“Great Canadian Weekends” feature customized itineraries of the nation’s finest destinations prepared by Vacay.ca, the Concierge to Canada. Travellers looking to get the most out of their stay will want to follow these tips and ideas from our travel experts. The series continues with a look at Ontario’s favourite theatre town.
Story by Rod Charles
Vacay.ca Deputy Editor
STRATFORD, ONTARIO — Stratford is a city that never fails to surprise. It’s the hometown of, arguably, the biggest musical sensation since Michael Jackson. It’s known for the Stratford Festival, a legendary theatre event that has attracted great performers from around the world. The city has a reputation for skilled, passionate farmers and fine restaurants that are keen to serve fresh, locally grown food. And it hugs gorgeous Lake Victoria, one of the most beautiful places in Ontario to explore in summer and early fall.
If you’re looking for a great weekend, you can’t go wrong with this town that’s 150 kilometres southwest of Toronto. The Savour Stratford Trails will give you a chance to sample flavourful treats at your own pace. Ontario, Downie, Albert, Erie and my personal favourite, York are streets bursting with delicacies and temptations. And that’s just within the city limits.
On my tasty weekend foray in Stratford, the journey began not in a restaurant, but in the bush.
DAY 1 IN TASTY STRATFORD
FRIDAY, 9 AM: ARRIVE IN STRATFORD
I arrive in Stratford and start my visit at Foster’s Inn for breakfast and enjoy something you must try — the Huevos Rancheros with ﬂour toralla, cheese, home fries, sriracha, two eggs, salsa, and sour cream ($10.99). It’s not for the faint of heart and I wouldn’t say it’s the healthiest choice on the menu, but it’s delicious and filling, important because I know I’ll need the energy for my foraging tour with Peter Blush of Puck’s Plenty.
To be honest I’m not really looking forward to this. It’s chilly and going out into the bush isn’t really my cup of tea. But it doesn’t take long for Blush to get things warmed up. He brings so much passion, energy, experience, and knowledge to the tour that I’m convinced he must have been a fern in his last life. With expert and seasoned eyes, he quickly identified fiddleheads and wild leeks that he carefully gathered and placed into plastic bags. He explained how to identify wild edibles and offered tips for harvesting them — including wild mushrooms, something that you usually wouldn’t dare eat in the wild. He even provides recipes online to help you make the most out of what you carry home. Try the Cream of Watercress Soup or the Creamy Fiddlehead Casserole. I can’t say that my Spaghetti with Creamy Wild Leek Pesto worked out particularly well, but they say practice makes perfect.
I’m amazed how many delicious greens we’re able to collect from the forest floor. Take the tour with friends or arrange to go one on one. On this tour, it’s guaranteed you’ll not only learn something but you’ll also get to see the Avon Trail, and other lush, green areas surrounding Stratford that most visitors don’t take the time to see.
Location: 96 Birmingham Street
What you should know: Tours take place in the morning – meeting spot arranged beforehand. Rubber boots a must, as a lot of foraging takes places near and along riverbeds. Eat before you go because you’re going to be moving. Prices are $30 for adults; children can tour for free.
FRIDAY NOON: CHECK-IN, THE LOFTS AT 99
Location: 99 Ontario Street
The Annex Room Reservations: 1-800-361-5322 (toll free)
What you should know: Formerly Bentley’s Inn. Contemporary, spacious bi-level loft accommodations. All rooms come complete with flat-screen TVs, wireless Internet access, and fireplaces. Executive lofts also available.
Nightly Room Rates: High Season (May until October), $175; Off Season, $95; Sunday-Tuesday, $135 (High Season) or $95 (Off Season)
Cool Feature: Bentley’s Restaurant is on the main floor. Try the Bentley’s Chicken Burger ($10.50), or the Five Cheese Macaroni ($12.50).
FRIDAY, 2 PM: SAVOUR STRATFORD MAPLE TRAIL
After getting back from foraging, I had checked in, showered, and was ready to try out the Savour Stratford Maple Trail. The great thing about these self-guided walking tours is that you can pick your pace. Another wonderful thing about this trail is you don’t have to do it all in one day. In fact, I spent two days enjoying different stops on the Maple Trail. The town’s trails include the Chocolate, the Bacon and Ale, and the Savour Stratford Maple Trail, which opened earlier this year.
Tickets for these trails can be purchased online for $25 or at the Stratford Tourism Alliance at 47 Downie Street. These passes include six tickets that can be exchanged for tastings at six of 12 stops on a self-guided tour of unique sweet and savoury items. These tours are offered year-round and are valid for three days from the date of purchase.
I started my trek at the Canadian Grub to Go, where I enjoyed a house-cured maple-smoked bacon sandwich with grainy maple mustard, roasted tomatoes, and organic greens ($7.79 for a full order; $5.50 for a half ). After that, I arrived at the Grind Espresso Bar and received a delicious Maple Chai Latte (12-ounce serving for $4; 16-ounce cup for $4.75). This beverage is made in-house using Stratford Tea Leaves chai tea and steamed milk sweetened with local maple syrup. Here you can sit, chill out, and watch the pedestrians stroll along the street.
Rheo Thompson Candies (55 Albert Street, 1-888-271-6910) serves more than 152 delicious confections and has been doing so for 43 years. If you have a sweet tooth you’ll lose your mind in this establishment. Enjoy the Copper Kettle Maple or Maple Nut Fudge (priced by weight), and served using pure local maple syrup, butter, and cream. The store supervisor, Susan Chessell, gave me a tour of her large operation, showing us the process of making the delicious fudge that has made this establishment famous. She is retiring in one week so hurry to Stratford if you want to see her.
