A strip of blue light glows beneath my hotel room’s door. It’s here, I think, giddy with anticipation. This is the first time I’ve ever had a robot visit my suite. I throw open the door with a polite smile and a warm hello; machine or not, this is, after all, my favourite indulgence during a hotel stay. Room service.
He, she, it... stands before me, a short, brightly coloured, upright cylinder-shaped thing with cartoony eyes and a happy-face grin, and a touch-screen for a forehead. H2M2, as it is affectionately called, makes a whirring noise and a lid at the top of its head lifts open to reveal a white paper bag carrying the snack I’d ordered. I take the bag, press “no” to its message asking me if it can be of further assistance, and the robot turns and glides away.
No, I’m not dreaming.
The future is now in Montreal.
When the city’s Hotel Monville opened its doors in the spring of 2018, its room-service delivery robot was a first in Canada and one of the hotel’s many nods to the destination’s emergence as one of the top artificial intelligence (AI) hubs in the world. From its vaulted lobby to its 20th-floor rooftop terrace, the vibe is ultra- modern with electronic kiosks enabling guests to easily check in and receive their room keys, and sleek minimalist rooms boasting at least one 50- to 55-inch web-enabled smart TV. The hotel, I discovered soon after I arrived, is like a microcosm of what’s happening elsewhere in the city.
For me, Montreal is many things. It’s been the site of gal-pal gatherings to shop or revel in the never-ending nightlife. It’s hosted my culinary adventures during which I took cooking classes, went on bagel rampages and glorious romps through Marché Jean-Talon. And yes, the city has been the backdrop for more than one romantic getaway, with the VIA Rail train winding its way from Toronto and depositing me and my amour at the downtown station to embark on a wine-and-dine weekend in Old Montreal.
But a tech-centric visit? That’s never been on my radar. Nor, I learned, did it have to be.
Here’s the thing: If culture, cuisine, architecture, adventure and hospitality are the hallmarks of a hotspot travel destination, Montreal has always had it all. However, the whole technology scene now influences many of its offerings. For its 375th birthday celebrations in 2017, for example, years of effort went into creating Montreal en Histoire’s Cite Memoir, a massive project comprised of video projections that appear throughout Old Montreal on various structures and mobile-app-enabled audio that tell the stories of the city. Today, you can still catch these outdoor tableaus (in winter months, Friday and Saturday evenings only) or indoors at the historic Fairmont Queen Elizabeth Hotel. There, I skipped along an interactive “river” that changed with the seasons and responded to my every step, whether I was crunching ice or walking on a reflection of clouds. Yet another tableau, in the Agora room, captures the 1960s war protest movement by focusing on John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s famous 1969 bed-in at the hotel.
And speaking of bed-ins, I staged a mini-one of my own at The Society of Arts and Technology (SAT). When I first set foot in its Satosphere, a huge dome-shaped theatre where a series of short films were playing, I was surprised to see fellow audience members laying on a bean bag mattresses tightly packed together on the floor. When in Rome, I thought, and joined them just before the room went dark. Soon, I became immersed in the films that were projected on the 360-degree spherical screen. Snug- as-a-bug and flat on my back on my beanie, it was like watching a movie being played on the sky.
At Phi Centre, a restored building in Old Montreal, which houses an art gallery, theatre, performance space and production facility, among other things, I visited the VR (Virtual Reality) Cinema. Cupped in a comfy arm-chair and equipped with a VR-headset, I was transported into beautifully crafted short films, virtual reality works of art. Phi Centre’s upcoming programming includes an exhibit of internationally-renowned contemporary artists’ works re-imagined as a VR experience, and promises to be, out of this world – not to mention, out of this reality.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is yet another place where technology intersects with art. I got to take in the world premiere of Thierry Mugler: Couturissime, which left me reeling. Not only for the designer’s work, but also the incredible local talent that contributed heavily to the exhibit, namely internationally renowned creative companies Lemieux Pilon 4D Art and Rodeo FX. Mugler has since left, but MMFA is famous for its cutting-edge exhibits, so check out the programming offered when you’re in town.
MONTREAL ABOVE AND BEYOND
I concluded my journey with what only here could be considered an old-fashioned way: A helicopter ride above the city. The adventure was among the 31 Montreal-based experiences now being offered by Attractions, a booking. com program that lets you quickly pick and book cool things to do via a location-based mobile phone app in cities around the world. Like others in the travel industry, the company is working to incorporate AI into its offerings and teases that soon it will be able to cater options matched exactly to your environment, wants and needs.
Not surprisingly, the views from the helicopter were spectacular, and it thrilled me to look down and try to identify the places I’ve been to and those I have yet to discover. I marvelled at the hustle and bustle of the city of innovation below me, at how people from all walks of life are following their dreams and going above and beyond what even a few decades ago few could have imagined. I mused about what everyone was doing – at one point, I even wondered what my new friend, H2M2, was up to.
When You Go
WHAT TO DO: Every night, the Jacques Cartier Bridge lights up and responds in real time to the happenings of the city, social media and the weather. Created by Montreal’s Moment Factory, the display is, of course, free. For a good deal that gives you access to 28 attractions, purchase a Passeport MTL available in two-day ($93) and three-day ($113) passes. As an added bonus, you get free unlimited public transportation. Available online at passeportmtl.com.
WHAT TO EAT: Be among the first to try out a Canadian first, Time Out Market, which is opening at the end of 2019 in the Centre Eaton de Montreal. Billed as "the city’s best coming together under one roof," look forward to a curated mix of food from the city’s top chefs and restaurants, fabulous bars, cultural experiences, a demonstration kitchen and more. Or, in a town teaming with food options, if you’re after a special experience head up to Les Enfant Terribles, Montreal’s highest elevation at which to dine, located on the 44th floor at 1 Ville Place Marie.
GETTING AROUND: Even with more than 80 spoken languages and one-third of the city speaking English, it’s always good to brush up on your French. Taxis from the airport are around $40 but a shuttle is only $10. The Métro subway boasts 68 stations, and the 33 km underground shop-lined walkway (RESO) lets you get around on foot, no matter the weather.