Montreal, Canada – February 2000

I sit here in my toasty apartment, gazing out the window at the deep snow and the frigid pedestrians slogging to and fro and wonder why anyone would visit this fair burgh in February. The answer, aside from the esoteric for which only those oddballs deplaning icy widebodies at Dorval airport can tell, can be only one thing – the slopes!

Whether you are a skier or a snowboarder, Montreal is the place to be for downhill thrills. There are plenty of outstanding slopes within 90 minutes of the city, many even closer, and this month, guest columnist Michael Boyle is your guide to the best downhill skiing and snowboarding in and around Montreal.

Ski Montreal!

Rising out of the ocean on the east coast of the continent, there is a majestic range of mountains, extending from the mid-Southern end in a great cordillera towards the North, where it spreads out into the greatest mountain range the world has ever known. These great mountains look down on the entire earth, the snow-covered roof of the world.

Well – that was true ten million years ago. The millennia have taken their toll on the Laurentians, grinding them down, depositing them slowly into the Atlantic by way of the mighty St Lawrence River. But the mountains (or hills, depending on how generous you are) are still impressive enough to boast some fine alpine skiing. Montreal, situated as it is on an island within the great river, provides easy access to some of the best skiing in the East.

In fact, skiing in Eastern North America got its start in the Laurentians, just north of Montreal. The first mechanical lift in North America was in Idaho, but not a year later one was installed near Morin Heights, just 45 minutes from downtown Montreal. From these early beginnings has developed an extensive network of ski hills that cater to all tastes.

Montreal itself is anchored by a “mountain” right in the middle of the island, but although skiing has a proud history on Mount Royal, it is now just that – history. The ski scene around here is now centered on two distinct areas: the Laurentians and the Eastern Townships (les cantons de l’est). Because there’s so much terrain to cover, this report will focus on the Laurentians.

The Laurentians is the traditional home of skiing in Quebec. It boasts dozens of small (but challenging) hills stretching up Autoroute 15 or the old highway 117 all the way to Mont Tremblant, 90 minutes from downtown if traffic is favourable.

As you leave Montreal you’ll be hard pressed to figure out where all this winter frolic takes place – the valley stretches for a long way. Suddenly, though, the autoroute passes a truck stop called La Porte du Nord, and you’re in the mountains.

The first ski areas of note appear at exit 60 – which is the exit to the lovely town of Saint Sauveur. There are two important ski areas in Saint Sauveur – although in fact the two areas have merged, so one ticket gives you access to both. Mont Avila and Mont Saint Sauveur line the highway on the left as you travel north. The hills are pretty small, but the area is impeccably groomed and features 100% snowmaking coverage – which is very important even in frigid Quebec.

The best thing about Saint Sauveur/Avila is the night skiing. The whole mountain is lit up and open for skiing until 10:30 pm every night. If it’s not too cold, it’s a great opportunity to get a few turns in after a full day in the city, and you can be back early enough for a nightcap in front of a fireplace in the city.

Continuing north on the highway you’ll practically run into Mont Gabriel, just 10 minutes north of Saint Sauveur. Mont Gabriel is also pretty small, but boasts some of the best moguls in the area, good enough to have hosted several World Cup freestyle events over the years. Gabriel has night skiing as well, and is not usually as crowded as Saint Sauveur/Avila, so it’s a good alternative.

There are dozens more ski areas like those – and they all offer a good snow-sliding experience on well-groomed trails. And then, 90 minutes from Montreal, there’s a resort that’s nothing like them at all – Station Mont Tremblant.

Mont Tremblant opened in 1939 to great acclaim, and (along with Mt Mansfield at Stowe, in Vermont) quickly became the premiere destination for the cream of New England, Quebec, and Ontario society. It is the home of one of the world’s great ski schools – they virtually invented ski (and later snowboarding) instruction in Canada. Many of the runs are named after significant local figures – it’s a who’s who of snow sports in the area. Ryan (named after the original developer), Nansen (the polar explorer), MC Asselin (a pioneering female hotdogger, er, freestyle skier), and many more.

Unlike the smaller hills along the highway, Mont Tremblant is a real mountain. As of this season, it has 92 runs spread out over several different parts of the mountain – so you’re pretty much guaranteed to find a place on the hill that is protected from the often vicious cold. Skiers and boarders are also well protected by covered and heated lifts.

