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Footloose in Canada

Small Stratford Has a Big Theater Reputation

July 17, 1988|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers

STRATFORD, Canada — The two events that have brought some of the world's finest actors to this village in southern Ontario happened more than a century apart and were the inspirations of an innkeeper and a journalist.

In 1830 the innkeeper decided to call his roadside hostelry the Shakespeare Inn. The settlement that grew up around it was, in time, named Stratford, after the Bard's birthplace. The gentle river beside it was dutifully called the Avon.

While the lush surrounding farmland assured the town's prosperity, it wasn't until 1953 that a newspaperman headed an effort to begin a town theater ensemble performing in a tent, the genesis of a Stratford Shakespearean Festival that now draws more than half a million visitors yearly.

Since its modest beginnings the likes of Alec Guinness, Maggie Smith, Peter Ustinov, director Tyrone Guthrie and the present artistic director, John Neville, have brought superb theater, worldwide acclaim and unbridled enthusiasm to the footlights of the festival's three theaters.

This Stratford has retained its tranquil ways, absorbing visitors without the hubbub and hassle that can make the original a nightmare in midsummer.

On stage are everyone from Richard III and King Lear to the swashbuckling Three Musketeers and saucy Irma la Douce, a playbill mixture to satisfy every mood.

Here to there: Fly Air Canada or Wardair direct to Toronto; other airlines have stops or changes. From Toronto, take a bus or train to Stratford in about two hours.

How long/how much? A day for the town, at least another for driving to the many fetching towns and villages in the area. Play tickets and lodging are easier to come by during the week; weekends are often booked solid. Lodging costs are reasonable, dining the same.

A few fast facts: The Canadian dollar was recently valued at 80 cents U.S. Locals beg you to exchange at banks rather than in stores or at the gas pump, which some visitors do and expect the same rate. The weather is pleasant from mid-spring to fall, and the autumn foliage is glorious.

Getting settled in: Queen's Inn (161 Ontario St.; $60-$70 double B&B, suites $100) is the town's oldest, opening 18 years after Stratford's settlement, but it has just been renovated into a fresh and sprightly place that retains most of the old flavor. Some rooms are small, but most have pine furnishings, a few antiques and attractive floral prints. There's a pub on the premises and a good restaurant.

Shrewsbury Manor (30 Shrewsbury St.; $32 B&B double) is a beautiful Victorian built in 1872. Only three rooms, each decorated differently and all sharing a huge bath. Shrewsbury's rooms are at the top of an imposing staircase. There is also a lounge where you can watch TV or check menus for restaurants around town. Breakfasts usually have fresh fruits, giant homemade scones and pear and ginger marmalade. The host is most knowledgeable about what's going on in town.

Westover Inn (St. Marys, 12 miles west of town; $69-$74 double, $88-$134 suites) was a manor house built in 1867, plus a former Catholic church seminary renovated into 12 guest rooms and a Thames Cottage with suites. All three are set in 19 acres of landscaped grounds. A formal but warm feeling throughout. Rooms in the manor are furnished with great charm. There are fresh flowers everywhere, plus an outdoor patio and pool. The dining room is exceptional.

Festival Inn (1144 Ontario St.) and Travellers Motel (784 Ontario St.) are two very acceptable motels in the $40-$56 double range. The Festival has a restaurant, bar, indoor pool and more amenities than the other.

Regional food and drink: Dining in rural-area Canadian towns is not the most imaginative, but the festival has caused a steady improvement in the restaurant scene, with greater diversity and quality. Early Mennonite settlers from Pennsylvania set a pattern of fresh farm produce, while nearby German communities contribute wursts and schnitzels.

Canadian cheddar is one of the world's best, and maple syrup is a staple hereabouts. Molson and Labatts are two popular beers, both a bit stronger than the stateside variety.

Moderate-cost dining: Keystone Alley Cafe (34 Brunswick St.) is a simple and popular place with a good menu: bourride, a hearty soup of various fish; daily homemade pates; piperade, an omelet of ham, peppers and tomatoes, and seafood quiche. Wine racks are used as room dividers. Lots of green plants hanging about.

Queen's Inn restaurant, like the hotel, recently reopened with a face lift. You'll have the choice of smoked goose breast with Cumberland sauce, roast beef with Yorkshire pudding, duck breast with juniper berries and a hint of gin, or salmon in pastry, among other entrees. They also do an afternoon tea. The hotel's pub brews its own suds before your eyes, a legacy from the Taylor & Bate Ltd. brewery begun in 1834 by ancestors of the Queen's Inn owners.

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