Featured image: The historic courthouse in Stratford, Ontario | Photo by MarcPo on iStock
With its welcoming hospitality, Stratford charms
by Carolyn Ray
When you need a little taste of old England, why not hop over to the southwestern Ontario town of Stratford? While it is well known for its world-renowned Stratford Festival of the Arts, and the home of pop star Justin Bieber, Stratford exceeded my expectations with its surprisingly warm hospitality. We’ve all had the experience of walking into stores and restaurants with nary a glance – in Stratford, this isn’t the case at all. Everywhere I went, I was greeted warmly, had exceptional service in restaurants and made to feel a part of the community, not just a tourist from Toronto.
And then there’s the connection to England’s Stratford-Upon-Avon, with Shakespearean plays, Victorian buildings, and parks and gardens named after the playwright’s works alongside the Avon River. Here, historic homes have been converted into charming bed and breakfasts, there’s farm-to-table cuisine in unique venues, quaint boutiques and shops, and no shortage of things to explore.
At the Festival Theatre before Rent/ Photo by Carolyn Ray
Six secrets of Stratford
This was my first trip to Stratford and I wanted to do something special for my birthday in July. A three-day weekend was just the right amount of time to satisfy my curiosity while taking in some plays, restaurants and shopping.
Secret 1: An easy solo getaway!
For women thinking about a solo trip, Stratford’s compact size and smaller accommodations make it an appealing place for a solo getaway. It’s a very walkable city, with a central square surrounded by shops and restaurants, many of which have outdoor terraces. In the evening, I found it well-lit and with just enough people to make me feel safe walking back to my bed and breakfast.
Stratford is also easily accessible from Toronto by bus. When you purchase Stratford Festival tickets, the bus is $35 return, much more affordable than even the train and definitely cheaper than driving. The bus leaves from the Intercontinental Hotel on Front Street and in less than two hours, you’re in downtown Stratford. The bus drops and picks up passengers off at the Avon Theatre, Tom Patterson Theatre and Festival Theatre at 10 am, 5 pm and 10 pm. I noticed that many people come in the morning and take the last bus home, which allows you to do two shows a day.
Secret 2: Adorable places to stay
Visit Stratford has a wonderful list of bed and breakfasts and boutique hotels on its website.
Even at the last moment, I was able to find a historic home to stay in, the Stamps House, which has four bedrooms and is owned by two sisters, Pam and Liz. Another friend and chef, Theresa Albert, owns the Rosehurst Inn. A delicious breakfast is included with overnight stays and many of the bed and breakfasts also offer cooking classes.
When I arrived on my birthday, I was greeted by a delicious chocolate cupcake and a small bottle of prosecco in my room. Those special touches mean a lot!
Look at www.visitstratford.ca for ideas and adorable places to stay.
Secret 3: Scrumptious food
Speaking of food, Stratford is a foodie’s delight. There is delicious cuisine in unique venues, like Revival House (a converted church), Bijou Restaurant (popular before the show) and The Common (unique cocktails). (I recommend that you make a reservation, even for a table for one, on the website, particularly if you are attending a show). To see a full list of restaurants, click here.
Stratford has also created three separate ‘food trails’ where you can collect culinary goodies from local shops, including the Chocolate and Bacon & Ale Trail year-round. I did the Savour & Sip trail, which has 12 stops to collect culinary goodies that you can enjoy at your bed and breakfast or at a picnic along the river. I admit to overindulging — some of my favorite treats included lavender-infused popcorn by neōb lavender, bontanas from El Cactus Taco Shop and maple walnut butter tarts from Bake My Day.
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Secret 4: Shopping!
I always try to support small businesses, and Stratford downtown dollars (which you can purchase at the Tourism office) make it even easier. Somehow it doesn’t feel like real money which makes the spending even more fun!
While I don’t buy a lot of clothes, I do enjoy unique shops like Retro Roller and its glittery roller skates. Who didn’t have a pair of suede roller skates and Gloria Vanderbilt hot pink velour jeans growing up? In my town, Friday nights were spent at the Super Skate. I was able to restrain myself, but I may have to go back!
Secret 5: Surprising number of things to do!
For such a small town, Stratford offers a surprising number of things to do. When you arrive, stop by the Tourism Office at 47 Downie Street, near the Avon Theatre. It’s open Monday to Sunday from 9 am to 5 pm, and there’s a list of daily activities on the wall (and a bathroom just in case!)
Some other finds: a cute little movie theatre here called “The Little Prince Micro-Cinema”, a 13-seat venue that plays short films like Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or Top Gun. The theatre can also be rented for special events.
If you want to explore the Avon River, check out The Boathouse for kayaks, bike rentals etc.
Stratford also has a wonderful library of free self-guided audio tours with a large range of topics that can be listened to on your phone.
Secret 6: Musical interludes
The home of Justin Bieber, Stratford is a town that celebrates music, with live performances at Revival House and the Bunker. Much to my surprise, I was even serenaded by the piano player at Full House Bar and Grill.
From mid-July to August, Stratford hosts Stratford Summer Music, a festival of diverse musical experiences to celebrate music and enhance the reputation of the Stratford region as an exceptional home for all the arts.
And of course, there is the Justin Bieber exhibit at the Stratford Perth Museum. The exhibit includes photographs and memorabilia from Bieber’s childhood up to the present day. I found it expensive at $10 but interesting nonetheless. There are no buses from downtown, but it’s less than 10 minutes away, on the border of Perth.
Secret 6: Shakespearean plays and more
Plays run several times a day in different theatres. There are good seats to be had for solo women, and I had no trouble finding a ticket for Rent even at the last minute.
The main hub is the Festival Theatre, which hosts King Lear, Rent, and the delightfully funny Much Ado About Nothing. I was surprised to see that many of the actors perform in multiple shows.
At the Avon Theatre, you’ll find A Wrinkle in Time and Spamalot (written by Monty Python’s Eric Idle). At Tom Patterson Theatre, named after the beloved journalist who advocated for Stratford to start a Shakespearean Festival, you’ll find Wedding Band and Richard II. For a complete listing visit the Stratford Festival website.
Disclaimer: Special thanks to Stratford Tourism, which provided me with Downtown Dollars to use, a coupon for the Sip and Savour Trail, and tickets to Much Ado About Nothing.
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