Montreal summers are memorable and magical. Terraces fill up with pretty people, there’s music on the streets and everyone acts just a wee bit frisky. So, since moving to Toronto a few years ago, I’ve avoided winter in my former hometown. I admit it. I’d become a fair-weather friend who only visited during the halcyon days of June through August. But a recent mid-winter visit has me eating my toque! It turns out I’d forgotten what true-blue Montréalais know better than anyone: when the temperature drops, there are far fewer tourists and the city’s je-ne-c’est-quoi is in full franglais force. Here’s what you definitely shouldn’t miss on your next winter visit:
The latest addition to the Antonopoulos Group’s line of lovely places to lay your head (they also own Hôtel Nelligan, the Place d’Armes, Auberge du Vieux-Port and Le Petit Hôtel), William Gray, sits in one of the most picturesque parts of Old Montreal with spectacular views of the fleuve. Set in two historic 18th century buildings with a modern annex, rooms have hardwood floors, plush beds and floor-to-ceiling windows. Mile End’s Café Olimpico opened its second location here and you can get up close and personal with locals sipping café au lait at the communal table in the library lounge (the book collection was carefully curated by Drawn & Quarterly). You’ll be hard pressed to leave, but if you must, the hotel’s Lexus car service will take you anywhere you want to go in the downtown core.
William Gray’s Maggie Oakes resto is the complete opposite of touristy. Filled with natives, it was positively buzzing on my Friday night visit. This vegetable-forward steakhouse serves dry-aged steaks and house-cured charcuterie alongside sweet potato ”manicotti”, Quebec snow crab, and pan seared salmon gravlax. For eye candy (aside from the pretty locals, of course) there’s a living wall where chef Derek Bocking plucks fresh micro-greens, and the historic Place Jacques-Cartier is right outside the door. Burn off your dessert s’mores by taking a few turns on the rink at nearby Bonsecours Basin (they rent skates), and then head back to the Maggie Oakes bar for a nightcap.
Off The Hook
Why venture outside when there’s a fab boutique right inside the hotel? The old Montreal outpost of downtown’s Off The Hook stocks urban, locally-designed pieces like Je Parle Feministe sweatshirts from La Montrealaise Atelier, raw denim skinnies from Naked & Famous, and Chez Nous tees featuring some of the city’s unsung ‘hoods like Villaray and Laval.
While hazy picnics at the Tam-Tams are de rigueur on summer Sundays, there’s nothing quite like exploring Mount-Royal in the depths of winter. While maybe not as sexy as a sunny terrace in July, Fitz & Follwell offers cool urban snow tours that are great for exploring. There’s a foodie trip through Mile End, a tour of Montreal’s underground city, and kick-ass tubing and snowshoe treks (with hot chocolate breaks, of course). Best of all, there’s no need to pack a parka when Fitz & Follwell can rent one to you, along with snow pants, boots and wooden sleds (from $15/day).
Spa Bota Bota
Spa-sur-l’eau in the middle of a deep freeze? Hell, yeah. Set on a former ferry boat, Bota Bota spa is 25,000 square feet of complete and utter heaven. Soak up panoramic views of the Old Port from the massive outdoor hot tub followed by a frigid plunge in the cold pool. Take a eucalyptus steam or sauna, and then a fireside nap in the spa garden. There are massages and facials to be had, as well as plenty of wine in the spa resto (helmed by a Michelin-starred chef, no less.)
Montreal, je t’aime encore.