MONTREAL -- In New England, we shudder at a blast of cold Arctic air from our neighbor to the north. More than 40 years ago, though, our neighbors to the north figured out how to make winter more manageable.
That's when Montreal started building the Underground City. From modest beginnings in the heart of downtown, the network has grown into what tour guide RÃ©nÃ© LÃ©mieux calls ''a weatherproof city."
Oblivious to the snow and cold, nearly half a million people a day bustle along 20 miles of walkways that connect 200 restaurants, 1,700 boutiques, and 60 office buildings -- not to mention movie theaters, concert halls, sports arenas, MÃ©tro (subway) stations, two universities, and a college.
''I can't say we loved it at first," acknowledged LÃ©mieux, ''but now we can't live without it."
The Underground is also a boon to visitors. Seven hotels are part of the network, so you won't need boots and parkas while you shop, dine, and visit museums. If walking through the subterranean passageways doesn't seem like enough exercise, pack both your bathing suit and ice skates.
Given Montreal's status as a style bridgehead between Paris and North America, it's not surprising that shopping figures prominently in the Underground. Six blocks of department stores and shopping centers fan out from the McGill MÃ©tro station, roughly following rue Sainte-Catherine Ouest.
To get an idea of the engineering ingenuity required to build the Underground, check out the two levels of stores in the Promenades CathÃ©drale shopping center. In 1987, massive Christ Church Cathedral was jacked up onto stilts while the land beneath was excavated to create the shopping center. New foundations were added to support the 1859 church, the shops, and an office tower built at the same time.
Next door to Promenades CathÃ©drale, the largest department store operation in Canada connects to the Underground. La Baie (The Bay) was founded in 1670 as the Hudson Bay Company, then just a remote fur-trading post. But for all the loyalty The Bay claims elsewhere in Canada, Montrealers tend to gravitate eastward in the Underground toward Quebec-based retailer Simons. The department store frequently tops city polls as best clothing store. It doesn't hurt that the food court downstairs offers quick meals of pizza, Asian noodle soup, barbecued chicken, or ''poutine," a Quebec specialty of french fries, brown gravy, and fresh cheese curd.
The subway trains of the MÃ©tro are the fastest way to get from place to place, but the Underground's pedestrian labyrinth is a breeze to navigate. A map of the Underground is superimposed on street maps, making it fairly easy to find everything, even if you can't check the sun for direction. ''People think the Underground sounds creepy-crawly," acknowledges LÃ©mieux. In fact, abundant windows, skylights, and atriums let in the outdoor light, but not the weather.
Of course, Montreal has plenty of outdoor ice skating rinks, but even locals inured to the climate like to skate in shirtsleeves at the indoor rink at Atrium Le 1000 de La GauchetiÃ¨re, tucked into the ground level of an office building. If you prefer gazing to gliding, the Museum of Contemporary Art of Montreal, which anchors one side of Place des Arts, has exhibitions from Quebec and around the world. One of the bestsellers in the excellent gift shop is a poster of 2,500 Montrealers who took off their clothes and posed on the plaza outside for photographer Spencer Tunick. They weren't completely crazy -- they waited until May.
Come nightfall, you might want to return to the Place des Arts complex (www.pdarts.com), where five halls of varying sizes host performances of ballet, classical music, and opera. In the meantime, afternoon tea is served in the lobby of Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth, the hotel directly over the train station. When the QE opened in 1957, it became the toast of Montreal society and it's still something of a social center. From a window table, you can sip a cup of Prince of Wales tea as people hurry by on the sidewalk.
From the McGill MÃ©tro, it's only a block up rue University to the McCord Museum on rue Sherbrooke. ''Wintering" is the most entertaining of the permanent exhibits. Montrealers seem to delight in the extremity of the season that routinely includes at least 13 snowstorms of more than 4 inches.
Displays of sleighs and snowshoes, warm parkas, fur hats, muffs, and multilayered gloves show how people coped with the season in the days before the Underground.
But if you'd rather fool Mother Nature, take the MÃ©tro to the Viau stop and scurry across a parking lot to reach the BiodÃ´me, a cross between a botanical garden and a zoo -- indoors.
It's summer all the time in the basement of the Olympic Stadium next door. Constructed for the 1976 games, its stunning pools are open to the public for diving off the high boards and thrashing down the race lanes.
After all these subterranean explorations, plan to end the daylight hours at the most exalted spot in the Underground: Place Ville-Marie. The bar at Altitude 737 (a restaurant named for its elevation in feet above sea level) has a sweeping sunset view over this historic and dynamic city.
Then repair to Guy & Dodo Morali, an intimate little restaurant in the fashion-conscious Cours Mont Royal shopping center, for French cuisine in French Empire surroundings. The kitchen is especially good with such Quebec delicacies as local scallops, salmon poached in champagne, and a sweet conclusion of tarte tatin.
Patricia Harris and David Lyon are authors of ''MontrÃ©al" in the Compass American Guides series.