This handsome city that sits on an island in the St. Lawrence River combines Quebec City's Gallic charm and Toronto's bustling elan with a distinctive French-English cultural vitality that can border on the infectious.
And yet, many visitors compare Montreal to San Francisco, with both having scenic hills overlooking lots of watery vistas, crisp weather and great restaurants, plus a free-wheeling outlook that borders on nuttiness at times.
Poor navigation had a lot to do with Montreal's settlement, since Jacques Cartier was looking for a new sailing route to China when he ran afoul of the St. Lawrence River's local rapids (still called "China Rapids") and pitched camp here in 1536.
Religious zealots from Paris, bent on converting Indians to Christianity, were the first permanent settlers.
Yet this slim cadre was made up of 48 men and only five women, soon to be followed by an entire regiment of French soldiers, which obviously created a male-female imbalance.
Impassioned pleas from the colonists soon caused King Louis XIV to send his first group of Les Filles du Roy--"the king's young ladies" of marriageable age and "morally upright character," who soon became brides, pitched right in and helped create the town.
How long/how much? Any visitor should block out at least two full days for this city, perhaps another two for day trips north to the villages of the Laurentians and Mont Tremblant (about an hour's drive), or to the equally fetching lakes and hamlets of the Eastern Townships, another hour across the river to the east. With our favorable exchange rate against Canada's dollar, food and lodging costs weigh in as very reasonable.
Getting settled in: A brand-new addition to mid-town Montreal is the Hotel Arcade, stark modern and owned by the French Wagon Lits company of railway fame. Bedrooms are on the small side but bright and fresh, showers only (no bathtubs), TV in all rooms. Breakfast and dinner is served only in the buffet bar and restaurant. Free parking beneath the hotel.
Even newer than the Arcade and just as convenient to the best mid-town shopping and scads of restaurants, Hotel Journey's End has generous-size bedrooms and most big-hotel amenities. A distinct addition to the hotel is its No Name restaurant and bar-deli off the lobby, which has a menu of simple dishes that spans the globe and the friendliest of prices.
Chateau Versailles had its genesis in four stately Edwardian mansions on Montreal's most prestigious mid-town boulevard of smart shops, antique dealers, hotels and galleries. Many of the 70 rooms and suites have their original fireplaces, elegant period decor and the Old World ambience of a small European hotel of great class. Breakfast only here.
Regional food and drink: Montreal claims to be the gastronomic capital of Canada, thanks to its deft treatment of classic French and provincial Quebecoise dishes. They also take great pride in the fact that smoked meats made their first Canadian appearance here and soon became a town addiction.
Pea soup, a serious rival to the Dutch version, was one of our favorites, cabbage soup a close second. Tourtiere pies of minced pork and tender leeks find their way onto many menus. Seafood and seasonal game are local favorites, and duck prepared in apple brandy is a dish long to remember.
With the emphasis on French cuisine, wine selections are usually very good. Unfortunately, it almost always costs an arm and a leg, but many restaurants take the sting out with a BYOB policy.
Dining well: Two visits to Le Caveau (2063 Rue Victoria) have convinced us that this is one of mid-town's most appealing dining spots. Billing itself as a bistro, with French-countryside decor, it still strikes us as having the warm and intimate feeling of a private club.
Try the tournedos of salmon with chive butter, shrimp with homemade pasta in a saffron sauce, rack of lamb or the marvelous roast quail. Expect to pay about $16 for a main course, $5 for an entree such as a cassoulet of snails in a sorrel sauce or lobster bisque. Apples in a bushel basket by the entrance are free.
Gibbys (298 Youville Square), in the colorful inner courtyard of Youville Stables, dates to 1740 with beams and fixtures from the period. Primarily a steakhouse, Gibbys has an extensive menu spanning everything from mussels, frog legs Provencal and fresh Atlantic salmon to a lineup of a dozen steaks and chops. Look for a check of about $20 per person.
Les Filles du Roy (415 Bonsecours) is on one of Old Montreal's original streets near the Bonsecours Chapel, and was founded in 1657 by the local matron who oversaw the training and deportment of more than 1,000 of the young women sent from France. Waitresses still scurry about rooms of this 18th-Century mansion in the long dresses and mobcaps favored by the king's young ladies.
Scan the menu for game pates, caribou in puff pastry, roast salmon and other typical dishes of the 17th and 18th centuries, the restaurant's specialty. Many locals dine in this handsome old house, particularly for the $12 Quebecois brunch on Sundays.
Going first-class: Montreal's Ritz-Carlton Hotel is one of Canada's finest, from its old-fashioned ironwork marquee at the entrance to the Empire lobby, paneled bars and lounges, spacious and elegant bedrooms.
The hotel's Cafe de Paris dining room carries on the formal atmosphere, mixing in a few Delft tiles and window views of the garden, which is used for summer dining under colorful awnings. Food, service and wine list are first-rate, prices steep.
On your own: Anyone who has seen Luciano Pavarotti's yearly televised Christmas concert before the magnificent iridescent-blue altar of the neo-gothic Notre Dame Basilica would certainly wish to head there to reprise the sight, if not the music. Notre Dame's interior, much of it in wood, is medieval in style, and stained-glass windows depict scenes from the city's history rather than Biblical events.
Plan on an hour or so walking the streets of Vieux Montreal, enjoying the architectural ensemble and keeping your eye out for the city's dozen neighborhood markets, particularly those of Saint Jacques, Maisonneuve and Atwater. Montreal's Botanical Garden is considered among the world's top three, along with London and Berlin, and includes a Japanese Garden Pavilion (run by the city's Japanese community) that contains Zen, tea and bonsai gardens, and a teahouse where you may experience the formal tea ceremony and break your visit with a soothing cup.
GUIDEBOOK: Affordable Montreal
Where to stay: Hotel Arcade (50 Blvd. Rene Levesque, $52-$69 double); Journey's End (3440 Ave. du Parc, $70 double); Chateau Versailles (1659 Sherbrooke St. West, $88-$93 double); Ritz-Carlton (1228 Sherbrooke St. West, $228-$292 double).
Fast facts: Canada's dollar was recently worth about 90 cents U.S., stretching our dollar's value to about $1.10 up there. Montreal's weather gets tolerable about the end of April and stays that way through late October.
For more information: Call the Quebec Visitors Office at (800) 363-7777 for a 144-page booklet on Montreal that lists hotels with prices, sights, attractions and a city map. A map of Quebec Province will be included.