Another stop that I thoroughly enjoy is Olive Your Favourites (21 York Street, 1-519-508-1757). This is a particularly interesting stop for me because I’m training to lose weight and balsamic vinegar is a wonderful, and healthy alternative to salad dressing. You really can’t go wrong here. Try the Aged Pomegranate Balsamic Vinegar Condimento, Aged Grapefruit White Balsamic Condimento, and of course if you’re on the Maple Trail, give the Aged Pure Maple Balsamic a try. Prices are standard for most of the items in the store: $13 for a 200-millilitre bottle; $18 for 375ml; $30 for 750ml.
Two other great stops on York Street is JENN and Larry’s Brittle’n Shakes and Ice Cream Cakes (49 York Street, 1-519-508-4949) and Distinctly Tea (18 York Street, 1-519-271-9978).
DAY 2 IN TASTY STRATFORD
Today is a day to sleep in, to shop, and to continue exploring the city with your Savour Stratford Maple Trail ticket. During my visit, the day was very warm, so I spent the bulk of the late morning and early afternoon hanging out and enjoying the outdoors.
I was happy that head chef Tim Larsen at Mercer Hall Inn remembered my previous visit during the Bacon and Ale Trail tour, when he served up a lovely piece of Mercer Bacon ($3). A beautiful establishment that’s popular for meetings and events, Mercer Hall is loaded with charm and ambience. The hostess gave me the option of a table in front or one next to the chef’s window. Without hesitating I chose the latter, where I watched Larsen and his crew work their magic.
Things started with a roasted beet salad with whipped feta, walnuts and pecans, along with a curried vinaigrette ($9) and that was followed by 72-hour corned beef brisket, with mashed potatoes and braised cabbage ($24). After that I enjoyed a Steak Tartare Chef-cut Ontario beef, potato chips, 65-degree egg yolk, and lemon-dressed greens ($14) .
You can tell by the dress and the chatter that many people have the same idea that I do, and will be heading directly for a show at Stratford Theatre as soon as dinner is finished. Be sure to start your dinner at least two hours before the curtain rises so that you can sit back, relax, and enjoy your meal without feeling rushed. Stratford Theatre is about a 15-minute walk (or five-minute drive) from Mercer Hall. Parking isn’t free at the Queen Street parking lot (below the Festival Theatre) is $12 on day of show ($10 for members, or when reserved at least 24 hours in advance). But there is lots free parking around the festival theatre – along Lakeside Drive and in the Upper Queen’s park circle.
SATURDAY, 8 PM: SHAKESPEARE AT STRATFORD FESTIVAL THEATRE
There are several choices of impressive plays to pick from whether you’re a big fan of Shakespeare or not, including Fiddler on the Roof (starring Scott Wentworth and Kate Hennig and running until October 20), The Merchant of Venice (starring Wentworth and running until October 18), and Othello (starring Bethany Jillard and Graham Abbey).
I opted for Romeo and Juliet (running until October 19). Even if you’re not a huge Shakespeare buff this is one play that you should watch at Stratford Theatre at least once in your life. If you haven’t seen the inside of this building before, it will floor you. As I look at the stage for the first time, I can’t help but think of the greats who have suited up in the past — Christopher Plummer, Alec Guiness, Brian Dennehy, Lucy Peacock, Seana McKenna and Geraint Wyn Davies, to name a few.
Directed by Tim Carroll and starring Daniel Briere (not the hockey player) and the lovely Sara Topham, the play is a captivating presentation. One thing you will enjoy is the superb music, as well as the playful way the cast interacts with the audience during different scenes.
SATURDAY, 11:15 PM: SHAKESPEARE AT DOWN THE STREET
Location: 30 Ontario Street
Distance from Stratford Festival Theatre: 1.5 kilometres
At the end of the night, I head over to Down The Street for a drink. Its seasonal menus feature local and organic ingredients, which are complemented by an award-winning Ontario wine list and local craft and import brews.
Sip on a flavourful glass of wine and enjoy several choices on the late-night menu, including Korean fried chicken ($9), a six-ounce grilled burger ($16) or a thin-crust pizza ($14).One great thing about this place is it’s a favourite stop for actors and actresses who are wrapping up a challenging day’s work. Less than an hour after watching Romeo and Juliet on stage, we were sipping two tables away from several actors and stage crew from the play.
Briere was at a table chilling out with actors Jonathan Goad, who played Mercutio, and Wentworth. According to Cathy Rheberg of Stratford Tourism, the performers are pretty receptive to people from the audience coming over and saying hello, even joining for a drink on occasion. I was tempted, but after seeing them work hard on stage, I preferred to let them chill with their buddies and coworkers. I walked over, waved hello, quickly let them know that I enjoyed their performance, and left.
After that, it was back to the Lofts at 99 and a deep sleep.
DAY 3 IN TASTY STRATFORD
On my final morning in town, I went looking for breakfast. A popular option is Features (159 Ontario Street, 1-519-272-1878), just down the road from Annex. My suggestion is get there early. When I arrived the line was long and I decided against a 40-minute wait for a seat. Another option is an early lunch at Bentley’s Restaurant.
After that, the day is yours. Continue visiting locations on the Maple Trail if you like or purchase another delicious tour, or just walk around and enjoy downtown shopping before heading home.
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