Canadian Wanderer

Travel plans, thoughts & lessons

Month: May 2015

Merci Montréal

As often happens with my trips the planning for a visit to Montreal began many months in advance when my father mentioned the upcoming 50th anniversary of his graduating class of Presbyterian College and 150th anniversary of the college and asked if I’d to come along to see the city I hadn’t seen since childhood in the early 1970’s and despite some initial ambivalence we confirmed the early May escape on Boxing Day. As also often happens I am not sure the reasons for my early reluctance as the holiday was full of both warm weather and warm memories and was thoroughly enjoyed. Montreal 130

Given my hit & miss weather mojo I was happily surprised to digest a forecast that was unseasonably warm for the duration  of our four night visit to Montreal with daytime highs between 26 – 29 Celsius that even the locals found unusual. Having three full days to explore the city I began the first by dropping Dad at his reunion before meandering around the campus of McGill University founded by royal charter in 1821 and named for prominent Scottish merchant James McGill. Montreal 001

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As the scholastic year was winding down the McGill campus was quieter making for a little easier wandering around the institution located at the base of the mountain from which Montreal takes its name, Mount Royal. A short walk up Rue Peel leads one to the base of the park that surrounds the mountain and a quad busting set of stairs that seems to go almost straight up.  The walk is worth the weight however as the view from a plateau above the downtown is magical and worth enjoying savouring for an extended period of time.

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The pavilion that anchors the plateau houses a tourism info centre, washrooms, a large great room complete with Champlain frescoes on the walls and in one corner a small upright piano the passing player is encouraged to play. Montreal 025

Montreal 024One of the happy discoveries of this pavilion however was outside on a large patio as sturdy wooden high-back chairs were set out and so took a few minutes to enjoy the sunny day and wonderful space.

Montreal 032Heading down the hill proved much more agreeable than climbing up it and so moved on to explore more of the city by walking straight down Rue Mansfield from Mont Royal past Eaton Centre and Place Ville Marie to the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth and adjacent Mary, Queen of the World Cathedral and its façade adorned with a crowd of the patron saints of local parishes.

Montreal 155 After admiring the 19th century cathedral it was onto Vieux (Old) Montréal to walk it’s narrow cobblestone streets and admire the historic buildings. The district is where the city was co-founded in 1642 by Sieur de Maisonneuve whose regal statue inhabits the Place d’Armes that frames the twin towers of Notre-Dame Basilica, a Gothic Revival basilica dating to 1824.

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While entrance into the Basilica carries a nominal $5 fee the interior is a must-see for not only the strikingly beautiful blue coloring behind the altar but the sheer opulence in the decoration of every column and railing on up to the heavenly ceiling adorned with golden stars. The design, according to the guide on one of the free 20 minute tours in English offered throughout the day, is borrowed from Sainte-Chapelle in Paris and having been fortunate enough to have seeing its soaring stained glass walls and intricate decorations the connection fit my memory.

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notreThe stained glass windows on the upper floors interestingly do not depict biblical scenes as is typical in such a cathedral or basilica but rather scenes from the religious history of Montréal. These windows were normally left partially open but were closed after a 1978 arson fire ravaged the smaller Chapel of Notre-Dame du Sacré-Cœur directly behind the main altar and nave. A four year painstaking restoration returned the small chapel to its former glory with as detailed woodwork but a less dramatic design.

Montreal 056Hard to miss to my eye was the very modern clock attached to the column which may be there to keep the services to a timely length.

Exiting into bright sunshine on a very warm Spring day I made my way  down Rue Notre Dame a few short blocks to the Hôtel de Ville or City Hall famous for its balcony from which French leader Charles de Gaulle proclaimed in 1967 ‘Vive le Québec libre!’ (‘Long live a free Québec!’) that ignited separatist passions for decades to follow.

Montreal 063Nelson’s Column is opposite and heads the downhill pedestrian only Place Jacques Cartier that ends at the waters of the old port of Montréal which is more modern redevelopment than actual working port save for a few sightseeing boats.

Montreal 066One notable area that had be repurposed was around the clock tower overlooking the St. Lawrence River which seasonably becomes an urban beach complete with colourful blue beach umbrellas.

Montreal 079Sadly despite the exceptionally warm weather La Plage de l’Horloge or Clock Tower Beach was closed during my visit leaving the beach out of reach.

