Seeing Mrs Smith outside the Hotel St Paul, fanning her burning cheeks, confirms the weather reports for the weekend. For the next few days Montreal will be hotter than the sun. Funny – I always associated the city with weather cold enough to make a moose shiver. But here we are, baking in the heart of Old Montreal with a suite at a stylish hotel and the annual Jazz Festival swinging outside. As excited as I am about romantic strolls past the Beaux-Arts architecture and softly lit dinners at the endless world-class restaurants, I can’t help thinking, ‘If only I’d packed some shorts.’
Mrs Smith walks back in, realising that the allure of jazz isn’t enough to convince me that the sticky night air is preferable to martini number two in the seductively air-conditioned bar. Especially sans shorts. The extra olives are enough to swing it in my favour and she settles back into the welcoming leather sofas that frame the lobby. After all, this is our first night and while the many attractions of downtown Montreal are calling, so is the hotel.
At first glance the lobby area looks a bit bereft. The clean, simple geometric finish is swish enough but the blank, plastered wall behind reception leaves me a little cold. But as I stand there practising my pidgin French on the bewildered bellhop, I clock the vast marble fireplace that lends the space a welcoming touch. Luckily for me and the bewildered bellboy, Mrs French-Canadian Smith overhears me murdering her mother tongue and steps in, ushering us up to our suite on the sixth floor.
Stepping into our bedroom it’s clear that we have one of the ‘sky’ rooms, the others being styled with an ‘earth’ theme. This translates as high ceilings and a bright white decor, making it the perfect refuge from the searing street heat. After a quick visit from a housekeeper with a contagious laugh, we’re off to enjoy our first meal in Vauvert, the hotel’s sleek and prestigious restaurant.
When it comes to dinnertime, Montreal’s menu is broader than my French accent. Perhaps the locals’ love of food stems from the French influence. Or perhaps they just have good taste. Either way, it means three superb square meals a day for me and Mrs Smith. Settling at the table in Vauvert, Mrs Smith loves the design and the charming, bearded waiter. Conversing in French she orders, making my lemon and saffron risotto and her baby arugula salad with strawberries and hazelnuts sound even more delicious. The restaurant, much like the rest of Hotel St Paul, benefits from being understated, with matt black walls and a long galley bar in the unfussy space. The dining is a treat, especially washed down with a glass of Ontario white. A nice surprise, who knew Canadian wine was so good?
Sated, we finally drag ourselves away from the hotel, strolling a few streets to the Jazz Festival. With the hotel centrally located on the corner of McGill, it takes just 10 minutes to reach the music, which floats out from the many stages. It’s free to wander in, but we contribute by nobly buying a couple of drinks and planting ourselves in front of the main stage. During the summer months, Montreal is full of such surprises, with free events almost every night.
With plenty of unique French-Canadian attractions to see we pack even more into day two. Hungry, we visit Marche Jean-Talon, ogling the produce and devouring more samples than we should. Armed with enough cheese and pate to give Gillian McKeith gout, we settle in the nearby Parc La Fontaine for a picnic.
Sun-kissed and smiling, it’s a short cab ride back to the hotel for a refreshing shower in the bright, spacious bathroom. Happily we’re not yet full-up so drop into Holder, a French bistro just a couple of doors down from the hotel. From here it’s a short walk to the terrace at Jardin Nelson where we sit outside under the strobing stars, sipping two chilled whites to break the heat. The city’s terrasses are big in summer, with locals making every effort to enjoy the few months when Montreal doesn’t resemble Bing Crosby’s favourite Christmas.
Refreshed, our final stop is on the Pont Cartier, which is pedestrianised every Saturday throughout summer for the fireworks festival. Countries take it in turns to put on a fireworks display and tonight it’s Portugal’s chance to light up the night sky, patriotically and pyrotechnically filling the black canvas with explosive reds and greens. In the cab ride home we fulfil one more recommendation, stopping at La Banquise, a 24-hour eatery that specialises in poutine. In the mood for a slightly dirty treat, we order Quebec’s speciality guilty-pleasure combo of fries, gravy and cheese curds. It’s hardly haute cuisine, but Canada’s kebab substitute is a late-night Montreal institution.
Check-out comes all too soon after our final complimentary breakfast in Cube, the second-floor dining room with caffeinated city views. En route to the airport we squeeze in one more Montreal must – a smoked meat sandwich at Schwartz, on Rue St Laurent. It’s simple but excellent, which in spirit is somehow similar to the hotel. That’s right, you can draw parallels between four-star hotels and salt-beef sandwiches. I just did. But only because the Hotel St Paul is so different. With its modern flavour and old town locale it’s unique. And, thank Dieu, it’s air-conditioned.