We arrived in Montreal on the morning of May 26th and I was soon ashore, beginning my private tour courtesy of Tourisme Montréal. My guide’s name was Rene and he met me promptly in the terminal building at 9:30am.
We were soon on our way out of the port and into the Old Town. We quite literally went all over the city, but one place I really wanted to explore was Saint-Laurent Blvd.. So, off we went to see some of the giant mural street art paintings that are part of a larger festival held here. I found several on our drive and they were hugely impressive, especially the giant image of Leonard Cohen which adorned one side of a building.
After taking some snaps of the artwork, we made our way towards Le Village, one of the largest gay areas in all of North America. There are more than 100,000 coloured balls tied above the street and it was certainly an impressive sight to see, especially from above, as we crossed the bridge and made our way to the small island where the Grand Prix is held. We drove around here for a few minutes, even spotting a small fox, before driving back into the main city via Habitat 67.
This housing complex is rather impressive, and it was designed by Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. It was conceived as his master’s thesis in architecture and then built as a pavilion for Expo 67. It’s considered an architectural landmark and in 2017, Canada Post issued a commemorative stamp for the 50th anniversary of Expo 67 featuring Habitat 67. Honestly, I couldn’t decide if I liked it or not. Apparently, the pods, as they call them, are quite expensive and people often buy 2 or 3 to make their living space larger.
Downtown was our next stop and what a contrast it was to the Old Town. Lots of skyscrapers, more impressive artwork and a much busier vibe. I liked the contrast and it was nice to see the two very different sides to the city. In Montreal, by law, no building can be taller than Mount Royal. This is to preserve the aesthetic predominance of the ‘mountain’. The downtown area is home to Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Bell Centre and more. It’s also where you’ll find the world’s largest underground city, with indoor access to over 1,600 shops, restaurants, offices, businesses, museums and universities, as well as metro stations, train stations, bus terminals, and tunnels that extend all over downtown. Essentially, in the bitterly cold winter months, you can spend most of your day underground and hidden from the harsh environment above. It’s pretty remarkable.
Lunch was at La Banquise and it was my first authentic poutine experience. For those of you that don’t know, poutine is fries with gravy and cheese curds. It was delicious and you could add various other toppings, including smoked meat, hot dogs, peppers and onions, but I went for the traditional offering. The cheese had an odd texture, it squeaked when you chewed it. It’s not for everyone, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. This restaurant is open 24 hours and I’d highly recommend it. It was busy when I arrived, but by the time I left the queue was out the door. La Banquise is near La Fontaine Park on Rachel Street East.
In the afternoon, I visited the Observatoire at Place Ville Marie. I’d read about it before leaving on the cruise and although I’m terrified of heights, I decided it had to be done. The views were incredible, 360 degrees across the city. In fact, from one side, we could see the state of New York. I’d absolutely suggest doing this if you’re ever in Montreal. There are numerous information points on the observation deck, and you can also have an audio guide, so you can learn about some of the history of this incredible city whilst taking in the panoramic views. I’d mentioned St Lawrence Blvd. earlier and this is the city’s physical division between the French-speaking East and the English-speaking West, which can be seen from the tower.
I had planned to return to the Observatoire in the evening, but instead opted to go on a long walk through the city. I walked for around 45 minutes to an hour towards the east. I was trying to explore more at ground level and with the option to go off in any direction that seemed interesting, we had all night in port after all, so why waste the opportunity. I stopped for a drink before walking back to the port, again through various little quaint streets and alleyways, before arriving back to the welcome sight of ‘home’.
On our second day in Montreal, I made my way to the Notre-Dame Basilica, which was virtually opposite the ship. I arrived just before 10am and queued for no more than 5 minutes before paying $8 for my ticket and entering what I can only describe as one of the most incredible pieces of architecture, inside and out, that I’ve ever been lucky enough to enjoy. It was magnificent. It was quite busy, but not to the point where you couldn’t get moved or have a chance to take a few nice photographs and sit for a while to simply admire what was around you. The basilica was built between 1824 and 1829 and it truly is a masterpiece piece of Gothic Revival architecture. The basilica’s interior, which is reminiscent of Paris’s Sainte Chapelle, is the work of architect Victor Bourgeau.
The basilica is just incredible, but aside from the marvellous altar and the magnificent stained glass, the pulpit really grabbed my attention. It too was designed by Victor Bourgeau, during renovations in the 1870’s, and it was then carved by sculptor Louis-Phillippe Hebert. It was one of the most intricate carvings I’ve ever seen.
