Known for its culture and cold winters, Montreal is the heart of French-speaking Canada. Exotic architecture, fashion, cuisine and the rumor that Montreal has the most “beautiful people” in the Americas have given it a fair amount of credibility among tourists.
Because of its language, the city inevitably draws comparisons to French metropolises. However, there is little in Montreal that suggests that it is anything like Paris. There are many other cultural influences at play, creating an utterly unique — but unmistakably Canadian — vibe.
Montreal also has a unique approach to environmental issues. Long cold winters make for high energy consumption for heating and lighting, but green traits can be seen in everything from transportation to food to public spaces. No matter the season, this island city in the province of Quebec is an ideal destination for urban travelers seeking a low-impact vacation that balances culture and nature.
The gold standard for hotels is the Fairmont Queen Elizabeth, a luxurious four-star in downtown Montreal that has all amenities, services and health clubs you’d expect from the Fairmont brand. The hotel is also heavily involved in environmental matters, purchasing local food whenever possible, using state-of-the-art venting and cooling systems and implementing widespread waste management procedures. The hotel also aids meeting and conference organizers who want to offset the carbon emissions caused by the attendees traveling to their event.
The Alt Hotel Quartier 30Dix is a more affordable option. Though not as high-end as the Queen Elizabeth, it is unarguably greener and also a fair bit hipper. The hotel uses geothermal heating throughout the complex and recycles heated and cooled air from appliances and commercial washers. In addition, 30Dix has the goal of offsetting all of its emissions each year. Best of all, rates are significantly lower than you might expect to pay at a similarly boutique-ish hotel.
A better-than-average transportation network makes a car unnecessary in Montreal. The Montreal Metro is the backbone of this public transit system. Most major neighborhoods in the city can be reached by train. Three-day tourist passes cost $17, with weeklong passes a better deal at $20 for seven days. Buses offer regular service to all parts of the city that are not connected by rails. For tourists though, the plan of “ride-the-train-then-walk” is usually sufficient.
Downtown and Old Montreal are two areas where walking is the preferred means of transportation. Though winter weather conditions can make a stroll less than pleasant, if you dress for the weather, as locals do, it is not too much of a discomfort.
In the summer, biking is an easy way to get around. There are over 400 miles of bike routes weaving through the urban and suburban area. There is even a public bike rental system, called the BIXI, which has more than 3,000 bikes available at 300 stations across the metro. After paying a daily ($5) or monthly ($28) fee, you can rent a bike from any station using a credit card. All rides under 30 minutes are free.
Montreal’s natural scene is dominated by parks, gardens and even man-made ecosystems that can be experienced year-round.
Probably the most spectacular green space in the city is the Biodome, an indoor garden/zoo with four ecosystems. It was built in the shell of the bicycle velodrome that was used for the 1976 Summer Olympics. No matter the time of year, visitors can wander through a South American rain forest, a replica of the North American wilderness, a habitat that shows the aquatic life of the Gulf of St. Lawrence and a polar area that features both Arctic and Antarctic (yes, there are penguins) creatures. In addition to being one of the more popular tourist attractions, the Biodome hosts educational programs as well. An exhibit called Humans at the Heart of Climate Change will be running throughout the spring and summer of 2010.
The Jardin Botanique, Montreal’s expansive botanical garden, sits adjacent to the Biodome. There are indoor greenhouses open year-round, but the warmer months — when the outdoor gardens are in their prime — are obviously the best time to visit.
The city’s namesake, Mount Royal, is the perfect venue for those who want to experience a more untouched version of urban nature. Trails are open winter and summer, and there is an interpretive center and plenty of forested areas. Other major parks, such as Parc Jean-Drapeau, which is spread across two islands on the St. Lawrence River, are found throughout the city and are popular summertime destinations for residents.
Options change, but do not lessen in number, during the winter. Cross-country skiing on groomed trails is possible both on Mount Royal and inside the Botanical Gardens, as well as at Jean-Drapeau and many smaller parks. Parks also have skating rinks, which can get crowded on cold-season weekends.
Organic restaurants are only one facet of Montreal’s green eating scene. Montreal residents are eager to tell you that their city has more restaurants per capita than any other in North America.
Fresh produce is readily available at the city’s famous, atmospheric public markets. The largest of these, Marché Jean-Talon, is a great place to browse even if you are not in the market for edibles. Other markets in the city include Marché Saint-Jacques and Marché Atwater.
Though not specifically vegetarian or organic, there are numerous cheap eats to be found in the bistros, cafés and ethnic eateries in the Quartier Latin, Montreal’s youthful bohemian district. Café Dervish and La Faim du Monde are two of the more notable organic options.
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