Tremblant also takes care of visitors in other ways. There’s a great mountaintop restaurant, and once you’re done for the day, you can relax in any of the cozy bars and restaurants in the bustling base village on the South side. In 1992 the resort was purchased by IntraWest, who also own Whistler and Blackcomb in BC, and they completely rebuilt the resort from top to bottom (literally – they moved the old base lodge, as-is, 100 meters away from its original location). What used to be an antiquated but cute base area has become a top-flight resort with all the amenities. There’s plenty of slopeside accommodation of all kinds, and restaurants catering to every taste and budget.

This has just been a taste of the skiing that’s available within easy reach of Montreal. If you ventured south and east instead of north of the city, you’d be in the Eastern Townships (les cantons de l’Est), which is a completely different experience – and very worthwhile as well. Also, any mention of skiing in Quebec would be incomplete without mentioning Mont Sainte Anne and Le Massif. Both are closer to Quebec City than to Montreal, but they’re both excellent mountains if you don’t mind a longer drive (just over two hours).

Links:

http://www.montsaintsauveur.com

http://www.mttremblant.com

http://www.goski.com

ed’s Cheap Eats Pick o’ The Month

Eleven years ago, when I first moved to this neighbourhood, the little blue shop on the corner of rue de Bullion and rue Napoleon was a gruff little Portuguese bakery. I had a crush on the baker’s daughter, despite the fact she was at least a dozen years younger than me and likely not yet out of high school.

In the morning I might ask for a loaf of pointy-ended Portuguese bread or a litre of milk from the ancient Duddy Kravitz-era refrigerator, and in the evening I’d be back for some crusty rolls at twenty cents a pop. The little bakery was my first introduction to this Portuguese hamlet within the larger village of The Plateau, the neighbourhood I still call home. I romanticized what it would be like to be a kid growing up here, speaking mottled French, English, and Portuguese, hanging out at the bakery and eyeing the baker’s daughter, enticing her out on cheap dates and copping a smooch in the disheveled alley out back when her father wasn’t looking.

Eleven years and five apartments later, I still live only a block away from the little shop on the corner. The bakery has long since closed, and I probably wouldn’t recognize the baker’s daughter now even if I tripped over her. The shop lay dormant for a number of years, and was eventually spruced up to be used as the set for a local television mini-series, and then a community police depot to deal with a problem with local teenage thugs of the sort that I had once romanticized.

The thugs having either matured or been jailed, the shop again fell dormant until it was taken over a year or so ago by a small empanada shop called La Chilenita (aka “La Maison des Empanadas”). Its current incarnation seems poised for a long stay, as they make, quite frankly, the best empanadas in town.

The menu consists of the staple, empanadas, available one at a time for about $2 each, or by the half-dozen and dozen. There are a few small bistro tables around if you choose to eat in, although most of the business is carry-away.

They also have a small menu of sandwiches and Mexican fare, such as quesidillas and burritos for about $4 per serving (served with nacho chips, “red sauce”, and guacamole). The sandwiches and empanadas come in a number of interesting varieties, many vegetarian, and are top quality and very fresh and tasty. You can wash it all down with a selection of South and Central American oriented drinks, including the startling Inca Cola (like drinking liquid bubble gum).

This is definitely a day place, as I’ve never seen them open after 7 or 8pm, but if you’re in the neighbourhood and want a delicious lunch for under $6, stop in for a plate of burritos, a barros luco sandwich, or a couple of empanadas washed down with a pineapple soda.

Location

152 rue Napoleon (corner rue de Bullion). (514) 286-6075.

Their original location at 4348 rue Clark (corner Marie-Anne) offers essentially the same menu but in a less charming atmosphere, although it is closer to Parc Mont-Royal, a nice place to spend the day tobogganing or cross-country skiing.

(No advertising fee was paid for this Cheap Eats blurb.)

General Info On Montreal

I could write a book just to fill this section, but here are the basics. Check this section every month for new info.

Quirky Facts

Montreal is the second largest French-speaking city on Earth (after Paris). People from Montreal are called “Montrealais”.

Geography

Montreal is actually an island. The main water frontage is the St. Lawrence River, which wraps around the west/south/east sides of the island, with a smaller river along the north shore. Montreal is about 65 km (40 miles) from the U.S. border, where the northern-most part of New York state and Vermont meet. Here’s a MapBlast! map of Montreal.

Note that when Montrealais indicate “north” they are really pointing north-west.

Accommodation

Montreal has a wide variety of hotels, from the boxy downtown “business” hotels to smaller European-style hotels. There is also a nice selection of B&B’s all over the city, most of which are charming and cozy. B&B’s tend to be in the $40-$80 price range.

