Category Archives: Canada

The 40-Year-Old Montreal Virgin

It’s amazing, yet true, that I grew up near the Canadian border, have traveled extensively, am about to turn 40, and just made my first trip to Montreal this year. And it was worth the wait because there’s a chemistry there, and I’m going back for more.

Like Paris, what sparked the trip to Montreal was an art exhibit, the Clark family Impressionism collection making its one and only stop to Canada at the Musee des Beaux-Arts de Montreal. The exhibit was closing January 20 and we were there January 19, along with hundreds of other Impressionism fans. After a half hour of rubbing shoulders with people speaking every language under the sun, vying for a spot in front of Degas’s sculpture “Little Dancer Aged Fourteen” and the 74 Monets, Manets, Pissaros and other Impressionism superstar paintings, we gave up and headed downstairs to the modern art world, which was fun, quiet, and delightfully on the whimsical and saucy side, with Italian artists making polyfoam beds that look like nests, and murals with eyes watching you walk by, as shown here:


Art Museum 2

Art Museum

Montreal on the outside, despite Arctic temperatures, was just as hot and saucy as Montreal museums on the inside. Stately churches share curb space with glass towers. True, you don’t see street vendors here in the middle of January, but step inside any bistro, restaurant or cafe, and there are plenty of hot treats to be had, from fondue and grilled salmon to poutine and spicy wings. On a Friday night, PoutineVille in downtown was packed, with diners filling out menus cards like sushi orders as they customized their toppings for their plates of poutine. We had such a great time there, Mike was inspired to make poutine for Superbowl Sunday. Everyone has written about the Montreal food scene, which rivals Paris and New York. I don’t have anything insightful to add to the din except as I said above, I’m going back for more. More macaroons, more poutine, more salmon, more fondue…more of all of it.

Montreal Bagels

Delicious, fresh everything is found at Jean Talon Marche, where we bought some of our groceries for the week before heading home. We bought a pint of the strawberries shown here and they were gone in two days. Going back for more of those, too.

Jean Talon Marche

Also like Paris and New York, Montreal is a city best enjoyed on foot, whether you’re above ground braving the subzero cold or below in underground metro tunnels where city residents flowed like streams. We bundled up and walked around Vieux Montreal, enjoying cupcakes (because that’s just what we do no matter where we go), absorbing the silence and grace of Notre Dame (much needed after some parenting drama along the way), and window shopping (with some actual shopping mixed in).

Outside Notre Dame in Vieux Montreal…
Notre Dame 2

Inside Notre Dame, reminiscent of a Faberge egg…

Window shopping, literally…

photo (40)


Macaroons are available everywhere in Montreal and are so popular, someone turned them into miniature jewelry boxes.


City Hall

Downtown Montreal

Aside from hearing nonstop French, which is the sexiest language on the planet no matter who is speaking it (like those Montreal cops walking by), one of the most interesting cultural experiences was seeing ads for travel to Cuba, obviously not something you see in the United States. Caribbean beaches beckon during Canadian winters, and this mural in the Bonaventure subway station immediately caught my eye for both its bright orange hues as well as its positive positioning of Cuba. When we visited Cuba in 2003, there were many Canadians in Havana and at the beach resort. I’m envious of Canada’s relationship with Cuba, but here’s hoping things will change.

Cuba Ad 2

Montreal metro stations were immaculate. I may be partial to New York City’s bagels, but Montreal’s underground mass transit system was spotless, not scary, not filled with people wanting to mug me, and sometimes even felt like an art gallery with its many murals and mosaics. When I saw this one, I took it as a prelude to our upcoming trip to Japan.


And finally, what made Montreal the best first date vacation I had ever had–the outdoor rooftop swimming pool at the Hilton Montreal Bonaventure in downtown. I don’t even recall how I stumbled upon this place except that it was through some random Googling, but thank goodness I did because I’m never letting go. Swimming in the snow is as meditative as it sounds. The pool is heated at 87 degrees and you enter the pool through an indoor annex so from the neck down, you are never exposed to the frigid air while wearing your bathing suit. Surrounded by snow and steam, this pool was enjoyed around-the-clock during our weekend, from parents tossing kids in the water (and into the freezing air…I didn’t get that) to older folks getting some laps in before dinner. This pool was the perfect way to loosen up and burn off some poutine, and felt fantastic after a day of sightseeing. Paddling through warm water while looking up at the stars, the half-moon sky and snowflakes hitting your nose felt dreamy and surreal, like a Dali painting. Montreal is now our family’s East Coast Los Angeles, a city we will visit again and again and again, exploring different neighborhoods and searching for new experiences while staying at the same place every time. Montreal is a city for the senses, even in winter when streets are muffled by snow. I need to see Montreal when the sun is hot, when the leaves turn orange, when the daffodils are saying hello. Time to book our next visit there because I’m in love.

