If there is one phrase that characterizes Quebec, it is ‘et pourquoi pas?’ The phrase, which translates to ‘and why not?’ seems to be on the tip of every Quebecer’s tongue. It is a ready response of permissiveness and tolerance, a defender of an important concept — the joie de vivre or ‘joy of living’ — that is alive and thriving in Quebec.
And no place more so than in Montreal, a metropolitan city of 2 million where anything and everything goes. ‘We don’t care if you’re straight, gay, whatever,’ says Aline Bernier, a Montreal city guide. ‘We’re very open to all people and lifestyles.’ (In 2006, both Traveler’s Digest and AskMen.com ranked Montreal as the world’s number one city to live in for its culture, architecture, history and ambience.)
That tolerance perhaps explains why Montreal is so good at welcoming visitors. Stroll down almost any street to feel the palpable city vibe. Sidewalk cafes spill over with patrons sipping coffee or glasses of wine or champagne (et pourquoi pas?), cyclists pedal along sections of the city’s 400 miles of biking trails, shoppers crowd boutiques and shops both above, and below, ground. That’s right: below ground. With 22 miles of mazes and walkways, Montreal boasts the world’s largest underground city.
Indeed, Montreal is a city of dual identities — an above ground metropolis and an underground city within a city; the French joie de vivre mixed with North American pragmatism; modern architecture (UNESCO designated Montreal a ‘City of Design’) mixed with a well-preserved historic quarter.
To put yourself in the center of it all, check in at the Intercontinental Montreal, a five-star hotel situated in the International Quarter and also linked to the Underground City. Or plant yourself at Hotel St. James. If nothing else, stop in the St. James to admire its grand architecture and perhaps take afternoon tea or a bite at XO Le Restaurant.
It’s an easy walk from either hotel to ‘Old Montreal,’ where the city was founded in 1642. (For arriving cruise passengers the cruise terminal also is located only a few blocks from the hotel and Old Montreal.) Find your way to Rue Saint-Paul, ‘the street’ where it all happens, our guide Celine tells us as we walk along the cobblestone roadway. You can drop in the Tourist Information Center or visit the official web site before leaving home for suggestions on what to see, but simply to walk and absorb the ambience is a sufficiently pleasurable experience.
Old Montreal embodies the many periods of the city’s history: the winding paths of the former French colony, 18th- and 19th-century architecture and the first Canadian skyscrapers. Architects came here from nearby Boston and other cities south of the Canadian border, so you’ll see a lot of American influence.
The center of Old Montreal is Place Jacques-Cartier, named for the explorer who founded the city. Walk to the top of the square to the monument of Admiral Nelson for superb views of the old port, then make your way down the festive sloping street past street artists, musicians, jugglers, mimes, face painters and other entertainers. Stop in a sidewalk cafe for lunch, a light snack, coffee or cocktail. Recommendations in the area include: Restaurant du Vieux Port (good and reasonably priced), or if you’re willing to spend a bit more, Auberge de Saint-Gabriel or the unique Jardin Nelson, with its beautiful gardens.
For a romantic, five-star dinner, hail a taxi for Casino de Montreal on Notre-Dame Island. Dine at Restaurant Nuances, awarded the 5-Diamond Award by the Canadian and U.S. AAA/CAA associations.
On one day of your visit, hop on a bicycle at Caroule Montreal on Wheels and ask the shop’s owner to direct you on a flat 25-mile ride along the canals. Break for lunch at Atwater Market, where you can pick up some cheese (La Fromagerie has more than 400 types of cheese from France and Quebec) and bread (from Premiere Moisson Bakery where the croissants are also tasty) and fresh vegetables. And that bottle of champagne you’re eyeing? As any Montrealer would tell you, ‘Et pourquoi pas?’