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Facing the port in a block long Classical Revival building is  the Marché Bonsecours or Bonsecours Market which had been the city hall until the newer one just up the hill was built in 1878. Designer boutiques and trendy café are the current occupants of the market and it made for a pleasant detour.

I found my memorable half day of ambling around Vieux-Montréal aided by a district map that’s worth printing and taking with you if you do find yourself visiting Montréal and that map is here.

Nearby in the downtown core is a cathedral of another sort, the Bell Centre, which is home to the Montréal Canadiens who sadly remain the last Canadian NHL team to win the Stanley Cup way back in 1993. Montreal 172

My visit happened to fall on a pivotal game day in the Habs playoff series with the Tampa Bay Lightning which saw them heading into game five down three games to one in the best of seven series. While guided tours of the building aren’t available on game days the adjacent Montréal Canadiens Hall Of Fame was open and at $9 proved a fun and interactive stroll down hockey memory lane.

Montreal 164Montreal 168There are so many interesting exhibits including the dressing room preserved from the old Montréal Forum, game-worn jerseys and equipment from the teams biggest superstars and even a few items from other plays such as Wayne Gretzky. Montreal 167

Montreal 171After leaving the temple of hockey I was in no real hurry to exit the arena district so found a corner spot at a lounge directly across and watched the pre-game while a steady stream of hockey fans descended upon the Bell Centre in anxious anticipation. After a close game the Habs eked out a narrow 2 -1 victory thanks in large part to the goaltending of Carey Price but while winning the battle they ultimately lost the war going down in game six in Tampa. On this night however I enjoyed joining the throng of jubilant fans packing sidewalks on the short walk back to my hotel knowing that while not a real Habs fan at the very least I was celebrating the success of a Canadian team.

While I somehow escaped without an obligatory taste of poutine I couldn’t miss out on a visit to Canada’s oldest deli, Schwartz’s, which dates back 80 years so made my pilgrimage on foot and arrived on the historic “Main” in the later afternoon quite hungry after a day of sightseeing.   Montreal 098

I found a stool at the long counter to perch and ordered my pastrami on rye sandwich with lean meat as it’s drier and a little less messy. In short order the sandwich arrived and was devoured while I watched others come and go and scanning the wonderfully dated décor.

Montreal 100Having been to Katz’s in New York Schwartz’s is on par for quality although much smaller inside. Definitely worth a stop though note cash is the only form of payment accepted.

For heading to several stops beyond the downtown or Vieux Montréal areas one of the better values is a $10 day pass on the Métro and put mine to good use riding out to take in the Olympic Stadium and adjacent Montréal Biodome for a morning. Montreal 108

After admiring the “Big O” from the outside we paid to enter the Biodome, a building which began as a cycling velodrome for the 1976 Montréal Olympics but was converted into an indoor nature centre in the early 1990’s with the four ecosystems found in the Americas. The tropical forest, Laurentian forest, St. Lawrence marine ecosystem  and polar areas include native plants and animals to each region from penguins to beavers, lynx to macaws and crocodiles to otters.

A few Métro stops away are the islands in the St. Lawrence, Île Sainte-Hélène and Île Notre-Dame with the former housing the Biosphere, a large geodesic dome leftover from Expo67, and an amusement park with the latter where the Casino de Montréal and famed Gilles Villeneuve F1 race track are found. The Grand Prix track is used by a slower mode of transportation, bikes, but for a week in June the asphalt comes alive with a series of races the culminates with the annual Canadian stop on the F1 global circuit.

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Having a morning free and wanting to see more corners of the city I explored the Atwater Market in the Little Burgundy area and was as taken with the 1933 Art Deco building as the explosion of colours in the rows of seasonal flowers and plants for sale from local greenhouses. Montreal 146

Montreal 154Steps away is the Lachine Canal and a bike rental and repair little cottage Ma Bicyclette who also offer city bike tours and group rides.

Wandering through the local market, sampling some of the goods and stopping for a morning coffee to briefly watch the world go by reminded me very much of European and especially French markets I’d visited in the past. Maybe it was the caffeine or the sunny day or recalling fond travel memories or a combination of all three but I left Atwater feeling pleasantly warm and very glad I’d escaped for a morning beyond the downtown core.

