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News / Life / Lifestyles

Oregon’s Ashland has more than Shakespeare Festival

City offers culture, culinary excellence, outdoor fun

By Gemma Wilson, The Seattle Times
Published: May 25, 2024, 6:04am

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Ashland, Ore., is all Shakespeare, all the time. Home to the famous Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the town of around 21,000 isn’t exactly subtle about its love for the playwright. A few of the businesses you may pass: The Stratford Inn, The Bard’s Inn, Anne Hathaway’s Cottage (named for Shakespeare’s wife, I presume). There’s also a Best Western with a faux Tudor facade and a storage place called As-U-Stor-It. It is, shall we say, a lot.

But my “let’s go to Ashland” sales pitch to the nontheater lovers in my life goes thusly: There is so much more to do than just see theater. Even if you see two to four shows in a weekend (as I happily would) you still have many non-theatergoing hours in which to enjoy cultural pursuits, the great outdoors, culinary excellence and more.

Getting to Ashland

You can fly into Medford, Ore., just 15 or so miles up the road from Ashland, in under 90 minutes from Seattle-Tacoma International Airport; upon arrival, a taxi or a rental car is your best option for transit to Ashland. I prefer to drive; it’s seven-and-a-half hours from Seattle.

If you are sans car, don’t worry, Ashland proper is magnificently walkable. Rent an electric bike from Piccadilly Cycles ($100/day, 10 a.m.-5 p.m.) to cover more ground.

If You Go

Oregon Shakespeare Festival; 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland; 541-482-2111. Visit osfashland.org.

 

Where to stay and play

The town is home to many more than Shakespeare enthusiasts. From historic hotels and vintage shops to verdant gardens and beautiful hikes, here’s some inspiration for what to see while you’re in town.

Lodging

The Ashland Springs Hotel opened in 1925, when it was called the Lithia Springs Hotel, and purportedly the tallest building between Portland and San Francisco.

Nestled in the Rogue Valley, surrounded by the foothills of the Cascade and Siskiyou Mountains, Ashland sits on the traditional lands of the Shasta, Takelma and Latgawa people. Gold brought white people flooding to the area in the 1850s; a spring of so-called lithia water, named for its naturally occurring lithium salts, was discovered near the turn of the 20th century and kept the burgeoning town booming. Lithia water drinking fountains still exist in the center of town, long giving visitors a chance to sip water so stinky you have to think it does something good for you.

But the hotel remains a classic for a reason. Not only is it charming, quiet and home to the delicious Larks restaurant, it’s located in the heart of Ashland, making it a great home base for exploring.

If you’re after a bit more modern functionality, the recently renovated Peerless Hotel, which operates on a self-check-in model, is a great option with equal historic charm and an outstanding restaurant. (You’re also right up the block from the excellent Noble Coffee.)

My advice: Take that coffee to go and head to Lithia Park, the verdant heart of the city. The park’s 93 scenic acres officially opened in 1916 and were originally designed by John McLaren, the Scottish horticulturist behind San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. A handy digital trail guide will help you identify flora and fauna and navigate the park itself (but download it before you get there, as cell service in the park isn’t always reliable). Don’t miss the small, tranquil Japanese Garden.

The wild-yet-manicured park is a perfect outdoor activity for an indoor cat like me, and a great precursor to an afternoon of what a beloved family friend called “shnoofling,” agenda-less wandering into enticing shops just to see what catches your eye, on the hunt for nothing other than beauty.

Exploring

Grab a pastry (a caramel pecan bun made from croissant dough? Yes, please!) from Mix Bakeshop as a little treat while you check out Lithia Artisans Market, which pops up at the entrance to Lithia Park every weekend. After perusing the local wares, you could easily spend an afternoon on Main Street, popping into shops like Dynasty Vintage, Bloomsbury Books and Paddington Station.

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If you’re a serious vintage lover I recommend making the trip to Ashland Artisan Emporium, a musty wonderland of booths from which I brought home a spectacular 1980s mustard-yellow wool sweater, and excerpts from ’70s rock operas on vinyl.

Ashland also has many art galleries, focusing on everything from fiber arts to glass and pottery, but I’m always most interested in seeing what’s showing at the Schneider Museum of Art, an airy space that’s part of the Oregon Center for the Arts at Southern Oregon University.

History buffs should make the half-hour drive to Jacksonville, a well-preserved gold rush town. Spend an hour poking around shops, both new and old-timey, and have a beer at Boomtown Saloon before heading back.

Getting outside

Fear not, outdoor cats, I haven’t forgotten you. The hiking around Ashland is pretty spectacular, and so close to town it almost feels like cheating. Hobart Bluff offers a lovely view at the end, though I skipped it on my recent trip due to soggy weather — always check the conditions before heading out.

When skies are blue, Emigrant Lake, less than 15 minutes from downtown Ashland by car, is a great spot for swimming, fishing, camping and general summertime outdoors fun.

If you prefer to stay closer to town, head to Lithia Park for a pickup game of pickleball.

Dining

Now that you’ve worked up an appetite, it’s time to eat. For dedicated foodies, Ashland’s crowning glory is the tasting menu restaurant MÄS. There, chef Josh Dorcak serves up “Cascadian cuisine,” heavy on seafood and locally foraged ingredients, that earned him James Beard nominations for Best Chef: Northwest and Pacific in 2023 and 2024, and a spot on The New York Times’ 2022 list of 50 best restaurants in America.

My other perennial favorites are Alchemy, which is delicious if a bit stuffy and serves a to-die-for housemade fettuccine with shredded duck confit ($39); and Cocorico, a sprightlier spot with a focus on low-key, farm-to-table elegance. It also has an adorable connection to Seattle spot Lola, where Cocorico’s owners Grace Dobson and Nat Borsi, a married couple, were working when they first met.

But not all dining has to be a Big Deal. Personally, I’m more a fan of Morning Glory, the colorful breakfast spot where fluffy buttermilk pancakes ($13.95 for three) and mountainous scrambles ($15.95-$18.95) reign supreme.

Shakespeare

Then, of course, there is the Shakespeare. Inspired by the Chautauqua movement bringing arts and cultural experiences to rural America, enterprising local theater lover Angus Bowmer laid the groundwork in 1935 for what would become the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

On a recent April visit, I saw “Macbeth,” starring the always-sensational Oregon Shakespeare Festival regular Kevin Kenerly in the title role, and “Born with Teeth,” Liz Duffy Adams’ play about Shakespeare and fellow Elizabethan playwright Christopher Marlowe. Both shows were staged in OSF’s large indoor Bowmer Theatre; the company’s massive, magical outdoor stage, the Allen, opens up a bit later in the season. Tickets to Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s main stage shows start at $28.

Also, among the shows coming later this season are Seattle writer and composer Justin Huertas’ indie rock musical “Lizard Boy,” which premiered at Seattle Rep in 2015, playing from June 11-Oct. 12; and “Much Ado About Nothing,” one of my personal favorites, playing the outdoor Allen stage from June 1-Oct. 12.

Seeing genuinely wonderful theater after a day spent in such relaxing environs is a rare indulgence.

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