Hopping across the Pond to Canada, we thought what better way to explore the grand city of Montreal than by climbing the 233-metre Mont-Royal, for which the place is named?
A protuberance at the end of the street and the city’s winter playground, Mont-Royal hovers over the city much like Arthur’s Seat towers over Edinburgh.
Montreal’s wintry scene is imbued with a pronounced Gallic flavour. As a prelude to the main event, a ramble around the charmingly atmospheric Vieux-Montreal, the Old Town, is just the ticket. The cobbled paving will tone your muscles and the proliferation of pretty French eateries both tempt the visitor and enhance the Parisian ambience, transformed by a gentle snow blanket into an impressionistic Monet canvas.
You can roam the winding lanes, drinking in the atmosphere and then, to escape the chill, a pit stop is suggested at the boutique Nelligan Hotel. Here you can sip a latte or herb tea in front of the welcoming fire. Alternatively, the lunch menu in its plush restaurant overlooking the main street bustle is exceptional value While the Parc du Mont-Royal is a year-round walker’s paradise, it is most alluring in winter garb and a day or two should be set aside for the various rambling and associated activities within its 494 acres.
Designed by Frederick Law Olmsted of New York Central Park fame and inaugurated in 1876, it’s visible and easily accessible from much of downtown.
Following an overnight deposit of the white stuff, our approach took us past some handsome period stone houses before reaching Chemin Olmsted, which offered a serpentine gradual ascent and delivered us to the best summit viewpoint, the Chalet du Mont-Royal.
More a greystone villa than a wooden chalet in the Swiss sense, this is fronted by a huge piazza (imagine a smaller-scale Vatican Square coated lethally in a layer of ice) with a semi-circular balustrade, the Kondiaronk Belvedere, at the far end. And what a view! All Montreal laid out before us – the Olympic Stadium with its leaning tower, the St Lawrence Seaway flowing towards Quebec City and the skyscrapers (yes, Montreal has these too, although not as tall as, say, New York’s).
We lounge in the lee of the chalet, feeling the warmth of the sun on our faces and suspending our belief in the thermometer’s cold truth, then follow a gorgeous snow path, the sun peeking through the encircling tracery of hoar-frosted branches. Here and throughout the summit expanse, walkers cheerfully share the paths with cross-country skiers and snowshoers.
Further on, there’s tubing, a toboggan run and even a short ski slope – the snowfall has spawned a hive of activity. If, at this juncture, your limbs are aching and your body requires defrosting, then you’ve timed it to perfection.
Maison Smith, built for a Boston merchant in 1858, is an attractive location to break your walk and its snug Café des Amis offers comforting home-made soups and inventively fresh sandwiches. The path continues around Lac des Castors, frozen and glinting, to the lively skating rink at Le Pavillon, atmospherically attired in its seasonal best.
On a snowfall “white-out” day, we visit the Montreal Holocaust Memorial Museum, an overview of the rise and implementation of Nazism, where exhibits include “J”-stamped identity cards, yellow clothing stars and inmates’ suitcases, often linked directly to personal histories and survivor testimonies. The museum’s ethos, to “reflect on the destruction caused by prejudice, racism and anti-Semitism”, is something the world sorely needs.
You can also spend a full day at the Olympic complex, ascending the world’s tallest inclined tower and visiting the Biodome indoor zoo, planetarium and botanical gardens.
Montreal has plenty of local pasta joints, but kosher eating is more problematical. As in Chicago, you need to travel. Le Grill, at the kosher Quality Hotel Midtown, has a varied selection of menus à la Golders Green but, while the food was delicious, the décor was dated and the ambience non-existent. Our boutique Hotel Le Crystal, however, more than compensated, with concierge Mylene embracing us as if long-lost friends.
After an active day walking and sightseeing, it was wonderful to retreat to the cosy ambience of our luxury suite. The hotel also has its own restaurant, offering an ethnic culinary experience with local artisan-sourced produce.
Finally, an evening dip under the stars in the rooftop hot tub, with gently cascading snow crystals caressing your eyelids and with far-reaching views towards the Mont-Royal, supplies the perfect ending to the holiday.
Where to stay
Barry stayed at Hotel Le Crystal in Montreal (www.hotellecrystal.com, where suites start at £130 per night with breakfast.
British Airways (www.britishairways.com) flies from London Heathrow to Montreal from £520 return.
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