Montreal is the ultimate party town. But can you do it with kids? I'm asking myself this question in my room at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, as my one-year-old daughter grabs hold of my chandelier earrings. As I struggle to change her diaper, I reflect that maybe studs would have been better. But it's New Year's Eve, and I want to be sparkly.
After all, this is Montreal, the place that, ever since I can remember, has been synonymous with a good time. Since my teenage years, I've travelled the 401 east to Canada's capital of cool, for wild times and then to nurse a hangover gazing at great art in one of the city's galleries and museums.
That was then and this is now: Here I am, married, with two kids and boxed around the ears. But outside the window is the nighttime brilliance of Montreal, which always outdoes itself for the holidays. It is a fine playground for kids too, as I have been finding out - especially during the holidays, when we have come by train to spend a few days celebrating with the offspring. That has meant taking in a Christmas star show at the Planetarium, sledding in Parc du Mont-Royal, and hot chocolate on the Plateau.
But the heart of the seasonal party is Old Montreal, the city's historic centre, where locals and tourists alike wander the cobblestone streets. Over the past decade, the neighbourhood has undergone some significant changes, moving from being simply old to the last word in chic. The district is home to such fashionable restaurants as Daylight Factory Café, with its wonderful wine bar, on St-Alexandre street.
It is also site of the long-running city holiday called Les Féeries du Vieux-Montreal, or Old Montreal Extravaganza, as it is known in English. The family-oriented festival opened with fireworks and classical Christmas music at the beginning of the month, and ends on New Year's Day after the fireworks of the New Year's Eve ball at Place Jacques-Cartier. This free event offers up more than 20 activities for children of all ages, including an ice slide and free sleigh rides. Indoors, at the nearby Pointe-à-Callière museum of history and archeology, is the children's theatrical show Who is the Real Santa Claus?, featuring a cast of characters representing the world's various interpretations of the great present giver. All these activities continue through New Year's Eve, typically attracting thousands.
Earlier in the week, we came to explore Old Montreal before the crowds took over. At Place d'Youville, we boarded a horse-drawn calèche, passing Notre-Dame Basilica, where we could hear the church's celebrated Casavant organ, dating to 1891. Continuing in the direction of the old Bonsecours market, we saw the skaters on the refrigerated skating rink at Vieux Port, where children and adults alike were cutting figure eights in time to a D.J. spinning hip hop in a ringside booth. Flooded with coloured lights, this was as much a dance floor as skating rink.
Elsewhere in the city, there's an abundance of lights for the kids to see. Montreal has become North America's answer to the City of Light - thanks, in part, to local company Plus Que Noël, which illuminates the downtown core with seasonal light displays created by local artisans, architects and designers. It seems like every storefront, every facade, every tree and street corner is aglow with holiday cheer. Gargantuan wreaths with blinking lights decorate an office tower on boulevard Maisonneuve Ouest, the shopping mall Complexe Desjardins, and various restaurants.
But the biggest is the three-storey red wreath on Olympic Stadium, said to be the biggest in Canada, visible from five kilometres away. Then there is the giant artificial Christmas tree at Place Ville Marie, made with more than 13,000 lights. Its visual extravagance seems in keeping with Montreal's deep-rooted Catholic past. It also makes for an amazing show for the kids. My three-year-old son stares in astonishment. He tells me that Montreal feels like being inside a pinball machine, with all the lights going off when he scores 100.
We follow the trail of lights down to Ste-Catherine Street, where we stop to savour Ogilvy's store windows, a Montreal tradition. Generations of families have come to see the dancing frogs, the bunnies helping ducklings up a hill, the monkeys who see, speak and hear no evil. The creatures created by Steiff in Germany 50 years ago have my son completely enchanted.
Another animal-themed show is Birdhouse Factory, a circus show with a matinee performance for the kids on New Year's Eve taking place in the circular performance hall inside the TOHU Saint-Michel Environmental Complex. The space was designed specifically for circus performances, and the feeling there is like being under the Big Top. The audience is seated in the round, and close to the jugglers, acrobats and aerial artistes.
Also created with children in mind, and open New Year's Eve, is the seasonal exhibit of more than 300 Christmas mangers from more than 100 countries around the world taking place at St. Joseph's Oratory. Children especially enjoy seeing the manger made entirely of chocolate, the entry from Switzerland.
I don't have a chocolate manger in my hotel room, but there is no shortage of sugary confections. We found them in a patisserie located in the 30-kilometre subterranean pedestrian mall directly below our hotel room. Our purchases include cream-filled éclairs and a holiday bouche, or log, a Quebec New Year's Eve tradition.
I haven't cut into it yet, distracted as I am by the lights blinking outside my window. I am looking out over the harbour at the mighty St. Lawrence, anticipating the pyrotechnics of the New Year's Eve Ball.
But then I feel a hand tugging on my fishnets. I look down in the direction of that wordless imperative. My baby daughter has crawled over to get my attention. She has her arms stretched up toward me.
I turn to scoop her up in my arms, and as I do, I see a glorious sight. My son is bouncing happily on the king-sized bed, while in a corner by the mini-bar my husband is pouring more champagne. Barry White is thrumming through the clock radio: "My first, my last, my everything." In one enchanted moment, it hits me. I am in the midst of the best party of my life. I am with my family, and in Montreal. What better thrill is there?
WHERE TO STAY
Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth 900 René-Lévesque Blvd. W.; 866-540-4483; www.fairmont.com/queenelizabeth. The recently renovated hotel is located above Montreal's central train station and connected to the underground pedestrian mall.
THINGS TO DO
Old Montreal Extravanganza www.bonjourquebec.com. Events continue through New Year's Day. Free.
St. Joseph's Oratory, 3800 Queen Mary Rd.; 514-733-8211; www.saint-joseph.org/. Free.