The Bard of Ashland
A journey to the nation’s most prestigious Shakespeare Festival
Charming Ashland has plenty going for it. Its urbane restaurants, indie shops, and historic hotels set in beautifully preserved gold rush–era buildings hug the lower slopes of southern Oregon’s Siskiyou Mountains, and the surrounding Rogue River Valley abounds with opportunities for hiking, white-water rafting, and wine tasting. But most visitors arrive in this dapper town just north of the California border on a singular mission: to watch world-class theater. From mid-February through early November, Ashland is synonymous with Shakespeare.
Founded in 1935, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival (800-219-8161, osfashland.org) is one of the oldest and largest theater festivals in the country. Among the nearly 800 performances it stages annually are always multiple works by the Bard himself, cleverly matched with works by a slew of talented, mostly contemporary playwrights. The 2012 season offers such Shakespearean staples as Romeo and Juliet, Henry V, and As You Like It, plus Chekhov’s The Seagull and three world premieres among its 11 productions in repertory in three venues, including the iconic, open-air Elizabethan stage.
As seems to hold true for any avid theater community, Ashland excels on the culinary front, with a wealth of options a short walk from downtown’s festival complex. Jump-start your day with high-octane coffee and flaky pastries at Café 116 (116 Lithia Way; 541-488-6414) or Mix (57 N Main St.; 541-488-9885). Don’t forget to try the Lithia water gurgling out of antique fountains on the downtown plaza, which tastes so strange it’s believed surely to cure something. Grab a seat on the patio overlooking Lithia Creek at Greenleaf Café (49 N Main St.; 541-482-2808), which turns out Mediterranean-inspired fare three meals a day, and as the afternoon fades to dusk, venture nearby to Standing Stone Brewing Company (101 Oak St.; 541-482-2448) to quaff a pint or two of I Heart Oregon Ale or Noble Stout.
You’ll find many elegant, precurtain dinner options, too: feast on duck-confit cassoulet, mustard-braised lamb shank, and other French classics at romantic Chateaulin (52 E Main St.; 541-482-2264), or savor expertly grilled steak and seafood at Beasy’s on the Creek (51 Water St.; 541-488-5009). After the shows, mingle with cast and crew for drinks and dessert at Martino’s (58 E Main St.; 541-488-4420), just steps from the festival’s Angus Bowmer Theatre. Though Ashland doesn’t have a gay bar, LGBT visitors feel welcome all over town, especially at Alex’s (35 N Main St.; 541-482-8818), which hosts a queer night the fourth Thursday of every month.
Ashland has no shortage of accommodations within easy walking distance of its attractions. The beautifully renovated Ashland Springs Hotel (212 E Main St.; 888-795-4545, ashlandspringshotel.com; from $129), abandoned more than once during its boom-and-bust 77-year history, has smallish but tastefully appointed rooms, and views from the upper floors of this nine-story landmark are spectacular. Off of the lobby, Larks is another of the top restaurants in town, with a menu that draws heavily from local farms, dairies, and wineries. Next door in the hotel’s Waterstone Spa, you can pamper yourself with a seaweed wrap or a chocolate mineral bath. A few blocks from the theaters, the gay-owned Arden Forest Inn (261 W Hersey St.; 800-460-3912, afinn.com; from $145) has five handsome rooms overlooking fragrant gardens and shade trees. It’s a peaceful retreat from the bustle of Main Street, and the perfect spot for a midsummer night’s dream.
Pride in a Small Town
Catering to a crowd that’s more Cymbeline than circuit, Southern Oregon Pride (sopride.org) began in 2010 and nearly doubled in attendance its second year, drawing more than 1,000 participants. The event’s founder and president, Gina DuQuenne, moved here from Los Angeles with her wife six years ago and sounds unsurprised by Ashland’s warm embrace of the only LGBT festival for 100 miles in any direction. “People here are open-minded and accepting—they enjoy our differences.”
Held this year the weekend of October 11–14, the spirited celebration includes a National Coming Out Day rally at Southern Oregon University, a gala celebration at the cavernous Ashland Armory, a parade through the center of town to stunning Lithia Park (a 93-acre wooded vale enclosing Ashland Creek), and a closing brunch.
Visitors will find better rates and availability on theater tickets and hotel rooms than in the summer high season; the Ashland Springs Hotel, where DuQuenne is employed as sales and catering manager, is even offering special SOPride rates. (Book at least a month in advance, as this one fills up quickly.)