What did we do on our winter break? My wife and I took our daughter and her cousin, ages 9 and 11 respectively, due north to the land of museums, kid-friendly restaurants, and North America’s first Snow Village.
It’s called Montreal.
Montreal in winter? With kids? Well, why not? It’s a compelling multicultural destination, providing that your kids love a little adventure and all of you embrace winter in its many moods. That’s been especially easy to do this year, during the mildest Northeastern winter in decades. Winter is also when the city’s hotels offer some great deals on the rates.
The cliché is that Montreal is like a quick trip to Paris. While it may be the second largest French-speaking city in the world, Montreal is in fact an energetic hybrid, a city where 20 percent of the locals are Anglophones and the other 20 percent are busy speaking Lebanese, Syrian or Creole.
If you’re looking for a French museum piece, travel further northeast to Quebec City. I’ll take Montreal: skyscraper, brownstone and cobblestone, a bit of Boston married to Chicago with a dash of old Europe, infused with a distinctive and friendly spirit. Connect the dots with the Metro — designed by a Parisian, and later the inspiration for Washington DC’s subway – and you can get virtually anywhere. Here are 5 reasons to go.
1. Snow Village
Montreal opened the continent’s first Snow Village at Parc Jean-Drapeau in early January. It includes a 30-room ice hotel, an outdoor spa, ice bar (arguably the ultimate bar in which to watch a hockey game), ice restaurant, and even an ice chapel for marriages. Behind the front desk is scale model of Montreal’s skyline made out of ice. The lighting is an eerie blue or red show. It’s a hotel for minimalists and will be open through March. Rates start at $195 CAD per person. http://www.snowvillagecanada.com
2. Butterflies & Beavers
The Montreal Botanical Garden has a “Butterflies Go Free” exhibit that allows you to wander through its beautiful and well-curated greenhouses into a vast and airy room where the plants are designed to attract butterflies and nearly 2,000 of them oblige. If they land on your shoulder or arm, so much the better (orange, red and yellow seem to be the killer colors).
Across the street, in the shadow of the still fantastical Olympic Stadium, which looks like something out of Fahrenheit 451, is the Biodome de Montreal. Here are four distinct eco systems of the Americas, complete with plants, water, and animals. We liked watching the beloved beavers, found all over Canada, from under water, a perspective you never see on any lake. In the Arctic environment, it was puffins and penguins that were the stars. Think of this as an indoor zoo crossed with an aquarium and a botanical garden. Both are accessible via the Pie-IX Metro Station.
3. Le Menu
It’s hardly news that kids can be notoriously picky eaters, but I prefer to think of them as narrow grazers. In other words, they will happily eat as long as you present them with a few choices. On our first night, we chose Wienstein & Gavino’s, a two-story loft like space on Crescent Street, which bears a passing resemblance to Restaurant Row in Manhattan’s Theater District. In this darkened, lively space, we found a menu heavy on salads, pizza, and pasta, efficient service, lots of locals including students from nearby McGill University, and prices that did not break the bank.
Throughout our visit, we loved Premiere Moisson, a great Quebec take out chain for pastries and finely crafted salads and sandwiches, ideal for lunch and the drive home.
On another night, we raised the bar, the girls dressed up, and we booked the last table at L’Express, a boisterous Paris-style bistro right down to the harried, aproned waiters bearing plates of marrow and bottles of Burgundy. I’ve always loved this place, with its bright lights against red lacquered walls and the background music a racket of clanging knives, forks, glasses and voices. There were couples speaking in hushed tones over champagne, friends post-work out for a good time, and a handful of families angling for the jar of cornichons that festoons every table. It was a Monday but it was as busy as a Saturday and our waiter noted that Monday night is when Montreal’s chefs and kitchen staff gather for food and shop talk at L’Express. It was not unlike spending the evening in a friendlier version of the 6th arrondisment. Naturally, the kids bypassed most of the typical bistro fare – foie gras, salmon, and duck — in favor of that proverbial bistro favorite, steak frites. This serving of the perennial crowd pleaser was laden with enough frites so that two adults could purloin a few without an uproar.
4. Staying with the Queen
In the heart of downtown, hovering above the Central Station, is the vast 1,037 room Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. It has all the right ingredients for a kid-friendly stay in Montreal. Start with a pool, which is essential for any mid-winter trip with kids. Add a room rate that is gentle in winter, gentle enough so that a suite becomes an affordable indulgence. Then factor in a buffet breakfast where the girls came up with combinations – try a plateful of blackberries, roast potatoes and a pain au chocolat – that defied food logic. It even made the cadre of good natured, seasoned waiters smile. I first stayed here two decades ago and I love the location, the friendly staff, and the fact that when you take the elevator to the very bottom level, you emerge into the Montreal Underground, a magical world of food shops, coffee bars and boutiques in the heart of bustling Central Station, the city’s transportation ground zero of the Underground City. Here’s a concept: you can literally get on an Amtrak train in New York’s Penn Station, travel to Montréal, and take the elevator to the Queen Elizabeth hotel above without stepping outside. That’s my idea of winter travel.
On the same floor as our 17th floor room was the suite where John Lennon and Yoko Ono had their Bed In for Peace in 1969. Here they held court and composed and recorded “Give Peace a Chance,” in a crowded room filled with a motley chorus that included Tommy Smothers, Dr. Timothy Leary, Petula Clark, and members of the Radha Krishna Temple. A month later, it hit 14 on Billboard’s chart. This was considerably more interesting to me than the girls, who found it far more fascinating that with a well-timed jump in the elevator on the way to the 17th floor, they could get air. Visit Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth. Doubles from $139 CAD.
5. Notes from the Underground
Every kid loves the idea of exploring an underground city that seems hidden from the world above and Montreal is the kingdom of underground life. Some 20 miles of tunnels are spread out over about four and a half square miles, connecting apartment buildings, malls, shops and the Central Station. The girls and I took the elevator down to the train station and walked through the hallways of the Underground City to the Atrium Le 1000, where we skated on the indoor rink under a multi story ceiling. There may be no better way of experiencing the winter spirit of Canada than ice skating in Montreal. If you have a Canadiens jersey to wear, or can twirl effortlessly in the center of the rink, so much the better.