-introduction to Toronto was a PLEASURE! Here are the three things I most admire about the city of Toronto:

Friendly and Helpful People

You've pulled over to the side of the road in your car. It's raining. You can't figure out which direction you're supposed to go. The GPS on your cell phone no longer works because you've left the country, even though you're only two hours over the border. Suddenly there's a rap on your window. An older gentleman, in a gray button down shirt, peers into the window.

"Where are you trying to go?" He asks with a heavy Indian accent.

You breathe a sigh of relief. Help has found you.

The people of Toronto are so incredibly friendly (as long as they're not driving!), it's such a refreshing change of pace, especially for a New Yorker.

Clean Streets

 

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I kid you not, you could eat off the streets of Toronto. I'm used to scanning the ground before me to make sure I'm not about to step into a pile of dog poo, or onto a rat, or on a dirty blood soaked napkin (I spend too much time in New York!), I didn't know what to do with myself in Toronto. I had to fight the urge to skip merrily down the street reveling in the fact that there was nothing to impede me.

Cultural Diversity

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Name a country, any country and you're bound to find a person in Toronto who was born there. Toronto is beautifully diverse and this diversity translates quite well when it comes to food. One minute we were enjoying Saag Paneer, the next Pho, the next Falafel, the next vegetarian roti. Toronto is a great place to eat!

 I'm so happy TBEX brought me back to Toronto!

The Notre-Dame Basilica

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In the heart of downtown Montreal, the  Notre-Dame Basilica is a beautiful haven of peace.

Modeled after Notre-Dame in Paris, the Basilica is an ornate wonder.

The energy inside was very positive. I love the overwhelming sense of peace that strikes while inside a holy place.

Lynne and I opted to guide ourselves, but tours are also available for a small price.

Don't forget to light a candle or two before you leave.

Buy Local, shop in St. Sauveur

In the mood to shop. Take a day trip via highway 15, up North to St. Sauveur in the Laurentians. You'll find a cozy ski resort town full of quaint local shops. Montreal has a unique fashion scene. Clothes, unlike the gray, frozen landscape, are brightly colored and full of texture. I was in winter sweater heaven.

And a bit of good news. The American dollar converts in our favor in Canada (for now ; ) ).

Balnea Spa

In the Southern countryside of Quebec, past long stretches of snowy valleys and ice-covered lakes lies a magical experience. When Lynne told me to bring my bathing suit because we’d be going to a spa I did as I was told expecting nothing more than the typical gym amenities such as a hot tub and sauna.

I was surprised our spa visit was planned out as a day trip. My questions were all met with "you'll see", so I sat back, and didn't think much of it. The drive to Balnea Bromont-Sur-Le-Lac was a picturesque two hours outside of downtown Montreal.

When we finally arrived, it was as if I was staring at medieval  castle at the top of a very large hill. The building was impressive and imposing. Walking through the doors, we were greeted by the calming scent of eucalyptus, then placid "bonjours", before being presented with a locker key, bottle of water,  bath robe and a towel. After locking up our goods and changing into our suits Lynne dropped the bomb. I was informed that the hot tubs were outside (in the 15 degree weather) and that part of our  spa circuit would include a dip in freezing cold water (also outside).  Enter apprehension. Montreal is gray and frozen in the winter. We just drove through feet of snow. It was too late for me to request that we do something else to pass our time. I was not excited about being in my swim suit in the fifteen degree weather.

The spa was set up in a round of circuits. The first stop was a hot tub (we had several to choose from, each with it’s own theme/concept), the second stop was a steam room/sauna (once again, there were several to choose from), the third stop was a dip for at least thirty seconds in a vat of ice-cold water, the fourth stop was a twenty-minute rest in one of the many relaxation rooms.

