A visit to a virtual Montreal

Tourism-related websites are among the easiest productions to find online. Simply pick a location in Yahoo and you'll be taken to visitor guides, official and unofficial web presences, and even the occasional live webcams.

So two years ago, there was nothing particularly innovative about the idea of yet another site attempting to present Montreal's best face on the internet. To do it with style, on the other hand, took a little more imagination (and time), and with the cumulative contributions of 50 artists and two production companies, MadeinMTL is a tourism site worthy of its subject. And even if you have no plans to visit Montreal, you'll still want to visit this virtual guide.

Launched in 2004 and a winner at the 2005 South By Southwest festival in the "Art" and "Best of Show" categories, MadeinMTL immediately impresses with its splash page - a striking collage of images with a look reminiscent of Polaroid print transfers. Pick your language of choice to enter the site, and MTL loads the Flash based presentation into a new window, opening with a progress bar that doubles as a personal interests 'slot machine' (which will make sense later) and then moving on to the only page that will be visible for the rest of your stay. (All content is available through drop downs or embedded files that appear on this one page.)

Keeping the same muted color scheme and photographic style as the splash page, the site proper greets visitors with a quick intro to the production, multiple navigational options, and a few direct links to articles - useful for quickly acquainting visitors with the operational design of the site.

For user hints throughout the visit, the top right corner of the browser window allows the surfer to activate or disable floating Help balloons that will appear as the mouse pointer is passed over the site's various features.

The first of the 'front page' articles at the time of writing centered on Romanian-born, Montreal resident architect, Dan S. Hanganu and his impact on the city's landscape. When chosen, this article is accompanied by a video bio and an interactive map with a suggested itinerary of Hanganu-related locations within the city limits. Detailed surveys of each attraction are then accessed by clicking either on a location's map coordinates or through a text index near the top of the browser window.

Each attraction is featured in its own floating display box with various combinations of text, photographs and slideshows, panoramas and even video clips. (The entire production includes some 15,000 photographs, 400 texts, 40 sound bites and 25 short films.) In addition, icons at the upper right of each box reveal such practical site information as business hours, nearby bus routes, and -in the example of a restaurant- menu prices.

At the top of the box, "Other Choices" offers alternate attractions of the same type which can then be added to the existing itinerary as an additional stop or as a replacement for the site's first suggestion. (Such changes will immediately be reflected in suggested routes on the interactive map.)

As well as moving from one tour stop to the next, you can also use the map (which is a sort of an embedded 'Mapquest with flair' creation), to make a side trip to any of the nearby attractions not already on the suggested route. (Every available location is identified by a floating text balloon.) If you like what you find, another click of the mouse adds the new point of interest to the existing itinerary. And if you change your mind, or don't want to bother with one or more of the stops suggested by the site, you can remove them via the universally recognized trash can icon located near the text-based index.

(Map icons use typical symbols for such categories as restaurants, parks, shops, etc. but you won't be able to differentiate them until the chart is at a fairly high magnification. And since zooming in to and out of interactive maps frequently results in the original points of interest straying out of frame, the text list also includes a "Center on Map" button to zero in on the current waypoint.)

Every feature article operates in the same manner, and once you're satisfied with a specific itinerary, you can print a list of the stops or email it to some distant vacation collaborator or friends waiting in Montreal. Sadly, neither the print nor email options include captures of the interactive map, so you'll have to replot your routes on paper after getting some old fashioned, dead tree charts.

Having familiarized yourself with MTL's pre-fabricated tours, you may want to try your hand at building something more personal, and "Create Your Own Itinerary" reveals what the slot machine preload was alluding to back as the site first loaded.

Using MTL's proprietary "Itinerator" (insert dramatic music here), the surfer can select from a series of hierarchical, context-sensitive pull down menus - eg., I WANT: "to shop" "for books" "that are new" "in English" or, I WANT: "to listen" "to music" "that is jazz." Share up to eight such aspirations with the Itinerator (insert dramatic music here), click Go, and MTL will map a route that includes one exceptional choice for each desire.

For multiple stops based on a single theme, "We Recommend" offers more prefabs based on such topics as "Fresh Air," "Family Time," and "Unusual." Finally, a keyword search lets you plug in whatever terms come to mind and then see how many related suggestions MTL can draw from its database.

While the site will entice as much with its technical achievements as its content, the production is not without its occasional problems. Some of the slide shows seemed...skittish (loading and playing erratically), while others operated without a hiccup, albeit at a higher refresh rate than I would have liked. (I encountered one example of each at the Cinema Du Parc waypoint, and if both of these shows play well for you, you probably won't have any problems.)

Videos and their audio files also seemed prone to playback interruptions - though this latter problem will be more irritating for those who speak the language of the soundtracks, ie., French, and therefore will have some idea of what they're missing.

But against that are the beautiful touches that enhance an already impressive production, some of which I probably still haven't discovered. But as an example, if you decide you want to change the order of a given itinerary, you can simply drag and drop the waypoints in the text index - and the changes will be instantly reflected on the map's routes. An estimated tour time also updates with every addition and deletion.

Visually, in terms of design, this site is a work of art. This is truly an impressive variation of the theme of the 'Come and visit ___' website. It wouldn't be the only site you'd need to consult before a trip to Montreal, but it shows points of interest that others might miss, and it will almost certainly do more to put you in the mood to visit Montreal than any of the other guides will.

MadeinMTL can be found at http://www.madeinmtl.com/.

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