Montréal has so many rich neighborhoods I’d only glimpsed that I resolved to find an excuse to return and stay a little longer. Merci Montréal!




Hotel review: Holiday Inn Express Hong Kong SoHo

After staying the maximum four nights of a six night Hong Kong holiday at the Courtyard Hong Kong at a discounted travel consultant room rate rather than pay the much higher regular rate I opted to move for my last two nights to another hotel that proved a pleasant surprised in several ways, the Holiday Inn Express Soho.

This 264 room hotel is in a 38 storey building in Sheung Wan on Hong Kong Island and contrary to its name is not in the trendy and hip neighborhood of SoHo (South of Hollywood Road) though it is a short walk away as are other areas for commerce and nightlife including Central and LKF (Lan Kwai Fong). My taxi driver was unfamiliar with the hotel though luckily a bellman at the Courtyard helped interpret the location once I’d provided a street address and we were pulling up on the small side street in front of the hotel a short time later. It’s not a bad idea to have the street address handy when hopping in a Hong Kong taxi especially if it’s written in both English and Cantonese.

What had attracted me when planning this Chinese New Year escape was the value of redeeming some banked IHG Rewards Club points and USD$70 per room per night which considering the peak season of my stay was a tremendous value. Upon check-in I was assigned a Standard Double room 2506 which offered a good view looking toward Victoria Harbour and Kowloon though sadly it was shrouded much of the stay in low clouds, fog or haze. The comfy chair next to the window makes for a relaxing spot to soak in the view. Hong Kong February 2015 288

The room had a definite utilitarian rather than luxury feel but everything was well laid out and worked well so happily traded form for function. The door had a sensor so waiving your room key in front of it was enough to access your room which could come in handy if your hands were full. The card is inserted into a slot to activate the room lights and temp. controls but also drapes that automatically close to keep the room cooler saving on cooling costs though they can be worked manually also. The bed had a choice of soft or firm pillows and was quite comfortable.
Hong Kong February 2015 289The bathroom while on the smaller side functioned well enough for one person having just enough vanity space and a spot to hang my toiletries bag from the towel rack. The shower stall is quite large and has an adjustable shower head that if set up high enough can be made to seem like a fancy rainfall shower head like those found at more expensive hotels. Good water pressure and fairly quick time to get hot water.

A little mini-fridge was found behind a door under the luggage rack next to the closet though double check if using it as mine wasn’t turned on likely as another energy saving strategy. The safe is big enough for a laptop or iPad and is far enough below the clothes hangars so you don’t have to move clothes aside to open or close it.

Hong Kong February 2015 287A decent selection of TV channels in several languages was available on the wall-mounted flat screen TV and helped make for a nice room with good user-friendly features.

There is what’s called a “great room” with internet access and PC’s available on the third floor and I liked that with my room key I could access this space to check out weather forecasts or send a quick email home.

The hotel loyalty program award stay included breakfast and I took advantage of this inclusions one morning but it was fairly standard buffet breakfast fare of sausages, scrambled eggs, toast and some fruits with juice and coffee so had a quick bite before heading out for a days sightseeing. The restaurant was fairly crowded with what seemed like mainland Chinese visitors so finding a seat wasn’t easily I managed to jump on an empty spot and hold it despite the interest of a few other diners.

If there was one curious encounter it was when I returned from my first full day of sightseeing late in the afternoon, around 5PM, to find my room hadn’t been done yet which wasn’t too surprising as I passed the housekeeping staff in the hallway. I opted to hang the ‘Do Not Disturb’ sign on the door and left after about an hour. I was asked by staff who were still on the floor if I wanted my room made up but as I was checking out the next day told them not to bother as it was okay with me for one more night. In my travels however 6 PM is kinda late to have housekeeping still making up rooms but not sure if this is common or a one-time thing this particular day.

Overall however this little hiccup was not something that seriously impacted my stay at the Holiday Inn Express Hong Kong SoHo and would return here again if in Hong Kong as the hotel is a good value and in a convenient, central location within a 5 minute walk to a major thoroughfare and MTR station hotel offers good location and decent value, though were I not staying on points might not pay to stay at the regular room rate which while I know is comparable to other hotels in Hong Kong seems on the high side for a moderate Holiday Inn Express.




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