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The Stunningly Beautiful Belle Province

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Sometimes you don't have to look too far beyond your own backyard. Such was the sentiment behind my most recent family vacation.

A lifelong Torontonian, I've seen startlingly little of the rest of our beautiful country, a reality of which I'm not proud. This reality was the impetus behind my most recent family travel venture. With the summer quickly winding down and Labour Day beckoning, I boarded a train with the family and headed East. La Belle Province was our destination, Montreal to be exact.

You did hear me right, the train was the chosen mode of transportation this time around. While it may seem quaint, it was anything but. Traveling by air is standard for vacations, I thought, so why not mix it up a bit? Via Rail has a number of departure and return times to Montreal from Toronto, so selection of travel times is easy.

The experience of taking the train was something that I'd definitely recommend for any individuals or families who want a different way of seeing the country. Comfortable, relaxing and more leg room than a plane -- something to consider. The attentive service that was provided to my traveling family that included three small children was appreciated more than one could imagine.

We arrived in Montreal and set about a plan to experience as much of the city that we could. After all, this jewel on the St. Lawrence is known for its vibrant culture and numerous attractions. There are a variety of landmarks and places to visit in the city, enough to appeal to those of all ages. Here are just some of the key locations that you won't want to miss during your vacation to La Belle Province:

Old Montreal (Vieux-Montréal)
Through Tourisime Montreal, we were able to start our first day away with a walking tour of Old Montréal, a great way of acquainting ourselves with the city. Our tour guide, Nathalie, was great, as she provided us with a wonderful history of this compelling part of the city. Located along the St. Lawrence River and just a few minutes from downtown, this historic area is teeming with culture. From the original architecture that has been preserved in many of the buildings to the shops, cafes, restaurants and landmarks, it's a definite "must-visit" locale in the city. When visiting with kids, it's conveniently located close to attractions such as the Science Centre and the Old Port, which include a variety of outdoor activities, exhibits, shows and restaurants.

Biodôme de Montréal (The BioDome)
This was by far one of the coolest places that we had seen in a long time. With the four Ecosystems of the Americas as a backdrop, 4,800 animals from 230 different species as well as 750 different plant types are grouped together for an experience of a lifetime. Unlike any other traditional "zoo" or similar environment, the Biodome is as close to the real thing as you can get. My kids loved the opportunity to walk through the "tropical rainforest," "the Gulf of St. Lawrence" and the "Sub-Atlantic Islands." As close to real as you can get and a great day out for the family.

Montreal Tower -- Olympic Stadium
Montreal was once the centre of "Olympic fever" and seeing the city from the Olympic Stadium is a must-do for anyone looking for a spectacular view. Built in 1976 for the Summer Olympic Games, visitors can check out any of three observation floors of the structure, which is the tallest inclined tower in the world. Designed by French architect Roger Taillibert, the structure boasts both a multi-sports facility and seven aquatic pools.

The Montreal Science Centre (Centre des sciences de Montréal)
This was by far one of the best locales that we visited on our trip. Our family stayed in the interactive children's play area for the better part of the day, taking in the various displays and hands-on areas that are specifically geared towards children of all ages. With educational presentations and events as well as a full IMAX theatre, it was easy to wile away the hours at this must-see destination.

Montreal Botanical Garden (Jardin Botanique de Montréal)
Located in the centre of the city, the Montreal Botanical Garden is recognized as one of the world's largest floral exhibits. Boasting 22,000 plant species as well as 10 exhibition greenhouses, it's a plan and flower-lover's paradise. The garden also provides thirty specifically-themed gardens as well as educational and scientifically-geared programs for those who want to delve further into the details behind the beauty.

Montreal Insectarium (Insectarium de Montréal)
Montreal boasts being the home to North America's leading museum that is devoted to insects. If you're traveling with kids, you don't want to miss out on this one-of-a-kind museum devoted to creepy-crawlies of various kinds. This unique museum is home to 160,000 living and naturalized insect specimens as well as a bumblebee hive, a honeybee hive, an ant farm and numerous vivaria. With many entomologists on site to provide education and information to guests, the kids had many "hands-on" experiences as well.

After a fun day at the locale, we were pleasantly surprised to walk the grounds and find a superb playground -- perfect for the kids to burn off some steam while mom and dad relax (the playground is fully fitted with a soft foam surface as well as well as a generous complement of seating for tired parents. After resting for a time, we all enjoyed a walk through the beautiful on-site Japanese garden, complete with streams and Koi, which the kids loved.

Getting Around the City
Montreal is by far a great city for pedestrians and those who choose to use public transic. The Metro is extensive and well-planned out, allowing travelers to move easily to the far reaches of the city, with ease. The only consideration for parents of small children or those who need assistance maneouvering stairs is that not all stations are accessible. For this reason, if you're traveling with a stroller and/or small kids, be prepared to carry them up and down some stairs.

Shopping, Food and Sightseeing
One of the things about Montreal that makes it unique is that it is a city that offers a pedestrian experience that is both inspiring and engaging. Those looking to shop, to eat and to see the city have more than enough to keep them satisfied and then some. Though too numerous to mention here, know that you will get some of the best shopping, food and visual beauty in this city. Don't return home from your Montreal vacation without experiencing a trip down St. Catherine street, a meal of real Quebec poutine and a stroll through the city at night. You won't be disappointed.