This is the first in a two-part series on Ashland, Oregon.
After driving 400 miles from the Bay Area, we entered artsy Ashland, Ore., the hamlet that lives and breathes Shakespeare, for our inaugural visit.
At first blush, Ashland seemed anticlimactic. A lovely skyline graced by the jagged Cascade and Siskiyou mountains surrounded us, but the houses looked suburban, the terrain, flat – until we entered the plaza downtown on Main Street.
There, adorable Victorian houses and the Tudor-style McDonald’s alluded to the town’s theatrical nature. Stores have names like All’s Well, a vitamin shop, or Puck’s Donuts. Decorated with Renaissance lions, banners announce the town’s mainstay, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, which spans February to November.
This year only 120,000 people have seen the plays, compared with 400,000 last season, according to OSF spokeswoman Amy Richards. Attendance has dwindled due to $2.1 million in structural work needed to repair the Bowmer Theatre. A temporary “Bowmer in the Park” tent housed productions until the original venue reopened Aug. 2.
From the wine sommelier to the concierge to the average resident, everyone we met wanted us to know that there’s more to Ashland than the Bard. It’s worth stopping by the Chamber of Commerce, 110 E. Main St., to pick up its “In and About Ashland” booklet, which lists culinary, cultural and outdoors adventures.
Beyond Shakespeare, for example, there’s the Oregon Cabaret Theatre (www.oregoncabaret.com) and plays staged by the Theatre Arts program at Southern Oregon University. Film buffs might enjoy the annual Ashland Independent Film Festival, held at the Varsity Theatre in April. The five-day marathon screens 90 documentaries, features and shorts (ashlandfilm.org).
To sleep, perchance to dream
The stately nine-story Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St., is a blend of gothic and beaux-arts architecture. On the pillows, a sachet of lavender bath tea held promise for soaking in the tub later on. The Waterstone Spa (www.waterstonespa.com) menu appeared strategically, hinting of adventures ahead. In addition to the spa, Ashland Springs owners Doug and Becky Neuman run the adjacent Larks restaurant, featuring a local, organic menu.
First opened in 1925 as the Lithia Hotel, the renovated building made the National Register of Historic Places in 1978. Striking an environmental note, French herb prints grace the yellow walls. Floral designs reign, even on the bedside lampshades.
The hotel features flat-screen TVs with free HBO and in-room WiFi. Rates range from $179 to $250, depending on the season, with continental breakfast included. Pets may check in, too, for a one-time fee of $30.
The 70 elegant rooms feature white Frette linens and French down blankets, which make for a restful night after activity-filled days. You can view downtown, the festival campus or the landmark Grizzly Peak from some rooms.
For a first stay, the location proved convenient, just a short walk to the festival. Concierge Donna “Gigi” LaRossa tipped us off to off-the-beaten path diversions and made dinner reservations at Amuse Restaurant (15 N. First St.), owned by Berkeley native Erik Brown and his wife, Jamie North.
A late-night snack of tea, lemonade and cookies, served on the second-floor balcony, allowed us to mingle with other guests, some from California.
Also highly recommended, the 10 suites at the Ashland Creek Inn (www.ashlandcreekinn.com) have decks overlooking the creek. Just steps from the theaters, the inn fills up quickly. The themed suites, named after cities like Taos, Copenhagen and Marrakesh, have living rooms and kitchens. Rates run $285 to $400 during high season.
The Best Western Bard’s Inn (www.bardsinn.com) features a swimming pool and in-room whirlpools. Rates range from $215 to $250 nightly, breakfast included. Bring Fido for an additional $15 a night.
The town of 21,500 boasts approximately 13 bed and breakfasts, in addition to nine guest houses and inns and 13 hotels and motels.
If you go, take in the plays, but try to stay longer than a weekend to take advantage of all there is to do.
Discovering a Rogue of a river
We signed up for a half-day introduction to whitewater rafting with Noah’s River Adventures for $79 each, after AAA discounts. Dressed in swimsuits and shorts, we met the bus near the downtown visitors’ information booth at 10:30 a.m., ready to raft until 3 p.m.
