Who would have thought they speak French in Canada? I sure as hell didn’t. I also never imagined it’s so hard to get to – at least for the frugal foreigner.
Making arrangements in advance is always the cheapest way to travel, but when possibilities are spontaneous who knows when to reserve? Thus last-minute arrangements afford many unaffordable possibilities.
So there I was. Making arrangements to visit our neighbors to the north with a limited bank account and facing last-minute prices. The best (cheapest) method to reach Quebec was flying into New York and busing/training north through the beautiful Northeast Passage along the Hudson River in upstate New York.
Fall is a wonderful time to travel in places that actually have seasons. Of course San Diego’s autumn boasts the Chargers, Santa Anas, fires and ’Zonie-less beaches. But nature’s display in the Northeast is truly spectacular. In September, trees set afire in red, orange and golden dominate a horizon along the shore of the mighty Hudson.
You've got plenty of time for observation when undertaking locomotive locomotion, especially after hurricanes uproot trees and obstruct the limited lines leading north. The normal duration is around eight hours, but during the Eastern Seaboard’s hurricane season itineraries tend to get delayed. So be mindful when considering transfers.
My itinerary introduced me to the Canadian border after the sun had set. Only the light of the moon through the surrounding pine forests and an abrupt stop at the border checkpoint informed me of my international arrival.
A few hefty Canucks briefly inspected and interrogated drowsy passengers; I was apparently not much of an interest, being quickly questioned and then permitted to enter the northern land of maple syrup and hockey. “Next stop: Montreal,” the attendant alarmed, and off we went – me towards an unknown adventure, not quite expecting the attraction I now so desperately lament.
If San Francisco was scooped up out of the earth, hot-air ballooned over Europe and dropped into France you’d create Montreal. A bohemian lifestyle and laid-back hipster attitude bicycles through cobblestone streets lined with Old World basilicas, juxtaposed by Art Deco and San Fran-ish housing. Sounds confusing, but it’s actually quite pleasant. The variety of cultures and communities provide this part of Quebec something for everyone.
A large French population leaves no lack of capris and funky haircuts. Similar to Americans, many French are languid with languages and thus migrate to lingo-likewise destinations. What does this all mean? The vast majority of Quebec residents, the Quebecois, are bilingual; though I found they prefer to speak French. (Don’t worry, America, the second language of their bilingualism is English.)
Approach most Montrealers with a puzzled look in your eye and city map in your hand, and you’ll be guided with a recognizable response towards Vieux Port, Canal Lachine, Basilique Notre-Dame or whatever Frommers to-do list destination you desire.
Though I have to admit, all those jokes about the Canadian – especially with a Quebecois accent – are true. You’ll see.
Montreal is a great hub for further exploration within the Quebec/Ontario area. It lies in between Ottawa and Quebec City and both are easy day trips. I’d recommend further time spent in Ottawa, the Canadian capital. Many tour services are available that depart from Montreal towards these east/west destinations.
But while in a foreign city why not do as the locals? Though careful with the Quebecois –they’re a little strange (except Bob). Try a rideshare. Although foreign to Southern Californians, many Canadians share their rides with strangers to cut down on highway robbery; gas is even more expensive to the north. Various, easy to use, free to join and useful sites exist such as rideamigos.com and kijiji.ca; check them out and you may save a buck or two – and make a friend along the way.
Montreal is truly a surprising destination. Its European ambiance and North American attitude has matured from a history highlighted by French trappers and English loyalists. A seamless juxtaposition between cultures and styles flows throughout this harbor town unabated by time or change. A Canadian charisma allows the meandering spirit to be found in such a wonderful city.
So, if one finds him or herself the opportunity, take a friend to Montreal. Stroll the cobblestone streets of Vieux Port, drink up quaint Square St. Louis, tour the historic port on the St. Lawrence River in a rainstorm, get covered up at La Capoterie, eat all you can eat, and get lost in some really big chairs; but faire attention! You could fall in love.