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The Islands: Île Notre-Dame

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An artificial island created for the 1967 World Expo, the Île Notre-Dame is found in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The Notre-Dame and its sister island, the Île Sainte-Hélène, together make up the Parc Jean-Drapeau, which is among Montreal’s most popular summertime hangout areas.

Ile Notre Dame

Jean Drapeau was the mayor of Montreal for nearly three decades, and presided over some of the city’s most exciting years. In the 1960s, during his second term, he brought a World Expo to town, and initiated the underground metro system. The rocks and dirt unearthed during excavations for the metro were used to create an artificial island along the side of the existing Île Sainte-Hélène. The park which spans the two islands was named in his honor in 1999.

For the Expo, more than sixty nations built pavilions on the two islands. Although most of them have since been demolished, a few of Notre-Dame’s pavilions have survived into the present day: the Montreal Casino is housed inside the former pavilions of France and Quebec, while both the small Jamaican Pavilion and its much-larger Canadian counterpart (known as The Tundra) can be rented for weddings and special events.

Ile Notre Dame

The Île Notre-Dame was also a venue for the 1976 Summer Olympics, when a giant two-kilometer rowing basin was carved into the land: still the largest artificial rowing basin in North America. And the island is also home to the Gilles Villeneuve Circuit, which has been the scene for the Formula One’s Grand Prix of Canada since 1978. For most of the year, this 4.7-kilometer track is open to the public, and its flat, smooth surface is popular with bikers and rollerbladers as well as motorists who want the thrill of completing the same loop as their favorite racers (although, because of the bikes and pedestrians sharing the track, thrills are restricted to 20 mph).

Most of the people who visit the Île Notre-Dame, however, aren’t here for the rowing basin or to take a lap around the F1 circuit: they’ve come either to gamble or to tan. We’ve already written about Montreal’s fantastic casino, but also popular is the Jean-Doré Beach, which opens in the summer months. The beach consists of a decent stretch of sand next to an inland lake, whose water is apparently clean enough to swim in. For Montreal’s heat-exhausted citizens, it’s as good a “day at the beach” as they’re going to get.

Locations on our Map: Canadian Pavilion | Olympic Basin | Jean-Doré Beach

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June 26, 2016 at 3:21 pm Comments (0)

Montreal’s Biosphère

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Built as the American Pavilion for the 1967 World Expo, the Biosphère on Île Sainte-Hélène has become one of the defining landmarks of Montreal. Today, this geodesic dome is home to a museum about the state of our planet’s environment.

Biosphere Montreal

The Biosphère is one of the most recognizable buildings in Montreal, and is at its most impressive when you’re standing inside it. The geometric pattern used to create the dome (a Class 1, Frequency 16 icosahedron, since you asked) is mesmerizing, and it’s easy to become dizzy while staring up and around at the intricate system of interlocked metal bars. This is the work of the famous American architect and theorist Buckminster Fuller, who helped to popularize geodesic domes in the 1950s.

When it was built for the Expo, the Biosphère had been covered with a plastic shell. But in 1976, the shell caught fire in spectacular fashion. The metal girder remained unscathed, but the sphere was closed to the public for nineteen years, before reopening in 1995 as a museum dedicated to water. In 2007, it was re-branded as the Biosphère.

Biosphere Montreal

The exhibitions inside the Biosphère are what you might expect from an environmental museum, though they’ve done a good job of balancing the doom and gloom with optimism for the future. The best exhibit is a 360° cinema experience that recreates wind, rain and snow, and provides concrete examples of how humans are applying lessons from nature within our newest technology. For example, we’re learning how to make LEDs more efficient by studying fireflies, and designing optimal mass transport systems by looking at the veins of a leaf.

Other exhibits allowed us to re-enact a scientific study into water and air pollution, and take a walk through a tribute to the forests. On the top floor of the museum, there’s a viewpoint which offers a view of Montreal’s skyline through the bars of the dome.

Location on our Map
Montreal Biosphère – Website

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June 17, 2016 at 10:38 pm Comments (0)

Habitat 67

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Perhaps the most iconic piece of architecture in Montreal is Habitat 67, designed by Israeli/Canadian architect Moshe Safdie for the city’s World Expo. The brutalist interlocking system of identical concrete living cubes still seems as outlandish and visionary as it must have in 1967.

