Travel

This Canadian Metropolis May Just Be North America's Coolest City

There's nothing quite like Montreal's joie de vivre.

PHOTO BY RAY SABBAGH, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY RAY SABBAGH, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY RAY SABBAGH, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

Montreal, I’ve tried to leave you. I really have. I’ve traveled the world and even lived in your arch-nemesis, Toronto. But no matter how far I roam, you keep pulling me back in.

There really is no place like you. Sure, you have adorable houses and cobblestone streets like Paris, but you’re gritty like New York (albeit less anxiety-inducing). With you, I can let my hair, and mustache, down. I can wake up late and go for some of the best croissants outside of Europe. I can dance like a hippie at Tam-Tams or Piknic Électronik. In summer, I can spontaneously bike around until I find a hopping terrasse, and when it gets cold, I can head inside to catch a drag show or snuggle up in a low-lit speakeasy. Any way you cut it, you and your French-Canadian joie de vivre are simply irresistable.

Montreal, je t’aime. Here’s why.

PHOTO BY EVA BLUE, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY EVA BLUE, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY EVA BLUE, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

There are dozens of unique neighbourhoods to wander in

Montreal isn’t built for cars like other North American cities. Its massive parks, narrow streets, and lush green back alleys (or ruelles vertes) are meant to be strolled, and the entire city is easily accessed by metro.

So where’s the best place to stay-or just walk around and take in the ambiance? Objectively declaring the coolest neighborhood in Montreal is a near-impossible task, but Plateau-Mont-Royal might just win the popular vote. Its colourful buildings-especially those around Square St. Louis-are just so damn beautiful. Plus, the Plateau is conveniently located near iconic delis, trendy cafes, the St. Laurent club strip, and the city’s prettiest parks including La Fontaine, Laurier, and the mountain.

For the city’s hottest restaurants and a spot on the water, Saint-Henri is where it’s at. Meanwhile, the Mile End (which is technically in the Plateau borough) isn’t as hip as it was back when Arcade Fire and Grimes were hanging out there, but it’s still a cool area to grab an Airbnb, and perfect for the ultimate carb crawl.

Still trying to decide where to stay in Montreal? Here’s a breakdown of the coolest neighbourhoods according to a local (aka yours truly).

PHOTO COURTESY OF LOCAL MONTREAL FOOD TOURS/TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOCAL MONTREAL FOOD TOURS/TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO COURTESY OF LOCAL MONTREAL FOOD TOURS/TOURISME MONTREAL

Montreal’s food scene might just be Canada’s best

Surely you’ve heard of Montreal’s famous foods and perhaps even their famous rivalries-St. Viateur vs. Fairmount for bagels, Schwartz’s vs. The Main for smoked meat, La Banquise vs. Chez Claudette for poutine, Romados vs. Ma Poule Mouilée for Portuguese chicken-but there’s just so. Much. More.

There are your gluttonous classics like Anthony Bourdain-approved Au Pied du Cochon and Joe Beef. Then you’ve got Damas for exquisite Syrian, L’Express for fine French cuisine, and Sushi Momo for vegan sushi. There’s also a fiercely competitive cheap(ish) eats scene including Arepera, Falafel Yoni, and Tacos Frida, and you’d be remiss not to try Montreal-style hot dogs (aka “steamies”) at the Montreal Pool Room, an old-school joint that dates back to 1912.

I could go on forever-but I’ll leave the best picks to the experts, instead.

MILKY WAY COCKTAILS
MILKY WAY COCKTAILS
MILKY WAY COCKTAILS

The fun doesn’t stop after dark

Americans have long made pilgrimages to Montreal to party, from back in the Prohibition days when alcohol was illegal, to now, since the drinking age is 18. Rowdy tourists and the bachelor party crowd usually get their kicks downtown on Crescent and St. Catherine streets, or in touristy Old Montreal-but there are better places to have a night out.

You’ve got hip dives like Notre-Dame-des-Quilles with its indoor bowling alley, twinkly-light date spots like Le Majestique, speakeasies like Le Mal Nécessaire, breweries like Dieu du Ciel!, and classy wine bars like Pullman. Of course, there are also your clubs for a big night out like Apt. 200 and after-hours Stereo (temporarily closed).

So while I’m not going to tell you that you’re not going to have fun in the touristy areas, trust me: Montreal’s best bars, speakeasies, and clubs are where you’ll want to be when the sun goes down.

PHOTO BY CAROLINE PERRON, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY CAROLINE PERRON, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY CAROLINE PERRON, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

Getting outdoors is part of the experience

Montreal’s got range: Despite being Canada’s second-largest city, it’s also the third greenest. (After all, in a country with literally dozens of beautiful natural wonders to check out, it’s important to stay competitive.) Along with moments spent leisurely wandering the aforementioned parks (plus Jarry, Jean-Drapeau, and dozens of other enormous green spaces not listed here), chances to escape to quiet, laid-back outdoor spaces are in no short supply.

In Saint-Henri, you can bike, canoe, or kayak along the Lachine Canal; in Verdun, you can stroll along the Wellington promenade or lounge on the shores of one of Montreal’s beaches (or have a unique urban beach experience at the Old Port); or head to the Jardin de Sculptures de Lachine to stroll or bike through an open-air art gallery.

PHOTO BY CHARLES PROT, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY CHARLES PROT, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL
PHOTO BY CHARLES PROT, COURTESY OF TOURISME MONTREAL

The streets are filled with festivals and culture

There are some days where more than a dozen festivals are happening in Montreal and it’s impossible to choose which one to attend. You’ll give yourself FOMO just thinking about it.

In the summer, the world’s biggest artists play at Osheaga and its electronic younger sibling Île Soniq on Parc Jean-Drapeau, an island that’s easily accessible by bike or metro. Then you’ve got Just for Laughs and the Montreal Jazz Fest, two world-class festivals in Quartier des Spectacles, as well as Montreal’s Circus Festival and the MURAL graffiti festival. And the fun doesn’t stop in winter when the city turns out dozens of different exhibits at Nuit Blanche or the chilly outdoor dance party that is Igloofest.

Even aside from the festivals, there’s always something going on in Montreal. The PHI Centre has state-of-the-art interactive exhibits like The Infinite, a virtual tour of the International Space Station. You can get a taste of Montreal’s sin city roots with a cabaret at Chez Mado. If that isn’t enough to fill a week or three, check out the exhibits at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts or head to the east end for the Botanical Gardens, Olympic Stadium, Insectarium, Planetarium, or freshly-renovated Biodome, all of which you can find at Espace pour la Vie.

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Joel Balsam is a Canadian freelance journalist and guidebook author who writes for Lonely Planet, National Geographic, TIME, BBC Travel, and more. His home base is Montreal, but he can often be found tasting his way through a packed market somewhere.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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