Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Show & Tell: Our anniversary weekend in Stratford

(Apologies in advance for the wonky formatting -- trying to get the photos & text in the right places has been an exercise in frustration...!)

Thank you for all your good wishes on our wedding anniversary. Most years, we've fallen into the pattern of just going out for dinner, & then doing something special on the anniversaries that are divisible by 5. Even though this wasn't one of those years, we decided we wanted to do something a little more.

We've realized that we've fallen into a bit of a rut these past few years. Because we don't have any kids, we're obviously free to take off whenever we want -- and yet, we rarely do, especially the past 10 years. When you factor in commuting, we're out of the house for 11-12 hours every day, & we're pretty tired when we get home (how on earth do working parents do it???). It's very easy to fall into a rut & wind up laying on the couch watching TV (or mesmerized by a computer screen…!).

We decided that really needs to change! I recently started working on a scrapbook that will include at least one two-page layout for each year we've been married, with a selection of photos & highlights from that year, including vacations we took, shows we saw and what we did on our anniversary that year. (Hopefully, it will be finished in time for our 25th anniversary next year.) Anyway, going through my old datebooks, I realized, "Boy, we used to get out & about a LOT more!" Yes, I know we're 24 years older than when we were first married… but we're not THAT old, not yet…!!

We tossed around a few ideas. We considered going to Niagara on the Lake, one of our favourite getaway spots -- home to the Shaw Festival, as well as some fabulous wineries, & only a half-hour drive from Niagara Falls. We've been to NOTL many times before, though, most recently for our 20th anniversary. (I must blog about NOTL some other time.)

And so, we decided to head to Stratford -- home of Canada's Stratford Shakespeare Festival. (How lucky are we to have two such fabulous summer theatre festivals so close to us?) We've only been to Stratford three times (twice for the theatre, once just to look around) -- never overnight, & the last time was 20 years ago -- so we decided it was about time for a return visit.

And we are so glad we did. All weekend long, we kept looking at each other & saying, "WHY don't we do stuff like this more often??" lol

Stratford is about a two-hour drive west from Toronto, population around 30,000. It's a very pretty town, first settled in the 1830s, with some very well preserved Victorian-era houses & buildings, lots of gorgeous trees and parks, etc. The only thing I really didn't like is that almost ALL the parking downtown is metered -- 2 hours max -- & the parking lots are expensive (captive audience, I guess). Most plays run well over two hours, so dh had to leave the Sunday matinee at intermission to put more money in the meter. Be forewarned & bring lots of quarters, loonies & toonies!

(At left: Stratford City Hall.)

Ontario Street (Main Street)

Downie Street (I think?)

The world-famous Shakespeare Festival began in 1953, with performances in a tent. Over the years, it has expanded to four theatres and broadened its repertoire beyond just Shakespearean plays, with performances by renowned actors such as Alec Guinness, Christopher Plummer, Peter Ustinov, Dame Maggie Smith and William Shatner.

Both the Shaw & Stratford Festivals are heavily dependent on tourists (from both sides of the border) -- and both are hurting this year, because of the economy as well as the new rules requiring passports to cross the U.S.-Canada border. The Saturday night play we attended was fairly full, but not a sellout, as you might expect on a holiday weekend for both Canada and the U.S. We heard one hotel employee saying that when the Canadian dollar was at around 60 cents U.S., they used to get retired Americans coming & staying for two or three WEEKS, because it was such a cheap vacation for them. Not these days, unfortunately.

Nobody we talked to had been to Stratford recently & could recommend accommodations for us, so we scoured the Internet looking at hotel reviews. (Stratford has tons of B&Bs, but dh is more comfortable in a hotel setting -- preferably something fairly modern, lol.) We settled on the Arden Park Hotel -- a nice, clean, relatively modern, 5-storey hotel that had been recently renovated -- big room with a king-sized bed, flat screen TV, etc. -- new(er) carpeting, new tiles & fixtures in the bathroom, etc., located directly across the street from a Williams Coffee Pub and a Dairy Queen. It is a 20-30 minute hike downtown, but just a 5-10 minute walk down the side street & through a beautiful park to the Festival Theatre, the festival's largest venue.

We had better luck asking for recommendations on where to eat. Dovetailing nicely with its status as a tourist mecca, Stratford is home to a chef's school. There's a wide variety of very good restaurants to suit every taste & budget.

While visiting friends recently in nearby Waterloo, we asked whether they knew of any good places to eat. The husband works with a woman who has lived in Stratford all her life, & she had given him the names of two good restaurants to try. So we made reservations for one, Foster's Inn, on Saturday night. It's known for its steaks, so we both had steak & it was very good.

The restaurant is actually just a few doors down from the Avon Theatre -- however, the play we were seeing Saturday night was at the Festival Theatre, so we decided to return to our hotel, park the car & walk. The play was "Cyrano de Bergerac" which was wonderful. I saw it at Manitoba Theatre Centre years & years ago, when I was about 14 -- Len Cariou, a Winnipeg-born actor who has won Tonys on Broadway, played Cyrano then.

This time, Cyrano was played by Colm Feore, who is probably one of the better known stage actors in Canada (his wife directed the production & their son had a minor part in it too). I don't watch "24" but the program said he's on it! -- so you might recognize him. Some reviews I've read say he was a better Cyrano in a 1996 Stratford production. I don't know about that, but I thought he was wonderful, as was the young actor who played the tongue-tied Christian.

