By Katherine Bielawa Stamper
There’s a chill in the air. Maples and oaks reveal bits of orange and red, hinting at the fiery blaze of color to come. Geese fly overhead, bodies leaning southward. Summer has begun her slow departure, like a tide gently receding out to sea. Soon, snow will fly as Vermont settles in for its longest season.
Why do I point this out? Because, there’s still time for a road trip or two before highways ice over and travel assumes a more arduous pace.
My internal compass points to our neighbor to the north—Canada—and zeroes in on two majestic, yet decidedly different cities: Montreal and Ottawa. Each offers an easy weekend getaway.
Montreal, at 100 miles away, is a two-hour ride plus crossing time at the U.S.-Canadian border. All one needs is an enhanced license or a passport. It’s an easy ride via two-lane roads and highways before crossing the Champlain Bridge into this French-accented city of 1.7 million people.
My family discovered Manoir Ambrose on Stanley Street about 15 years ago when we realized that “day trips” into Montreal were a little too wearying for our then-toddler. This small, European-style hotel doesn’t offer a pool or sauna. However, it does offer Victorian charm, friendly staff and a great downtown location providing easy access to exploring this gem of a city. Tucked on a quiet block near McGill University and Mount Royal, we appreciate the cozy rooms and French- and English-language newspapers available each morning. When our daughter was little, she sometimes came to breakfast dressed in pajamas or a ballerina dress-up costume, garnering friendly smiles from staff and guests alike as she munched on croissants.
We discovered that driving around Montreal can be stressful. Ditching our car (i.e., leaving it at the hotel) is our modus operandi. Sidewalks, walking paths, bicycle paths and a clean and modern subway make the city entirely navigable.
Some of my favorite places to visit in Montreal:
Mount Royal Park. Designed by acclaimed landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, this 500-acre park inaugurated in 1876 is among Montreal’s largest green spaces. Trees, grass, ponds and pastoral views soften what is otherwise a traditional urban landscape. Paths are suitable for walking and running. Expansive shaded areas invite visitors to picnic and even nap.
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The museum is presently hosting a special exhibit by Dale Ghihully, the extraordinary, American-born glass artist. You have to see it to believe it. His works are utterly fantastical. I call them “eye candy.” The exhibit runs through Oct. 20. The permanent collection is also well worth a look.
Old Montreal. Cobbled streets lined with 17th and 18th century stone edifices assume a decidedly European flavor. With a lovely promenade running along the St. Lawrence Seaway, this oldest part of Montreal invites visitors to wander. A walk along St. Paul Street reveals a plethora of art galleries while the impressive 19th century Bonsecours Market offers up boutiques, restaurants and space for exhibitions. When in Old Montreal, a welcoming café is always nearby.
Montreal Botanical Gardens. Trust me. These are among the most beautiful botanical gardens you will ever see on Planet Earth. Vegetables, flowers, fruit, deciduous and fir trees, arctic alpine, Chinese and Japanese gardens with pagodas and ponds stocked with big, fat orange carp—they are all there for your sensory pleasure. We pack a picnic and books, wander the gardens a bit, and then tuck ourselves away to read and relax amid nature’s “eye candy.”
Jean-Talon Market. Whatever your gastronomic pleasure, you are sure to find palette-pleasing items in this outdoor cornucopia featuring local fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, breads and ethnic foods. Montreal’s multiculturalism is on display as one wanders past Italian, Polish and Moroccan bakeries. Fruit and vegetable vendors ply their trade offering interesting edibles that I’m often at a loss for identifying. I like to go the fromagerie (cheese store) to ask for the most aromatic local cheese they have to sell. I’m also a sucker for what I call, “squeaky cheese”—cheese curds sold in little bags near the register. It actually squeaks when you eat it. Ground cherries—small bits of sweetness wrapped in natural casing like a tomatillo—are ripe for the buying and eating. Then, there are the desserts.
Sometimes there is more to say than column space allows. I suppose this counts as my first “serial” column as I’ve run out of room to write about Ottawa. Please stay tuned for a piece on Canada’s capital in two weeks. In the meantime time, plan that day or weekend trip to Montreal.