WHY GO: Here’s a strange fact: Stratford, Ontario, a good two-hour drive from Toronto and home to the preeminent Shakespeare Theater Festival in Canada, is also hometown of teen hottie Justin Bieber. Talk about Yin/Yang. This small outpost has also been nurturing quite a Locavore culture drawing high-caliber chefs who work magic with the products that come from local farms. Several “Food Trails” have been laid out to temp tourists with tastings; a Chocolate Trail, Maple Trail, and an ingenious Bacon-Ale Trail. Whether you’re into Bieber or the Bard, if you are a Chocoholic, must have maple, or if you just love to eat good food and see first- rate theater, Stratford, Ontario is one satisfying Getaway.
Things To Do in Stratford, Ontario
SEE: A Play at Stratford Festival Theater. Canada’s version of Stratford-On-Avon, world-class shows run the gamut from Shakespeare to Tommy (the Rock Opera). In 2012, Christopher Plummer starred in The Tempest and his is the caliber of acting festival goers have come to expect from this four-stage theater since it opened in the mid-1960’s. Located on the tranquil Avon River, bring a picnic and eat while watching ducks at play before settling in to enjoy the main event.
TOUR: Maple Trail, Chocolate Trail, Bacon-Ale Trail. Each Trail costs $25 per person, which entities you to 6 tastings. The Chocolate Trail consists of 20 establishments, Maple Trail has 12 and the Bacon/Ale Trail has 10.
The Chocolate Trail includes a Revel Mocha at Revel Caffe; Revel Caffe combines excellent java, community values and ethical trading practices. As a “Directly-Traded” product, Revel’s owners buy handpicked beans only from small producers in Nicaragua, which are roasted locally. At the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory; you’ll score a “Comedy-Tragedy Mask Milk Chocolate”. Watch chocolatiers mix batches of molten chocolate in big copper kettles through the front window and “come in for a dip.”
The Maple Trail includes a Maple Mousse Log at Let Them Eat Cake: This amazingly light rolled sponge cake filled with maple-mouse is covered in crushed almond praline and infused with intense maple taste. Yes, you will be able to finish that ample full-plate-sized “taste.” At Jenn and Larry’s Brittle ‘n Shakes and Ice Cream Cakes you receive a big bag of Maple Brittle. It’s a cute “father-daughter” 50’s shake-shack, where Dad (Larry) makes the toothsome soft-serve custard, and daughter (Jenn) is the Brittle-Maven. Worth going off the main drag for, for sure.
The Bacon-Ale Trail includes Loaded Baked Potato Soup and a Pint at Molly Bloom’s Irish Pub.. This chewy, stew-like Soup is Molly Bloom’s “claim to fame. Owner Rob Wigan admits to “pumping out thirty liters,” in other words “amazing amounts” of this thick, creamy double-smoked bacon-licious award-winning soup per week, along with Toronto’s own Mill Street Beer.
SHOP: Watson’s Chelsea Bazaar. Two floors chock full of useful and less useful stuff – fine China, Hedgehog dryer balls, teapots, jewelry, handbags, home-goods. And two Buckingham-Palace-Guard-still cats that sleep on top of the front counter. Pet them and they won’t move a whisker.
SHOP: Rhumba. Light as air tunics, sexy knits, and lots of unique clothing are tough to resist. I tried. I failed. Prices above H&M, below couture.
Where to Eat in Stratford, Ontario
EAT: Pazzo Taverna. Distressed-wood tables, empty picture frames on grey wainscoted walls, candle-lamp chandeliers; Pazzo’s upscale French Farmhouse décor fosters an expectation of excellence from the kitchen and delivers. And then some. Expertly executed shaved truffle and fried mozzarella plates, and tiers of crawfish, lobster, king crab legs, oysters and scallops arrive at your communal table like mana from heaven.
Downstairs, you’ll find the more casual brick-oven Pazzo Pizzeria, and if you’d like to bring a picnic to the Shakespeare Theater, pick up a prepared meal next door at the incomparable Pazzo Bakery. I could live on the chewy/dense/incredible bread (brought to the table at the Taverna) alone.
EAT: Bijou. Upscale “must go” fine dining in a tucked-away tough to find spot. Dinner is price-fix only (3-course $56), and incorporates an eclectic global take on locally sourced ingredients.
EAT: Down the Street. Funky, tie-dye style place with good pre-theater menu that won’t damage your budget. Green coconut vegetable curry ($18).
Where to Stay in Stratford, Ontario
STAY: XXVII Boutique Apartments. Stay in a Design Within Reach like showroom in this “boutique” that’s more than just a one room hotel. Chic, suave, cool man, especially if you’re looking for a complete apartment.
STAY: Birmingham Manor. Four large rooms with sleigh or four-poster beds, in this gracious 1904 home that features finely carved woodwork throughout.
STAY: Unnamed 32-room Boutique Hotel – status; being built for 2014 Spring opening. This place will most likely be smashing, and the location can’t be beat; right next door to the Shakespeare Theater.
Getting to Stratford, Ontario
By car, Stratford is 1:40 minutes from Toronto, 2:15 minutes from Buffalo, NY, and 6:30 minutes from Montreal. Stratford Airporter provides shuttle service between Stratford and Toronto Pearson International Airport. Stratford Festival offers direct bus service between Toronto and Stratford, $20 roundtrip in seaon. Via-Rail provides a passenger rail service to Stratford on a daily service, all year round.