I recently had the opportunity to spend a few days in Stratford, Ontario. My sister and her husband moved to this lovely theatre and tourist town last fall and fell in love with their new home. It‘s easy to see why. Stratford is a small Victorian town of about 35,000 offering live theatre, good food, great shops, and a walk-able downtown with a very relaxed vibe.
I saw three Stratford Festival performances: we booked tickets for Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre a couple of months in advance. This is the big theatre by the river, shaped like a tent with a crown on the top. There’s a statue in the gardens that represents the raising of the tent used before the building was completed. Costumed trumpeters announce the 10-minute warning for the beginning of the play from the second floor terrace. There are gardens around the theatre and a wonderful gift shop across the parking lot where you can buy merchandise from all the plays on offer during the season. One particularly interesting item was jewelry made from old costumes. We bought tickets for the other plays on the days of performance and were able to take advantage of 2 for 1 ticket offers for Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Crazy for You is a lively musical comedy starring Tom Rooney. It’s about saving a theatre in the American mid-west. It was a treat for me to see Tom Rooney I recognized him from years ago when he used to perform in the Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan plays in Saskatoon and at the Globe Theatre in Regina. Now he’s one of the mainstays at the Stratford Festival. One of my favourite scenes is when Rooney mimics the actions of his drunken acting partner. A stellar example of physical comedy and one of the funniest parts in the play!
We had a really good view of the footwork for the dance routines that had everyone awake and toes tapping all evening; more than can be said for King John (think Magna Carta) which we saw one hot afternoon. Maybe it was the weather or maybe it was the dark and dismal plot, but I saw a couple of people nodding off.
We saw Crazy for You in the Tom Patterson theatre, which is actually an old badminton court: it has high ceilings and the stage is a runway out into the crowd. It’s the smallest venue on offer and there’s not a bad seat in the house. We saw Mother Courage in the same theatre on the last evening I was in town. It’s also a depressing story about a mother trying to protect her family during the Thirty Years War. However it was well acted and enjoyable, as was King John, despite the plot.
Prices vary but there are concessions for seniors. The Avon Theatre and the Studio Theatre are both downtown. Stratford is small enough that you can easily dine downtown then walk to the river to the Tom Patterson or the Festival Theatre within 20 minutes to a half an hour.
If you’re staying in Toronto but want to venture to Stratford for the day or longer, there’s a bus from the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street specifically for the festival theatres. At $20 for a return trip it’s a bargain. All you need is proof (i.e., theatre tickets) that you are attending a play. Check out the Stratford Direct Bus link on the festival website.
We also spent a lot of time just walking around town and along the river. One day we saw a pair of swans with their signets paddling along the river. Another day we saw a dragon boat team practicing on Victoria Lake, where the river widens downtown. On Romeo Street (yes, there is a definite theme with the names of some streets) you will find the Art Gallery – which is small but worth a visit. The exhibits change on a regular basis and you’re sure to see something to make you think. In addition to the gardens by the Festival Theatre, there are also the Shakespeare Gardens by the Huron Street Bridge.
Around the corner is the Presbyterian Church – it’s a lovely round building with newer stained glass windows. The office is open in the morning so we were able to get a tour: I was especially impressed by the murals of Bible scenes painted on the walls of the Sunday school.
Stratford is alive with shops and restaurants. If you enjoy chocolate, you must check out the Savour Stratford Chocolate Trail. For $25 you can visit 6 of a possible 19 places about town for a chocolate sample. I had an incredibly decadent brownie, followed by a chocolate vinegar (!) sample, truffles, biscotti and brittle. I spent the day with my sister who, unlike me, is not a chocoholic; she purchased tickets for the Ale and Bacon Trail instead. Some of the establishments are on both lists, which made things easier. Tickets, maps and directions for the self guided tours (plus the Maple Syrup trail!) are available at the Tourist Information Centre.
Many of the samples are packaged to take away rather than be consumed on the premises, and the tickets are good for three days. The tour is available year round so I’ll be doing it again on my next visit – not only was it such a hot and humid day that I couldn’t attempt the hot chocolate drink, but there are still 13 places I haven’t tried!
IF YOU GO:
I stayed for three nights at a lovely B&B called One Sixteen Mornington. It’s a short and easy walk to the edge of downtown; an old red brick house full of antiques. It retains the character of a century home. The rooms are large and very comfortable, with tea and coffee making facilities and access to a small fridge. My sister was welcome to visit with me, and the front porch is a lovely spot to watch passersby while enjoying the cool shade. Guests have full use of the living/dining room on the ground floor including a computer where you can check the daily weather report and your e-mail. Ron and Koleen are very welcoming hosts and provide a wonderful cooked breakfast every morning – it was so substantial and varied that I didn’t need much to eat until the evening. Koleen usually sat with us at the end of our meal to chat about the plays on offer at the four theatres in town and to get to know all her guests. The place has a personal touch, too: many of the paintings are by Koleen or her mother.
I paid $110 per night in June. The prices go up to $140 per night from July to September. I will definitely stay here again.
PLACES TO EAT:
Every town needs a diner where you can get breakfast all day. Stratford’s go to place is Madelyn’s on Huron Street. Ask any local and they will be able to tell you how to get there. It was the first place my sister and brother-in-law took us to when we (my aunt, cousin and I) arrived in town. Portions were generous and delicious. I can see why the locals love this place. Many items are sourced from local producers, who are given full credit on the menus. Credit cards are not accepted – cash or debit only. Madelyn’s Diner www.madelynsdiner.ca/
We visited the new Monforte more than once. The décor is rustic and you may find yourself sharing your table with others but you can bring your own wine ($15 corkage fee) and best of all for me, they serve small plates so you can try more than one menu item if you are hungry or you can just have a small bite to eat. If you want to take some of the deliciousness home, you can also buy cheese from their dairy and local honey before you leave. Monforte on Wellington www.monfortedairy.com
Let Them Eat Cake is another popular restaurant which we have been to a couple of times for a selection of good, affordable food. They also have a very tempting bakery. www.letthemeatcake.ca
Bentley’s Bar is another option for comfort food. 99 Ontario Street. (519) 271-1121
Features Café at 159 Ontario Street is another option but is open for breakfast and lunch only. featuresstratford.com/
Other useful sites:
Our B&B, One Sixteen Mornington www.onesixteenmornington.ca/
In addition to informattion about the plays, the festival website has recommendations for
accommodation and dining.