Montreal Biodome: Former Olympic velodrome now houses penguins and puffins

Everyone needs a puffin in their lives, I realise, as I peer through the glass of an exhibit at the Montreal Biodome. There's something inherently comical about Atlantic puffins' spherical heads and curvy orange beaks, as if they're an unlikely children's toy which came alive and was released into the wild.

Next door to them is a more familiar bird: the penguin. Several different species in fact, from gentoo penguins to king penguins, managing to look more dignified than the puffins by standing aloof in their tuxedo-like feathers.

These bird species normally live thousands of kilometres apart, one in the northern hemisphere and the other in the south. I'm able to see them together because they share the Subpolar Regions section of the Biodome, a fascinating attraction which presents four habitats of North and South America. Each contains a large-scale re-creation of the natural environment, with living creatures as part of the mix.

It's an intriguing concept, heightened by the location. For the Biodome is housed within the former velodrome of the 1976 Olympic Games, a vast curving structure which looks like an alien ship. After a major renovation, the Biodome reopened recently with added features to make the most of its unusual architecture – including walkways and lookouts allowing visitors to get closer to its exhibits.

I'm certainly feeling immersed in nature as I step into the Laurentian Maple Forest section. This is a delight, as walkways lead me beneath a leafy green canopy dappled with sunlight from glass sections of the roof. It really is like strolling through a Quebec forest in summer, and within the simulated environment are such local stars as beavers, raccoons and porcupines – I even spot a lynx having a snooze on a rocky ledge.

There's not much in the way of captions along the way, so creature-spotting is aided by the fold-out leaflet which can be picked up on entrance. Another alternative is to download the dedicated app (search on 'EPLV Montreal'), an excellent aid which contains photos and detailed descriptions of the animals and their habitats. You can see why the Biodome is popular with families – there's both fun and learning within its walls.

From the forest the path leads to a below-ground section representing the Gulf of St Lawrence between Quebec and Newfoundland. It's as if I'm walking below the surface, with a big glass wall revealing what lives below the waters. It's a busy place, teeming with aquatic creatures including the huge Atlantic sturgeon, which looks almost two metres long. Following the path upward, I'm able to view the rock-strewn waters from above.

The finale is the most spectacular environment, the Tropical Rainforest which re-creates a habitat from Central and South America. The moment I step through its entrance curtain of steel beads I hear loud squawks and spot two brightly-coloured macaws having a territorial tussle on a nearby branch.

Lush, dense vegetation surrounds the path as I follow it toward more peaceful inhabitants in the form of two tiny golden lion tamarins clinging to thick horizontal vines. Lying very still in the water below are two sinister caimans, relatives of the crocodile. I'm then a little thrown by a colourful feature I realise is an emerald tree boa wrapped around a tree trunk, though I must admit it is beautiful. 

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I complete my visit by joining two other visitors on the path as we peer upwards, looking for the southern two-toed sloth a sign has alerted us to ("It is easy to mistake it for a bird's nest or a knot in a branch," it reads.) Suddenly, we spot it – a red-brown patch, fast asleep within the green leaves. If only we humans could learn to be so relaxed.

THE DETAILS

FLY & RIDE

Air Canada flies via Vancouver to Montreal. See aircanada.com 

STAY

Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth is a stylish retro-themed hotel in Montreal's city centre. See fairmont.com 

VISIT

Biodome entry fee is C$22.50 for adults, C$11 child, $C60.75 for a family. See espacepourlavie.ca 

MORE

Traveller.com.au/canada 

espacepourlavie.ca 

mtl.org 

Tim Richards visited as a guest of Destination Canada, Accor Hotels and Tourism Montreal.