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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)

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.

Montreal Casino

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!

Montreal Casino

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.

Montreal Casino

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!)

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