Yes, romance and shopping can go together -- especially in a place like Montréal. Up front I must disclose that my husband proposed to me in Montréal so I am particularly partial, but when it comes to shopping, there is nothing nostalgic about my utter attraction to this French speaking city.
The Canadian government may have stopped handing out its tax refund to visitors and the Canadian dollar (affectionately known as the "loonie") may be trading at its highest rate against the U.S. Dollar in 30 years, but why not throw caution to the wind -- after all Montréal is the next best thing to a trip to Paris, Québec's prices are still quite reasonable and at least you don't have to contend with Euros.
Ste-Catherine Street is the city's major shopping artery and, aside from the usual chain stores and Canadian department stores, there are plenty of fashion boutiques and smaller outlets. The main shopping section is between Bleury Street to the east and Bishop Street to the west. Boulevard Saint-Laurent, locally known as "the Main" offers an eclectic mix of cultures as it runs through Little Italy, Chinatown and Little Portugal. Sherbrooke Street is in the museum district and is home to two up-market department stores -- Holt Renfrew and Ogilvy's plus several galleries and a selection of other retail delights. Montréal has several open air markets including Atwater (Lionel-Groulx Metro), Jean-Talon (Jean-Talon Metro) and Maisonneuve (Pie IX Metro). They specialize in selling fresh produce and are open all week so are perfect for picking up some gourmet goodies for a picnic in the park, by the water or up on Mount Royal. The grand Marché Bonsecours market in the former Canadian Parliament building has been converted into retail space featuring fashion, jewelry, homewares and art.
In winter when things get mighty chilly, head down into Montréal's infamous "Underground City" which consists of over 18 miles of serious shopping in major retail stores and boutiques plus plenty of food outlets and restaurants. There are four separate sectors, McGill/Place Ville Marie (McGill/Bonaventure Metro), Place des Arts (Place des Arts Metro), Alexis Nihon (Atwater Metro) and UQAM (Berri-UQAM Metro).
In terms of clothing shopping, my personal favorite is La Maison Simons (www.simons.ca), at 977 Ste-Catherine Ouest -- a local Québec department store which specializes in fashionable men's and women's wear (no shoes, no kids). Look out for their home brand -- Twik - for fabulous seasonal pieces like fall knits at great prices.
Canadian store Roots (www.roots.com) is another great brand and I am quite jealous that they have yet to open a store in New York (U.S. outlets are in Los Angeles, Aspen, Birmingham (MI) and Park City only). In Montréal, they have four stores, the most central being at 1025 rue Ste-Catherine Ouest. It's a fun place to pick up street and sports wear, plus colorful designs for kids.
Although a chain store, Jacob (www.jacob.ca) is actually the perfect place for women to pick up stylish ensembles, from dresses to suits -- again at really reasonable prices. They have several outlets in Montréal including a couple on rue Ste-Catherine and rue St Denis and one on Sherbrooke Street. They also have separate lingerie and junior line stores. La Senza (www.lasenza.com) at 1133 rue Ste-Catherine Ouest may be Canada's version of Victoria's Secret, but truth be known, I think their lingerie and sleepwear ranges are far more appealing.
After all that shopping, you'll need to rest -- at least long enough to recharge your batteries (and your credit card) for the next day. For ambience, history and sheer position, Old Montréal is definitely a special area to stay. Even in the dead of winter, with snow covering the cobblestone streets and the river side frozen, there is a definite beauty and charm to this part of the city. Restaurants and bars are plentiful, as are galleries and artists' studios, plus downtown shops are only a short walk away. The Latin Quarter downtown and the area around Sherbrooke Street are also central locations surrounded by restaurants and shops.
Place Jacques-Cartier in Old Montréal is a lovely place to start an evening stroll, working your way down to the St Lawrence water front and along the cobblestone streets and alleyways. Although the restaurants on the Place may appear touristy, the food at most establishments is exceptional -- in fact it is quite difficult to get a bad meal in Old Montréal. The Old Montréal website (www.vieux.montreal.qc.ca) is a good resource offering links to hotels and shops in the area.
Hotel Place d'Armes (tel. 888/450-1887; www.hotelplacedarmes.com) in Old Montréal may not be a budget option, but it is worth the splurge, especially if you are out to impress that special someone. It may be a little early to start thinking about Valentine's Day -- but Place d'Armes Valentine's special is a great deal. It is priced from $550 plus taxes and includes two-nights accommodations (between February 8 and 18, 2008), continental breakfast each morning in your room, cocktail hour at the bar with wine and cheese, a candlelit dinner at one of Montréal's top restaurants -- Aix Cuisine du Terroir, a gift basket and a split of Champagne. If you can't wait that long, a similar package is available for either Canadian (October 3 to 9, 2007) or American Thanksgiving (November 18 to 26) priced from $510 plus tax. A Discover Montréal package includes three-nights accommodations, breakfast daily, cocktails each evening, Museum Passes including access to 32 Montréal museums and attractions, three-day Montréal Subway passes, dinner for two at Modavie Restaurant Wine Bar including service and a jazz CD. This package is valid daily from October 1, 2007 to April 30, 2008 for $730 plus taxes.
There aren't too many major cities in North America where you can stay at grand and historic bed and breakfasts in the downtown area for such low prices. Casa Bianca (tel. 866/775-4431; www.casabianca.ca) is two blocks from fashionable St-Laurent Blvd and the Plateau, Montréal's cultural heart. Located on the park, it offers lovely views of Mount Royal. The century old urban chateau features five elegant, spacious rooms with large private bathrooms, organic cotton sheets and they serve an organic continental breakfast daily on the terrace or in the dining room and afternoon tea. Double room rates start from $99 for stays from November 1, 2007 through March 31, 2008 (off-season) except U.S. and Canadian Holidays or $119 at other times of the year. Two of the rooms are suites that can accommodate four guests and are priced from $179. My personal favorite is the Marie-Anne suite with park and mountain views. Receive 25% discount for stays of two or more nights Monday to Thursday during off season.
The four-star rated bed and breakfast Victorian Heritage (tel. 877/845-7932; www.montrealbedandbreakfast.ca), currently has all rooms are reduced to just $129 until the end of the year (except Thanksgiving and New Year's weekends) -- a two-night minimum stay is required. Regular rates are $147 to $186 and each stay includes a sumptuous breakfast each morning. Rooms are ornately decorated with Victorian furnishing, claw foot baths and either carved wooden or brass beds. The property is located on Rue Ontario East in the Latin Quartier, a three-minute walk from Berri-UQAM Subway Station and Rue Ste Catherine and a ten-minute walk from Old Montréal.
Besides your trusty Frommer's Montréal Travel Guide, keep a copy of Linda Kay's Montréal Romantic Days and Nights on hand for inspiration, or just discover this magical city on foot for a romantic getaway.
Note: To keep things simple, all prices quoted above are at a $US1 = $CAN1 exchange rate.