Accent on spontaneity

Kristie Kellahan soaks up the French-infused charms of Montreal over a ramekin of lobster poutine and a selection of fine cheeses.

DON'T get me wrong, I certainly share a popular passion for New York. I was so enamoured of Sex and the City, and Carrie's life as a writer in the Big Apple, that I have lived in Manhattan for months on end. Lately, though, the city's brashness and the stifling heat of summer had me reaching the end of my tether.

I yearned to get away somewhere pretty, fresh, laid-back.

I had a USA Rail Pass and four days to spare so I headed to the Amtrak office at Penn Station one hot August night and asked the teller to send me somewhere lovely - as soon as possible. He suggested Montreal, just across the border in Canada. An 11-hour rail journey and I'd be leaving New York at eight the next morning. Perfect.

Eleven hours on a train isn't as dire as it might sound. I had just enough time to read every page of the September issue of US Vogue, take a nap, watch a DVD on my netbook, wander into to the cafe car a few times and, voila, I was in Montreal.

How refreshing to arrive in a new city with no plans, no commitments, no travel companion and no idea of how I'd spend the next four days.

Montreal has long been praised for its cultural vibrancy, stellar cuisine and charming Frenchness. The official language is French, making Montreal the second-largest, primarily French-speaking city in the world, after Paris.

English is widely spoken, too. Locals, unsure of your provenance, greet you with a smile and a covering-all-bases "Hello, bonjour!"

Sexy French accents abound in bistros and bars. Many street signs and store names are exclusively in French, adding to the illusion you've been parachuted into France. As I ambled around the brick lanes of Old Montreal and past the soaring Notre-Dame Basilica, built in 1672 in the Gothic Revival style, the illusion was complete.

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So much of the way we travel today is planned in advance, with no spontaneity or whimsy permitted.

What a delight, then, to relax at an outdoor cafe in Old Montreal and watch the street performers. At the next table is a nervous young man holding a single red rose. A few blocks away, as part of the city's street art program, sits Robert Indiana's LOVE sculpture. Asked why the O is tilted he replied, "Because love is never perfect."

It may not be perfect but for the young man it shows up; his beloved arriving in a rush, flustered and apologetic for her tardiness. He and I both let out long breaths.

The couple kiss with a passion that can only be mustered when love's return has not been guaranteed. I look away and smile. Ah, so this is what slow travel is all about.

I can tell you a few of the recommended things I didn't do in Montreal. I didn't take a bus tour of the city, didn't visit acclaimed museums and galleries, including the superb Museum of Fine Arts.

I didn't make it to the Underground Pedestrian Network, 33 kilometres of connecting passageways that hum with shops and cafes beneath the Downtown district. I didn't time my stay to coincide with fabulous festivals Montrealers cram into the warmer months, including the acclaimed Jazz Festival or the World Film Festival.

I didn't buy a souvenir, so I am unable to steer you in the right direction for the best place to buy gift bottles of maple syrup or fridge magnets.

I did, however, eat a lot of cheese. Yummy runny goat's cheese from the supermarket; boiling hot cheese oozing over the sides of a bowl of french onion soup I enjoyed at a footpath bistro on lively Crescent Street; and a sliver of brie to finish my delicious meal of grilled fish at Brasserie T!, the trendy new spot opened by renowned local chef Normand Laprise. I found the perfect croque monsieur at L'Express on Rue Saint-Denis, a Parisian-style bistro where I could happily eat for the rest of my life. And I had the granddaddy of Gallic cheese indulgences: a ramekin of lobster poutine at Garde Manger, on Rue Saint Francois-Xavier. Four of the local food blogs I checked out said Garde Manger was the best restaurant in town; lobster poutine the best dish on the menu.

Phoning ahead to make a reservation, I snapped up the last available seat. "Oh, you are very lucky, madam, we can fit you in if you sit at the bar," came the charming French accent at the other end of the line. "If you were two people it would not be possible."

Ah, serendipity!

I went along that evening to enjoy what will go down as a truly memorable meal. The lobster poutine - lobster bisque sauce, generous chunks of meat, french fries, gravy, cheese curd - delivered a taste sensation with every mouthful.

Next morning, I picked up some croissants for breakfast on the train ride back to New York and bid Montreal au revoir, feeling that this time, travelling had truly been a pleasure.

The writer travelled with the assistance of Rail Europe.

Trip notes

Getting there

Air Canada flies from Sydney to Montreal via Vancouver, priced from $2804. 1300 655 767, aircanada.com. Amtrak has 15-, 30- and 45-day USA Rail Passes. From New York's Penn Station, a ticket to Montreal costs $US62 ($62). amtrak.com; raileurope.com.

Staying there

The Hotel Delta Centre-Ville, 777 University Street, is in a great location close to Central Station and a short walk from Old Montreal. Rooms from $C189 a night. 514 879 1370, deltahotels.com.

More information

tourisme-montreal.org.

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