The former Olympic velodrome is now home to penguins and puffins

Everyone needs a puffin in their life, I realize that when looking through the glass of an exhibit at the Montreal Biodôme. There’s something inherently comical about puffins’ spherical heads and curved orange beaks, as if they were an unlikely children’s toy that came to life and was released into the wild.

Next to them is a more familiar bird: the penguin. Several different species in fact, from gentoo penguins to king penguins, manage to look more dignified than puffins by standing out in their tuxedo-like feathers.

These bird species normally live thousands of miles apart, one in the northern hemisphere and the other in the southern hemisphere. I can see them together because they share the subpolar regions section of the Biodôme, a fascinating attraction that features four habitats from North and South America. Each contains a large-scale recreation of the natural environment, with living creatures as part of the mix.

It’s an intriguing concept, reinforced by the location. Because the Biodôme is housed in the former velodrome of the 1976 Olympic Games, a vast curved structure resembling an extraterrestrial vessel. After a major renovation, the Biodôme recently reopened with additional features to make the most of its unusual architecture – including walkways and gazebos allowing visitors to get closer to its exhibits.

I certainly feel immersed in nature when I enter the maple grove section of the Laurentians. It’s a delight, as the walkways lead me under a leafy green canopy dappled with sunlight from the glass sections of the roof. It really is like walking through a Quebec forest in the summer, and in the simulated environment are local stars such as beavers, raccoons and porcupines – I even spot a lynx napping on a rocky ledge.

There aren’t many legends along the way, so spotting the creatures is made easier by the fold-out flyer that can be picked up at the entrance. Another alternative is to download the dedicated application (search on ‘EPLV Montreal’), an excellent help which contains photos and detailed descriptions of the animals and their habitats. You can see why the Biodôme is popular with families – there is both fun and learning within its walls.

From the forest, the trail leads to an underground section representing the Gulf of St. Lawrence between Quebec and Newfoundland. It’s as if I was walking below the surface, with a large wall of glass revealing what lives under the waters. It’s a bustling place, teeming with aquatic creatures including the enormous Atlantic Sturgeon, which is nearly two meters long. As I follow the path upwards, I can see the rock-strewn waters from above.

The finale is the most spectacular environment, the tropical rainforest that recreates a Central and South American habitat. As I step through its steel-beaded entrance curtain, I hear loud screams and spot two brightly colored macaws fighting territorially on a nearby branch.

Lush, dense vegetation surrounds the path as I follow it towards more peaceful inhabitants in the form of two tiny golden lion tamarins clinging to thick horizontal vines. Lying very still in the water below are two sinister caimans, relatives of the crocodile. I’m then a bit taken aback by a colorful feature that I realize is an emerald tree boa wrapped around a tree trunk, though I have to admit it looks stunning.

I end my visit by joining two other visitors on the way as we look up, looking for the southern two-toed sloth that a sign alerted us to (“Easy to confuse it with a nest of bird or a knot in a branch,” he reads.) Suddenly we see it – a reddish-brown spot, deep asleep in the green leaves. If only we humans could learn to be this relaxed.

THE DETAILS

FLY AND ROLL

Air Canada flies via Vancouver to Montreal. See aircanada.com

STAY

Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth is an elegant retro hotel located in downtown Montreal. See fairmont.com

VISIT

Entrance fees to the Biodôme are CAN$22.50 for adults, CAN$11 for children and CAN$60.75 for a family. See spaceforlife.ca

AFTER

Traveller.com.au/canada

spaceforlife.ca

mtl.org

Tim Richards visited as a guest of Destination Canada, Accor Hotels and Tourisme Montreal.

Leave a Comment