MONTREAL, QC -- My epiphany comes the moment I realize our “log” boat is about to plunge headfirst down the steep water slide. “This is awe-soooome!” my 7-year-old daughter screams as we go over. I just scream.
But at that moment, eyes closed and careening down La Pitoune, the most popular family ride at La Ronde Amusement Park on Sainte-Hélène Island in Montréal, I realize my child is having fun. And, frankly, so I am.
This is a big trip. We’ve come to Montréal, to this most European of Canadian cities, known for culture and culinary, fashion and nightlife, to build sweet family memories.
And, mais oui, we’ve found fun.
Just hours earlier, on the narrow warren of winding streets in Old Montréal, which dates back to 1642 and looks like it was plunked here out of a period storybook, my daughter snuggled nose-to-nose with Anastasia, a friendly Belgian horse, and then into my shoulder on our buggy seat as we clip-clopped through the cobblestoned streets on a horse-drawn calèche ride.
We rode past caricature artists and buskers performing in squares and on street corners, past flowered terraces and cafés bursting with patrons, past grand cathedrals soaring into the sky, and stone buildings dripping with history.
For city stays, bilingual, bon vivant Montréal has to be one of the best family-friendly destinations in North America. Take the culture. Parlez francais if you want in the world’s second largest French speaking city after Paris, and linger over bagels and café au lait in a neighborhood bistro. Come summer, festivals spill into the streets, some closed to vehicle traffic. Wander on foot — it’s the best way to see the city — or jump on the subway or bus; both are free for children and easy to navigate.
What really wows is the amount of things to do.
“Let’s start with the roller coaster!” my daughter cried as we entered La Ronde, a teeming amusement park, and member of the Six Flags Family, with more than 40 rides, attractions, shows and entertainment, including dizzying coasters. Vol Ultime takes you high — think 15-stories high — and spins you around with the park outline fanning out below.
La Ronde also produces and presents L’International des Feux Loto-Québec, the annual Montréal International Fireworks Competition, one of the world’s best pyrotechnic competitions with a different country competing each week. Plan it right and you can end the day with front-row firework seats.
One morning, tempted by the city’s extensive bike trails and the popular BIXI — a bicycle taxi rental system that lets people pick a bike and drop it off at their destination — we decided to see the city on two wheels, joining a guided tour with Ça Roule Montréal/Montréal on Wheels, located near the banks of the St. Lawrence River in the Old Port.
After picking out bikes, we crossed the street for a quick run-through, then pedaled off on a quiet route along the Lachine Canal. We stopped at the Atwater Market, a perfect place to pick up fresh fixings for a waterside picnic. After the tour ended, the bikes were ours to keep until day’s end.
Day two we spent in the city’s east end, where several major attractions are located.
The Montréal Tower, the world’s tallest inclined tower, offers spectacular views of the city and a fun funicular-type elevator to bring you to the top three observation floors.
Then it’s a short stroll to one of Montréal’s most popular family attractions, the Biodôme, which recreates four eco-systems of the Americas. Trek through lush tropical rain forest, see lynx and beavers in the Laurentian forest and auks in the Antarctic. The Biodôme is home to crocodiles and bats, penguins and parrots — more than 4,800 animals from 230 species and 750 plant types.
Next, we stopped into the Botanical Garden’s Insectarium, the leading museum devoted to insects in North America, where my little naturalist lined up to learn about ant farms and honeybee hives and to see some 160,000 living and naturalized insect specimens.
But by far, the city’s surprising highlight came in the St. Lawrence River.
“Wide open! Let’s get ready to rumble,” guide Todd Gatien called into his megaphone as we sat in the back of an oversized jet boat, powering past seagulls and shore birds and into the exhilarating white waters of the Lachine Rapids.
“This is eppp-iiiic!” a 10-year-old boy in the seat ahead yelled, as we 40 or so poncho-clad passengers, sporting goofy grins and soaked hair, giddily waved our arms in the air and careened into the next big swell.
We were aboard Saute-Moutons – “the ship that jumps the rapids,” translated owner Jack Kowalski — and I was totally and pleasantly surprised at how much fun we were having in these historic and mighty rapids, the first major obstacle for the early French explorers.
“I’ve been telling locals and visitors alike that we became the top attraction in Montréal the day we opened 30 years ago, and we have never given up the title,” Kowalski said.
Saute-Moutons, or in English, Lachine Rapids Tours Ltd., leaves from the Clock Tower Pier in the Old Port. Guides narrate city history as passengers glimpse Montréal by water and the boat makes its way towards the rapids.
Expect to get wet. We were hit by what felt like a bucket of water and we couldn’t stop grinning. Water dripped through our black fleece sweaters and yellow jumpsuits, sopped into our rubber boots and formed a puddle on our seat. We couldn’t be happier.