Montreal also has a few interesting youth hostels, including:

The Montreal Youth Hostel (Downtown) and the really cool and eco-friendly

Alternative Backpacker’s Hostel of Montreal (Old Montreal)

Transport

You can get in from the airport using the local transit system (STCUM), but there are just enough quirks that I wouldn’t recommend it. Instead, grab an airport/downtown shuttle bus for about $10 (one way) or take a taxi, which will cost about $25.

Most international and domestic flights land at Dorval airport. Some charters land at Mirabel airport, which is a really bad idea. Avoid Mirabel, as it is more than twice as far as Dorval.

Montreal has a pretty good subway (Metro) and bus system. A single ride is $1.85 (bus drivers carry no change), but you can save a bit by buying a pack of six tickets for $8.25 (at Metro stations and some stores). You can also buy 1 and 3 day passes, or a weekly pass (around $12).

Note that daily and weekly passes can only be bought at the Berri/UQAM or McGill Metro stations, or at the downtown Info Tourism office.

Transfers on tickets are good for 90 minutes. Get your transfer as you get on the bus (or at the automatic dispenser at Metro stations). Check the STCUM website for details.

Alternatively, rent a bicycle at JR’s on the Plateau (151 Rachel, corner du Bullion). (514)843-6989. Full-day rental is about $18 (second day for $12).

Money

Canadian money comes in basically the same format as American money (dollars, divided into cents), but the Canadian dollar is worth less – roughly two-thirds of an American dollar.

Canadian money is colourful, which makes it easy to spot what a bill is worth from far away, or when it’s dark (unlike American bills, which are strangely all the same colour).

We also have $1 and $2 coins, instead of bills. The $1 coin is unofficially (but ubiquitously) called a “loonie” because of the picture of a loon on it. The $2 coin is called a “two-nie”.

All dollar values mentioned in this Montreal guide are in Canadian dollars unless otherwise indicated.

If you stay in a hostel, and eat over-the-counter food and self-cater, you can scrape by on about $25/day. Montreal, is, however, a joyous and happy place to be (particularly in summer), with loads of great pubs and bars and inexpensive restaurants, so a more realistic budget would be about $40-$50.

That assumes a dorm bed in a hostel, a couple of transit rides, a cheap slice-of-pizza type lunch, a modest dinner ($20) in a restaurant, and two pints of local microbrew in a pub. “Civilized” travellers should budget at least $100/day (B&B, moderate restaurants, etc).

Watch out for the nasty taxes we have here. Most items do not have taxes included on the sticker price, so be prepared to pay an additional 15% at the cash register. That applies to hotels, restaurant meals, and any goods you buy in a store. It does not apply to most grocery items. Beer and wine you buy in a corner or grocery store is taxable. Oddly, beer and wine you buy in the government-run “SAQ” liquor stores does include the taxes in the sticker price.

Automatic tellers (cash machines) are everywhere and are very well networked (Canada was miles ahead of the rest of the world in automatic teller banking). Most “Bureau du change” places are downtown, on rue Ste. Catherine.

Night Life

Can be cheap or expensive, depending on where you go. Imported draught beer runs in the $6/pint range. Local microbrews go for about $4.75/pint but are hard to find downtown.

On the Plateau and Quartier Latin, go for microbrew by the (60oz) pitcher if you’re with a group. Chic places will charge you about $14 a pitcher, but the truly hip places have non-stop specials in the $8-$10 range.

The markup on wine in restaurants is high, so keep an eye out for bring your own wine restaurants, particularly on the Plateau. Note that such places do not carry their own wine, so if you show up empty-handed you’re out of luck (although you can usually dash across the street for a bottle of not-bad Chilean wine from a corner store for about $10).

Tipping in Montreal is basically as follows: 15-20% on restaurant tabs. 50 cents to $1 on drinks in bars. About $1 on short taxi rides ($5 range) and about $2 on longer ones ($10 range).

Note that the legal drinking age in Quebec is 18.

Internet Cafes

Galerie Fokus, 68 Duluth east, has a small internet service.

Cyberground, 3672 St. Laurent Blvd. is an internet cafe on “the Main”, right in the middle of the action.

Centre d’affaires Montréal is farther up the Main at 4117A St. Laurent Blvd. It’s basically a business centre that has web access.

A few words about ed

Originally from the east coast of Canada, I’ve been living in Montreal for 12 years, and frankly, I think it’s the best place in Canada to live.

Despite the fact that I lose almost half of my income to taxes, the low rents and the lifestyle keep me here. Montreal is culturally diverse, hip, easy-going, affordable, politically frustrating, informed, and very much alive.

It’s the kind of place that allows me the annoying affectation of dropping the initial cap on my name (“That’s ed, not Ed”) without too many people rolling their eyes. I’m still shopping for the perfect boot.

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