By James Ross
Summer is a great time to get out and explore your own backyard. If your summer plans include taking in some live small town Ontario summer theatre, then consider a warm-weather road trip to one of these five enchanting destinations.
Small town Ontario boasts a dynamic summer theatre scene where you can enjoy the finest of professional productions, from Broadway musicals to hilarious comedies and riveting dramas. There are big venues, historic buildings, outside space, or picturesque lakeside locations. Where else can you take a break for intermission and wander out on a pier with a glass of wine to watch the St Lawrence River drift slowly past?
Beyond the theatre, these are also some of Ontario’s most delightful destinations, where you will love spending an afternoon or evening before a show in a fine pub or restaurants. Walk the charming streets and take in the sites and architecture, and when the play is over, settle into one of the many quaint bed and breakfasts, boutique hotels, historic inns, or luxury resorts. Ontario summer theatre is alive and well.
Stratford – Sratford Festival
The Theatre: Stratford is a small town that offers world-class entertainment, hosting Canada’s finest Shakespearean festival. The fact that it shares the same name as the birthplace of William Shakespeare, Stratford-upon-Avon in England, inspired local journalist Tom Patterson to found a Shakespearean theatre festival here in 1952.
Despite its humble inception when the inaugural performance of Richard III was performed in a tent, the festival has grown into a revered national institution. The theatre company now puts on 12 plays a season and many of Canada’s brightest performers have graced the Stratford stage, and got their start here. The 2018 season will include Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar and The Tempest, as well as The Music Man, To Kill a Mocking Bird, and the cult classic The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
You can learn more about the Stratford Festival by visiting their website at www.stratfordfestival.ca.
The Destination: If you are looking for a wonderful dining experience at a reasonable cost, the Stratford Chef’s School is a non-profit culinary institution where students obtain a thorough grounding in the business of operating successful restaurants. Upon graduation, many chefs stay in Stratford, and work their magic at one of the town’s splendid dining establishments.
Speaking of food, an easy way to sample the local specialties is by experiencing one of Stratford’s three different themed Tasting Trails; self-guided tours that are a fun way to explore the community. The Chocolate Trail, Maple Trail, and Bacon and Ale Trail allow delectable tastings at various downtown shops and restaurants. Whether you stroll along the scenic Avon River with its beloved swans, visit the Black Swan Brewery, or browse some of the many unique shops, keep your eyes peeled, because Stratford is also the hometown of another Canadian personality, Justin Bieber, who got his start busking on the steps of the Avon Theatre.
Niagara-on-the-Lake – Shaw Festival
The Theatre: The second largest repertory theatre in North America, the Shaw Festival stages 11 productions each season in three theatres, each with its own personality. The Royal George Theatre was built as a vaudeville house to entertain troops during World War I. The 2018 lineup includes Grand Hotel, The Magician’s Nephew, and a Sherlock Holmes classic Hound of the Baskervilles.
For further details, visit the Shaw’s website at www.shawfest.com.
The Destination: Often called one of Canada’s loveliest small towns, Niagara-on-the-Lake is home to some of North America’s finest wineries, a sampling of historic inns, fine restaurants that specialize in local cuisine, and fanciful shopping. Beautiful stone heritage buildings have been restored to their original splendour, blossoming flowers colour the neat and orderly downtown, and old-fashioned street lights illuminate the horse-drawn carriages that parade up and down Queen Street.
Wine lovers can cycle the picturesque Wine Trail which meanders along the bank of the Niagara River. The trek follows the Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill, during a 1943 visit, called “the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world.” Visit Niagara Falls and jump aboard a legendary Hornblower Niagara cruise boat which will take you as close as possible to the thundering roar, awesome power, and mist of the falls.
