It's an ingenious escape hatch from the winter chill, the cavernous sprawl of the Underground City in downtown Montreal.

A staggering labyrinth of inter-linking shopping centres, hotels and museums.

With more than 32km of tunnels, the underground city was first built in the 1960s as the metro train system was being developed, but it's been expanded to incorporate a variety of plazas, connecting more than 1000 retailers and restaurants.

The world's largest underground city
The world's largest underground city

It's considered the biggest underground city in the world. I have to admit I found it incredibly easy to get completely lost in — which apparently is part of its novelty.

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If a serious dose of retail therapy is on your agenda, above ground, glide your way along Rue Saint-Catherine, where a procession of glossy stores and chic independent retailers beckon like a tractor-beam.

While I wandered with enchantment through Vieux-Montreal, I ventured down Rue Saint-Claude to the colossal emporium of the 150-year-old Bonsecours Market.

Rue Saint-Catherine offers the chance of serious retail therapy
Rue Saint-Catherine offers the chance of serious retail therapy

A totem of French-Canadian architecture, the market's mission has evolved over the decades and now specialises in high-end cafes, handicrafts and designer boutiques.
Pop into Ricchi which showcases skilfully crafted Inuit art made from Baffin Island rock.
One of Montreal's greatest modern-day talents was undoubtedly Leonard Cohen, who died last November.

Beginning this month, the Museum of Contemporary Art is mounting a multidisciplinary tribute to the late artist in celebration of the city's founding, entitled Leonard Cohen: A Crack in Everything.

Specially commissioned works by local and international artists inspired by Cohen will be showcased in a spectacle that fires on all cylinders: reflecting Cohen's far-flung interests and talents, the show encompasses not only the visual arts but also performance art, music, the written word, and film.

Chic style and sparkling hospitality go hand-in-hand at Loews Hotel Vogue, a celebrated Montreal property in the Golden Square Mile just off the shopping strip of Rue Saint Catherine.

Featuring more than 140 guestrooms and suites, the elegant hotel exudes a boutique spirit. My guestroom was soothingly decorated in neutral greys and taupes, with vivid accents in slate blue.

Framed vintage Vogue magazine covers, hanging from the walls, underscore the hotel's style-conscious street cred.

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Tech-toys are to the fore with free Wi-Fi throughout the hotel, a coffee-maker, iPod docking station, and flat-panel TVs — in both the guestroom and the bathroom.

Appointed with a stained-glass dome ceiling, the on-site restaurant La Société lustily showcases Parisian bistro-style cuisine. Breakfast, lunch and dinner options are available.
I also enjoyed the swish lobby bar, Lux Lounge, for great people watching and supreme mixology, to salute your day's adventures. www.loewshotels.com
Signature tastes

From the celebrated French-Canadian bistros of the Latin Quarter and Plateau to the convivial patio eateries of the Crescent, Montreal has more restaurants per capita than New York City.

Diners enjoy their smoked meat sandwich, another Montreal staple, at Schwartz's legendary smoked-meat parlour.
Diners enjoy their smoked meat sandwich, another Montreal staple, at Schwartz's legendary smoked-meat parlour.

For cheap eats, Montreal's culinary classics tend to be of the greasy kind, headlined by cheap and cheerful poutine.

Unofficially the region's go-to comfort food, poutine consists of french fries topped with cheese curds and gravy.

A plate of it doesn't look particularly appetising, but once you've had your first bite, you may never want to have fries any other way.

When it comes to great bakery battles, Montreal and New York fiercely contest the bragging rights for best bagels.

A Montreal bagel is smaller, denser and sweeter than its New York counterpart, with a larger hole. They're hand-rolled, boiled in honey-infused water and always baked in a wood-fired oven.

Bagel royalty beckons at Fairmount Bagel. In 1919, Isadore Shlafman arrived in Canada and opened the first bagel bakery in Montreal.

Today, his grandchildren run the family business, from the classic onion bagel to the more recent additions, like the chocolate chip and orange zest bagel.

Montreal competes with New York over who makes the best bagels.
Montreal competes with New York over who makes the best bagels.

Another Montreal staple is the smoked meat sandwich. Still going strong after 90 years, Schwartz's is Montreal's legendary smoked-meat parlour on St Laurent Boulevard.

The lines constantly billow outside this storied deli where the staff credit the unique flavour of their meat to the mandatory 10-day curing time, and the brick smoke-house covered with 80 years of build-up.

TOP TIPS

Travelling by train is a thrill in Canada, particularly if you're shuttling between Ottawa, Montreal and Quebec City. I explored Ontario and Quebec with a Canrail Corridor Base Pass, which entitled me to seven trips over 21 days.

A variety of passes are available, depending on how many trips you're planning. VIA RailCanada trains are efficient, comfy with complimentary on-board Wi-Fi and in-seat, on-demand entertainment.

Pre-purchase a great value pass to suit. Contact Rail Plus, the experts in rail for your ticket to ride. www.railplus.co.nz