Montreal - As Austin Powers says, "Hey, baby, it's cold outside." It's -38°C, to be exact, so you'd think the city would close down. Wrong.
This is la belle province, and hardy Montrealers are used to long, cold winters if they're used to anything. So what's Montreal's secret in coping with Mother Nature's deep freeze? It's a subterranean city, an underground catacomb of walkways linking stores, recreational facilities, hotels and restaurants - everything you need to live in cozy comfort.
Who needs Starbucks, HMV and Sears when there's très chic Van Houtte for coffee, Archambault for French jazz CDs and Maison Simons, a hip Quebec department store known for great deals on name-brand U.S. and European labels.
What better way to spend a frigid day than exploring Montreal's underground city?
"Far out!" says my friend when I mention my upcoming shopping excursion to Montreal. For this trip I ditch the car and hop a train. VIA Rail takes me through a winter wonderland of small towns, farms and snow-covered spruce forests to my final destination, Montreal's Central Station, an art deco gem bustling with daily commuters.
I'm soon caught up in a stream of lunchtime pedestrian traffic. My first pit stop is Première Moisson. I order Panini Porc avec Brie, creamy artichoke salad and, only because my server whispers "leger," meaning light, top it off with a decadent Tarte Amande d'Abricot. This sumptuous lunch costs less than $15.
Montreal's underground network is called the Réseau. A green "R" logo identifies the path that leads to nearly 2,000 boutiques, 350 restaurants, eight hotels, 19 cinemas, three skating rinks and 10 subway stops - over 30 kilometres of walkways throughout the downtown core.
Urban planners consider it the world's longest continuous underground pathway.
The birth of the underground dates back to the swingin' 60s, when avant-garde architect I. M. Pei, among others, made his mark on Montreal by designing the massive Place Ville-Marie, the sleek cruciform building at the hub of the system.
Much has changed since the days when the first subway route was opened in anticipation of the pop culture crush of Expo 67. Today, clusters of grand old buildings have been stitched together by canopies of cathedral glass skylights that brighten the concourses below.
Walking through the Réseau, I take in a delightful display of both public and private art. An 18th-century French statue of Amphitrite, wife of Poseidon, anchors the end of a large granite reflecting pool. Around the corner, I'm surprised by a section of the Berlin Wall, a gift from that city in celebration of Montreal's 350th anniversary.
Montreal's playful optimism is embodied in its new, 60s-inspired Convention Centre. The International Style building is sheathed in a collage of bright, rainbow-coloured glass. Some are even calling it the Austin Powers building.
In the evening, a bird's-eye view of the city can be had from atop Pei's 737-foot Place Ville-Marie, where I dine at the aptly named Altitude 737. The elegant restaurant serves lots of foie gras, roasted canard and heavy cream sauces. Some call it a heart-stopping menu, but Montrealers say it's all part of "joie de vivre."