MONTREAL — Eydie Gormé's voice drifted through George O’Reilly Park and across the river as the sun set and the sky magically went from orange to pink.
“Blame it on the bossa nova, with its magic spell,” I heard Gormé sing as I paddled my kayak on the St. Lawrence River. The song was being played at a Friday night dance party off in the distance, but that didn’t stop me from swaying my sunburnt neck to the bossa nova beat while I paddled. Sure, my kayak dancing probably made me look like an awkward pelican trying to swallow a fish, but I didn’t care.
It was a blissful evening. Soft breezes were coming off the river after a scorching day (thanks global warming!), and I was swooning to the sights and thankful to be participating in the one sporty activity that doesn’t scare the bejesus out of me (thanks kayaking!).
The chérie on top of my happy Sundae was that this blissful evening took place in Montréal. Anyone who knows me, knows that Montréal is where I smile the most. After 18 months of being kept apart by the pandemic, the border finally reopened this summer, and, at last, we were reunited. I embraced the city the way I always do, by gorging on steamés (that’s a Montréal hotdog), ketchup-flavored potato chips, and sesame bagels. Once I got my quick, classy dining rituals out of the way, I got down to the business of reporting on the city’s hottest new neighborhood, which features an (almost) brand new beach and the aforementioned kayaking.
One of the many things I adore about Montréal is that with each visit, another borough has been declared the hottest in the city. The latest neighborhood to hold the distinction is Verdun. The borough, which sits along the St. Lawrence, was traditionally working class until the 2000s. With low rent and cheap housing, residents starting arriving from more expensive parts of the city.
Neighborhood advocates have been working to diversify the borough’s offerings — which is a polite way of describing gentrification — but also making sure that the neighborhood maintains some of its original character.
“Those new businesses are not coming here to change the profile of the existing businesses, or to change the profile of the people who live here,” said Billy Walsh, who heads up the Wellington business improvement district (Wellington Street is the neighborhood’s commercial thoroughfare). “My opinion is that they came here because there was a demand for them.”
On a humid, rainy August afternoon, Walsh and his dog Tomato gave me a tour of Verdun. We walked down Wellington Street, stopping into stores and restaurants, and then biking down to the St. Lawrence.
Verdun has many lovely qualities, but the most famous is a $7 million beach that opened in 2019. The beach closed for the 2020 season because of COVID-19 concerns, but reopened in summer 2021. The beach’s 2022 season begins in June. My first reaction when I saw the modest beach was “This cost $7 million?!” It’s just a slip of a thing. However, it seems to be much appreciated by the locals. On the bright days I visited, there were plenty of people swimming in the St. Lawrence, sunning themselves on the sand and grass, and one man who felt it appropriate to take out his guitar and sing Billy Joel songs on the beach. There’s one in every crowd.
Verdun is an unpretentious neighborhood with a mix of old-school mom and pop stores, design-forward shops, greasy spoons, and hip restaurants. Its ascension has been quick, hastened by honors such as Time Out calling it Montréal’s coolest neighborhood in 2020 and the 11th coolest neighborhood in the world.
“In the first two or so years that we were here we could see that changes were happening,” said Greg Lessard, one of the founders of Sweet Lee’s Rustic Bakery. “The whole landscape was starting to shift. Suddenly everyone wanted to be here.”
I returned a few times to Wellington Street to stop into stores such as Boutique Brock Art, Verdun Bookstore, and Maltéhops, a beer and wine store. To make my story as accurate as possible, I needed to make sure the pastries at Sweet Lee’s were up to snuff. They were, but just to make sure, I went back the following day.
Along with the gentrification — I mean diversification — of the businesses along Wellington, Verdun has an incredible amount of green space. There are parks all along the river. Plenty of locals skip the small beach and instead find quiet, private nooks along the shores of the river to hang out with friends. In the parks, families barbecue, picnic, and bike. There’s a public pool and parties throughout the summer. Best of all, there’s a green line Metro station that will take you in and out of the neighborhood.
Verdun’s draw as a dining destination was clear when I finished kayaking and decided I had burned a sufficient number of calories to stuff myself silly. I launched Open Table on my phone and saw that nearly everything was booked, which I suppose happens at 9 p.m. on Friday. I found a spot at the bar at La Bêtise Verdun and sipped caipirinhas. I blame the bossa nova for all of those caipirinhas.
After Verdun, I had a taste for more water activities on the St. Lawrence, which is how I found myself taking a sailing class. Ohana Sailing Agency offers three-hour classes for $99. Your level of participation can vary from pretending you’re paying attention to the instructor while instead taking in the sun and sights, to actually learning and participating. Normally I’m not a participator in situations such as this, but I was riding high from my successful kayaking trip and also from a lot of sugary bakery treats, so I dove in.
I think my fellow crew members were less enthusiastic about my participation than I was. Every time I grabbed the ship’s wheel I somehow steered us in the wrong direction. I’m sure I would have put the boat back on course before I slammed into that bridge or struck a menacing-looking cargo ship, but I was sensing others on board were tiring of my unsteady hand. Eventually I decided it might be best if I enjoyed the sun and the sights after all.
On my last day I had one more St. Lawrence activity lined up: Paddle boarding at Jean-Drapeau Park. The park sits on Notre Dame Island, which was created for Montréal’s Expo 67. Jean-Drapeau Park has a beach, and it also has several lagoons that you can traverse on your paddle board to see some of the remaining buildings from Expo 67. While the beach quickly filled up, I felt as if I had the lagoons to myself. It was hot as blazes and people clearly preferred to be swimming rather than balancing for their lives on a paddle board under a broiling sun.
But the quiet in the lagoons gave me a moment alone with my beloved Montréal. For more than a year I didn’t know when we would meet again, but here we were. Perhaps absence had made my heart fonder, but I had discovered a new side to the city — specifically outside in nature — and I was smitten all over again. Or, perhaps, I should just blame it on the bossa nova, the caipirinhas, and Eydie Gormé.