Where: White Barn Inn, Kennebunk Beach, Maine
Distance from Manhattan: 7–8 hours by car; 1 hour by plane.
Good for: A French-flavored weekend à deux; a bar-hopping getaway with friends (punctuated by plenty of poutine); a family excursion, especially when Cirque du Soleil is in town.
Why now: In most cities, festivals are a special occasion. In Montréal, they’re a way of life. And now’s the time to go: Festival season kicks off in the spring. The new Quartier de Spectacles neighborhood has been expanding, and in the process, the nearby red-light district was cleaned up – à la Times Square. Now the Quartier is the headquarters for dozens of festivals, including the hugely popular 21 Balançoires musical swings (April 8–June 1), Québec Danse (April 23–29) and Just for Laughs (July), the world’s largest comedy festival, with past headliners that include Louis CK, Jerry Seinfeld and Jim Carrey. Plus they have the best website name we've come across – hahaha.com. Also, spring is maple syrup season in Quebec, when you can sample the newly tapped dark stuff at cabanes à sucre around Montréal.
One of the first signs (literally) that you’ve crossed into Québec are the traffic stop signs. Instead of the universal “Stop,” the octagonal red signs display the French translation, “Arrêt.” (Even France doesn’t do that.) The region’s French roots run deep, especially on the island metropolis of Montréal, home to over a third of all Québécois. In the space of a weekend, you can experience the region’s full historical timeline, from Vieux-Montréal, where horse carriages clip-clop down cobbled streets under gas lamps to the neo-Gothic Notre-Dame Basilica (come by on Sundays at 11am to hear the rousing choir). Montréal is also a premier art town: The revitalized industrial neighborhood of Griffintown (think of Williamsburg ten years ago) is presided over by the new L’Arsenal, one of the city’s largest contemporary art venues, housed in a former shipyard. And then there’s cheese.
“How can you govern a country which has 246 varieties of cheese?” Charles de Gaulle once joked. He was talking about France, but the same could be said about Québec, which has more than 400 types of cheese. Stop by the Fromagerie Atwater, at the Atwater Market since 1972; try the prize-winning vegetable ash-covered goat cheese by La Maison Alexis de Portneuf.
Even in a city packed with top French restaurants, Leméac stands apart, as much for the classic cuisine as for the classic setting. Roast duck is tossed wtih shiitake mushrooms while their signature pain perdu (French for “lost bread,” because it was once a method to make old bread palatable) is a thick slice of French bread soaked in maple caramel.
What happens when you tamper with a national dish? If you’re chef Martin Picard, it makes you into a household name. Picard, whose approach to Québécois cuisine is as playful as his hair, famously added foie gras to poutine – quelle scandale – at his breakout restaurant Au Pied de Cochon. Since then, he has continued to challenge the norm, with a menu that includes duck carpaccio, foie gras made every which way and, of course, stuffed pig’s feet (pied de cochon).
Montreal was called “Sin City” in the 1920s, when Americans streamed in to drink during the Prohibition. The name still applies, though in a tamer form. Sip handcrafted cocktails and local red wines at Baldwin Barmacie, which takes its cues from an old-fashioned pharmacy, where the owner’s grandmother once worked. Try the signature Lionel – gin, fresh lime juice and Prosecco. Just what the doctor ordered.
Sleep in Style
With its dark wood, fireplaces and rooms that look out of a sleek country chateaux, Hotel Nelligan feels like a natural extension of Vieux-Montréal. The Terrasse Nelligan rooftop has well-poured cocktails, skyline views and jazzy music that’s perfect for intimate conversations. At the impeccable downtown boutique hotel Hôtel Le Germain, the artwork is by Montrealers, as are the furnishings and the Marie Saint Pierre bed linen.
(Photos courtesy of Tourisme Montréal and AnneLise Sorensen)