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Child's Play in Quebec

A French-flavored experience at an affordable price makes Montreal and the nearby mountains ideal destinations for this California party of four

May 21, 2000|BETSY BATES FREED | Betsy Bates Freed is a writer living in Santa Barbara

MONTREAL — Dusky rays of sun slipped through the stone corridors of 17th century Vieux (Old) Montreal as our carriage driver welcomed us in a lilting French accent. Speaking over the hollow clop of horseshoes on cobblestones, he asked what brought a family of four from California to this island city where the St. Lawrence and Ottawa rivers meet.

My husband, David, and I chose Quebec province because we wanted to share with our children, Robert, who had just turned 13, and Rachel, 11, the excitement of discovering a place whose history, culture and language diverged from our own. We had considered Europe, but for a family of four, a trip to the Continent was out of reach, even with a strong dollar.

From a practical standpoint, our American dollars stretched so far in Canada that we could indulge in five-star candlelight dinners, a separate room for the kids and even an unhurried carriage ride through ancient lanes.

When we told our driver, Jean, that we nearly chose Vancouver, he mused: "Ah, Vancouver. A beautiful city, but without the heart and soul of Montreal."

At that moment, who was to argue? We pulled the hand-sewn carriage blankets close, warding off the nip of this August evening, and reveled in the feeling of a European vacation in North America.

We arrived late in Montreal, so we spent the night at the comfortable airport Hilton, then negotiated our way the next morning through streets marked only in French to what was described on the Web as "the gorgeous home of Mme. Helene de Grandpre," the City Chic Bed and Breakfast in the upscale Outremont district.

It was as billed. Our rooms were decorated with antiques, fine fabrics and fresh flowers, pulled together with an impeccable sense of French design. All this elegance cost $108, which included two rooms, one with a queen bed, one with twin beds for the kids, plus a mouthwatering breakfast of cheeses, fresh-squeezed orange juice, rich coffee, eggs and homemade pastries.

The kids relished eating cheeses and croissants with their eggs for breakfast and enjoyed asking Mme. Grandpre about Montreal, her neighborhood and French phrases.

She also served as our on-site tour planner, sending us to Laurier Ouest Street, a hodgepodge of elegant antique shops, designer boutiques and bakeries filled with baguettes that would rival those found in Paris.

We stopped for a wonderful brunch at Eggspectation, 198 Laurier Ouest St., which has somehow avoided the activist sign-and-language "police," who struggle to preserve the preeminence of French in Quebec. In most places throughout the province, signs and menus are only in French, which is spoken on the streets, in restaurants and in shops.

We devoted much of an afternoon to the Biodome, the geodesic structure constructed for Expo '67. It has been converted into a lively environmental journey through four ecosystems, complete with the animals, plants and even the climates of the Arctic North (take a sweater), tropical rain forests and Quebec's own brisk Laurentian Forest and St. Lawrence riverbank environs.

Here you pass through airtight double doorways into four distinct worlds, gulping in the muggy moisture of the rain forest as you watch a scarlet ibis build a nest, then digging into the backpack for sweaters as you watch penguins play. Rachel loved a live bird show in which a biologist displayed (and released, briefly), owls, an eagle, hawks and a falcon, describing their behavior and characteristics in French and, later, in heavily accented English. ("It was cool to see how some of her words kind of sounded and meant what they do in English," Rachel said later.)

Close by is the Insectarium de Montreal, captivating Robert with its live scorpions and brilliant scarab beetles and Rachel with its exotic butterflies and working honeybees. Some of the critters here are quite dead, but many are alive in all their fluttering, hopping, buzzing glory. The butterfly exhibit, for example, features the real things, hatching from cocoons and landing on real flowers.

That night we headed for the crowded, chaotic but fun Vieux-Port (Old Port) de Montreal, full of talented street performers. One orchestrated the frenetic movements of a piano-playing marionette; another stretched a trapeze wire over the crowd and performed feats you might see in Cirque du Soleil. The restored port district extends several miles along the shore, featuring roller-bladers wending their way along landscaped paths, antique boat races, musical performances and street vendors.

We also sat before the Cathedral of Marie-Reine-du-Monde (Mary, Queen of the World), instantly relevant to our children as the place where native daughter and pop diva Celine Dion was married.

At every turn, Montreal seemed to offer gracious hospitality, style and artfully prepared food, but we wanted to visit the mountains too, so we bid adieu to Mme. de Grandpre and began our gradual ascent into the Laurentians, just an hour north of Montreal by car.

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