Montreal does not look like this, right now. It is cold, bitterly cold, but it is still lovely. Of course if you watch anything on Quebec television channels you would think the province was one big ice hockey game. All the channels seem to show games simultaneously, and in between they discuss them. The play is so rough. Last night there was a wrestling fight between these two hunks, men padded to teddy-bear extremes, wielding ice hockey sticks and on skates. They were separated by a referee, also on skates. The gal was in the city’s most famous luxury hotel, Fairmont Le Reine Elizabeth (presumably the queen is masculine because of the word ‘hotel’).
Montreal is not only synonymous with ice hockey. It is also francophone. People speak French as much as ever, and English only a little bit more than ever. It is over three years since I have been here and, on every visit, I ask myself if John Lennon and Yoko Ono spoke French. This is the hotel they rushed to when they were denied entry to the USA on May 26th, 1969. They checked into room 1742 and perhaps it was because they could not speak French that they stayed put. Their famous Bed-In, when they stayed in bed the entire time, lasted until June 2nd, 1969, during which time they wrote Give Peace A Chance, the song which became the anti-war song in the USA during the 1970s.
1742, which actually comes with three rooms, is booked solid by Beatles addicts. The 1,039-room hotel does, of course, have other fabulous suites. I particularly like 1840, named for William Cornelius Van Horne, another of those railway magnates (I think back to the Huntington saga I learned about in Pasadena a couple of weeks ago). Van Horne, born in 1843 in rural Illinois, started working on the Michigan Central Railway at the age of 14, and worked his way up to become President of the Canadian Pacific Railway, during which spell he oversaw the major construction of Canada’s first transcontinental railway. He also launched Empress liners from Vancouver to Hong Kong and back again.
The suite named in his honour is really cosy. Big format coffee table books range from Vanity Fair’s Hollywood to the history of the NHL, yes, ice-hockey again. There are also such old tomes as linen-covered Revised Statutes of Quebec 1925. As with all Fairmont gold-level rooms, or rather suites, I find waiting for me sports gear (no, not ice-hockey this time, merely gym), beautifully wrapped. I arrive at 2000 and head straight down to the gym, which is 24 hours – the adjacent pool closes at 2200. And, of course, Fairmont Gold lounges are always friendly, and generous in a natural way. Breakfast starts at 0630 and there is Shamsu, who greets me as if he saw me yesterday. He came here from Bangladesh and has been at the hotel for 25 years, but he does not hold the record.
One of the electricians has been working here since just before its opening – in 1958. Work that one out. How electricity, and technology, has changed during his time here. I have a breakfast meeting in the main restaurant and the manager greets me, again, as if it were yesterday rather than three years. The guy in charge of the food here, Michel Busch, glides by – he is only a 1967 arrival. He brings a pot of honey from the bees on the hotel’s roof, and shares details of the hotel’s two goats (not on the roof, but on his own farm). Both called Snow White, their milk is made into cheese for the hotel’s Beaver Club restaurant. We talk about Montreal’s urban agriculture, and how fruit trees and bushes are being planted around car parks, to help feed the disadvantaged. Brilliant.
I go back to suite 1742, and think how brilliant Van Horne was. His interests included thinking what travellers in those days wanted. As now, they need somewhere to stay, so he went into the luxury hotel business. He personally helped design hotels along the Canadian Pacific Railway route, hotels of the calibre of Chateau Lake Louise, today another Fairmont hotel. Yes, it is good to be back.