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Flashback Friday: Stratford Ontario

Are you looking for a great getaway in Ontario? Stratford is a charming city on the Avon River, located about 2 hours from Toronto. The streets are lined with Victorian buildings, gardens, and unique shops. Stratford is best known for the Stratford Festival which stages modern and Shakespearean plays in several theatres around town throughout the summer months. Festival tickets can get pricey but there are plenty of free or low-cost activities for the budget traveller, too. Stratford could be explored in a day but I would recommend spending at least a couple of days to give you plenty of time to meander, enjoy some free and ticketed performances, and to explore the local shops and restaurants.

In the city of Stratford, there are lots of fantastic hotels, guesthouses, and Bed&Breakfast choices. I hadn't realized I was arriving during the World in a Weekend Festival, so vacancies were scarce. Luckily, I found a great queen room through AirBnB called Sue & Al's Place on Caledonia Street (open for guests seasonally May - Sept). I had a spacious and comfortable room that was walking distance to everything I wanted to explore: the neighbourhood, the theatres, parks, and the downtown core. I parked my car for the entire stay. I had one of two guest rooms located on the second floor with a shared bathroom. There was a coffee and muffin station set out every morning.

There are many things to do and see in this lovely town and these are my top suggestions based upon my 3 day visit:

Meander Along the Avon River

Start by going for a stroll along the Avon River. I walked along the river to Tom Patterson Island, named for the man who made the Festival happen. This beautiful park has lovely walking trails and also hosts outdoor dining events. During the winter the island is decorated with (free) elaborate light displays for the annual Lights on Stratford Winter Festival. During the summer and fall, it is a venue for Stratford Festival performances.

The island has many commemorative benches, some are memorials but some mark engagements, marriages, or are in gratitude to prominent townspeople. Stop and sit for a while and enjoy watching the world go by.

A fun activity is to rent a boat and paddle along the river. I had a choice between a paddle boat or a canoe from Avon Boathouse Rentals. I chose a canoe to enjoy the gorgeous scenery and pretty bridges at a very leisurely pace. Other travellers may choose a motorized tour.

The ducks and swans are very used to humans and followed me around, obviously hoping for a snack. Keep in mind that if you do want to give the birds a treat, make sure it is seed or grain. Bread should never be offered. The town keeps 24 swans. The swan is a town symbol. Every April, the swans parade from their cozy winter quarters across the road to the river. This is a big deal event and attracts many spectators.

The bandstand was the site of an important union rally in pursuit of safety and fair wages. I watched performances by two concert bands here.

Wander Around the Shakespearean Gardens

The nearby Shakespearean Gardens is one of the best and budget-friendly activities in Stratford, especially during the summer months when the plants are in bloom. The garden includes more than 60 varieties of plants, including all those mentioned in Shakespeare's plays. The gardens are maintained by municipal workers and dedicated volunteers.

In the 1930s a local, Thomas Orr, had an idea to increase tourism by creating the gardens, capitalizing on the connection between the English town and river of the same name, and the birthplace of William Shakespeare. The main industry, furniture manufacturing, was going through turbulent times as unions and owners clashed. Community leaders knew they needed another industry to survive. The success of this garden led another town leader, journalist Tom Patterson, to deepen this connection by creating the Shakespeare Festival twenty years later.