“What’s in a name?”
William Shakespeare famously gave that line to the lovely Juliet, and it has been repeated dozens of times on the stages of the Stratford Festival, the world-class theatre that dominates the life of this southwestern Ontario city.
The phrase also helps to explain why this small city has become the theatrical heart of Canada. In 1953, a man named Tom Patterson decided that a town named Stratford, located on the Avon River, simply had to have a theatre honouring the Bard of Avon. Today, more than half a million people come to Patterson’s town (permanent population, just 31,500) to see works ranging from Shakespearean plays to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Check-in to Your Stratford Hotel
There is no lack of choice when it comes to accommodations in Stratford, from motels to hotels to small inns to homey B&Bs. But you won’t find many “big name” hotels here – the hospitality industry has been created mainly by local, independent entrepreneurs, and that means your stay will almost certainly be a unique experience.
While it bears the Best Western brand, the Arden Park wins for its walkable location, only a few minutes from the Festival Theatre (the first and reigning queen of Stratford’s four theatres. The Arden Park is the place to stay if you want amenities like an indoor pool, exercise room, restaurant, and cocktail lounge. It offers two accessible rooms to serve physically challenged guests, reasonable rates, and the best Sunday brunch in town.
Mercer Hall, with its motto of “Heritage meets hip”, is found right in the heart of the downtown. Accommodations are comfortable, although not wildly spacious. But there are two significant plusses here. First, the restaurant on the main floor, Mercer Hall Kitchen and Beer Hall: favourite food choices include their signature Cobb Salad, the very flavourful Coconut Curry Soup, and the main that I guard from begging forks – the soy-glazed barbecued side ribs. Typically there are more than a dozen beers on tap; the best option is to order a flight of four, and if Antigravity Light Lager and Summer 2018 are available, be sure to include them. The second plus, which can be a shocker for people used to big city hotels, is that guests are offered free parking right in the city centre.
Also in the downtown is the highly-rated Queen’s Inn, a historic small hotel with only 32 guest rooms. The Queen’s has a higher-end dining room, but you really want to head straight to the onsite Boar’s Head pub, one of the most popular pubs in Stratford. Patrons can choose between typically jumbled seating inside and an outdoor patio on the main drag. Excellent beer, good wings, and an unsurpassed wild boar burger await. Like Mercer Hall, and the other city centre hotels and inns, the Queen’s Inn is relatively easy walking distance from all Festival theatres.
There are literally dozens of B&Bs in Stratford, and many more within a few minutes drive. When half a million people are coming to town each year, it’s not surprising that enterprising local residents have converted their homes into bed and breakfasts, some with more success than others.
The Stone Maiden Inn is one of the best. It’s big enough to offer superb service and amenities including full gourmet breakfasts incorporating good from local producers and farmers. But it’s small enough to retain that bed-and-breakfast sense of cozy luxury. All 15 modernized suites at this 1873 Victorian mansion include private ensuite bathrooms, which makes getting ready for a full day of activity in Stratford very stress-free.
On Stage at the Stratford Festival
How important is the Stratford Festival in the grand theatrical scheme of things? This season, a Globe & Mail review for “Coriolanus” imparted that “it’s worth the trip, down the highway, across the country or, indeed, around the world.”
Every year, theatre lovers do come from around the world to experience the finest in live drama, comedy, and musicals. The Festival has never abandoned its commitment to presenting Shakespeare (four plays in the 2018 season alone) but also offers the full spectrum of theatre. This year including Eugene O’Neill’s “Long Days Journey Into Night”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, Oscar Wilde’s “An Ideal Husband”, two wildly diverse musicals (“The Music Man” and “The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) and more.
The Festival has four theatres, but the 2018 season is slightly curtailed (12 plays in three theatres) as the Tom Patterson Theatre undergoes major reconstruction until its scheduled debut in 2020. That leaves the Festival Theatre, with its iconic thrust stage; the Avon Theatre (described by one review as “Proscenium Arch theatre at its best”) and the intimate Studio Theatre.
Beyond the stage
For music lovers, and theatre-goers inspired to want more by the Festival’s musicals, the Stratford Summer Music Festival is a must-attend. This year’s event runs from July 16 to August 26. The concerts, performances and special events feature over 100 artists, this year including a 10-day appearance by the world-renowned “Museum of the Moon” touring artwork. Performances from orchestral works to cabaret to jazz bands to solo artists are performed outdoors – some from a barge in the Avon river.
