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Marvelous Montreal

Note: Maasdam is currently at Montreal.

If there is one phrase that characterizes Quebec, it is, “Et pourquoi pas?” The phrase, which translates to “And why not?” seems to be on the tip of every Quebecer’s tongue.

It is a ready response of permissiveness and tolerance, a defender of an important concept — the joie de vivre or “joy of living” — that is alive and thriving in Quebec.

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And no place more so than in Montreal, a metropolitan city of 2 million where anything and everything goes. “We don’t care if you’re straight, gay, whatever,” says Aline Bernier, a Montreal city guide. “We’re very open to all people and lifestyles.” (In 2006 both Traveler’s Digest and AskMen.com ranked Montreal as the world’s number-one city to live in for its culture, architecture, history and ambiance.)

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That tolerance perhaps explains why Montreal is so good at welcoming visitors. Stroll down almost any street to feel the palpable city vibe. Sidewalk cafes spill over with patrons sipping coffee or glasses of wine or champagne (Et pourquoi pas?), cyclists pedal along sections of the city’s 400 miles of biking trails, shoppers crowd boutiques and shops both above, and below, ground. That’s right: below ground. With 22 miles of mazes and walkways, Montreal boasts the world’s largest underground city.

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Indeed, Montreal is a city of dual identities — an above-ground metropolis and an underground city within a city, the French joie de vivre mixed with North American pragmatism, modern architecture (UNESCO designated Montreal a City of Design) mixed with a well-preserved historic quarter.

The second-largest French-speaking city after Paris, Montreal fools visitors into thinking they’ve arrived in France, but without the accompanying jetlag or expense. And snobbery (that unfortunate French attribute) is conspicuously absent in Montreal; friendly people and genuine hospitality are not. Even locals who struggle with English are happy to give directions and advice. They are Canadians, after all.

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It’s an easy walk from either hotel to “Old Montreal,” where the city was founded in 1642. (For arriving cruise passengers the cruise terminal also is located only a few blocks from the hotel and Old Montreal.) Find your way to Rue Saint-Paul, “the street” where it all happens, our guide Celine tells us as we walk along the cobblestone roadway.

Marvelous Montreal

You can drop in the Tourist Information Center or visit the official Web site before leaving home for suggestions on what to see, but simply to walk and absorb the ambiance is a sufficiently pleasurable experience.

Tomorrow, Old Montreal.

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