By Anne Bokma
Between them, the Stratford and Shaw Festivals offer 25 productions this season, but both Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake also offer plenty of attractions beyond the stage. Here are our top picks for the best ways to keep busy in these theatre towns.
1. The play’s the thing:
Shakespeare tops the playbill here with Romeo and Juliet, Twelfth Night and Timon of Athens. There are also a couple of top-notch song-and-dance shows, HMS Pinafore and Guys and Dolls, the latter of which is getting rave reviews. Two new Canadian plays (The Breathing Hole and The Virgin Trial) have been commissioned in honour of Canada 150 celebrations.
2. The Stratford Summer Music Festival:
“If music be the food of love, play on,” Shakespeare wrote in Twelfth Night. This festival takes those words seriously with six weeks of music (until Aug. 27) featuring more than 100 events and 350 artists in venues across the city. The legendary Buff y Sainte-Marie performs and Guy Lombardo’s Royal Canadians take audiences back to a time when the fox trot was all the rage (dance lessons are offered one hour before each of the two performances).
3. The Stratford Perth Museum:
This charming museum has a number of exhibits, including an Inuit art exhibit on loan from the Art Gallery of Ontario, a pop-up display of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, an interactive Treasure Island display and props and costumes from the Stratford Festival Archives.
4. Stratford Chefs School:
In addition to churning out top Canadian chefs, this school, in an elegant new location in the heart of the city, offers cooking classes for the first time ever. Learn how to prepare everything from pasta and risotto to ice cream.
5. The Bard and beer go together:
Craft beverages are popular in Stratford. Raise a glass of porter or English pale ale at the Black Swan Brewery or stop by Mercer Beer Hall or The Hub, both of which serve up more than 100 craft beers from around the world.
6. Tarry in the new Market Square:
This new $2.5 revitalization of the Market Square in the centre of town includes seating, public art and special events such as concerts, movies and markets.
7. Perch on a patio:
People watch from a number of patios, including the expanded outdoor space at The Parlour, the park setting of the Bruce Restaurant, Raja’s flower festooned veranda, Keystone Alley’s sheltered alley, Montfort on Wellington’s out-of-the-way escape and the Revival House terrace overlooking Brunswick Street.
8. Take a stroll on a culinary trail:
The Savour Stratford Culinary Trails are an affordable way to design your own tasting tour around town. A $25 pass gets you five samples from businesses in town. Choose from the Chocolate Trail or the Beer & Ale Trail.
9. Forage for your food:
Collect and sample wild edibles with Puck’s Plenty Foraging Tours. It’s gained worldwide recognition, including a nod in “Travel + Leisure” magazine, which named it one of the top food foraging experiences in the world.
10. Shop the main street:
Sample the famous mint smoothie bar at Rheo Thompson, pick up elegant housewares at Watson’s Chelsea Bazaar, homemade dog treats at The Barkery, exotic loose-leaf teas at Distinctly Tea and browse the inventory of classical literature and theatre-related books at the Book Stage.
11. The play’s the thing:
This season’s playbill of 11 productions includes the high-energy Me and My Girl, the tenderhearted and family-friendly Wilde Tales, Saint Joan, (considered by some to be Shaw’s greatest play), Bram Stoker’s gothic thriller, Dracula, and The Madness of George III, where you can sit in box seats on stage and be part of the king’s court.
12. Sleep in style:
There’s no shortage of elegant inns to lay your head. Vintage hotels runs the Prince of Wales, Queen’s Landing, Pillar & Post, Moffat Inn and Millcroft Inn & Spa while Niagara’s Finest operates The Charles Hotel, Harbour House and the Shaw Club hotel. The area also has a number of elegant bed and breakfasts, including The Martin House, located about 20 minutes from town, a renovated century-old barn on a 14-acre property with gorgeous gardens.
13. Wine time:
The ever-expanding winery scene includes the newly opened 23,000 sq. ft . Wayne Gretzky Estates Winery & Distillery and the Hare Wine Co. The new Winemakers’ Selections Tasting Pass allows you to sip selections from any of 20+ wineries for $25.
14. Get around on two wheels:
The best way to enjoy the picturesque landscape is to glide along on a bike, e-bike, escooter or segway. (You can also book a bike for a guided tour of the wineries). There are plenty of rental outfits in town, including Zoom Leisure and eSkoot Niagara.
15. Get around on foot:
Familiarize yourself with the spooky history of the town with Ghost Walks of Niagara-on-the-Lake and candlelit Ghost Walk Tours of Fort George. Or skip the ghouls and do an Old Town Walking Tour or A Taste the Town culinary walking food tour.
16. Take in a history lesson:
Visit Fort George and learn about this Parks Canada site, which played a key role in the struggle for the Niagara Frontier during the War of 1812. The Niagara Apothecary is an authentic museum restoration of an 1869 pharmacy that once operated downtown. And the Laura Secord Homestead is devoted to the heroine who set out on a perilous journey during the War of 1812 in service of her country.
17. Stop and smell….the lavender:
Neob (Niagara Essential Oils & Blends) is the area’s only commercial lavender grower and essential oils producer. Tour the aromatic greenhouse, roam the lavender field and pick up sweet smelling products in the boutique.
18. Cruise the parkway:
The Niagara Parkway offers one of the most scenic drives in the region. A dedicated bike path, which runs parallel to the Parkway and takes you all the way to The Falls, offers stunning views of the Niagara River. Stop along the way for high tea at the elegant McFarland House.
19. The best of the season:
Pick up fresh produce such as sweet cherries, peaches, raspberries, corn, apples, pears and grapes at one of the many seasonal fruit markets just outside of town, including those operated by Kurtz Orchards, Parkway Orchards and Van de Laar Orchards.
20. Shop the main street:
Horse-drawn carriages, a clock tower in the centre of town, a city park with a fountain and elegant shops all combine to cause Niagara-on-the-Lake to be voted one of Canada’s prettiest towns. Check out BeauChapeau, which stocks more than 8,000 hats, Just Christmas, which keeps up the holiday spirit all year long, and satisfy your sweet tooth at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory. Be sure to check out The Shawp at the Shaw’s Festival Theatre, where you can pick up editions of the plays you’ll see on stage.