Our tour began this morning at 9.30 outside the hotel, where we were met once again by the gloriously sarcastic guide from yesterday. She must have been hungry, however, because we had hardly had a chance to take our seats on the coach before we set off at some speed across the city, causing people to fall over each other in the aisles, heading for our first stop of the day which was an expensive hotel up in the Laurentian Mountains which had apparently offered to lay on an equally expensive meal for us. Yes, you are reading this correctly - we had only just had our breakfast and filed out onto the coach, and we were immediately being whisked to a restaurant for a meal. Perhaps it's because of the large number of overweight people who seem to live on this continent, but someone had obviously taken a good long look at our motley group of travellers and decided that we needed to be fattened up. The meal was more of a banquet, laid out on a table which stretched the entire length of the hotel dining hall. I think many of us were waiting for the joke, exchanging glances with each other as we were led in as though to say "Is this all people over here do, eat twenty-four hours a day?". It really was like being invited to a King's banquet in the days of Henry VIII, without the chance of having your head chopped off, being proposed to by the king, or both. There were cold meats of every description under the sun on display, platters of hot food which many of us couldn't identify and were probably unique to Canada, cakes, buns, deserts and jugs of fruit juice squeezed from every type of fruit our hosts had been able to find within a thousand mile radius. If it had actually been dinner time, or we had been warned that this was going to happen before tucking into a cooked breakfast a couple of hours earlier, we would've been delighted. As it was, I'm pretty sure we must've left the hotel with the impression that all British people are lightweight eaters who can do nothing more than nibble on a croissant before complaining of feeling sick.
On the way down back down from our meal, which seemed at the time to be the main reason why we had been hauled up into one of the most beautiful mountain ranges Canada could offer, we stopped for a wonderful 50 minute tour of Lake Sable - and before you think I'm not being at all romantic by using its English name in French Canada, I would like to point out how hard it is to actually establish the correct French name for anything using that supposed font of all knowledge known as the internet. While researching this book in an attempt to jog some memories regarding names of local places I had inexplicably failed to write down at the time, I searched Google for Lake Sable, and found nothing other than an obscure reference to a town in the region of "Lac du Sable", which I then searched for instead on the assumption that this must be its French name . Nothing, except for a satellite image of a blurry mountain range. Surely, I thought, my memories and notes about this wonderful place couldn't be that wrong - surely somebody else thinks that Lake Sable is incredible enough for it to be mentioned somewhere on the internet. Anyway, after giving myself several headaches and searching every corner of the internet for some time, I found a website which referred to "Lac des Sables", and searching for this finally gave me some joy, as well as some other references to "Lac des Sable", without the s on the end. It would seem as though nobody seems to be able to decide on the correct French grammar to use, even the sites written by French people. I'm so glad I don't have to search for French place names every day.
Anyhow, I digress. We actually parked the coach in the mountain town of Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, on the shores of Lac des Sables (or whatever it's called), and I'm more than happy to report that the place was just as pretty, romantic and pretentious as you would expect from anywhere with three hyphens in its name. We had arrived early for our boat trip, but this was just another excuse for our guide to direct us towards a coffee and ice cream parlour so that we could be fattened up some more. By the time we filed down to the waterfront and piled on board the boat, I was starting to wonder whether I had entered an episode of the twilight zone and would be arriving back at the hotel in the evening to find that "British Tourist" had been added to the dinner menu.
Lac des Sables has gone under many names, probably in an attempt to confuse people trying to find it on the internet, and is also popularly known - I find out now - as Lac des Plages, or the lake of beaches. It is a popular destination for tourists to the Laurentian mountains because you can pick from any number of beautiful sandy beaches around its shores, slap down a deckchair and spend the day sunning yourself surrounded by mountains - when weather permits, of course, which it often fails to do. The neighbouring towns, such as Sainte-Agathe-des-Monts, are full of people only too happy to pander to your needs, and offer you ridiculously expensive accommodation or lakeside property should you suddenly come into huge amounts of disposable income. People living in places like this, of course, are probably not short of a few bob and probably look down their noses behind closed doors at people spoiling their view of the lake, but they seemed more than happy to stuff us full of food at every opportunity and make sure we felt welcome anyway. By the time we boarded the boat for our tour of the lake, most of us were just heavy enough to ensure it was in imminent danger of capsizing.
There is a small island in the middle of the lake, on which a family with altogether too much money have built themselves a home - although clearly what most of us would call a home would be considered a small shed by comparison. Whenever these people want to travel back and forth between the island and the town, they all pile into their small motor boat and weave in and out of the tour boats and water-skiers who also make the lake their home. Apparently, the owners refuse to have any form of electricity on the island - probably more to do with having spent all their money on buying an island and building a home on it than anything else - but they do concede that a telephone line might be an important necessity in the case of running out of fuel for their motor boat, for example. I honestly can't think of a better definition of pretentious than having a private underwater telephone cable laid to your private island so your friends can phone up and ask you to send the boat for them when they visit, but there you are.
