Ontario is fortunate to have two renowned theatre festivals within a short drive from Toronto. The Stratford and Shaw festivals offer world class productions of musicals and plays, and are a population destination for theatre lovers and student groups. Both the towns of Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake have excellent restaurants and additional tourist attractions. In October, both festivals are winding down but there are some tickets still available. You can either make plans to visit in spring, or explore either area in the beautiful autumn season.
The Stratford Festival was founded in 1953 and its initial success was built on annual productions of by William Shakespeare. With outstanding production values and well-known actors from both Canada and the U.K. starring in the shows, the festival quickly earned an international reputation for theatrical excellence. To this day, the festival continues to produce both classical and Shakespearean plays, with musicals helmed by some of the top Broadway directors. It runs from April to November with more than 700 performances each season. During this time, many visitors flock to the city in tour buses to experience what both the festival and town of Stratford have to offer.
Now that the theatres are about to close for the holiday season, you can take time to experience some of the other attractions available.
The drive to Stratford from Toronto takes about two hours, in good weather. It is described as “a charming Victorian city nestled in a pastoral countryside” and visitors enjoy strolls through beautiful gardens and parklands, eating at a variety of restaurants, browsing through unique shops, and admiring lovingly restored historical buildings.
When you first arrive in Stratford, head to 47 Downie St. in the heart of downtown to meet the friendly people at the Visit Stratford Information Centre. There are seven themed, guided tours offered. They cost $7 and last an hour and a half.
You may also enjoy taking a Savour Stratford Culinary Trails Tour, with $28.25 all inclusive tickets. Sample delicious chocolates, or explore the Maple, and Bacon and Ale Trails year round.
The Ghost Walk Tour is offered every Friday and Saturday at 8:00 PM. You will be taken through the historic downtown, shady courtyards, and narrow alleys. Actors from the Playmakers Theatre School will haunt you with stories of hangings and murders – you might also see a ghost! Entrance fee is $20 for adults and $15 for children.
The Perth County Slow Food Market is held from 10:00 AM to 2:00 PM on seasonal Saturdays. It is located behind Market Square, across the road from the information centre. The nearby City Hall may also wow you. A 12-sided building with Queen Anne features, this gorgeous structure was built between 1898-1899, and is contructed from Victorian red brick.
Have your camera ready when you stroll past the nearby Avon River, named after the famous river in Stratford, England. At this time of year, there are 24 white swans (and one black one) who spend a great deal of time on the water and shoreline. The nearby Shakespearean Gardens are resplendent with plants mentioned in the Bard’s plays. There are 60 varieties of herbs, flowers, and shrubs. Other gardens you can visit are Arthur Meighen Gardens and Millennium Park. The former has dozens of fragrant rose arbours, tree-filled parks, and water pools. Millennium Park is located behind Festival Theatre and is filled with native trees, lit fountains, ornamental and water plants set among the outdoor sculpture garden.
Another stunner is the Perth County Court House, which opened in 1887 for Queen Victoria’s Golden Jubilee. Electric lights highlight architectural details and were installed that same year (when electricity first came to Stratford).
If you have teenagers, they’ll probably know Justin Bieber’s hometown is Stratford. In the tourism office, there is a guitar which the recording artist signed in 2009. Obtain a free map (also known as “the Bieber-iffic Map”) that details 24 of Bieber’s favourite Stratford spots.
Like Stratford, the Shaw Festival boasts a repertory theatre company and Niagara-on-the-Lake is similarly described as a place with Victorian era 19th Century Charm. The Festival was founded in 1962 by Brian Doherty and runs from April to October each year. The town is located 20 minutes from the Canadian side of Niagara Falls (stunning)! It has beautiful architecture and is famous for its wineries.
Even after the regular season closes, Shaw offers a special production of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” from November 14 – December 23 this year. Student and youth tickets are under $25. Also, Vintage Hotels offers a special stay package with food discounts if you’re coming for the show.
When it snows in this small town, the streets are beautiful to walk and many shops (including a Christmas store that’s open year-round) are easily accessible as you enjoy a winter wonderland.
Even in the off-season, the wineries are open for tastings and tours. Niagara is also famous for its “ice wine,” made from grapes that freeze on the vine in wintertime. Its sweet, special flavour makes the bottles a rare treat and an excellent gift for people visiting from other provinces or countries.
There around 20 wineries in “NOTL,” and most have been in the business for more than 30 years. These wineries are different from the large, corporate wineries and specialize in using the grapes grown specifically in Ontario. There are also cheese and wine tasting opportunities.
If you’ve booked a private coach to take you to Niagara-on-the-Lake, you don’t need to worry about enjoying wine samples and driving. Your experienced driver will take you on a wine tour of your choosing and get you safely back to your lodging.
Avondale Dairy Bar
Established in 1955, this dairy on Stewart Road preserves the tradition of making ice cream blended by hand. All ingredients are made fresh daily. Ice cream aficionados find this location to be a must-stop when passing through the area. The cakes and pies are also something special, and since the shop is open until 8:00 PM most nights, you can pop by for dessert after a sumptous dinner elsewhere.
Located in the nearby botanical gardens, the butterfly conservatory is just off the Niagara Parkway. The glass-enclosed conservatory makes this place an oasis, no matter what time of year you visit. As autumn and winter weather give a chill, take a short ride to this location and warm yourself among an assortment of colourful winged beauties.
When you visit NOTL, there are a number of food tours you can take, or you can design your own. If you’re visiting during winter, consider the Winter Wonderland Food Tour. This excusion includes sips of hot cocoa, nice hot stew, and a visit to the inn near Lake Ontario. During these types of tours, several local restaurants can be visited for tastings. You will also meet the chefs, owners, and other influential people in the hospitality industry. If you brought your children with you, don’t despair. There is a family friendly food extravaganza called “The Taste of the Town Tour.”
Historical Places and Outdoor Fun
Fort George National Historic Site is great for history buffs. This British Army headquarters was completed in 1802. It was reconstructed in 1930 and re-enactments of the historic battle that took place during the War of 1812 in which American troops defeated the British and took over the fort. These reenactments have taken place since 1984. Military music drills from the 19th century are also showcased.
For more knowledge of old Canada, swing by the Niagara Apothecary Museum, a restoration of the 1869 pharmacy housed in a Victoria era building. The museum shows how medicine was created and dispensed in the past. Visitors can learn how old medicine has influenced modern medicine.
The Niagara Escarpment offers summer and springtime activities, including tennis courts, play grounds, two picnic pavillions, a splash pad for kids, a snack bar, and restaurant
Many people from the city of Toronto flock to Niagara-on-the-Lake to take a break from the city’s hustle and bustle. Make sure you plan your visit ahead of time so you know where you want to go and where to eat. An experienced bus and coach rental company will provide you a driver who’s familiar with the area and can help with your itinerary.
There are many places to visit in Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake when the theatres are open or closed for the winter season. When you have a large group, consider mini coach rental in Toronto to get to these beautiful nearby towns. Contact Parkinson Coach Lines at (905) 451-4776 or (905) 451-5499.