Modern Montreal? It’s a chic, efficient and vibrant city that doesn’t pull its punches
I hadn’t been to Montreal for more than 30 years. I’d always wanted to go back but, to paraphrase John Lennon, life got in the way.
In 1982, as part of my degree, I’d organised a six-week work experience placement at CHOM-FM, a legendary radio station in the city that pumped out rock 24 hours a day.
We didn’t have radio stations like that in Britain back then. As a 21-year-old, it was an exciting introduction to radio in a vibrant city.
French charm: The quaint cobbles of Old Montreal, a lively touristy area of the city
Not that I did much sightseeing – I was too busy going to gigs, enjoying the nightlife and learning about radio.
I was thrilled to finally be going back to see some things I hadn’t the first time around.
My first thought was that they must have moved the airport. Previously the journey into the centre of Montreal had taken close to an hour, but here we were arriving in just over 20 minutes.
Turns out what was once the more central Dorval Airport, handling only domestic flights, has been revamped as Pierre Trudeau International. Very helpful!
Staying at the Place D’Armes Hotel close to Old Montreal was also a great help. A bank in the 19th Century, it’s now the sort of hotel for which the word boutique was invented – complete with a shower in our room big enough for six.
Passionate about sport: Two players come to blows during an ice hockey game at the Bell Centre
Its chic Suite701 restaurant was the perfect starting point for a night out. You don’t expect cobbled streets in North America, but that’s exactly what you get in Old Montreal. It’s a lively, touristy area and a good introduction to the history of the city.
For a more extensive explanation of how Montreal was founded in 1642, stroll to Pointe-a-Calliere, a national historic site housing the remains of the city’s first buildings.
It’s home to the brilliant Montreal Museum of Archaeology and History, where a multimedia show explains its French heritage.
While everyone we met was bilingual, it’s the French language that dominates and which gives the city its unique personality. As someone remarked, it’s not like being in Canada, it’s like being in Quebec.
Close by the old town is 19th Century Notre Dame Basilica, a masterpiece of Gothic Revival architecture. It’s also the place where Celine Dion got married – whom I found myself interviewing on Radio 2 a few days after I got back.
Downtown, there’s a very different scene, the modern face of Montreal I remember vividly from before. If it’s shopping you want, you’ll have no trouble finding it, both above ground and below.
The underground city was begun back in 1962 and is still a work in progress. Aimed at providing a more comfortable environment during the very cold winters, it’s a warren of shops even the locals get lost in.
Next stop the Mount Royal Park. Landscaped in the 1870s by Frederick Law Olmstead, who also had a hand in New York’s Central Park, it occupies part of the mountain that dominates much of the island on which Montreal stands.
Chic boutique: Tim stayed in the Place D’Armes Hotel (left) and visited the Pointe-a-Calliere museum (right)
It provides some wonderful views, looking north to the Laurentian Mountains, south to the St Lawrence River and east to the Olympic Stadium.
Ah yes, the Olympics. Montreal staged them in 1976 but it very nearly bankrupted the city and even our tour guide wasn’t entirely sure that the stadium had been fully paid for yet. It’s a magnificent sight, though, and easy to reach on the highly efficient metro system.
But we plumped instead for the adjacent Montreal Biodome. It offers a look at the four eco-systems of the Americas, complete with plants and penguins, all under one roof.
Montreal is sports-mad and the highlight of our trip was a visit to the Bell Centre to see the Montreal Canadiens play ice hockey. We stopped off before the game for a bite to eat at the elegantly retro Deville Dinerbar – an upmarket burger joint.
Not wishing to overdo it, we ordered salads. But these wondrous concoctions provided enough sustenance for an entire season, let alone one match against the Dallas Stars.
There was one other typically Montreal thing to do – sample ‘Poutine’. What is it? It’s chips covered in gravy with curd cheese on top.
The best place to eat it is La Banquise, a 24-hour greasy spoon of a place. They do 28 varieties – the one I tried involved extra toppings of mushrooms and bacon. I rather liked it.
With Air Canada introducing a Boeing 777 summer service on June 15, getting to Montreal will be even easier. I hope it isn’t another 30 years before I go again.
America As You Like It (americaasyoulikeit.com, 020 8742 8299) offers a four-night break to Montreal from £899, with Air Canada flights from Heathrow and B&B at the Hotel Place d’Armes.
Tim Smith can be heard every afternoon co-hosting Steve Wright In The Afternoon on Radio 2.