48 Hours in Montreal

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 13 June, 2000, 12:00am

Why go now? Winter is dead and the wake will last all summer with world-class festivals (jazz, theatre, comedy, film, dragon boats, beer), a Grand Prix and enormous amounts of sun block-slathered flesh.

Beam down. There are no direct flights to Montreal from the SAR. Air Canada has daily afternoon flights to Toronto with connections to Montreal.

Get your bearings. Montreal is a 494 square kilometre island in the St Lawrence seaway, bisected north/south by Sherbrooke Street (1) and east/west by St Laurent Avenue (2).

Historically, east of St Laurent was French speaking, west of St Laurent was English speaking, and St Laurent itself was the Jewish quarter.

Over the years, most Jewish people have moved and the English/French divide has softened.

If you stick to well-trodden tourist routes, you should be able to get by just fine in English, but should you feel like straying, make sure you have a phrase book handy.

Check in. The grand old dame of Montreal hotels is the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, 900 Rene Levesque Blvd W, (3). This is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono gave peace (and sleeping-in) a chance. If you like to avoid world leaders and French film stars, consider Hotel de Paris (4), 901, rue Sherbrooke East, (001 514 522 6861), a small, comfortable, central hotel with everything from budget rooms to suites with kitchenettes. And, if you're really broke, try (5) Hostelling International Montreal, 1030 Mackay Street, (00 1 514 843 3317).

Take a hike. Montreal is a port city and has been since the Europeans first arrived with a cargo full of trinkets and a greedy gleam in their eye. The area (6) around the first docks (the Old Port) has recently been revamped and a walk along the port offers in-line skating, jet-skiing, cruises, biking and an Imax cinema. From there, you can amble through the Old City (7), at 357 years old a veritable dinosaur by North American standards. It offers narrow flagstone streets, historical museums and a few splendid churches. And, yes, the trinkets are still available.

Window shopping. Forget shopping in New York. With its vast underground city of interconnecting malls and sense of style, Montreal combines quality with quantity in a weather-defying temple to consumerism. After you have shopped your way around the city, be sure to get your tax back (around 15 per cent). If you spend more than C$200 (about HK$1,200), take your receipts, the goods, your credit card, photo ID, your address, and evidence of how you will leave Canada to (8) the Maple Leaf office at the Eaton Centre on Sainte-Catherine and University. Or just call (00 1 514 847 0982).

An aperitif. St Laurent Avenue (aka The Main), north from Sherbrooke Street, is the place to go for everything from cappuccino to cocktails. The range of places to see and be seen in is staggering. Waves of immigration and recent gentrification have produced a street that offers everything from Bulgarian delis to ultra-trendy discos. In most cases people are friendly and the area is considered a demilitarised zone in the French-versus-everyone-else tensions. Friday night dancing (9) at the Portuguese-owned Bar St-Laurent (5550 St Laurent, 00 1 514 273 2359) is a must.

Demure dinner. There are enough top chefs in Montreal to sink any diet. One of the best places to dine is (10) Restaurant Chez Chez (1402 de l'Eglise, Saint Laurent, 00 1 514 744 0590), a romantic French restaurant.

If you prefer cheap, fattening food served by sullen waiters, the old Montreal stand-by is (11) Schwartz's (3895 St Laurent, 00 1 514 842 4813) in the cholesterol-clogged heart of The Main.

Sunday brunch. Traditionalists head to (12) Beauty's Restaurant (93 Mont Royal West, 00 1 514 849 8883) for freshly squeezed orange juice and pancakes with maple syrup. Traditionalists of a different sort head to (13) Chinatown (St Laurent Avenue) for dim sum.

A walk in the park. The Botanical Gardens (14), out in the East End (near the spaceship-esque stadium left over from the 1976 Olympics), is second in the world only to Kew Gardens. It even has an insectarium with occasional insect tastings. Just across the road is the Biodome (15), a spectacular indoor wildlife park/aquarium/ecosystem. The Botanical Gardens and Insectarium is at 4101 Sherbrooke East (00 1 514 872 1400) and the Biodome is at 4777 Ave Pierre-de-Coubertin (00 1 514 868 3000).

Take a ride. Ever want to take a cruise in the comfort of your own bus? Well, now you can. The Amphi-bus (00 1 514 849 5181) will drive you around the streets of Montreal and then right into the St Lawrence River.

Cultural afternoon. Just across the river, 15 minutes south of Montreal, is the Kahnawake, home to the Mohawks. Very much a living community, throughout the summer the Mohawks offer activities to help visitors learn more about native Canadian culture.

The Old Indian Village puts on daily exhibitions of songs, dances, arts and crafts (00 1 450 638 6521). There is also a good dinner show that includes traditional food and dance (00 1 450 638 9699), and guided walks (answerphone: 00 1 450 635 7289).

Icing on the cake. Montreal is not so much cake and icing as bagels, cream cheese and lox; fresh, oven-cooked bagels, cream cheese and fresh smoked salmon.

Graphic: mont13GFA