The moment our flip-flopped feet began trudging through the snow (there was about five inches on the ground and it was actively snowing outside) I began to shiver. Taking my robe off  and slipping out of my shoes, I began an internal dialogue of curses. However, the moment I slid into the outdoor hot tub overlooking a chain of mountains, I was at ease. It was so peaceful in the water. Soothing nature sounds were on loop from a speaker system nearby, aromatherapy was released  into the air. It was great. I could have relaxed out there for the entire day (unfortunately, we were on a circuit and that was not in the cards). After thirty minutes, we were ready for the second circuit.  Getting out of the water from one station to the next was painful. Our second station was a eucalyptus scented steam room. We steamed our pores clean for about twenty minutes, before diving into an ice-cold outdoor waterfall. Surprisingly the outdoor cold waterfall wasn’t too terrible. The moment I got out, I was hyper-aware of my circulatory system and limbs.  It is hard to describe, but my veins felt larger, my blood warmer. Our final stop on the first circuit was a peaceful rest room set up with lawn chairs and pillows and panoramic views of the mountains.

The circuit is apparently an extremely healthy way to relax. The heat, steam and cold, remove toxins, improve circulation and improve the clarity of your skin. We did three rounds and stuck around for lunch at the Balnea cafeteria which was another pleasurable experience.

I would recommend this spa to anyone interested in a getaway. The saunas and hot tubs are co-ed, so this would make an amazing romantic getaway.

Balnea Spa Bromont-Sur-Le-Lac 319 Chemin du Lac Gale Bromont, Quebec J2L 2S5

www.balnea.ca

Jean-Talon Market

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The Jean-Talon Market is the great central market of Montreal. Impressive in the winter, I was told it is even more impressive in the summer when scores of people congregate outside and in to browse the food stands. Be prepared to have your nostrils assaulted by the alluring sweet and savory aromas of French food. Fresh crepes, they’ve got them, fromage (cheese), mais oui, and in an assortment of varieties. Fresh flowers, bread, meat and fish, are also sold out of neat little stalls and mini-shops. Everything is locally produced and tantalizingly fresh.

I walked away with a jar of  lavender/violet preserves and a jug of rum infused maple syrup. I love charming little touches.

Also present were several cider vendors. The cider is a local favorite. Mild in alcoholic content, it is used to wash down a good meal, a digestive of sorts I have been told. Vendors are more than happy to provide you with samples if you request one. I'm not going to lie, I'm actually not a fan of cider, it was too reminiscent of beer for my tastes (I am a die-hard wino).

The market is a great place to find goods hailing from the indigenous Inuit population. Most of the Amerindians have been herded onto reservations in the North. This seems to be the sad story of the Americas. I bought some shaman-blessed traditional Inuit tea, promising mental clarity and detoxification. We'll see...

Anyhow, if you want to get into the mix and get a sense of local culture,  the Jean-Talon market in downtown Montreal is a must-do!

Poutine

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When you visit Montreal, and if you are doing it correctly, prepare to put on pounds. I’m really not sure how the local population stays so thin (one of the secrets of the French I can only imagine). Local food is a rich delight. I didn’t have a single bad meal. Well, I had one, but that’s another story for another post involving a very stubborn and bland fish called Monsieur Lionelle Rouge.

One of my favorite local delicacies was poutine, a fattening bowl of crispy fried potato wedges, large chunks of fresh curdled cheese and a savory gravy sauce.  Poutine, I learned, comes in many varieties (such as - with chicken, with pasta sauce, etc.).  I opted for the tried and true original.

The portions that I saw were large. Be warned, you may not be able to move afterwards, you may have a heart attack, but it is so, so, good. And at the end of the day, doesn’t that make it worth it?

Montreal

SONY DSC I headed to Montreal to see Lynne. Lynne of Mozambique fame (reference entries way way down....no...keep going...there you go). It has been over a year since I said farewell to Lynne near the dusty Mercado Central in Inhambane and over a decade since I've last set foot in Montreal (I used to go every February in high school with the French teacher).

My main objective during this trip - catch-up with Lynne of course and EAT EAT EAT!