My favourite summer visit is Stratford, located in southwest Ontario, an inviting locale with culture, fine food, history and world-class theatre.
Stratford Festival musicals are a prime source of revenue, and with
HMS Pinafore at the Avon and
Guys and Dolls at the Festival Theatre, Artistic Director, Anthony Cimolino, has added two more winners.
Pinafore, a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, celebrates everything English, symbolized by sipping tea, whereas Guys and Dolls under gifted director
Donna Feore, celebrates risk and dance, the highlight, her remarkable male dancers with breakneck choreography through to a well-earned standing ovation at the end.
Prior to the musicals, we enjoyed a
Costumes and Properties Tour, the warehouse crammed with items, in fact, a working storehouse as materials are re-used and also rented through an on-line catalogue system available to clients from Hollywood to local high schools.
In August, work selected by directors and designers starts on next season's sets in the scenic carpentry and paint shop at one end of the facility. Adjoining the warehouse are the archives from 1953 onwards, replete with scripts and information detailing how each play was performed along with its costume sketches.
65,000 costumes and 10,000 boots and shoes are lodged here. We admired racks of dresses and suits, myriad hats and ingeniously created props such as a serving of turkey made from Styrofoam. A huge, multi-coloured three-paneled banner for Pirates of Penzance was made from a giant inkjet printer in Toronto and sewn together here. Some exquisite dresses are worth up to $4,000, and they create 1,000 new costumes in house each year. Our guide, Vern, explained that vodka spray is a wonderful way to reduce body odour on costumes. He is one of 200 volunteers and 40 associates, on a waiting list for two years before asked to join in!
A VISIT TO STRATFORD, ON
A Walk Down The Avon River
We worked up a thirst quenched at the
Black Swan Brewing Company, near the Avon Theatre. As we walked in, three exuberant ladies from Colorado raved about the craft beer and purchased large bottles to transport home - as we did!
Co-owners Ryan Stokes and Bruce Pepper are high school teachers who started home brewing and dabbling in recipes, coinciding with the surge in popularity in craft brewing, spawning microbreweries throughout Ontario. Mercer Hall Inn's chef volunteered to conduct a beer dinner with them, a great success, and they never looked back. Now, their impressive brews are available in most local restaurants. Ryan thinks that their Black Swan name provides them with a marketing advantage with its Stratford notoriety and also with the city's iconic
swans that participate in the annual spring parade to the Avon river. Their English Pale Ale is served at the Avon Theatre.
There are many fine restaurants in Stratford, but we tried unique newbies. Joe Gilchrist, owner of
Downie Street Burgers, offers 15 different burgers, the usual varieties, but some with interesting combinations such as the Dirty Burger ($18), topped with crunchy peanut butter, strips of bacon, salty potato chips, maple garlic aioli, and arugula, the Black Swan Burger ($19) smothered with unique bacon jam, made using locally brewed Black Swan EPA beer, and topped with Monterey jack cheese, arugula, tomato, and garlic aioli and the Knuckle Sandwich ($19), pulled pork piled high on a prime rib burger, Monterey jack cheese, hickory BBQ sauce, and topped with dill pickles.
We elected to build our own delicious burgers, and Joe assured us that they use only Ontario-raised, grass-fed cattle of the highest quality fresh and never frozen, beef delivered throughout the week, and he prepare the patties daily.
Monforte on Wellington
fits right in to Stratford's bucolic atmosphere with a whimsical ambience starting outside with a blackboard that ask, "Have You Accepted Cheeses in Your Life?" After that levity, one is greeted with bare bulb lights fastened with long looping black cords, spider web-like in appearance and bare brick walls decorated with large wooden cow's heads captioned with "Say Cheese" signage! Additional unusual decorative items adorn the walls, including blackboards, musical instrument cases and a stuffed doll on top of a white piano festooned with duck's head drawings. The table tops are from recycled wood, augmented by a single flower in a small glass vase. Very Alice in Wonderland!
We sampled a cheese board with six varieties of Monforte cheeses, all delectable. We split an order of Mezze, flat bread and beans with water buffalo cheese and, of course, a grilled cheese sandwich on artisan bread with apple butter, all washed down with Beau's beer for my wife and Black Swan for me.
Owner and matriarch of Monforte, Ruth Klahsen, insists that fresh, local agricultural operations are far better than mass hi-tech productions. Cheeses from their Monforte Dairy at 49 Griffith Road have been savoured at Toronto's Casa Loma as well as at an Ottawa state dinner for the Three Amigos at Rideau Hall.
Junction 56 Distillery
tour with host and co-owner Mike Heisz was educational and spiritually uplifting with Jamie Donnely, Mike's partner and a young lady named Lya manning the storefront. Mike explained that the name derives from the fact that in 1856, there were two railroad lines operating here in Stratford and their building is 15 feet from one track and close to the other. Hence, Junction 56 Distillery at 45 Cambria St.
Craft distilling is a now a major industry in the U.S. with 1500 plants in operation, and after visiting a few, Mike now works here full time at one of 16 distilleries in Ontario, the latest, Wayne Gretzky's which opened in Niagara on the Lake.
They use corn, wheat, barley and rye for whiskey which also requires storage in oak barrels. Ingredients are purchased from a local farm near Hanover, and they mill the wheat themselves to ensure quality control. Besides vodka, gin, moonshine and liqueur, new products include flavoured moonshine with maple, cinnamon and anise. They like to experiment, and are getting experienced at their craft as our tastings attested.
The Stratford Perth Museum
is a gem that celebrates the rich and diverse communities of Perth County. On display was the Franklin Expedition Exhibit, (Parks Canada) Inuit Art and a Stratford Festival Costume Exhibit along with permanent exhibits. We enjoyed the Grand Trunk and Canadian National Locomotive Repair Shops exhibit. This museum is well worth a visit as one feels history permeate through its walls.
has been one of Ontario's longest operating public art galleries for 50 years. We enjoyed the sculpture outside as well as the visual art inside, primarily pieces by Mark Czajkowski and Susan Dobson, and although limited in number, we found the exhibits fascinating. A good place to recharge one's batteries, close to the Festival Theatre, a waterfall attracts youngsters along with a bridge in existential angst, not connected to anything except up-down staircases!
Staying at the Queen's Inn on Ontario St. made it easy for us to leave the car behind and walk everywhere. It's close to Balzac's where one might spot actors enjoying a morning coffee. Their Boar's Head Pub is popular with the locals, offering a large selection of micro-brewed beers on tap.
Stratford's future has been dramatically enhanced with a provincial grant of $80 million to test driverless technology. It previously ensured "smart city" status for its 31,000 citizens, thanks to an extensive wireless network and other infrastructure improvements that connect roads to traffic lights and cars. At nearby University of Waterloo, driverless technology is already being trialed.
Peter Mansbridge: 5 things I love about Stratford Ontario
Mike Keenan is a travel columnist for
Troy Media. He produces a travel podcast -
http://whattravelwriterssay.libsyn.com/ accessible on iTunes and Stitcher Radio and has been published in every major newspaper across Canada including the Globe and Mail, Toronto Star, and Toronto Sun. He has been published in National Geographic Traveler, Buffalo Spree, Stitches, West of the City, Seniors Review and Hamilton-Burlington's View Magazine. With hundreds of reviews, photos and helpful votes, he has earned Trip Advisor's "Top Contributor Badge" and is considered an "Expert" in both Hotels and Restaurant reviews. Mike posts photos to Pinterest where he has a following of five thousand viewers.