The pool during the day…

The pool at night…
Hilton Pool

Romance in the City of No Street Meat

Relaxation and romance do not usually involve kids, but I can honestly say I went to Quebec with an eight-year-old (and with my husband) and found our week there extraordinarily relaxing and romantic.

Maybe it’s because when you’re walking along Petit Champlain you think you’re strolling down Rue Mouffetard. However, all that romantic sauntering can make lovers peckish, so being New Yorkers, we figured we could grab a cheap bite on the go and continue walking, because you know, life’s a rush. Not so.

Unlike our backyard, which is New York City, where hot dog and knish carts compete on the same street corner, there were no street vendors out in Quebec. I thought maybe some old guy would have some sizzling shredded venison he could serve on a bun for $5 and we could walk and nibble, as we’re so accustomed to doing. We were there in early April, and enjoyed a mix of cool, cloudy days with sunny days, but clouds never stopped street carts from pushing carbs and meat in other cities. Rain or shine, you can always buy a hot dog without having to sit at a table. Even in London, you can buy a bag of nuts and keep moving. Mike went crazy in Ecuador because no one served him coffee in a paper cup; he was cornered into sitting down at a table and interacting with a waiter who poured coffee from a pot into a small porcelain receptacle that Mike was not allowed to walk off with.

Like Ecuador, Quebec wants you to stop and engage with humanity. Walk inside a restaurant–usually one with a cozy fire crackling and the subtle smell of maple syrup being put to heat–have a seat and relax. This kind of forced relaxation blew through our dining budget pretty quickly since we wrongly assumed Quebec would be like New York or Paris or London, a city that lets you walk with your food and scatter crumbs all over. When you eat and go, you spend less. When you sit and eat, you spend more. Suddenly the money we had set aside for feeding three people over five days had been eaten through in just two days. Here’s our typical Quebec meal: chat with waiter, muddle through some poorly pronounced French, order, sip wine while waiting, eat slowly, look at the roasting fire, remark about the differences between a waipiti and a caribou (we’re still not entirely sure, but there’s a difference). About an hour into the beginnings of a long meal out, you found yourself, well…relaxed.

I already mentioned all the calorie consumption opporuntunities in Quebec: macaroons, fondue, maple cookies, crepes, poutine, Quebecois torte, even waipiti tartare. Yet, Quebecers are skinny (and dress like New Yorkers; black coats and plenty of rippling scarves). How is this so? Inspired by the great European cities it was built to replicate, Quebec is fantastic for hours and hours of walking, a perfect way to burn off all the fauna and maple sugar you just ate. It’s also a city built on a cliff, which means if you go down to unwind by the river, and you decide to walk back up to your hotel (most of the city is back up along the cliff looking down on the St. Lawrence), then prepare for a real cardio thigh-toning workout. It’s both healthy and cheap, for the ride up the cliff isn’t free (that’s how Quebecers keep their figures and save for retirement). For those who don’t want to huff and puff their way back to their hotel rooms and would rather work up sweats in a more romantic way, there are some elevators and a funicular railway. For about $2 per person, the funicular will give you a lift back up to the main city streets, not to mention a lovely view of a city clear of the clutter of street carts. Plus, it’s fun to say “funicular.”


During my four days in Quebec, I’ve consumed the following: duck, cow, pig, chicken, wapiti, chocolate, cheese, spinach-mushroom crepes, brie with mushrooms, more cheese, maple fondue, baked beans, French onion soup almost every day, Quebecois tortiere, salmon torte (twice), poutine (which means more cheese), McDonald’s (yes, once), macaroons, carrot cake, a handful of strawberries, one dreadfully messy croissant, wine, coffee, hot cocoa and the most expensive glass of orange juice ever to touch my lips.

One of my favorite entrees came from Le Cochon Dingue where I enjoyed fries smothered in very silky, rich gravy, topped with cheese curd and duck confit. Here’s a sexy closeup of tonight’s dinner, which was washed down with real hot cocoa and some carrot cake.

I already mentioned Aux Anciens Canadiens in an earlier blog entry, which is a great way to experience traditional Canadian cuisine–meals that reflect both English and French influences. Here’s Mike wondering whether to order something that flies or something that roams. Both ended up on his plate.