And speaking of Stratford music, the Stratford Perth Museum is a one-of-a-kind museum located just west of the city on Highway 8. Notably, it features an exhibition focused on the life of the city’s favourite (in)famous son, Justin Bieber. Bieber, by the way, is still occasionally spotted on the streets of his hometown. The museum is a must for theatre-goers as well. This season exhibits include “Harper Lee: To Kill a Mockingbird”, and “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On”, detailing the early years of the Stratford Festival.
Shopping in Stratford
Stratford City Centre is just the right size for a shopping expedition. You won’t find chain stores here between the independently-owned and -operated boutiques.
For an eclectic selection of housewares, china, décor, art, and a free-range cat or two, Watson’s Bazaar is an ideal destination. Literature lovers adore Fanfare Books, a healthy survivor in an age when fine bookstores are a bit thin on the ground; and do take the time to explore the bargain book bins wheeled out onto the sidewalk every day when the weather is fine.
Gallery Indigena is worth the visit to browse the beautiful and authentic work by Canadian Aboriginal artists, who are paid direct royalties on each purchase.
And if all that shopping has made you peckish, there are amazing chocolate shops in town including two local independents – Rheo Thompson, and Chocolate Barr’s Candies. Or drive a few blocks out of the downtown to the wonderful Monforte Dairy, maker of exquisite artisanal cheese.
Dining out in Stratford
Speaking of food, there is an abundance of excellent dining, from gourmet food to the iconic hot dogs of the Erie Drive-In on Erie Street.
One tip from a Festival veteran, during theatre season from April to early November, is to place your reservations for a pre-show meal well in advance. Otherwise, plan on a late seating or a walk-in from 8 p.m. onwards.
One favourite higher-end restaurant is Revival House, which is across the street from the Studio and Avon theatres. Originally a church, the place retains most of the décor from its previous ecclesiastical function. It is beautiful, if slightly disconcerting, as you sip a Manhattan by the light of a stained glass window with Biblical motifs.
Left photo courtesy of Revival House. Right photo by Kerry Rose
The Pazzo Taverna and Pizzeria, in the heart of the city centre, has been a popular spot for decades, featured prominently in Timothy Findley’s 2002 roman-à-cléf “Spadework” about Stratford as a place of food, wine, backstage gossip, and Machiavellian maneuvering.
Another venerable but charming eatery is Fellini’s, known far and wide for the minestrone soup. And two newer neighbouring restaurants are well worth a taste-test – Bijou and Red Rabbit, each with original and creative fare. Red Rabbit is owned and operated by the chefs, front of house staff and bartenders, so there is an added internal incentive to spectacular service.
If you are in Stratford on a nice day, you will really want to picnic by the Avon on the riverbank (by the open-air art market) or on the island. There are lots of picnic tables, great views of the iconic swans, and dragon boat enthusiasts. A quiet word of advice: if you, like many others, choose to include wine in your meal, serve with discretion as authorities generally look away, but it is not technically legal.
If you want a terrific after-dinner (or anytime) coffee, Balzac’s Coffee Roasters in the city centre can’t be beat. At Balzac’s as is the case with other eateries mentioned, you are very likely to find yourself up close and personal with the very actors you saw on stage the night before. It’s okay to say “hi” because that’s the kind of town Stratford is.
Golf near Stratford
Let’s be honest here. Not all visitors to Stratford are huge theatre fans – they have been brought to town by their spouses or partners. So let’s give them a break, and point out that there are a number of good golf courses in the immediate area, including right in the city.
Not far out of town (27 minutes west of the Festival Theatre), the Mitchell Golf and Country Club is a very fine, inexpensive, public golf course owned and cared for meticulously by its members. For less than $40, golfers can play 18 holes that include unique challenges (say, an island green and a tough elevated par three).
Craft breweries in Stratford
For a more leisurely activity, there are a number of craft breweries in the area, including the Black Swan and the Stratford Brewing Company right in town. Shakespeare Brewing in a village named for the Bard (about 10 minutes east of Stratford) is where you can sample flights of beer made with 100 percent Ontario-grown ingredients.
Left photo via Unsplash. Right photo by author.
There are clearly a great many things to see and do in Stratford, on stage, off stage, in the shops and on the streets. The theatre is world-class; the dining would delight foodies for weeks; the shops are unique and inviting.
In truth, the city itself is unique – a small community that followed a dream, created a cultural environment that attracts global interest, yet somehow retains the charm of small-town Canada. Visitors should take the time to soak that in – walk the side streets replete with exquisite front yard gardens; stroll by the Avon River, and visit the Saturday morning Farmers’ Market.
Because in Stratford, home of stars of the stage, the community itself is the genuine star.
Feature photo courtesy of Destination Ontario