The Montréal Experience and how to get it

By Ronald T. Harvie   Tourisme Montréal

If you're someone who thinks the rush to "globalization" has created an awful lot of "same-old same-old" in the world, you'll be heartened by a recent story in Gourmet magazine. In it, the journalists Jane and Michael Stern noted that the "onslaught of soulless fast food has been balanced by a resurgence of regional food" and applauded "a new generation who sustain what is now appreciated as local culture".

Well something similar may be happening in the travel industry generally - at least in Montréal. Here, in one of the world's most popular cities, there's a whole new concept in touring called "The Montréal Experience". Created by two of the city's most reputable and long-established hospitality companies, Guidatour and Visites de Montréal DMC (in co-operation with Tourisme Montréal), 54 (count' em) customized packages offer visitors authentic Montréal-style experiences. That is to say, a true and personal taste of Montréal's unique local culture.

Based on the realization that the days when tourists were happy to be led around in herds listening to standardized commentary are long gone, the Montréal Experience itineraries are designed for small groups with specific interests and/or expertise. As Louise Hébert of Guidatour explains, "baby boomers have travelled extensively and had many typical experiences. Now they're looking for something different, more profound."

It's all part of the "learning travel" phenomenon that appeared a few years ago. A large - and growing - number of people started to want to see specific things and places, meet interesting local people, and get a feeling of what goes on behind the scenes, what makes this particular city tick. That's exactly what the "Montréal Experience" idea offers.

The 54 different tours are divided into nine main theme areas. Culinary Pleasures (so far the most popular category, thanks to Montréal's renown as a gourmet paradise). Historically Speaking. Art Treasures. Shopping Galore. Architectural Contrasts. Religious Heritage. All About Water. Parks, Gardens and Greenery. Multicultural Life.

Within each thematic area, six different "experiences" are offered - one full day tour and five half day itineraries. Each one is hosted by a hand-picked guide who really knows the topic at hand - a specialist in that field - who usually becomes "part" of the group. Christiane Gingras, of Visites de Montréal DMC, has a fat file of thank-yous from happy clients and they all contain remarks like: "We had a great guide. She had a nice sense of humour and the group fell in love with her", and "Ronald was a great guide. It was awesome!"

Montréal Experience tours are designed for groups of about ten people and can be personalized on request - one recent group, for example, was celebrating a member's 40th birthday! And the costs range from $50 to $250 per person.

So, now, how about a few samples?

Suppose your local historical society is considering a visit to Montréal. Here's a full-day Montréal Experience:

Journey almost 400 years back in time through Montréal's exciting mix of French and English (and other) history. Begin with breakfast at Les Remparts restaurant, an architectural gem built into the 17th-century fortifications of Old Montréal. Then, dig deeper into history on a virtual time tour in the Pointe-à-Callière Museum working archaeological crypt. Continue with a stroll along the old city's cobblestoned streets, enjoying some impressive spots along the way - like the amazing Notre-Dame Basilica. Stop for lunch at another landmark restaurant, Chez Queux, then go on to the historic Old Fort on Île Sainte-Hélène in the St. Lawrence River. Here, you'll be greeted in 18th-century military style by soldiers from La Compagnie Franche de la Marine or the Olde 78th Fraser Highlanders. On the return trip, drive through downtown Montréal's Golden Square Mile of architectural masterpieces - and stop for high tea in the period surroundings of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel.

For a group of "shopaholics", how about this?

Start satisfying your cravings in downtown Montréal's shopping mecca - les Ailes de la Mode, Eaton Centre, Simons and Les Cours Mont-Royal - with a professional shopping guide who's tuned into the latest trends. Continue to the spectacular, exclusive European-style "arcade" at Ogilvy's landmark department store, where you just might catch a glimpse of a bagpiper in full regalia playing in the Tudor Room art gallery. From there, venture - to Sherbrooke Street, Saint-Denis Street, Saint-Laurent Boulevard and Laurier Avenue - to feast your eyes on the myriad boutiques that make Montréal shear shopping heaven! From high-end to funky to cutting-edge - no matter what your taste, you're bound to find something to die for!

Within each of the nine Montréal Experience theme areas, there are five half-day tours, each offering a unique glimpse into Montréal life. A group of "foodies", for instance, can realize their dream of tapping into the secrets of a world-class chef. From choosing ultra fresh produce to creating in the kitchen, you'll spend a few delicious hours in the company of Benoît Latulippe and learn some coveted tricks of the trade. Roll up your sleeves and work alongside him as he creates a seasonal dish especially for you!

For architecture buffs, how about a half-day in the cityscape that dazzles with architectural brilliance - and the occasional clinker! Discover landmarks, large and small, in the company of architect-urbanist François Rémillard, as he shares his passion for preserving the city's architectural heritage. Enjoy coffee in the Parisian-style ambience of the Quartier latin's Café Cherrier during your tour of the city's most beloved and most controversial buildings.

Finally, for the "night owls" among you, here's a unique Montréal evening. Make your way to the waterfront for the most fabulous view of the city by night. Climb the Clock Tower and take in the breathtaking panorama of the refurbished Old Port area, stroll along and through the St. Lawrence River harbour front, then step aboard a cruise ship for an evening excursion - cocktails, dinner and a fun history lesson - with Montréal's skyline as your stunning backdrop!

OK, you get the idea. Guided tours with a particular focus for people with particular interests highlighting a particular aspect of Montréal's unique urban culture. And even though there are already over 50 different itineraries available, more are on the horizon - especially in the ultra-popular culinary area. As Christiane Gingras says "I am still developing new relationships with new suppliers in order to offer more and better!"

Montreal Features

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