Habitat 67 is what might happen if you were to give 354 identical blocks to a six-year-old, and ask them to create a building. I’ve chosen the age “six” deliberately. A five-year-old would make a mess of it, while a seven-year-old would come up with something more classically elegant. Habitat 67 is what a six-year-old would design: weird, chaotic, and just possibly stable. (You’d look at it for half-a-second, and say something patronizing like “Wonderful, darling.” But later that night, you’d consider the structure more carefully and wonder if you don’t have a little genius on your hands.)

The 354 blocks which comprise Habitat 67 are indeed identical, although the apartments found within the building are not. There are a wide range of apartment sizes and layouts, because the blocks can be purchased together and then interconnected. Safdie’s intention was to create a model for affordable, low-income housing… but that hasn’t exactly turned out to be the case with Habitat 67. In fact, it’s been quite the opposite. This bizarre structure has become a recognized architectural landmark, and the prices of its apartments are astronomical.

Habitat 67 is always visible across the river from the Old Port, and every time my eye falls upon it, I think either, “My god, is that building ugly!” or “God, it’s so cool!” We couldn’t resist getting a closer look. Standing right in front of it, we were able to verify the wealth of the people who call it home… almost every single plain gray-brown concrete block had some fancy work of art displayed in the window. As if to pronounce, “Yes, I might live in a hideous container, but look at the ostentatious art I can afford!”

If you don’t have a car, it’s not easy to reach Habitat 67; it seems close, since it’s just across the channel, but you have to walk or bike a long way before arriving. So as long as you’ve made the effort, make sure to walk around the back of the building. You’ll find a little path along a chain-link fence that eventually leads down to the river. Here, the water hits a small set of rapids, creating an ideal “standing surf” spot. It’s popular among surfers and kayakers, as it allows them to ride an endless wave.

Location on our Map

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June 15, 2016 at 10:44 pm Comments (0)

A Night at the Casino

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Housed in the former French Pavilion from the 1967 World Expo, Montreal’s state-run casino opened in 1993, and has become one of the most popular spots in the city. This is the largest casino in Canada, and is as memorable for its unique architecture as for its rollicking atmosphere. We were invited to check it out on a Saturday night.

Montreal Casino

The last couple casinos we’ve visited haven’t been so great; sad, dingy places with chain-smokers joylessly feeding machines and lifeless tables, where you leave feeling bad about yourself even if you happen to have won. But I’m happy to report that Montreal’s Casino is not like that. This is the fun type. It’s the kind of place you go to have a good time, and where gambling is almost an afterthought.

We started enjoying ourselves the moment we stepped inside. Just past the entrance, a band was rocking out in front of a large crowd, most of whom were dancing. The bar area was packed, the machines were ringing, the noise level was insane, and everything was lit up by a massive LED-backdrop the size of a tennis court which extends from behind the stage all the way up to the top floor.

Montreal Casino

Unlike in most casinos, there are plenty of windows and a real sense of space; in Montreal, they’re not trying to confuse you with a maze of slot machines, or make you forget the time of day. The floors of the casino are interconnected by an open central atrium, so that even from the top, you can look all the way down to see the band jamming. And the views are beautiful… the casino is mostly surrounded by water, and the skyline of downtown Montreal is visible in the near distance.

The main building of the casino is the former French Pavilion, built for Expo 67, and it’s also connected to the neighboring gold cube of the Quebec Pavilion, where you’ll find yet more floors of games, as well as the poker tables. This was perhaps the only place in the casino that I would characterize as “quiet.” The people seated around these tables were concentrating so intensely, it was intimidating. If we hoped to one day be able to take a place here, we were going to need some lessons.

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Luckily, we knew where to go. Jonathan Duhamel, a world poker champion, was on-hand at the casino to give free lessons. He’s a native of Quebec and often makes appearances. The game we learned with him was three-card poker, a variation which I’d never heard of before. We played a few hands and, within fifteen minutes, went from total newbies to totally overconfident. Time to hit the tables!

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We wandered over to the a room called “The Zone”, which was unlike anything I’d ever seen in a casino. This was more like a dance club, with a set of four DJs on the stage. Except, instead of dancing, we were sitting at terminals playing blackjack, and instead of spinning records, the DJs were flipping cards over. Everyone in The Zone was playing the same hands, and it was all live-projected on the screens behind DJ Croupier… so if he busted, everyone won.

After playing there and at a couple more traditional tables, we gathered up our winnings and went to the casino’s restaurant on the top floor. Even though it was late at night, this place was packed, and for good reason: the food is excellent and the prices are surprisingly reasonable. Plus, from so high up, you get a great view over the city.

