If you have been reading along, you’ll know that we took on our fair share of fun and tasty activities in both Toronto and Montréal on our anniversary vacation.
But as you may have figured out, there is plenty of ground to cover to get to and from these two Canadian metro areas, and we managed to get in quite a more than we originally expected.
WHERE THE BARD GOES HARD
I admit, I have been told William Shakespeare is a great playwright, and judging from how many modern theater companies put on his numerous plays, the love for The Bard has continued throughout the centuries.
But I confess I really have never truly enjoyed the plays I’ve seen. That I don’t think has been the skill of the theater companies but rather how the material has translated over time – for me, it’s kind of like a music album that was great in its day but now sounds dated due to the music norms of the time. That changed when we paid a visit to Stratford, Ontario and their Shakespeare Festival.
My spouse has had no such problem enjoying the Bard, and wanted to make a return trip to see a play in this quaint city of just over 30,000. This town may share its name with the birthplace of Shakespeare in the UK, but it wasn’t until journalist Tom Patterson made a somewhat unusual suggestion to replace the city’s main source of income (the railways) with a festival dedicated to the Bard in the early 1950s. Despite plenty of obstacles and difficulties, the Festival grew in popularity, attracting name actors like Peter Ustinov, Maggie Smith, and Alec Guinness, and expanding to its current four theaters where plays are staged, including the Festival Theater where we caught Peter Pasyk’s rendition of “Hamlet.”
Putting older plays in modern contexts are always interesting experiences, and this one proved to be no exception, being placed in a Generation Z/Millennial vibe with things like selfies, mobile phones, and other similar contrivances. It was promising, but I knew my mind would be piqued throughout when Hamlet finally arrived.
Black actor Amaka Umeh is a powerhouse as Hamlet. Umeh is also a woman. The fact that my spouse didn’t figure that out until middle of the play is a testament of how good she really was as the Prince of Denmark. This and the modern references made everything make sense all the way until the end, when like most Shakespeare tragedies, almost everyone dies on stage.
Count me as a fan of Umeh, the entire cast, and willing to take another dive into the Bard.
OTHER STRATFORD NOTES
Why don’t eateries use scones for breakfast sandwiches? Well, after trying out Sirkel Foods’ versions (they have regular bakery goods as well) I’d say this is an avenue more need to explore. We paired that up with maybe the best coffee we had on our trip from the LGBTQ-friendly Revel Coffee and enjoyed a lovely breakfast next to the Avon River before departing.
Earlier, we enjoyed a twist on the beer bar concept with Mercer Kitchen & Beer Hall, which matches Asian Fusion fare with local beers. The twist here is that Mercer does more than have the beer on tap but rather provides equal publicity for the breweries they feature, from the glassware used to the wait staff attire (we along with other tables got a mix of Mercer and local brewery glassware; each staff member wore random brewery-branded T-shirts.) If you have to wait a bit for a table, walk a couple doors down to check out Fanfare Books, a indie bookstore in which features a nice range of books, including a Shakespeare section.
SOUTHERN ONTARIO NOTES
Even Canadians need to get their suntans, and Grand Bend and their beaches along Lake Huron are a popular attraction for native Ontario residents. It seems like no matter where you go, the usual beachy themes, activities, and businesses are present, and Grand Bend is no exception. If you needed a reason to go over the border at Port Huron/Sarnia vs. Detroit/Windsor, Grand Bend offers up a nice incentive, especially during the warmer months.
While Niagara Falls is indeed spectacular, all of Ontario is blessed with all sorts of waterfalls, many of them courtesy of the same Niagara Escarpment that birthed its namesake falls. We didn’t quite get to as many falls as we might’ve liked (we had figured out we were a thing by a random waterfall near Yosemite National Park.) We got to Hoggs Falls but discovered that the nearby Bruce Trail allows you to hike to nearby Eugenia Falls. In fact, the Bruce Trail allows you to explore a whole lot of wilderness and waterfalls in Ontario, offering 900 km of trail and 450 km of side trails. We also managed to get a nice view of McGowan Falls (a falls that has been partly turned into a reservoir of sorts) and a look at pleasant Little Falls in downtown St. Mary’s.
