It wasn’t always my idea of a good Friday night in Montreal: watching the movie Pup Star, which features talking dogs with names such as Simon Growl and Lady Paw Paw, on the hotel room TV, the curtains closed to the nightlife 20 storeys below. But I’m snuggled on the bed with my seven-year-old daughter, Bianca, the room smells like microwave popcorn, and our mother-daughter Montreal getaway is off to a fine start.
Earlier that day we skated inside a skyscraper and climbed into a life-sized Barbie box. Later on we would sample chewy bagels, explore a room full of butterflies and be rewarded with golden-light views of the city. Because that’s the thing about family travel — kids certainly steer the agenda, but they also present in-the-moment, go-with-the-flow fun.
Here are four Montreal moments to experience with your crew this spring.
The blue morpho butterflies flutter in a trio toward us as soon as we pass into the Butterflies Go Free exhibit at Montreal’s Botanical Garden. Inside, a murmuring chain of visitors swivel their heads in all directions watching the hundreds of butterflies that float through the space. (Bianca walks with her arm out, hopeful one may land on her). A field guide we carry denotes the resident butterflies, among them monarchs, pink roses and Lowi swallowtails. We stop and watch a yellow-and-black giant swallowtail dip into flowers for nectar. It always feels rather magical to be surrounded by these shimmering creatures, but especially so at the end of a long winter.
Butterflies Go Free runs until May 14 at the Botanical Gardens, one of the attractions at Space for Life in the Olympic Park area that also includes the Planetarium and Insectarium. Note that the popular Biodôme is closed for two years of renovations at the end of March.
Bianca and I had timed our walk from the Montreal Science Centre to La Grande Roue de Montréal in the Old Port to coincide with the sunset. But when we leave the Science Centre, the sky is filled with big fat flakes, thanks to a winter that has decided it isn't done yet. Should we skip the Ferris wheel due to these flurried skies? We debate and decide to head over anyway, our boots leaving tracks in the fresh snow. We encounter patrons of the Natrel Skating rink (now closed for the season) laughing and skating despite the weather. Once inside the enclosed gondolas, we rise to see the bridges over the St. Lawrence River and the golden lights of the city beyond.
La Grande Roue de Montréal operates from 10 a.m. to 11 p.m.
In Montreal, you have to pick sides: Will it be Fairmount or St-Viateur? Bianca and I choose St-Viateur in Mile End. The windows are steamy from the boiling honey water and the bagels are piled up dozens deep in front of the wood-burning oven. We get poppy seed and sesame-seed bagels to go and walk a few doors down to Cafe Myriade to order drinks. When we sit down to our breakfast, I realize the recipe for our perfect mother-daughter Saturday morning is pretty simple: a macadamia-nut latte, hot chocolate and fresh bagels.
St-Viateur Bagel is open 24 hours on St-Viateur Ouest; Fairmount Bagel is a few blocks away. But if you want a sit-down meal that’s easier for families, choose one of St-Viateur’s bagel cafes.
Wander without a map
It has taken me a while to learn that sometimes the best of family travel involves no agenda at all. Montreal is a good city for such wandering — whether it’s in the parks on Mount Royal or past the street murals in the Plateau — and it’s inevitable that something will surprise and delight you. For the two of us on this visit, this happens in Old Montreal. We stroll along the narrow cobblestoned streets, pausing to window-shop at art galleries and to pretend to listen in on the gossiping ladies of the Les chuchoteuses sculpture on Rue Saint-Dizier. I convince Bianca to pop into Le Magasin Général, a shop curated with tempting must-haves of the moment. Lured to the basement inventory by a sale sign, we discover a piano player sounding out pop hits among the shelves of purses and unicorn car fresheners. As it starts to get dark and we start to get hungry, we find ourselves drawn to the busy Mangiafoco, which is a bit more upscale than our usual pizza nights at home. Still, we have no regrets because the waitress is welcoming, the wood-fired pizza is delicious and we know Montreal has given us a day we won’t soon forget.
Check out Karan Smith's photos of her and her daughter's Montreal getaway on Instagram @karanlou.