A fantastic spot for lunch is Casse Crepe Breton where the crepes are poured, flipped, and folded right before your eyes. For about $8 you can choose from a variety of ingredients such as spinach, mushrooms, ham, and egg (I’m forgetting the others) and customize your crepe. For an additional $1.50 (all dollar references here are to the Canadian dollar, which is doing slightly better than the American dollar at the moment) you can get a delicious side salad. Another $3.75 gets you a bowl of hot chocolate, which immediately reminded me of being back in Paris where drinking from a bowl feels very cool.

For those with a sweet tooth, there are countless opportunities to spike your blood sugar. Quebec’s dinner entrees often reminded me of dining in Britain’s pubs–meats stuffed in pastries and pie shells. Quebec’s passion for sweets is where I tasted France’s influence. Near Casse Crepe Breton is the “Chocolate Museum” where the air is filled with the sweet smell of freshly ground cocoa. There’s no admission to this museum; it’s two rooms. One is dedicated to the history of chocolate and the adjoining room is dedicated to being a part of that history. Go back and forth between the two and read about chocolate while eating chocolate. Here, Anna admires the chocolate sculptures.

Several blocks away up and down steep sidewalked hills (this is how french-fry loving Quebecers keep their slim figures) is le Quartier Petit Champlain, a cobblestone street of 18th century buildings lined with shops selling painted glass, souvenir T-shirts, First Nation art and memorabilia, tchotckes, jewelry, beaver skins, and handpainted silk scarves. Madame Gigi’s Confiserie is on this street, where plates of rainbow macaroons decorate the windows. I admit the colors of these macaroons were startling at first, but don’t let an extravagant neon green cookie deter you. They come in fabulous flavors like pina colada and taste just as sinful. A delicious place for a bite and a break.

Sampling one of Madame Gigi’s chocolate macaroons before getting back on the bike:

And if chocolate and pina colada macaroons fail to quell your hunger, there are less ostentatious cookies. Many are maple flavored, but Anna received some sugar dusted cookies shaped like le laupin (the hare) and le cochon (the pig). Apologies for the suggestive positioning of the cookies…they came that way.

If you’re interested, during a museum tour today about the Huron-Wendat people, I received a brochure with some recipes, including a recipe for wapiti tartare. I’m not a big meat eater, but First Nation cuisine sounds interesting. I’m stuffed now, but maybe something to try at home? Or we just find another way to make a trip up north to Wendake, which is a half hour drive north of Quebec, and see what’s cooking.

Oh, Canada!

Colonialism’s footprints run along the walls of Quebec. The streets look like Paris, yet the shops sell dream catchers, moccasins and hats made of beaver skin. The people speak French, yet vestiges of Inuit and Algonquin words linger; the city’s name “kebec” means in Algonquin “where the river narrows,” referring to where the icy serpentine that is the Saint Lawrence River narrows at a cliff where our hotel, Chateau Frontenac, stands watch and waits for guests to arrive. Designed by American architect Bruce Price, Chateau Frontenac was built to entice luxury travelers riding the Canadian Pacific Railway. More than 100 years later, it’s filled with families enjoying a break from the routine, not to mention a lovely sixth floor swimming pool that offers great views of the city skyline and of the Laurentian Mountains.

I have visited Vancouver and Toronto several times each, but never Quebec City, where this week I am enjoying maple fondue, waipiti, and poutine. I’m managing to still fit into my jeans by swimming every morning, biking along the St. Lawrence, and walking all over old Quebec, including around Quartier Petit Champlain. This neighborhood is very close to Chateau Frontenac and offers the contrasts of the Old and New Worlds. Several artists keep their shops here, but I’ll blog more Quebec’s amazing art scene later.

During our stay, we’re sampling Quebecois cuisine, and have learned “le petit dejeuner” is not at all petit: beans, toast, eggs, sausage, and pork pie. You won’t feel hungry for lunch until about 3 pm. The dinners aren’t petit either. Our menu last night at Aux Anciens Canadiens looked more like a guide to a zoo, but it was actually quite helpful since I thought “waipiti” sounded more like a colorful, tropical bird than a large, hairy cousin to the elk and moose. Since 1675, Aux Anciens Canadiens has been serving gourmet game and spirits to travelers seeking to escape the chill off the river. Come hungry and eat slowly by the fireplace.

Time to digest, from all that I’ve eaten to all that I’ve seen these last few days. More to come from this rich and fascinating city…bonsoir et a demain!