Montreal: Canadians are Hard Core

My husband has been pining to go to Quebec for years, but because I am the travel planner, it has always gotten overruled by a more exotic destination. So, when he was asked to attend a two-week training in Montreal, I decided to ride his coat tails, once again, and take advantage of the company paid, downtown hotel room. Plus, it was Valentine’s weekend and what better place to spend it than in a city that is a perfect mélange of our two cultures and languages.

I know what your thinking. Who goes to Montreal in February? I spent 31 years in Detroit and could handle a weekend in Montreal. BUT I didn’t expect it to be the coldest damn winter in 20 years. Let this Buzzfeed article put things in perspective: 25 Truly Terrifying Photos of the Snow in Eastern Canada.

Not exactly motivating to get out of bed and "Carpe Diem".

Not exactly motivating to get out of bed and Carpe Diem.

We arrived late Friday night and quickly jumped in a warm taxi to our hotel. Saturday, we set out to have a hardy breakfast and do our normal marathon sightseeing. Within a block of the hotel, we realized our hats, gloves and shoes were not going to cut it if we wanted to keep our extremities. A few more blocks and the husband got desperate. I spotted a shop with more appropriate gear and we were like moths to a flame. $80 was spent on warmer hats, mittens and socks. A minor investment to protect this blogger’s typing fingers.

With a 20 degree increase in our core body temperature, we popped into a great little diner for breakfast and reevaluated our strategy for the day. I didn’t want to lose any toes so I suggested we throw in some indoor activities. The wait staff overheard us and chimed in with a couple great suggestions and detailed instructions on which bus to take. It’s true, Canadians really are so nice.

Normally, we are not museum people and would rather spend our time in a city walking around parks, districts and ports, but Montreal is the exception to the general rule. So off the Biodome and Planetarium we went.  The rest of Montreal had the same idea because the place was packed with other smart people who wanted to avoid hypothermia. Both venues were really well done, warm, indoors and worth every penny. Did I mention they were warm and indoors? We spent a few hours there and decided it would be a shame to let the jacuzzi at our hotel go to waste at a time like this. I can promise you, never has a hot tub been more appreciated.

Bundled up in Old Montreal

Bundled up in Old Montreal

We didn’t stay long because it was Valentine’s Day and we had dinner reservations at a 5-star Yelp reviewed restaurant called Santa Barbara. It did not disappoint. Situated in a quaint little residential neighborhood, the cozy restaurant had unique dishes that accommodated me (the plant eater) and my husband (the meat lover). Warm, happy and stuffed we must have forgotten the meteorological situation when we decided to take a walk through Old Montreal after dinner. The tiny streets and walkways were adorable and made us feel like we were in Europe. In about 30 seconds we were near frozen and stopped in a creperie for dessert. The price of the crepe was worth the heat, but let’s just say Montreal chefs should stick to poutine. Officially in a food coma and sick of not being able to feel my toes, we headed back to the hotel. It was one of the coldest walks of my life….until Sunday…and Monday, for that matter.

Prior to arriving in Montreal, we had read about the underground city and Sunday we set out in search of this elusive area. After several wrong turns and asking a few locals, we found what was a ginormous underground shopping mall. I was picturing Parisian catacombs and not the Mall of America, but whatever – it was indoors and warm, which was our only requirement at this time.

It was too cold to take pictures, but this one from Google captures Parc du Mont Royal perfectly.

It was too cold to take pictures, but this one from Google captures Parc du Mont Royal perfectly.

By lunch, the sun was deceiving shining and we decided when in Rome, do as the Romans do. So, cross-country skiing we went. Oh! My! Gawd! I have never been so cold in all my life. I nearly cried because the wind was so fierce and frigid. Normally, I break a nice sweat during cross-country, but I stayed frozen the whole time. However, what was most shocking was the all Canadians soaking up the snow. They were running, walking, playing, ice-skating, cross-country skiing and snow shoeing without so much as batting an eye. I will admit that the scenery was beautiful. On top of Parc du Mont Royal, we were surrounded with snow-covered trees, blue sky and views of the city below.  After a couple of hours, I had enough and wanted to teleport to the jacuzzi. Waiting for the bus was treacherous. My feet where officially white and my lips purple when we finally made it to the hotel.

Hey Girl, It's cold outside.

Hey Girl, It’s cold outside.