This evening, I decided to explore Montreal by night. Our guide had, for some reason, singled me out and given me a list of popular nightspots and bars that I should visit while in town - probably because everybody else on the tour was too old and too wise to get involved in that sort of nonsense. Interestingly, after I had got all dressed up for my night out - which turned out to be a totally pointless exercise, as the locals appear to just slap on whatever happens to be laying around the floor of their apartment and I stood out like a sore thumb - I quickly discovered that most of the places I had been directed to were either in, or bordering around, the red light district. I began the evening with a really quite educational examination of the local sex shop, where my eyes were opened quite severely and I saw things in glass cabinets which scared the life out of me. While I was browsing in disbelief, two really quite stunning girls entered the premises and proceeded, in quite loud voices, to wander between the displays pointing at sex toys and saying things like "that one feels good", and "that one hurts a little bit". As if this wasn't surreal enough to my innocent British sensibilities, one of them then turned to me quite suddenly and, without any hint of shyness, asked me if I'd tried any of them out and if I'd like to buy her one and then pay her to go back to her hotel and show her how to use it. I think I had to physically push my jaw closed with my finger in order to politely decline this offer. The guy running the shop was more than happy to discover that I was English, as soon as he heard me speak, and proceeded to engage me in a protracted conversation about how prude we are in the UK - and if there is one thing I didn't expect to be doing on this trip, it was standing in the doorway of a Montreal sex shop discussing how prude we are back home with a guy who sells vibrators for a living. If you want to say you've seen it all, this is obviously the place to come - if you'll pardon the expression. I'm really not joking when I say that the nightlife district of Montreal which I had been directed towards seemed to be lined with sex shops, peep shows and strip joints. I actually thought, at one point, that I had discovered a decent nightclub because of the sound of loud music coming from the doorway and the fact that it was doing its best to look like a British pub, but when I got inside and sat down, it quickly became clear that I was mistaken when a waitress approached me wearing - well, I don't think she was wearing much, actually - and I was asked if I wanted a local beer and to see the list of available girls. I don't know if the guide on our tour was just trying to be funny when she told me where I should go for a night out, and was currently back at her house telling her husband about the stupid British tourist that was currently wandering open-mouthed around the red light district, or whether she genuinely thought that all young British men must go on holiday looking for sex. Of course, I wasn't going to see her again to ask her, which she knew perfectly well when she so helpfully drew out the list of places to visit on the coach earlier in the day!
Finally, having managed to drag myself slightly away from the area containing the most neon lights and ladies of the night leaning on lamp-posts, I arrived at a bar which, when I entered, appeared to all intents and purposes to be a clone of the bar from Cheers. This, I could cope with. I made my way to the central island bar, plonked myself down on a bar stool, grabbed a handful of beer nuts (which is what people in North America seem to like calling peanuts) and ordered a beer. This was where I discovered that this part of Montreal was not only full of sleazy types and ladies of the night, but that anyone who didn't fall into these categories was just plain rude. One of the things visitors to this continent find the hardest to get to grips with is the fact that you are expected to give a tip for every drink you are served in a public bar. Back home, a tip is something you give if you feel the service has been satisfactory in a restaurant - it is entirely up to you whether you leave one or not, and you obviously are going to be less inclined to do so if your waitress has been talking on her mobile phone while serving you and didn't get any of your order correct. It's an incentive to give good service. Under no circumstances would you ever give a tip to a barman in a pub who has done nothing other than pouring you a drink and handing it to you across a counter, something which he does thousands of times each night. In the US and Canada, things are most definitely different. Even if your server somehow managed to shoot you three times in the head while passing you your beer, you are still expected to give him a tip, which sort of defeats the objective of giving a tip in the first place. In North America, tipping your server isn't so much a reward for good service as it is just a normal part of the transaction. I knew this, and understood the drill perfectly when the barman passed me my change across the bar on a small dish from which I was supposed to remove only a portion of the coins. What I wasn't prepared for was the stern look that he gave me at the same time, as he told me in no uncertain manner: "You know you leave me money, right?". Unluckily for him, I had known this and didn't appreciate being talked to like an idiot, so I collected my entire change, politely told him where to stuff his tip, and left before he could shoot me three times in the head.
The next bar I came to was a breath of fresh air, which was good as I was starting to wonder if a night out in Montreal could actually involve anything other than looking at naked women and being abused by barmen (or is that the other way around?). Again, there was an island bar - something which seems to be a feature in many bars and clubs over here - but this time the barman smiled politely when I entered rather than scowling at me and immediately introduced me for no apparent reason to a pretty blonde lady sitting on her own at the end of the bar, who proceeded to tell everyone in a very loud and enthusiastic voice that she couldn't believe what a sexy British accent I had. Downstairs, the basement of the bar had been turned into a giant dance floor - an idea I would absolutely love to see copied back home. For the rest of the evening, I was able to move between the quiet relaxed atmosphere of the bar upstairs where I could talk to the small crowd of people who seemed to be fascinated by the idea that there was a British guy in their midst, and the dance floor downstairs where I couldn't hear myself think but could spend the time being shoved up against young female revellers who had apparently forgotten that they were supposed to wear clothes when they went out on the town. One thing you can certainly say about being British in North America is that people will want to get to know you - and I certainly wasn't complaining.
About Simon and Burfords Travels:
Simon Burford is a UK based travel writer. He will be re-publishing his travel blogs, chapters from his books and other miscellaneous rantings on these pages over the coming weeks and months, and the entry on this page may not necessarily reflect todays date.