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We had an awesome night out at the Montreal Casino, although I’m not sure that’s good news. Our last casino experiences had been so miserable, that we had started to lose our love of gambling. But now it’s been rekindled! Even as we were leaving the casino, I was plotting how to justify a return trip.

(Later that evening, as I was getting ready for bed, I discovered twenty dollars worth of chips still in my pocket. “Oh my, I forgot to cash these in. We’ll have to go back at some point.” Jürgen regarded me suspiciously… I’m not sure I fooled him. And I’m not sure I care!)

Location on our Map
Montreal Casino – Website

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May 30, 2016 at 8:11 pm Comment (1)

A Concise History of Montreal

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Five hundred years ago, Western civilization didn’t even know about the existence of Montreal Island. The Renaissance was just winding down in Europe, as the first wooden houses were being erected in a settlement called Ville-Marie. So, in order to evolve into a modern-day metropolis, Montreal has had to cram a lot into its short history. Here’s a brief rundown of the highlights.

History Montreal
2000 BC The first traces of human activity on the island of Montreal, including stone tools and evidence of campfires, date from about four thousand years ago. Before that, the island had been under the water level of the St. Lawrence River.
1142 The Iroquois form a powerful confederation. They and the Algonquin are the earliest settlers of Montreal, and each has a different name for it. The Iroquois call it Tiohtià:ke, while in the language of the Algonquin, the island is known as Moniang.
1535 The Island of Montreal is discovered for France by explorer Jacques Cartier, during his trip down the St. Lawrence River. He reports the presence of a large Iroquois settlement called Hochelaga at the base of Mont Royal.
1642 The first families arrive from France and establish a settlement called Ville-Marie (it’s uncertain when the name changed to Montreal). Although the Iroquois had abandoned the island by this time, the settlers are under constant attack from the Mohawk, who had been using it for hunting.
1701 Over 1300 Native Americans representing 40 tribes descend upon Montreal to sign a treaty known as the Great Peace and bring the Fur Wars to a close. The treaty is unique in relations with Native Americans, and most Canadian tribes consider it still active.
1760 As a result of the Seven Years War, France loses its North American territory. Montreal, along with Quebec, is ceded to the British. The island sees an upswing in immigration from Britain; by 1830, Anglophones outnumber French-speakers in Montreal.
1849 Tensions between the Crown and the independence movement finally boil over, as an angry band of rioters burns down parliament. Montreal’s short five-year period as the capital of Canada are over, and the government is moved to Ottawa. Alarmed English-speakers begin an exodus, and Montreal again becomes a majority Francophone city.
1920s Prohibition in the USA turns Montreal into a hot party-town. Nightclubs, casinos, bars, cabaret shows and strip joints gain prominence, as Montreal cuts loose to enjoy the roaring Twenties.
1960s Liberal leadership of Montreal brings about what has been called the city’s Quiet Revolution, transferring power to the people and secularizing society. The metro is introduced, utilities are nationalized, the welfare system is expanded, and the French-speaking population of the city begins to exert its influence.
1967 Montreal introduces itself to the world with the wildly successful Expo 67, which is timed to coincide with Canada’s centennial. Just nine years later, Montreal hosts the ’76 Summer Olympics, perhaps best remembered for the perfection of Romanian gymnast Nadia Com?neci.
1970 The Front de Libération du Québec sparks the October Crisis by assassinating Pierre Laporte, a member of Parliament, and kidnapping James Cross, a British diplomat. Canada sends special forces into Montreal, in its only domestic deployment of troops during peacetime, and order is soon restored.
1995 Quebec holds a nail-biting referendum on secession, which fails to pass by the slimmest of margins: just 50.58% of the province chooses to stick with Canada. The first referendum, in 1980, had been defeated by a more comfortable margin.
2016 and beyond… In December, Montreal celebrates its 375 birthday. The city has become a recognized leader in the arts, with a summer program full of events, including the world’s biggest jazz and comedy festivals. With its multilingual and cosmopolitan residents leading the way, Montreal seems certain to continue building on its status as one of North America’s most vibrant cities.
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April 23, 2016 at 9:34 pm Comments (0)
The Islands: le Notre-Dame An artificial island created for the 1967 World Expo, the Île Notre-Dame is found in the middle of the Saint Lawrence River. The Notre-Dame and its sister island, the Île Sainte-Hélène, together make up the Parc Jean-Drapeau, which is among Montreal's most popular summertime hangout areas.
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