Monday, June 28, 2010

One-Day Walking Tour of Montreal's Old Port and ChinaTown

With a population of only four million, Montreal is by no means a huge city, but it is the largest in Quebec, Canada.

Its small size makes it a safe and easy city to navigate by foot. The subway system only has four lines that criss-cross the city and you can get from one end of the island to the other in less than an hour.

To really enjoy the city, don't waste money on taxis or even bother renting a car - Montreal drivers have their own rules for the road, and the endless one-way streets can frustrate even the most experienced drivers. Parking is also difficult and expensive. So grab a good pair of shoes, hope the weather is great and take a walk!

This one-day walking tour starts just outside Place-d'Armes metro station. Head west on St. Urbain street, towards Viger Avenue. If you walk a block over to St. Laurent, you should be able to see a large pagoda with two lion statues. This is the entrance to Montreal's Chinatown. If you are there on a weekday morning, it will be much less crowded. Sunday is the most popular day to go to Chinatown, but keep in mind, the crowds are never so large as to make navigation difficult. Chinatown is spread out over a few blocks between St. Urbain and St. Laurent and Viger and René-Levesque.

Take the time to browse in all the little shops along St. Laurent. Each shop has an interesting mix of food items, novelties, souvenirs, ornaments and dishes. In grocery stores, you'll find Chinese, Japanese and Taiwanese foods and candies. Be adventurous and pick up something you've never tried before! This is also a great place to get fresh, cheap fruits in season. Buy a bunch to bring back to your hotel room or give to your host.

If you stroll along de la Gauchetière, you'll find more restaurants and delectable bakeries. Stop by the Dragon's beard stall - you can't miss it! Dragon's beard is a candy made with long strands of sugar (the "dragon's beard") and peanuts, coconut and sesame seeds inside. It's made fresh on the spot. You can also find Bubble tea - flavoured teas with giant balls of sweetened tapioca (the "bubbles") that you suck up with an extra large straw.

You can easily make a quick and cheap lunch out of the fresh sausage rolls or red bean balls of the bakeries, or sit down at one of the restaurants or buffets along the strip. The food is authentic and good - though service can sometimes be slow.

After that, head south down St. Laurent and head towards the Old Port (Vieux-Port) of Montreal. You'll have to walk uphill for this part and you'll pass by the Palais de Justice (courthouse). If you need to use the bathroom, you can hop in there, but there's nothing particularly special about the building. If you wander upstairs, you may be able to catch a glimpse of a wedding party, fresh from exchanging their vows.

Take a right on Notre-Dame and visit the Notre-Dame Basilica. It was modelled after Notre-Dame in Paris, but is much smaller. Still, it is worth the small entrance fee to take a look inside. You'll find a wonderful organ, beautiful stained glass windows and the back chapel where Céline Dion got married!

From there, head south on St. Sulpice street towards St. Paul street. St. Paul is the oldest street in Montreal and mostly cobblestone - which is why it's important to wear good shoes for this tour. Don't try walking in heels on cobblestone! You can browse through the shops on this street that is closed to traffic all summer, or stop in for some gelato or maple treats. There are tons of souvenir shops to be found here, if that's what you're looking for.

Go south one more block and walk back along de la Commune, which follows the St. Lawrence river. In the summer you'll see private yachts in the habour and giant freight ships. If you're peckish, try a quèue de castor (beaver tail). It's not a real animal part, don't worry! It's a sort of fried flat bread covered in sugar and cinnamon, or chocolate - whatever topping you wish!

When evening falls, make sure you are around the Place Jacques-Cartier area. Performers and artists come out at night and all the restaurant terraces are open. This will be a more expensive dinner, but take the time to check the menus posted outside and find something you really like. If you walk back up Place Jacques-Cartier, there's a beautiful fountain lit up at night. If you're in town for the summer International Fireworks Competition, the Old Port is a good place to watch them for free. Go down the steps behind the fountain at Place Jacques-Cartier and you'll be back at Place d'Armes metro, where you started your day.

Time to head home, rest your feet and recharge your camera battery for tomorrow!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Banish the Naysayers: How to Convince People You Can Travel Alone

You've bought the guide book, set aside the money and time and decided on your dream solo vacation, but when you share your dream with others, they tell you you're crazy.

