Montreal, 3 nights: our first all-reward trip

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  1. Clocktower
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    Clocktower Silver Member

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    Well, sorry this is so late folks. I should point out I took this trip nearly two years ago, in September 2012. I’m not a blogger but a real, live boy with a 9-5 job so sometimes things fall through the cracks. Hopefully you’ll still find this useful. The last I heard Montreal was still there, so that’s promising. The mayor resigned shortly after my visit in light of corruption charges, but I probably didn't have anything to do with that.

    If you want to skip ahead here’s the album link, including photos not shown here:

    After all the dining programs and gift cards and hometown mattress runs, I was finally ready to book a full honest-to-god door-to-door reward trip on my own. It wasn’t going to be a big one, but I did hope to show off a little for the wife, so that she could start to appreciate some of my madness for using THIS card, not THAT card.

    I wanted to take her to another country, but costs and schedule limitations boxed us in pretty tightly. Her work schedule is very unforgiving, and our best option for dealing with our little maniac is leaving him with the grandparents, which requires an extra day on each end to get him to and from.

    So, I decided on Canada. Travel time would be short and hey, it’s another country, right? The choice then was between Vancouver and Montreal.. Toronto just didn’t appeal to me. Vancouver looks lovely, but in the end Montreal won out because they speak French. I figured that would help her feel like we’re indeed in another country, non?

    I nearly went mad looking for dates that would work for both of us, and finally ended up with a few candidates. After researching I was shocked to discover Delta was the best award possibility that fit. I’m not very active on Delta, but I could move AMEX points. We talked it over and a couple weeks later I sat down and got to business.

    I transferred the points and the next day went to start booking.. AAARGH! Availability had completely evaporated for my 1st and 2nd choice dates. I’d had a 3rd, but dismissed out of hand because it would require her to take an extra day off for us to bring the little maniac back from the grandparents.

    I suddenly had a flash of inspiration. We had to fly back to the grandparents to pick up the little one and drive him back (adding about a day), but that would really only take ONE of us, right? So, I could have her fly straight back home, while I took an extra day off and did a Daddy roadtrip with the little one. The cost in miles was the same. All I’d have to do is pre-stage her car at the home airport, and survive 4 hours in a car with a 3yo. I pulled the trigger.


    Montreal - 4 days, 3 nights, all 'reward', all the way.

    Intercontinental Montreal 1st night
    W Montreal 2nd/3rd night

    I booked the Intercontinental Montreal using my free night credit from the Priority Club Visa. Prior to 2013, you had to call to book with a free night credit (now it’s done online). Doing so was a bit of a hassle.. the phone rep was not a native English speaker (Russian?) but more importantly she seemed to adamantly believe there was no Intercontinental in Montreal, Quebec. This was because she was in fact looking in Quebec City, Quebec. The pain of being given a geography lesson by an American must sting her to this day.

    I’d planned the trip to give us a 2 ½ hour stop in ATL. My wife’s previous experiences with travel were usually the grit-your-teeth-until-you-get-there type, some of which was my fault, I admit. It was the pain of a few of those experiences that inspired me to find a better way to travel.

    So, rather than sprinting to the next gate while choking down a dried-out sandwich, I marched her over to the XpresSpa.

    “What we doing here?”
    “Getting your nails done. Like a BAWSE!”

    The ladies at XpresSpa were even nice enough to let me ride one of their massage chairs for free while she got her nails done. It proceeded to try to rip my clothes off, but in the end I was victorious.

    My plan was to then proceed to Paschal’s for lunch, as they have (had) the most delicious collard greens in any airport. Whoops, they closed it. Oh, there still is one, but it’s OUTSIDE security. Who puts a sit-down restaurant outside security? Are many folks thinking “Gee, I’d like to have a meal while traveling, but I also want a chance to miss my flight”?

    So, we walked towards our gate and ate at somewhere forgettable along the way. They did not have collard greens, I asked.

    We arrived in YUL at just after 2:30pm, and I bought us two 3-day STM metro passes. These are a bargain at CAD$18 each, since the standard price for an airport transfer on the ‘747’ bus was CAD$8 (increased now to CAD$9). So, if you’re going to go anywhere other than to and from the airport, you’ll likely save money. However, it didn’t quite turn out to be a deal for us, which I’ll get to later. Another handy feature is they use some sort of NFC smart-chip embedded in the paper card. So, when you enter the bus, all you have to do is tap it to the pedestal to pay your fare. If you don’t have a card, you'll have to carry coins (loonies), as the busses only accept coins, not bills. Carrying around that many coins is heavy and annoying. Bus drivers and other bus patrons will sometimes make change for you if they have it (they are helpful Canadians after all), but they are not obligated to.