Saga Sapphire sailed from Montreal slightly later than planned and we were soon heading back into the St Lawrence and towards our next port of call, Quebec City. For more information on things to see and do in Montréal, visit the official Tourisme Montréal website.
Our arrival began my day of tours and it was also my birthday, so I was very excited to get out and explore. I went out on deck before starting my first tour of the day and there in front of me was the stunning sight of the Chateau de Frontenac. I’d always wanted to see this hotel and had done so briefly as we’d passed on our way to Montreal but waking up to it was something else. It’s incredibly dominating.
My first tour of the day was to Sainte Anne de Beaupre and Montmorency Falls. To be entirely honest, I’d only booked this tour to see the falls, I do like to visit various places of religious interest on my travels and I seem to have developed a slight obsession with stained glass windows, but having just seen the Notre-Dame Basilica, I wasn’t expecting it to be as interesting. How wrong I was. We had a scenic drive before arriving at the basilica and from the outside it was visually pleasing, but what awaited us inside was another outstanding example of workmanship. It was beautiful, and yet again, I found myself utterly mesmerised by the wooden and stone sculptures, paintings, mosaics, more than 200 stained glass windows and everything else that my eyes were trying to digest. This renowned pilgrimage site, as you’ve probably guessed, is dedicated to Sainte-Anne, the grandmother of Jesus.
We left the basilica and made our way towards Montmorency Falls. I had hoped we’d make a stop at the foot of the waterfall, but sadly our tour only included a visit to the top viewing platform, however it was very exciting and I’d managed to take a face-on photo a few days earlier as we’d passed on our way to Montreal. The falls cascade down a 272-foot cliff and into the shore of the St Lawrence River. They’re also 30m taller than Niagara Falls, which I didn’t know and was quite surprised to learn. It was a pleasant area to walk around, as well as enjoy the mighty power of the water. There were several walking trails, viewing platforms, a small park and a restaurant, and a gift shop.
I rushed back to the ship and just had time to grab a quick sandwich before leaving on my second tour of the day. This was just a short 2-hour trip around the city and up to Chateau de Frontenac. After some hectic days and a lot of walking on other trips, I was quite content enjoying the ride up rather than having to walk it.
The area around the Chateau Frontenac is very pleasant, and there are several bars and restaurants where you could relax and watch the world go by. We didn’t have much free time, so once ‘released’ from the bus, I moved at lightning speed along the gorgeous boardwalk and took several photos of the buildings and, of course, Saga Sapphire. It was a warm and sunny day, and the views from the boardwalk across the lower half of the city were gorgeous.
After 2 hours onboard to change and recharge batteries, I was back on the gangway and heading out for my third and final tour of the day. It was Sugar Shack time! I’d booked this because it was something different and sounded like it would be a lot of fun. It only took 25 minutes to get from the port, but we felt like we were in the middle of nowhere, it was a rustic and rural getaway. We had hoped to spot a bear, but sadly they were hiding from us.
The evening began with live music and food. We had bean soup to start which was then followed with potatoes, beans, pork, chicken, coleslaw, meat pie and more. It wasn’t Saga food, that’s for sure, but it was exactly as I’d expected it to be and I was loving it. The gentleman providing the music was great fun and several passengers did get up to have a little jig. For dessert we were served crepes and apple pie and I promptly covered both in maple syrup. It was warm, sweet, fruity and crunchy. I was in heaven.
We enjoyed more music before being shown to another building to make our own ice maple taffy. Hot maple syrup is poured over ice and you then grab a lolly stick and roll the maple onto it, thus forming an ice maple taffy lolly. My God, it was possibly the most delicious thing I’ve ever eaten. The warm taffy mixing with the ice was just incredible, a true taste sensation. Had it not been so bad for me (as in a sugar overload), I would have asked to make another. I thought it best, though, that I returned to the ship without bouncing off the decks.
Before leaving, we were given a short explanation on how the maple syrup is gathered. Firstly, the tree must be between 45 and 50 years old before it is tapped. To tap the tree, a hole is made in the trunk and then a small tube inserted, this then sits over the top of a bucket and that’s how the syrup is collected. Any one tree can only be tapped a maximum of 5 times per year, otherwise it could become sick, or worse, it could die.
Our next ports would be Corner Brook, Sydney and Halifax…