Visiting Montréal is like stumbling upon a little corner of Europe in North America. Soak up the rich French culture by sampling local cuisine, catching a hockey game at a bar, or finding yourself in the midst of some fabulous all-night party.
The legend is that sometime in 1957 a customer walked into Le Café Idéal in the village of Warwick, Québec, and asked owner Fernand Lachance to add a handful of cheese curds to his order of frites-sauce (fries and gravy). Lachance served the result while muttering "Quelle poutine!"—roughly translated as "What a mess!"
And so was born what has become Québec's favorite fast food. Poutine is everywhere, even at McDonalds. But it's no longer just hot french fries topped with cheese curds and a ladleful of thick brown gravy, as dozens of high- and lowbrow variations have sprung up.
Top chefs have come up with their own gourmet versions, using duck gravy instead of the usual gelatinous brown sauce or blue cheese instead of curds. Martin Picard at Montréal's Au Pied de Cochon drew rave reviews for his foie gras poutine, and Chuck Hughes of Montréal's Garde-Manger won TV's Iron Chef competition with his delectable lobster poutine.
What soccer is to Brazilians and baseball is to Americans, hockey is to the Québecois. It's not a game, it's a religion, and its winter-long rites are celebrated in hundreds of arenas across the province.
On weekend mornings, bleary-eyed parents hunker down in the stands watching their children practice. At 10 pm the beer-sponsored leagues take over the ice—men and women with full-time jobs strap on the skates and pads just for the fun of it.
If you can afford the scalpers' ticket prices (or if you have a friend with connections), catch a Montréal Canadiens game at the Centre Bell. The province's only National Hockey League team hasn't won a Stanley Cup since 1993, but a night watching the Habs—as they're known locally—is an experience to savor.
If someone invites you to what sounds like a "sank-a-sett," it has nothing to do with swimming or tennis. It's a cinq-à-sept, a cocktail party that's supposed to happen between 5 and 7 pm but that rarely starts before 6 pm and usually ends around 8 or 8:30 pm.
The true 5-à-7 isn't to be confused with the raucous 2-for-1 happy hour. The cinq-à-sept is a more refined affair, at which conversation is at least as important as the drinks.
One of the essential skills you should master before attending your first 5-à-7 is the two-cheek kiss. The secret to perfecting this Continental-style greeting is capturing the middle ground between the air kiss and the passionate enthusiastic smack of long-separated lovers. A light cheek brush, something that expresses delight, is just about right.
Quebecers are crazy about the great outdoors, no matter what time of year. Cycling trails crisscross Montréal, making good use of canal routes, former railway beds, and even major downtown streets. One of the most popular outings is a ride along La Route Verte, a 2,500-mile network of bike trails. Fitz and Follwell Co. (514/754-3691www.fitzandfollwell.com) arranges delightful tours through Montréal that include hot chocolate, fresh bagels, and a lunch of poutine.
In winter, why try to avoid the weather when it's better to join the frosty fun? Try ice-skating in Parc Lafontaine and cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, and snow tubing on Mont-Royal.
Not so long ago, a pint of Ex (Molson's Export Ale) or a tin of Blue (Labatt's Pilsner) were the staples of sports bars, taverns, and brasseries. Things have changed in the Canadian beer world, as microbreweries have entered the beer scene. Their products have taken their place alongside the best beers from Belgium, England, and Germany. In Québec, brewers tend to choose apocalyptic labels like Maudite (Damned) and La Fin du Monde (End of the World).
There's something about surviving the harsh winters—which Québec winters still unquestionably are—that makes it particularly sweet to spend long summer evenings sipping drinks under the open sky. Alfresco dining blooms as early as May, when it still can be quite chilly, especially at night. But when locals have been cooped up indoors for months, a few buds on the trees or a few crocuses in the garden are enough to lure diners outside to sidewalk tables with colorful umbrellas or awnings. These terrasses are perfect for watching the passing parade of people.