    Our first hotel was the Intercontinental Montreal. As I said this was a free-night award stay thanks to the PC Visa. I'd only booked a standard room, but I was nonetheless upgraded to one of the "Tourelle" Suites, which are partially in the turret that runs up the side of the building, giving it an interesting sort of gothic castle look. From what I've read this seems to be the standard upgrade practice for PC Platinums at this hotel, and good on them for that. It's a lovely suite, and with an interesting layout due to the large circular living room. We didn't receive any breakfast/wifi vouchers but I was more than happy with the room upgrade.


    Intercontinental Montreal

    As I said the suite has kind of a fun layout and good view with a big circular room lined with windows, and the large bathroom has a standard tub and shower stall. The bathroom tile was a rather unappealing creamy green color, but it was spotlessly clean and all the fixtures were in good shape.

    After settling in I went to the gym/pool area that was on the same floor as our suite. The gym looked small but nice, I didn't really explore it. The pool is up a little stairwell, and attached to the pool is a lovely little outside balcony/terrace. The weather was stellar and while the greenery was a little overgrown, I couldn't believe this pretty little balcony wasn't pictured on the website, it really would have been a selling point for me.


    Lovely weather on the balcony

    The hotel features an absinthe bar, but we didn't partake. Instead we split a brownie and mocha in the coffee shop in the ground floor part of the turret.

    For those of you travelling in the winter, I should point out that many Canadian cities have underground tunnels or skywalks that connect major downtown buildings. The Intercontinental is connected to such a complex, with a large enclosed atrium that connects it to the next building over, and features entries to the underground portion. There are also shops and restaurants tucked away inside. This makes it a bit more civilized to conduct business around the city in extreme winter weather. As this was only September, this wasn't much of a concern for us, so we explored exactly none of it..

    Wifi was an issue for us during this trip. For reasons I won't go into, roaming with a US cell phone with a data connection is prohibitively expensive in the oppressive Canadanese Empire. So, we kept our phones on airplane mode most of the time, hoping to rely on wifi. Alas, the theme seemed to be that wifi in Montreal is never where you expect it, but strangely pops up in places you don't expect it. At this time, IHG didn't comp wifi for Platinums (they do now), and I wasn't about to pay their outrageous prices, so no wifi in the first hotel. Many restaurants either had no wifi, or it was locked down and no one seemed to know the password. But the busses--oh yes, those have wifi! Walking along the frigid riverside, and Bip!, my phone announces there's a signal, conveniently provided by the ministry of tourism. We huddled on a bench to upload photos as frigid stinging rain started to pelt us. Your only sure bet is Starbucks, and we ended up standing outside one a few times as I pulled up directions to the next place we wanted to go.

    I'll get to sights later, for the second and third nights we moved over to the W Montreal. This was my first time staying at a W, so I was quite curious given how polarizing they seem to be. I'd booked a Wonderful room on cash and points. I wasn't upgraded but then didn't expect any since I'm a SPG Nothing. So, right to the red meat.. yes, there is a powerful "trendier than thou" vibe that permeates the hotel. Being a mid-30s tech worker I'm probably a bit high on the age side of their target demographic. Several times I felt like I was likely the only patron that didn't have a record ready to 'drop', or a new gallery opening on my schedule. Let's hit the high points: It's dark in the hallways. Really dark. I think being a little dark might add a nice atmosphere, but it was ridiculous. Once you exit the elevator you have to stand and wait for 20-30 seconds while your eyes adjust. Then, once you get to the room you have to wait again because you're blinded by the sun coming in the windows. There is dance music playing in the lobby, VERY LOUDLY. I actually liked the music, and wouldn't mind them turning it up to "party mode" levels if it were 10pm on a Friday, but this was 9am, Sunday. Shouldn't all the cool kids be hungover by then? The minibar (which was more of a minibar area in addition to a traditional minifridge) had no less than five bottles of booze, snacks, condoms and lube, and strangely a W baseball cap (do the cool kids wear baseball caps?).

    Now, it might sound like I'm running them down, but none of this detracted from my enjoyment. In fact I really liked the ultramodern styling and furniture, at least when the lights were bright enough to see them. To my taste it's a lovely hotel. Another thing I'll mention, while the vibe may have been "trendier than thou", the service was most definitely not. Every employee I encountered was absolutely friendly, engaging, polite, and helpful. When I asked to use the desk phone the agent not only insisted on looking up the number for me, but sketched a little map to get to the restaurant I called. I don't know this was due to general Canadian hospitality, or perhaps they felt they had to overcome the 'aloof' vibe, but the staff was stellar. For that reason alone I'd stay here again.

