Your university child just may well be getting tired of late-night pizza, bagels on the fly, and noisy communal living where they can’t find a clean counter surface or a quiet place to study. That’s where you can swoop in. Here is the first in a series of “48 hours to Wow Your University Child” — as in, ‘Think Mom (or Dad or other parental figure) isn’t cool? Think again!’ Vacay.ca Contributing Writer Diana Ballon explores Montreal with her daughter.
Montreal in winter, you say? Yes, I do. While most people reserve a visit to Montreal for warmer weather, university happens all year round. So take that university child out of their dismal student living situation, and book yourselves into a cool hotel in Old Montreal. In winter, you can expect lower hotel costs, minimal tourists and some fun places to stay warm. And as one of the oldest neighbourhoods on the continent, Old Montreal has a charming European feel where you can wander its cobblestone streets and happen upon great cocktails, fine eats, funky clothing stores, and interesting galleries without even trying.
It was for this reason that my daughter, Antonia, and I decided to take our first holiday of 2023 in Old Montreal. I booked two nights at the luxurious Hotel William Gray, a boutique property in walking distance of the Old Port and the Notre-Dame Basilica, with the historic Rue Saint-Paul, the oldest street in Montreal, as our main drag throughout our visit.
1 p.m., Go hot and cold: Scandinavian spas, with their hot and cold thermal circuits, are in short supply in many parts of Canada. But with more than 50 in Quebec, the hot and cold thing is an activity this province does well. Among the many options, Bota Bota, a “floating spa” moored at Montreal’s Old Port on what was once a 1950s steamboat, is a local favourite. For up to three hours, move between saunas, steam rooms, cold plunge pools, outdoor hot tubs, and chill places to relax. You can also eat at the spa’s glassed-in waterfront restaurant, La Traversée, or get a treatment while you are there. Note that silence is required on the boat, but Antonia and I got seriously caught up in the pools in their outdoor gardens, where you can soak — and chat — all you want. (While I had been to Bota Bota several times before, this was Antonia’s inaugural visit because you need to be at least aged 18 to go. Chalk one up for mum: I am responsible for introducing Nordic spa’ing to my daughter.)
4 p.m., Hotel check-in. At Hotel William Gray, enjoy 18th-century heritage surroundings amidst 21st-century luxury. The upscale boutique hotel has cozy, well-adorned suites combining historic and contemporary, with luxurious indulgences like Le Labo bath amenities, and a multi-jet rain shower that makes getting clean feel like a massage.
5 p.m., Dine at a cozy bar. Old Montreal restaurants can be expensive, but they don’t have to be, particularly if you can begin the evening with what Quebecers do so well, which is the cinq à sept, or happy hour. Roaming along Rue Saint-Paul, we happened upon English gastropub Wolf & Workman, where for $9 (versus what is normally $14), we could enjoy their Ninja Turtle – a savoury, not overly sweet cocktail with rum, triple sec, lime, and cucumber. Antonia and I both love a good deal (it must be genetic) so the combination of getting a discount — and enjoying one of our first cocktails together — made for another cool “girlfriend”-type encounter. After our drinks, we stayed at the bar for a burger and frites. The vibe is friendly and casual with exposed brick and hanging pendant lights for a dim cozy interior, and relaxed inexpensive evening.
Noon, Satiate yourself. Sleep in, work out, and then enjoy a three-course lunch at the William Gray’s Maggie Oakes restaurant, known for its dry-aged meats and cocktails. How can you not resist starting lunch with a single Mimosa Maggie, a combination of sparkling wine with Grand Marnier and grapefruit juice? For appies, we decided to share the salmon tartare, followed by Portuguese chicken, with cheesecake with mango passion coulis and sumac meringue for dessert. It was delicious!
4 p.m, Add salt. While thermal circuits tend to be part of many destination spas, they are now working their way into some high-end hotels, along with halotherapy salt rooms. These rooms are generally lined with pink quartz brick and infused with salt particles released into the air through a halogenerator, with health benefits purported to be everything from improving your skin to helping you sleep better.
At the William Gray, the 56,0000-square-foot spa includes a halotherapy salt room, along with two saunas, a eucalyptus steam room, showers, and a cold room.
6 p.m., Find market delights. With Montreal gastronomy encompassing everything from buttery rich croissants to escargots, French baguettes, frites with aioli, duck confit, local cheeses and craft beers, you don’t need to go to a restaurant to indulge in the richesse. Stop into Le Beau Marché only minutes from the hotel, and pick up paté, baguette, chocolate, cheeses, and artisanal drinks to enjoy back in your room, as we did. When I travel locally, I slip a small wooden board and cheese knife into my bag for a more elevated in-room picnic. Those kitchen pieces and the espresso cup saucers you can find in the room (which work perfectly as small plates) are all you need for a do-it-yourself dining experience.
8 p.m., Nostalgic and iconic entertainment. Don’t miss the immersive light and sound show, Aura at the Notre-Dame Basilica. The historic landmark is about a five-minute walk from the hotel. The show’s location in the gothic revival church where Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau married is dramatic enough. But then seated in a pew, staring up at the flashing colours and streaks of light overhead while listening to orchestral music is mesmerizing. While the running time is only 23 minutes, it feels much longer. It is one experience that takes you places.
10:30 a.m. Fortify yourself. A hearty signature breakfast at the hotel‘s Maggie Oakes restaurant can include avocado toast with arugula salad and poached eggs, or a healthy bowl and Eggs Benedict with mushrooms and spinach. Portions are generous and the espresso is good.
Noon, Check-out and shop. We started at Quebec-based Simons in the heart of Montreal’s downtown where the in-house brand, Twik, offers some great options for youth, along with reasonable prices. (Simons is not “technically” a department store, but is a store with clothing, curated accessories, and designer brands.) We then headed up Boulevard St. Laurent to do some thrifting: The street’s vintage clothing stores only increase in number as we ventured north toward Saint-Viateur. Our favourite was Annex Vintage in Mile End, where we both found sweaters — boiled wool green cardigan with funky metal buttons for me; and purple hand-knit pullover for her.
Next up on our agenda was bagel shopping. We ended up heading to Mile End, where we bought a dozen bagels at St.-Viateur Bagel, although Fairmount Bagel just a 10-minute walk away, is another worthy option. (I suggest you sample both: all Montrealers will vehemently express their preference between the two, but best to decide for yourself!) If you are at Saint-Viateur, drop by the popular Italian Café Olimpico for cappuccino in a glass.
Then go to Sparrow on St. Laurent for a smash burger before bidding your child a sorrowful good-bye, knowing that you are leaving her with a full belly — and warm memories.