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The Biodôme at the Olympic Park

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Not to be confused with the Biosphere on the Île Sainte-Hélène, the Biodôme is a small zoo housed in the former Olympic velodrome. The zoo is organized into five distinctive ecosystems found in North America, introducing some of the plant and animal life found in each.

Biodome Montreal

Dwarfed by the Olympic Stadium to which it’s adjacent, the Biodôme doesn’t look like much from the outside. But inside, an illusion of immense space has been created, and each of the five ecosystems are surprisingly spacious. After leaving the Biodôme, I looked back on the building in confusion. How did they manage to fit everything into that little cycling dome?

Walking through the Biodôme is surreal. It feels like you’re in one of those films where life on earth has ended for whatever reason (global warming, nuclear apocalypse, the whims of Herr Trump), and the remnants of our planet’s various ecosystems have been preserved in a bubble. “Look, monkeys! Remember those? Oh, the Earth used to be so wonderful.”

You start in “Tropical Rainforests” ecosystem, where you can see animals like alligators, monkeys, parrots, snakes, bats, and if you’re lucky, a family of sloths. (We weren’t lucky.) From the rainforests, you move into a zone a little closer to home: the “Laurentian Maple Forests” of Canada. It’s not as exotic, but this was actually my favorite zone inside the Biodôme. Monkeys and alligators are standard zoo fare, but you don’t often get to see a beaver swimming around.

Did you know that when beavers poop, they dive underwater and do a little flip? Well, actually, I’m not sure if all beavers do that, or just this particular one. He was a bit of a scatological show-off. Talented, though, I’ll give him that.

Biodome Montreal

Next up is the Gulf of Saint Lawrence, where a 2.5-million-liter basin holds fish like the massive Atlantic sturgeon, dogfish and salmon, as well as starfish and mollusks. You can watch the action in this tank from both above and below. On the side of the basin, the Labrador Cliffs have been recreated, with guillemots and puffins diving into the water. The final zone in the Biodôme is dedicated to the Antarctic; you’ll get zero points for guessing that penguins are the stars of this show.

We enjoyed the Biodôme more than we had expected to. Somehow, the concept of a “zoo inside a former cycling hall” doesn’t ring with promise, but they’ve done a wonderful job with it. The Biodôme can be visited on its own, or in combination with any other of the Olympic Park’s sights (the Planetarium, the Insectarium/Botanic Garden and the Olympic Tower).

Location on our Map
Montréal Biodôme – Website

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May 25, 2016 at 6:03 pm Comments (0)

The Views from the Olympic Tower

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Built in 1976 for the Summer Games and attached to the Olympic Stadium, Montreal Tower’s height of 165 meters (541 feet) makes it the tallest inclined tower in the world. We took the funicular up to the top, where there’s an observatory that provides views of the Olympic Park, Mont Royal and downtown Montreal.

Montreal Olympic Tower

With its 45-degree incline, it would be an understatement to call the Montreal Tower “slightly tilted.” For comparison, the Tower of Pisa only leans at five degrees. However, Montreal Tower doesn’t exactly seem in danger of falling over. It’s solid, with a massive underground concrete base that’s the weight of three aircraft carriers.

Montreal Olympic Tower

The funicular climbs the tower every ten minutes, whisking you to the top for one of the Montreal’s best views. The Olympic Park is in the eastern neighborhood of Hochelaga-Maisonneuve; from here, you can see the entire downtown district in one incredible panorama. And you get a great sense for the true size of Mont Royal — it takes up nearly the same area as the downtown and is the same height than the city’s tallest skyscrapers.

Although you can’t step outside, the observatory has windows in every direction, with views of the St. Lawrence to the south, the industrial neighborhoods to the east, and the Botanic Garden to the north. And of course, right underneath, there’s the Olympic Stadium. Formerly home to the Expos, the stadium is now mostly unoccupied and is known as the “Big O” for the doughnut-shaped hole in its roof. Many Montrealers, however, think of it as the “Big Owe.” Its astronomical construction cost of $260 million was finally paid off in 2006, thirty years after the games themselves.

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May 20, 2016 at 2:39 pm Comments (0)

The Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium

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One of the buildings which makes up Montreal’s “Space for Life” is the Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium. It opened in 2013, and features two full-dome theaters which allow visitors to tour the universe.

Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium

The “Space for Life” is said to be the world’s first park dedicated to both nature and humanity. It’s based in the Olympic Park, and includes the Insectarium, the Botanic Garden and the Biodome, along with the Olympic Tower. You can buy joint tickets which will get you into any combination of the sights… but I’d recommend against seeing the Planetarium at the end of a busy day. The Powell Exhaustion Equation states: tired bodies + bean bags + total dark = expensive nap.

We settled onto our beanbags inside the Chaos Theater and got cozy, while the lights dimmed to envelope us in complete blackness. “Uh-oh,” I thought. “I’m never going to make it!” Luckily, the show was so fascinating, that staying conscious didn’t involve much of a struggle. “Dark Universe,” presented by Neil DeGrasse-Tyson, was an excellent presentation which took us on a journey through the least-known aspects of the cosmos.

Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium

Dark Universe was the shorter of the two shows, and upon its completion, we had some time to check out the Planetarium’s exhibit on meteors and down a few shots of espresso, before heading into the Milky Way Theater for a show called “Aurorae.”

This was a more typical planetarium-type room, with seats inclined upward, and a central globe that was able to reproduce the night sky across the dome. First, we saw how the sky over Montreal would look tonight. An emcee pointed out some of the major constellations, such as the Big Dipper, Ursa Major and Leo, and taught us how to find Jupiter. And then, we embarked on a tour of the Northern Lights, during which we saw time-lapsed footage of the dancing lights and learned the scientific explanation for the phenomenon.

The Rio Tinto Planetarium offers shows in English, although less frequently than French-language shows, so make sure to check the schedule before heading over. The programs might change, but they always being with a more scientific show, such as “Dark Universe”, followed by one with a lighter touch, such as “Aurora.” It’s a good mix, and a trip here makes for a perfect rainy day excursion.

Location on our Map
Rio Tinto Alcan Planetarium – Website

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May 16, 2016 at 2:19 pm Comments (2)

The Château Dufresne

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A mansion constructed in the early twentieth-century for two brothers, the Château Dufresne is found on the border of Montreal’s Olympic Park. Although it looks like one massive residence from the outside, the chateau is actually comprised of two separate houses, one for each of the siblings, Oscar and Marius.

Chateau Dufresne

The chateau was built between 1915 and 1918. Oscar (a shoe magnate) and Marius (an architect) were French-Canadians, in a day when the great majority of Quebec’s wealth was firmly in the hands of the British. But the brothers were proud of their heritage, and made no secret about it. Inside the house, you’ll find numerous nods to French culture, including a table with Napoleon’s portrait and items which belonged to the likes of Joan of Arc and Louis XV. The chateau itself is based on Versailles’ Petit Trianon, in which Marie Antoinette once lived.

In 1948, the Dufresne family sold the chateau to the Congregation of the Holy Cross, who immediately got to work covering up all the “lewd” frescoes featuring naked bodies. After the city of Montreal had bought the property, the paintings were re-discovered in an excellent state of preservation. On the ceiling of Oscar’s ballroom, for instance, there’s a stunning set of twelve frescoes that detail the tragedy of Orpheus and Eurydice.

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The ballroom isn’t merely an exquisite exception; every room in this three-story Beaux-Arts home is gorgeous. There’s a reason this building has become unofficially known as Montreal’s “castle.” The tour begins in Oscar’s half, where highlights include the dining room, library and solarium. And after crossing into the other half of the chateau, you realize his brother Marius might have had even better taste. His family’s residence is stuffed with furniture and accouterments from around the world. There’s a Turkish smoking room, and the attention to detail is incredible, as is the state of preservation.

The tour of the Château is fun; each visitor gets a tablet, which acts as a guide through the various rooms, providing audio commentary and detailed information about the decoration, furniture and architecture.

On this side of the ocean, we don’t have all that many palaces; mansions like the Château Dufresne are about as close as it gets. But we were just as impressed by this chateau as we have been by many of the princely estates we’ve had the chance to visit in Europe. Since it’s found right next to the Olympic Park, with its over-abundance of attractions, you might be tempted to skip the Château Dufresne… but that would be a mistake.

Location on our Map
Château Dufresne – Website

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May 4, 2016 at 1:32 pm Comments (0)
The Biodme at the Olympic Park Not to be confused with the Biosphere on the Île Sainte-Hélène, the Biodôme is a small zoo housed in the former Olympic velodrome. The zoo is organized into five distinctive ecosystems found in North America, introducing some of the plant and animal life found in each.
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