The 1000 Islands, Gananoque – Thousand Islands Playhouse
The Theatre: Reserve a boat slip with your theatre ticket at the Thousand Islands Playhouse in Gananoque, and dock your vessel at the theatre-front wharf. The Playhouse operates two historic venues side-by-side on the banks of the St Lawrence River: the 360-seat Springer Theatre, (formerly the 1909 Gananoque Canoe Clubhouse), and the 140-seat Firehall Theatre. Enjoy a drink on the deck overlooking the water during intermission. Highlighting the summer bill are Shirley Valentine, Harvest, and The Canadian.
Visit their website at www.1000islandsplayhouse.com for further information.
The Destination: There are actually 1,864 islands in this beautiful archipelago that divides Eastern Ontario and upstate New York. You can explore them slowly on a boat tour with the Gananoque Boat Line or, if you are really short on time and relish a bird’s eye view, you can see all in a 20-minute flight with 1000 Island Helicopter Tours.
You can also get really personal with an even slower kayak adventure with the 1000 Islands Kayaking Company. Enjoy a stop at Boldt Castle, a mansion of towers and turrets and the story of a man’s love and loss. In 1904, self-made millionaire George C Boldt had this 120 room estate constructed especially for his wife, but unfortunately she died before his gift was completed.
Drop into The Socialist Pig, an eclectic coffeehouse in the former Gananoque Spring and Axle Company building, whose bar is made of highly polished wood beams supported by stacks of books. Gananoque is a town of 5,200, whose population swells with “Islanders” –cottagers on the Thousand Islands – during the summer months.
St Jacobs – St Jacobs Country Playhouse
The Theatre: The St Jacobs Country Playhouse is located in the heart of St Jacobs’ Market District. This summer’s highlights include West Side Story, Ghost, and The Little Mermaid. A second venue set in a renovated 1867 village schoolhouse, St Jacobs Schoolhouse Theatre, has only 100 seats. The intimate atmosphere lends itself to cabaret-style performances, where you can enjoy a beverage at your table positioned just a few feet from the stage. This summer, see a production of Shear Madness.
Visit their website at www.stjacobs.com/theatre.
The Destination: A visit to the charming village of St Jacobs is like stepping back in time – it seems nothing much has changed since the town’s Old Order Mennonite settlers arrived here in the early 1800s in Connestoga wagons from Pennsylvania. The Mennonite farmers pride themselves in maintaining their unique traditions and culture.
While most visitors are drawn to St Jacobs for its famous market, antiques, quilts, and furniture shops, many are also intrigued by its history. The “Mennonite Story” at the Visitor Centre provides fascinating insights into the beliefs and lifestyles of the Mennonite people, while the St Jacobs & Aberfoyle Model Railway Museum delightfully recreates the great rail era.
Work up a thirst from shopping? Drop into Block 3 Brewery to sample some delectable craft beer. A short drive south of the village brings you to the wonderful sights, sounds, and tastes of Canada’s largest year round farmers market, where the local Mennonite and Amish farmers sell their wares. At its peak in the summer, the market has over 600 vendors.
Peterborough and the Kawarthas – The Globus Theatre
The Theatre: The Globus Theatre at the Lakeview Arts Barn, an old converted cattle barn, offers an intimate dinner and theatre experience. Sunshine Express and Murder for 2 highlight the summer ticket. For over 23 seasons, 4th Line Theatre, Canada’s premiere outdoor theatre company, has brought history to life on the barnyard stages of a picturesque fifth generation family farm. This summer enjoy Who Killed Snow White.
The Destination: Take a cruise on the Trent-Severn Waterway and make your way through the World’s Highest Hydraulic Lift Lock. Go for a paddle, as this area is known as Canada’s canoe building epicentre, and Peterborough is home to the largest collection of canoes in the world at the Canadian Canoe Museum. Spend the afternoon exploring Petroglyphs Provincial Park for its vast assembly of aboriginal rock carvings.
Contributor James Ross is a travel writer and columnist, and author of the books Cottage Daze and Still in a Daze at the Cottage. He lives in Muskoka, Ontario, Canada.