“Bronze,” one of the river guides and a student at the University of Oregon during the off-season, gave an entertaining talk about the sights on the 35-minute drive to the Rogue River. Like most Oregonians we met, he had a healthy appreciation for natural wonders like Mount McLoughlin.
Once we found the launch site, we hopped into a raft headed by our guide, Steve, a 25-year veteran. The tour started slowly, with Steve explaining how to paddle down rapids, which would range from Class I to IV. He also noted that lost paddles would cost $14.
As we floated, Steve described the river’s wildlife and environmental concerns over the noisy dredging we could hear coming from small boats along the shore.
When we glided over the first rapid, I was glad I had worn the ill-fitting helmet the guide handed me. I brought an underwater camera to capture the scene, a $35 digital device that took both stills and videos (www.photojojo.com) and sat protected in a plastic case. The pictures we took while going over the rapids came out fine, and we even got a video of the two other couples holding onto the sides while we headed through some rough spots.
We stopped for a healthful lunch (carrots, hummus, spinach dip, chips and organic drinks) around lunchtime and then re-entered our rafts. The last cascade, a Class IV, partially submerged the boat. The force was so strong that I lost my oar. Luckily, the guide in the raft ahead recovered it.
Several river-rafting outfits bring tourists down the Rogue River, including Momentum River Expeditions (www.momentumriverexpeditions.com), Kokopelli River Guides (www.kokopelliriverguides.com) and Indigo Creek Outfitters (www.indigocreek outfitters.com).
Between outdoor adventures, plays and the five Ashland bookstores, we combed shops for gifts. At Nimbus, 25 N. Main St., we hit the jackpot. The store sells designer-label men’s shirts and pants, women’s apparel and ceramic, glass and wood pieces, most by local artists. I left with copper and brass earrings, a ceramic French butter keeper and a blue glazed cup by potter Frank Phillips.
Another good place to shop for trinkets is the Tudor Guild Gift Shop on Pioneer Street. Volunteers run the shop and proceeds benefit OSF. Here, you’ll find Shakespeare-themed costumes, T-shirts, hats, jewelry and books, as well as toys and games.
Stroll around the town’s historic Railroad District (www.ashlandrrdistrict.com), which contains several fine-arts galleries, including Bohemia Framing and Fine Art, Gathering Glass Studio and Ashland Art Works. Start at the Ashland Historic Railroad Museum, 258 A Street, No. 7, open noon to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays, 6-8:30 p.m. Fridays.
Catering to foodies
In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” Shakespeare put the lunatic, the lover and the poet – i.e., the mad, the passionate and the artist – in the same category because they all possess imagination.
All these creative types exist in Ashland, but to that list, I would add the foodie, the shopper and the adventurer. Most eateries offer local, sustainable and organic food, but the following stand out.
The Loft American Brasserie, 18 Calle Guanajuato Way, sits hidden atop a staircase overlooking Ashland Creek. We had an excellent tomato basil soup, a $9 roasted beet salad and an $11 Croque Monsieur for lunch. Unfortunately, service didn’t match the high standards set by the food.
Fine-dining restaurants include Sesame Asian Kitchen, 21 Winburn Way, and Amuse, both of which were crowded. At Amuse, the $28 Alaskan halibut served on a bed of corn and sugar snaps satisfied, but the special ranch rib-eye steak came cooked to perfection. The filling artisan cheese plate left no room for dessert. A $9 glass of organic Cowhorn Spiral proved a good pairing.
A lesser-known option is the Oregon Farm to Fork events (farmtoforkevents.com), which cater meals on local farms. Representatives from both the farms and wineries discuss the food and beverages. The Yamhill@Gaining Ground Farm is scheduled to host a dinner with Roots Wine Company Sept. 17.
Ashland, with its wide range of activities, proves itself a town for all seasons.