It’s hard to believe that Monday was supposed to be coldest day after the events of Sunday, but it was true. Preemptively, I decided we should go to the Warhol exhibit at the Fine Arts Museum. So, we waited for the bus, only to arrive and find it closed because it was a Monday. Therefore, we went to the more touristic Grevin Wax Museum. While less culturally stimulating, it was probably more fun than Warhol. With nothing indoor left to do on our list, we surrendered and spent the afternoon in the hotel jacuzzi. I was done with the cold and have no regrets.

I was ready to go home, but my Monday night flight back to Nashville was cancelled due to an ice storm in the south. One would think a travel warrior like myself might take advantage of the extra day and take in that Warhol exhibit. Nope. Slept in and went to the jacuzzi instead.

Yes, the cold was unbearable, but we still enjoyed the weekend. I loved speaking French with the Québécois and loved that when I got stuck, I could bounce back to English without missing a beat. Montreal is a beautiful North American city, but I don’t feel like I experienced it in all its glory, so I hope to return one day, preferably in July. Until then, Canadians, I salute you and your ability to endure these extreme conditions. You are hard core!

Vancouver Makes Me Sad

Vancouver makes me sad only because it was a everything I love about cities, rolled into one and I couldn’t stay. There were metros and beaches and runners and bikers and markets and fresh fish and blue skies and mountains and 70 weather with no humidity and boats and Tim Horton’s on every corner and bars and parks and kayakers and paddle boarding and dogs and dog beaches and shopping….shall I continue? I was not happy about leaving. Arriving in the city, we quickly made it to our hotel in the posh, yuppy district of Coal Harbour. A complete 180 from the roach motel we stayed in the night before. We immediately dropped our luggage and headed out for a walk along the harbor. City view on one side, Vancouver Bay and mountains on the other. Perfect. From there we stumbled into a quaint little area called Gastown where a bike race was going on. The neighborhood was packed with spectators and we parked ourselves at a bar for a while to watch. After boredom of watching bikes circle and circle, we ventured off to the most unimpressive Chinatown I’ve ever been into. Then, we ate at the worst restaurant we’ve ever ate in, something that’s become a bit of a first meal in a new city tradition. Disgusted, we walked back to the hotel through an area where I’m pretty sure I saw about 5 people who were completely high on bath salts. Strangely enough, it was just a couple blocks from our posh digs. I turned my engagement ring around and made a mental note to avoid this area.

Our backyard

Our backyard

Our neighborhood, Coal Harbour

Our neighborhood, Coal Harbour

Gastown

Gastown

The next day we used a Groupon for a Hop on Hop off bus or a HOHO, which is way more fun to say. I’ve never done on of those before and I think it’s a great thing for people who are old or have kids. We are totally fine taking the subway and paying a few dollars for the challenge of navigating a city. For $20, the HOHO is pretty pricey for able body people. We spent most of the day at Granville Island strolling the market and grazing on fruits, veggies, cheese, bread and desserts. Then we finished the HOHO tour and walked through the gay neighborhood of Davie and the cities most expensive neighborhood of West End. All of this was followed by an indulgent sushi dinner. I was falling hard for Vancouver. One of my favorite days was spent riding bikes through all the neighborhoods in the city and Stanley Park. We stopped to eat and drink often and I wondered if this is what it would be like if we lived here. Probably.

Stanley Park

Stanley Park

trailfactsThe last day was spent taking a boat and bus to Grouse Mountain to do the famous, Grouse Grind or as the locals call it, The Grind.  This is a 1.8 mile trail up the face of Grouse Mountain. The Grind’s website says, “This trail is very challenging. Keep in mind that there is a wide range of mountaintop trails that might better suit the average hiker.” Are we average hikers? I wanted to find out. So, I’m happy to report that based on the results of our hike, I’m a little more in shape than the average bear. As for Fabien, I’m having him tested for performance enhancing drugs.

The Grouse Grind is no joke!

The Grouse Grind is no joke!

