All the world's a stage -- and that's certainly true of Ashland, Ore., home of the world-renowned
Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year.
This small town on the Oregon-California border is an arts hub that draws close to 400,000 visitors each year. Celebrated for its Victorian charm, vibrant Main Street and lively downtown, Ashland ranks among the 100 Best Art Towns in America, according to author John Villani's book on the subject.
Besides the festival, performing arts flourish in Ashland throughout the year with productions by the Oregon Cabaret Theatre and concerts by the Rogue Valley Symphony. During the summer, downtown Lithia Park's Butler Band Shell hosts Ballet in the Park every Monday and Music in the Park every Thursday.
Visual arts add to the excitement, with close to 100 galleries and working studios that are showcased monthly in the First Friday Art Walk sponsored by the Ashland Gallery Association.
Another highlight is the Schneider Museum of Arts and the Center for Visual Arts on the campus of Southern Oregon University.
At the Starbucks on East Main Street, the buzz is about which play you've seen and which are still on your list. Everyone's a critic, and it's impossible to avoid being drawn into the conversations at nearby tables. It's not unusual to see actors among the clientele -- and they're often gracious about answering questions and even providing autographs.
If you can tear yourself away from the downtown scene,
Ashland Wine Tours will introduce you to the beauty and diversity of the surrounding Rogue and Applegate Valleys and their award-winning wineries.
And the nearby
Waterstone Mineral Springs Spa will pamper you from head-to-toe.
There's even more performing arts. Fifteen miles from Ashland, in Jackson, Ore., the
Britt Festivals presents dozens of summer concerts featuring world-class artists in classical music and dance, as well as jazz, blues, folk, bluegrass, world, pop and country music.
The Oregon Shakespeare Festival
OSF's three-theatre complex imbues downtown Ashland with a sophisticated, yet unpretentious, atmosphere that originated with the Chautauqua movement, which brought culture and entertainment to rural areas of the country in the late 19th century.
Ashland was a hugely popular stop on the circuit, hosting speakers including William Jennings Bryan and Susan B. Anthony, and performers including John Phillip Sousa.
The OSF experience runs from February through October each year, featuring 12 classic and modern plays.
The 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre, which opened in 1970, currently serves as the main all-season performing space.
The 350-seat New Theatre replaced the revered Black Swan Theatre in 2002, providing greater seating capacity and the flexibility of arena, avenue and three-quarter thrust seating configurations.
In 1959, performances began at the 1,200-seat Elizabethan Stage, patterned on London's 1599 Fortune Theatre and open to the sky.
The theatre was encircled in 1992 by the state-of-the-art Allen Pavilion, which has allowed the OSF to keep up with contemporary standards for acoustics, sight-lines and technical capabilities.
I first discovered Ashland and the OSF in 2002 and have returned every season since. It's easy to see three or more plays over a long weekend, and if you have the stamina, pre- and post-performance lectures and discussions.
The backstage tours are another treat -- definitely worth doing each season.
More Cakes and Ale
The nearly one hundred restaurants in Ashland and the surrounding area span the range from healthy fast food to epicurean adventures. Whether you need something quick before the theater, or choose to linger over a gourmet meal, you'll find what you desire.
Some long-time OSF aficionados introduced me to
Pangea, and I've been hooked ever since. It's a casual and comfortable place on East Main Street that's also great for pre-show take-out picnics. It specializes in a varied list of high-quality wraps, as well as fresh soups, salads and smoothies. Although Pangea caters to vegetarians and vegans, it also serves free-range meats and chicken.
Pasta Piatti, a light and airy restaurant and wine bar on East Main Street is just the place for a pre-theater rendezvous or post-theater review. But be warned -- in warm weather, there's always a wait for tables on the large outdoor patio.
You can't miss at any of the restaurants that border Ashland's Plaza on North Main Street, but my favorite is
Pilaf. It offers balcony dining overlooking Ashland Creek, and tempting meze with Mediterranean, Middle Eastern and Indian selections.
Quite a bit more upscale,
Amuse has an elegant and contemporary atmosphere. Chefs and owners Erik Brown and Jamie North have worked at renowned Napa Valley, Calif., restaurants Tra Vigne, Domaine Chandon, The French Laundry and Terra. The menu here is regional and French, and reservations should be made up to two months in advance.
Rest, Rest, Perturbed Spirit
Ashland Springs Hotel is a stately building at the heart of downtown.
It opened in 1925 as a lavish hotel that would compare favorably with the luxury accommodations available back east. Although no longer the tallest building between Portland and San Francisco, the Ashland Springs Hotel is the pride of the community and on the National Register of Historic Places. Extensively remodeled and renovated, this member of Historic Hotels of America offers 70 sumptuously appointed rooms just a block from OSF.
Although you can choose between a number of magnificent hotels and upscale motels, Ashland also features splendidly well-appointed bed and breakfast and guesthouse accommodations. You can compare them and make reservations through the
Ashland Bed & Breakfast Network or
Ashland B&B Clearinghouse.
I've returned to
Shrew's House a number of times for its relaxing ambience and lively breakfast conversation. It's conveniently located, just an easy stroll from downtown and OSF.
Further from downtown at the opposite end of Ashland, the
Morical House Garden Inn is a restored Victorian farmhouse that reflects modern Eurasian aesthetics. I found it a comfortable hike to and from OSF matinees, but chose not to walk along busy Siskiyou Boulevard after evening performances.
The Inn is set on two acres of gardens and lawns, with comfortably appointed viewing decks nestled among huge boulders that reveal the surrounding Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges. Morical House is renowned for its gourmet, three-course sweet and savory breakfasts, served on custom-fired porcelain plateware.
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Barbara Koeth is an independent corporate communications writer and consultant who's always up for an adventure. A former resident of New York City, she now lives in the San Francisco Bay area. She has worked with many Fortune 100 companies, and has published articles in Crain's New York Business, BuySide and Modern Bride.