We walked briefly around Collingwood after enjoying a gorgeous view of Georgian Bay descending down from the escarpment. We got to bang out some decades old piano lessons at one of their free to the public pianos scattered around the downtown and picked up a pretty good java from Espresso Post.
Heading south from Montréal, the US bound traveler has two main options that put you on Interstate freeways. A third, lesser-used option (Rouses Point) allows you to easily access US Highway 2 and travel south through the Hero Islands in Lake Champlain into Vermont. We had thought about pushing back home but thought why not extend the vacation one extra day.
On South Hero, we hit up two local orchards (Hackett’s Orchard and Allenholm Farm) for early apples and assorted maple-related products, then stopped in Burlington for some lunch at Zero Gravity Brewing, which offered up a very appealing atmosphere with plenty of outdoor dining space, and a very good selection of beer and eats.
Utica, NY turned out to be a bit of a surprise for us. This once bustling railroad and textile hub has been re-focusing its economy, and has in the meantime attracted a very diverse new wave of immigrants, including Bosnians, Burmese, Russians and Vietnamese. As we figured out from more research, some of the original immigrants to the area (Italians) are responsible for some local specialties, such as Tomato Pie and Utica Greens (greens sautéed in hot peppers, sauteed greens, chicken stock, escarole, pecorino, bread crumbs and a protein (typically prosciutto.)
After much consideration, we went with another specialty in Chicken Riggies, a casserole type dish with pasta, chicken, hot or sweet peppers in a savory tomato cream sauce) and we found Nina’s Pizza on the historic Genessee St. The place oozed the atmosphere of local hangout, with owner Nina trading jokes and greetings with both staff and customers (she even told a regular customer not to worry about paying for something until next visit.) The Riggies (which we enhanced with Italian Sausage and extra cheese, plus an order of garlic knots) was kind of what we were expecting – a gut-filling pasta-laden plate of goodness perfect after a long drive.
The portion was so huge, in fact, that the Riggies served as breakfast and Utica Coffee Roasting (next to Nina’s on Genessee Street) provided the coffee. Unbeknownst to me, Utica Coffee goes large – I’m used to 24 ounces being the large size, so I was a bit taken aback when Big Gulp sized 32 oz behemoths came my way. It turned out to be fine – Utica makes a pretty good iced latte and a nicely placed Rest Area kept us more than awake into Buffalo.
Back in the day, Columbus-based Buffalo Wild Wings (BW3) included a unique regional specialty in Beef on Weck, roast beef served on a Kümmelweck Roll. BW3 dropped the dish fairly early on, so we decided to try it out at Hamburg Brewing in Orchard Park.
The brewery’s exterior space is among the most gorgeous and larger that we have been to – it seemed the perfect spot for a large family gathering or celebration, big beer release, or a Bills game gathering spot. It’s something of a larger version of Lawson’s Finest Liquids space in Waitsfield, VT, but substitute their mountain setting for a bucolic landscape you might find at a California winery. Similar to Zero Gravity, very nice beers, and our sampling of their Beef on Weck makes us want to test out some more next time through the area.
LAST BUT NOT LEAST…
Like Montréal, all our stays safe for one night were at Marriott Hotels. The Fairfield Inns in Chesterfield, MI and Utica, NY proved to be typical versions of that particular hotel brand. However, the Courtyard in Brampton, ON was a more enhanced version, with larger rooms than typical plus extra features (e.g. two TVs and a space which could be divided by two.) Stratford’s Suburban Motel, located just outside of the town’s main core, reminded us of the Smokers Motel in Albuquerque – a lovely motor inn styled, mom-and-pop operation whose owners were very helpful with getting around town.
In regards to parking near the Festival Theatre, while the prepaid parking like we opted for is the most convenient, it is probably not needed for weekday performances – there was plenty of parking available alongside Lakeside Drive on what turned out to be a 40% capacity house.
Finally, a shout out and big thanks to Sleep Management Group in London, ON. They helped keep this anniversary a far quieter one by coming through by having a replacement part, and provided service with a smile.