A preview of the Grind

A preview of the Grind

I’m not gonna lie – it was hard. At some point, my legs were shaking so bad, I had to stop. Not to mention I was profusely sweating. However, I was doing a lot better than 90% of the people on the trail. I was pretty sure a few people were going to need a helicopter rescue. Then there were the super humans. Women and men who ran past me. One man I talked to for a while said he does it every day. You can actually get a chip that will keep your stats and compare you to the other climbers. If we lived in Vancouver, we would definitely be doing this regularly. It was an amazing workout. After a big, rewarding lunch and shower, we finished off our Vancouver adventure at a music festival followed by a yummy seafood dinner. We took the bus back to our neighborhood and it stopped in the sketchy area a few blocks from our hotel. Again, the druggies. Our flight home was at 7am and we woke up early to head to the airport. I flipped on the news and saw the report that Cory Monteith, one of the stars of Glee, over dosed on drugs in Vancouver, at the Pacific Rim hotel, which was on the very same block as our hotel. We walked passed the scene on the way to the metro and it was eerily quiet. Strangely, there were no reporters or fans yet. I’m not a fan of the show, but, of course, it’s really sad thing. Had we passed him getting off the bus when we walked through the sketchy area? Maybe. Moral of the story, say no to drugs, kids. I returned to Nashville bummed. I don’t want to hate on my city, but Vancouver is everything I love about big cities and traveling. <Insert sad face here> To check out all our photos of Canada, click here. And to read about our trip in the Rockies, click here.

Our Home and Native Land

Queue the music….

“Oh, Canada,
Our home and native land,”

And that’s all of the Canadian national anthem I know. And so I sang it….for the whole 10 days we bounced around the country. It drove my husband completely mad and he encouraged me to at least learn a few more lines while we were there. I didn’t.

In my defense, I wanted to got to Peru, hike the Inca trail and see Manchu Picchu before it closes. However, after scheming, compromising and preparing for hostels, planes, trains and automobiles in exchange for a nearly 5-figure vacation, I started looking into alternatives. Fabien chose Quebec and Montreal and I chose the Canadian Rockies and Vancouver. I won based on the fact that I do all the planning.

We flew into Calgary and quickly skipped over the city, heading straight to the Canadian hot spot of Banff. The original plan was to rent a car in Calgary and drive across country to Vancouver. That is until I found out going that direction (and not in the opposite direction) carried a one-way charge of $1,500. Clearly, Canada is smoking too much medicinal marijuana if they think I’m paying that. So, I booked a bus with a tour company, who cancelled our reservation weeks later. It was then that I realized it was cheaper to fly across country than drive. Geeze, Canada – you are a logistical nightmare. I needed a vacation after planning this vacation.

Now, I’ll stop complaining about first world travel problems and tell you about Banff. It is freaking amazing. The mountains, the air, the 70 degree weather, the blue skies, the mountain tops, hiking to the mountain tops, the rivers, the lakes, the glaciers – all of it is perfection. We spent our three days there hiking, worrying that we didn’t have bear spray and staring at a 360 view of the Canadian Rockies. My favorite afternoon consisted of seeing a ginormous elk with countless points, glacier gazing at Lake Louise and viewing the bluest water I’ve ever seen at Lake Moraine. No photo filter here, people.

Beautiful Banff

Beautiful Banff

This poor guy couldn't even get through the forest

This poor guy couldn’t even get through the forest

Lake Louise was amazing

Lake Louise was amazing

Have you ever seen water so blue? Lake Moraine is stunning.

Have you ever seen water so blue? Lake Moraine is stunning.

After three days, we rented a car and drove the 200 mile Icefield Parkway from Banff to Jasper. I purchased this great app, Gypsy Guide, that gave us a tour of the Parkway. For $4.99 we learned the history of the mountains, where the most beautiful hidden lakes were located and the best places to spot wild life. The drive took us all day because we stopped everywhere and took our time taking in the beautiful scenery. There were two main attractions of the day. The first was a 2-hour stop at the Columbia Icefield where we rode an Ice Explorer to the Athabasca Glacier and then got to walk around, take pictures and drink the pure blue water. It was really cool. And the 2nd was when I saw a bear and screamed the announcement so loud causing Fabien to slam on the brakes, bust a viscous u-turn and nearly causing a multi-vechile pile up in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t in vain because I saw two black bears and have the photos to prove it.

Amazing Peyto Lake

Amazing Peyto Lake

Glacier public transportation

Glacier public transportation

One of the world's bravest kid or the child of the world's stupidest parents.

The world’s bravest kid (or the child with the world’s stupidest parents).

By dinner time we stopped in Jasper (think Northern Exposure), ate dinner and quickly drove to a little middle of nowhere town, Hinton, to spend the night in a sleazy Econo Lodge (the only hotel for hundreds of miles). The next morning we drove through the most boring landscape on the entire planet to Edmonton where we flew to Vancouver.

To view more pics of Canada, click here.