    And yes, the room I booked did have the infamous 'viewing window' shower. And you know what, I wasn't surprised a bit because I did five minutes research and knew what I was in for. I did not, like people on Tripadvisor apparently do, book a room for my 85yo grandmother without even bothering to check the hotel website. It is likely not the appropriate room for that situation, nor when travelling with a children's church choir. For us it worked out perfectly because we were a couple travelling together, and my wife is nice to look at. Those pics have been redacted from this post.


    Some final bits.. again I didn't spring for wifi in the room, but there is open wifi in the lobby/bar area, and it's really fast. So, I just relaxed in the lobby when I needed to catch up. I do like the ultramodern furniture, but a lot of it doesn't wear well. HDF, pot metal and melamine/chipboard aren't forgiving materials, no matter how modern they look. The slightest little bump and they crack, screws strip out easily, etc. There were also areas here and there that housekeeping missed, but I noticed. The vent in the shower was caked with dust, same with the concealed lighting in the bathroom. Minor stuff that could be fixed in minutes with a vacuum, but still.

    It's sort of our tradition to enjoy a room service dessert on a reward stay, but we were up late so decided to go straight to the restaurant. I had some zeppole served with chocolate/cayenne dipping sauce that was stellar. Wife was aghast when I started drinking the sauce, but I figure if they don't want me drinking it, it shouldn't be served in a teacup.

    Some highlights from Montreal.. we went to the Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal, there's a little light show/presentation you can get tickets for. It combines a video program (with somewhat modest production values) with lighting effects and covers the history of the basilica, which was built in fits and starts, stopping here and there and restarting. As a history buff I found it interesting, and they have little headsets you wear to hear the audio portion in several different languages. It's not as big as a European cathedral, but it's quite pretty, especially the intricate woodwork.


    We explored the old town extensively, it's full of little restaurants and historic buildings, and a fair amount of tourist shops if that's what you're looking for. The one touristy thing I would recommend is going to the Canadian Maple Delights store and having some maple syrup ice cream, it's very tasty. There's also an old building converted into a museum that covers the early history of Montreal. It was cool to go through it and then walk around old town and actually see some of the buildings and structures they referred to, giving a sense of historic perspective.

    Our best little find in Old Town was La crepere. By this time it was 2pm, we'd been walking all morning and were overdue for lunch. We came in and I proceeded to buy an obscene amount of crepes. So much, in fact, that our excessively polite waiter twice asked for confirmation. "Are you sure you want that many sir?"

    We also travelled a bit uptown to La Banisque. Montreal is supposed to have some stellar poutine, and this was one of the places that came highly recommended. I was curious about it so we decided to check it out. I was not impressed. The cheese curds were cold, the gravy tasted like it was from a jar. The fries were forgettable. For a place with all the trappings of a down-home mom-and-pop place (they only take cash, drinks are served in cans), the food was definitely not mom-and-pop. It tasted like it was from a gas station. I know, folks will now chime in with "oh, you shouldn't have gone _there_, you should have gone _here_". Where were you a year ago? The place was packed, with what looked like locals. So, Montrealers, if you want this to be your 'signature dish', I suggest you take it up a notch. I enjoyed making jokes on twitter about eating some of my wife's hot poutine, however.

    The highlight site I think was the overlook. It's a 30/45 min bus/tram ride up to Mount Royal Park, but well worth it. You have to walk a little ways but the view overlooking the city is incredible.

    If you're planning a city, make sure there's a view like this.

    On our final day we had lunch at a forgettable little place where I had an unremarkable bowl of macaroni and cheese with ham for $12. We then hopped on the bus back to the airport only to discover our '3-day' bus passes had expired, even though it had been less than 72-hours since we bought them. I had to sprint over to a post office to get change.. again, busses don't take paper!

    After riding a bit another patron got on with much the same problem, she was short a few loonies. I gladly gave her the last I had which turned out to be just enough. As she thanked me with a heavy French accent I assumed she was a local, but no, it turned out she was from France.
  2. uggboy
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    uggboy Gold Member

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    Thanks for sharing your fantastic trip report with us. :)
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  3. YULtide

    YULtide Gold Member

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    Nice to see my old 'hood from a tourist perspective. Thanks.
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