The next day we had brunch at the hotel, which was OK. It was served buffet style -- however, you had to go to one of the ballrooms to load up your plate at the buffet & then walk with it back down the hallway to the restaurant!! Kind of strange. Also, the hotel had hosted a wedding the night before & many of the guests were staying at the hotel, so it was very busy.

After brunch, we took a walk back to the park to look around (since we'd been in a hurry the night before), crossed the street from the theatre & took a walk along the beautiful Avon River (got some great photos of people feeding the swans).

Waterfall in the park -- when we were walking through on Saturday night, there was a whole family here having their portrait taken. Very cool setting!

Garden with a sundial & statue of Shakespeare on the grounds of the Festival Theatre.

Swans on the Avon River.

Another view of the river.

Returned to the hotel, got the car & headed back downtown for a Sunday matinee performance of "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" at the Avon Theatre. OH MY GOSH -- it was hysterical!!! I was honestly getting weak from laughing so hard. Really, really funny & very well done! It's gotten great reviews. Dh saw the movie years ago (with Zero Mostel & Phil Silvers) but it was all new to me (except for the opening number, "Comedy Tonight"). I understand Nathan Lane starred in a revival on Broadway about 10 years ago (I could definitely see him in the role!).

We had hoped to go to dinner at the other restaurant our friends had recommended -- but when we went to call for reservations, we realized it was closed on Sundays. A lot of the restaurants in Stratford are, it seems. Very long story short -- after some wrangling with dh over what to do, we wound up at the hotel dining room. We looked at the menu in our room upstairs, picked out what wanted & headed downstairs & were seated. Only to find out that they didn't serve the regular menu on Sunday nights. We had a choice of three main courses, plus the salad bar & dessert bar (leftovers from brunch! -- which didn't appeal to me, so we didn't have any of that).

I had the prime rib & dh had broiled whitefish (the other choice was pineapple chicken). It was OK, but nothing special. Lesson learned for next time! Later, we walked across the street to the Dairy Queen & I had a Skor Bar Blizzard. : )

We got up the next morning (Monday, which was our actual anniversary), had breakfast, checked out before 10, & were back home again by noon. Went out for dinner again later that night.

We will definitely be doing this more often in the future. : )

To see what others are showing & telling, hop over to this week's Show & Tell post at Stirrup Queens.


  1. I will never forget the ever-polite Stratford audience struggling not to throw food at the Post-apocalyptic MacBeth that we suffered through. Skateboards? Roadkill and plaid? What were they drinking?

  2. Wow! What an amazing trip. If Mel hasn't been there she'll be pining for this location next!

  3. That sounds like such a good (albeit busy) anniversary trip. Next travel could be to D.C.! We have lots of good theater :-)

    I've heard of loonies, but what are toonies?

  4. Stratford is gorgeous - added to the list of places in Canada I must visit at some point.

  5. Sounded like a divine trip. All those shows! So jealous. Guess I'll have to wait until Bard on the Beach next month to get my fill. Would love to visit Stratford some day.

    Happy Anniversary!

  6. That sounds like a fabulous weekend. The scenery is lovely and I would have loved to see the play. I do recognize Colm Feore from 24. He plays the president's husband.

  7. Mel -- toonies are our two-dollar coins. The one-dollar coin became known as the "loonie" because it has a loon on the front (also, people thought it was a loony idea at the time, although they've gotten used to it now). Naturally, when they introduced the two-dollar coin a few years later, it was dubbed the "toonie."

    MLO -- lol. Feore is also playing in Macbeth this season. They've set this version in colonial Africa?? It hasn't gotten very good reviews either.

  8. I love seeing shakespeare! sounds like a great getaway - and I would totally be using all my vacation days every year! I don't give jobs back my time anymore - I did that for too long, and noone really appreciates it.

  9. Ooooh wonderful! But really hectic!

    And as far as formatting is concerned, I tend to use centre alignment...because otherwise it would look wonky on different screens...

  10. Oooh, very nice! Happy belated anniversary and I'm glad you two had such a good time. I haven't been to Stratford for years and years, but I was in Niagara-on-the-Lake a few years ago for work and managed to catch a very good performance of "The Crucible" and buy lots of wine and jam! Either way, southern Ontario is beautiful this time of year. And I'm so jealous you got to see Colm Feore - I sort of love him and he's quite brilliant in much of the film work I've seen him in.

    MLO made me laugh, too - I think I saw that same version of MacBeth at Shakespeare on the Saskatchewan many years ago. Pretty bad, indeed.

  11. Sounds like a great way to celebrate your anniversary! Good for you and dh for deciding to get away and take such a nice trip. Happy belated anniversary!

  12. So beautiful! What a lovely, busy, trip :)

  13. Sounds like a great way to spend your anniversary. It's always good to get away to celebrate love.

  14. Isn't it amazing how easy it is to disregard the treasures in our own backyards? It sounds like you had a fun, albeit busy, trip.

    I've now added Stratford to my 'to travel to' list

  15. Happy Belated anniversary and what a fantastic trip! I wish I flew, heck I wish I traveled anywhere these days, but boy I'd love to go up and see all the places, it looks like a fairytale, especially the lake ands surrounding gardens.
    So glad you shared!