It happens to men also, but women get a lot of flack for trying to run off on their own. A lot of negative comments are a result of ignorance and fear, so here are some tips to help work around that and get people supporting your dreams, not bashing them!

-"It's not you, it's me..."
A lot of the time, you'll get a negative reaction because the person giving it is quite simply jealous. They may have also dreamed of travelling alone, but never worked up the courage. They don't want you to have the fun they never got to, so they'll try to convince you not to go. You can tell these people apart from the others by the way they make excuses for themselves, "Oh well, *I* was going to travel to Indonesia alone after university, BUT I got this job and...."
You can simply ignore these people. There's no reason to waste time convincing them.

-Just the facts, ma'am
Every Tom, Dick and Harry has "heard from a friend of a friend" that someone went to the same place you're planning to go and died/got injured/kidnapped or what have you. Fact is, you can die crossing the street in your home town, so that shouldn't stop you from travelling! Nevertheless, brush up on your current affairs, travel advisories and history of the place before talking to people about it. If there has been any political unrest in the past few years, people will remember and remind you of it. It's important to know exactly what is happening when you plan to go, as well as the likelihood of future issues, so that you can counter these comments calmly and effectively.

-Where am I again?
One comment I heard from people when I spoke about solo travel was, "you might get lost." Yes, I might. Actually, knowing myself, a person who can get lost in a sweater on a sunny day, it's highly likely I'll get lost at least once per any given trip. Getting lost, however, is really not the end of the world! In fact, it can be tons of fun in a foreign city and lead to interesting sites and stops you didn't expect to see. Providing you're not lost in Antarctica or a desert, I don't see getting lost as being particularly life-threatening. Maps can be bought, a lot of cell phones have a built-in GPS and locals can usually give directions.

-But what if...?
Oh, the "what if?" people! They can go on forever and usually come up with completely ridiculous hypothetical situations that are so statistically outrageous, you just need to laugh. "But what if a stranger who has the Ebola virus jumps in front of you and starts bleeding all over you, while trying to poke you with a knife and steal your camera?" Ummmmm? That just sounds like a bad day.

-But you might get hurt
Along with the crazy hypothetical situations and concern for your navigational abilities are those who worry about the more mundane and real issues: you might get sick or hurt. Yes, you might get sick or hurt. You can also hurt yourself just walking from your kitchen to your bathroom or get sick on your way to work. That doesn't mean you shouldn't leave your house! Unfortunately, these things can happen anywhere, whether you're with someone or not. All you can do is tell people you are as prepared as you can possibly be - know local hospital or emergency numbers, have medical insurance coverage, carry a first aid kit - do all the obvious and reasonable things you can do within your control, but don't let the fear of the unknown stop you.

-Women as property
One comment my husband got when he mentioned to people I was taking off for a trip on my own was, "you let your wife go alone?!"
Tied into that comment was, "is everything ok in your relationship?"

Well, in my case, I didn't come with a property deed. It was never an issue of anyone "letting" me go. Though married, I'm still my own person, and I think most people in healthy relationships manage to keep a little of themselves to themselves. You need to work within the confines of your own relationship rules and do what makes you both happy. Sometimes some time alone is good for a relationship. If you trust each other, communicate and compromise, I don't see why one of you can't go off alone for a trip. Besides, they say "absence makes the heart grow fonder"! And if I don't mind saying, two of my pregnancies occurred right after getting back from a solo trip, so there's something to be said for a little time apart to freshen up a relationship!

Also, wanting or needing some time alone should not be seen as a threat to a relationship. In some cases, it can indicate problems, but I think it shouldn't be seen immediately as an issue. You have to love yourself and take care of yourself first if you want to be loved, so some time alone to nurture yourself should not be taken personally by your partner or cause fear in your partner if you have a good relationship.

Please don't let anyone hold you back from your dreams. Anyone who tries to is probably not the best match for you.

-People who love you will worry no matter what
Remember that the people who love you most will worry regardless of your location. I advocate coming up with a plan before you go on how and when you will contact key people during your trip to let them know you are still alive and well.

The key is to be secure in yourself about what you want to accomplish and be prepared to hit some brick walls along the way. Randy Pausch said, "brick walls are only there to make us prove how much we want something." If you really want to travel alone and know you'll get some negativity, do your research and work hard towards your goal. On the other hand, you might also be surprised to learn who your biggest supporters are and you won't know until you take the plunge. Happy solo travels!