As a gateway to Southern Oregon and all the region has to offer, Ashland, Ore., has become a destination like no other. With a population of 20,000 just 15 miles north of the California border in the picturesque foothills of the Cascade and Siskiyou mountain ranges, Ashland has a mellow vibe in every way but one. Since 1935 Ashland has been home to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the top regional theater in the country and one of the leading performing arts organizations in the world.
In its nine-month season of 11 plays, the festival (known as OSF) rotates a repertoire of Shakespeare, classics and world premieres in its three theaters: the Thomas Theatre (seating 270-360), the Angus Bowmer Theatre (601) and the Allen Elizabethan Theatre (1,190).
An overwhelming majority of Ashland visitors go for the theater and see an average of three plays while staying in the town 31/2 days. Last year’s attendance was 397,743; the record of 414,783 was set in 2010. It’s easy to understand why nearly 40 percent of the OSF audience hails from Northern California as it’s a simple 51/2-hour drive up Interstate 5 to a world-class destination.
Of course, one doesn’t spend an entire Ashland visit in a theater seat. All those tourists have to eat, stay somewhere and do other activities. The town has always made hospitality a priority, and in the past couple of years amenities – especially food offerings – have risen to a new level.
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Visitors appreciate the town’s walk-ability. East-west or north-south, the center of town and several surrounding areas can be traversed in 20 minutes. You don’t have to drive once you’re there unless you really want to.
Many guests have built a routine, trekking year after year to Ashland with the same people on a given weekend, staying in the same inn or bed-and-breakfast, having secured seats to plays as season subscribers. But for the uninitiated, we’ve put together a guide on how to do it all, whether you want to live it up or live it down.
The Shakespeare festival
Pick your dates and get your tickets as soon as possible. Popular shows sell quickly, particularly in the summer season. The festival operated at 88 percent capacity last year. If the show you really want isn’t available, check with the box office for returns when you get there.
There are also several discount ticket specials available, including a Weekly Web Special updated every Thursday, offering 40 percent off the selected show. The “19-35” special offers a $25 ticket for young adults ages 19 through 35. Rush, student rush, and C-level tickets are also available on a limited basis. The comprehensive OSF website has all the information. And even after all seats are sold, the Elizabethan Stage sells 17 standing-room-only tickets daily (from $14) in the back area underneath the balcony. (A foot rail eases the back from standing fatigue.)
Numerous OSF public events and classes can greatly enhance appreciation of the plays. The backstage tours led by an actor who is likely performing later represent one of the most popular features and frequently sell out ($20 general admission; $14 ages 6 through 17), so book them ahead as well. (10 a.m. and 11:45 a.m. Tuesdays through Sundays; (800) 219-8161.)
Even if you don’t score any tickets – for seats, the standing rail or a tour – you can still enjoy the free OSF-produced Green Show, which showcases a variety of professional artists from string quartets to Americana duos to Brazilian samba specialists. It is staged on the rolling grassy court outside the Angus Bowmer Theatre and the Elizabethan Stage at 6:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Sundays from June 2 through Oct. 11.
While there is hiking in the hills all around Ashland, you don’t have to leave town to experience the outdoors. The 93-acre Lithia Park (next to the OSF complex) is the lush centerpiece of downtown Ashland, and it holds its own with the festival. Following Ashland Creek as it makes its way through a forested canyon, the park unfolds into groves of sycamore trees, a Japanese garden, two duck ponds, a formal rose garden and acres of undeveloped woodlands. The family-friendly area also has tennis courts, a sand-pit volleyball court, picnic areas and playground equipment. Winborn Way at Main Street; (541) 488-5340.
Where to stay
▪ Ashland Springs Hotel: The art deco hotel is one block from the theaters. That’s a five-minute walk to the theaters and a mere 10 minutes to anywhere else in town, including Lithia Park or the railroad district. 212 E. Main St.; www.ashlandspringshotel.com; 888-795-4545; (541) 482-1700
▪ Palm Cottages: This nonsmoking motel offers charming eco-friendly rooms, a garden and a pool with private cabanas during the summer. It’s about 11/2 miles to the theaters. 1065 Siskiyou Blvd.; www.PalmCottages.com; 877-482-2635; (541) 482-2636
▪ Best Western Bard’s Inn: This motel has beautiful gardens and mountain views and is within walking distance of the theaters. 132 N. Main St.; www.bardsinn.com; 800-528-1234; (541) 482-0049
▪ Columbia Hotel: A European-style hotel (some rooms don’t have ensuite bathrooms) listed in the national register of historic places, the Columbia is Ashland’s oldest and longest-operating hotel. In downtown Ashland, just a few blocks from the theaters. 2621/2 E. Main St.; www.columbiahotel.com; 800-718-2530; (541) 482-3726.
▪ Chozu Gardens: There are two serene one-bedroom suites for rent in this spa that’s inspired by traditional Japanese baths. Featuring full kitchenettes, fireplaces, double showers and Wi-Fi access, this accommodation is 0.8 of a mile from the theaters. There are several pools in the bath garden, which also contains a full spa. Chill in the lounge with tea or sake before or after your treatments. 832 A St.; chozugardens.com; (541) 552-0202
▪ The Peerless Hotel: The Peerless is a classy six-room hotel in the heart of Ashland’s Historic Railroad and Gallery District, about half a mile from the theaters. A garden with tables and chairs for lounging and eating separate it from the fine restaurant and wine bar of the same name. 243 Fourth St.; www.peerlesshotel.com; (541) 488-1082
Where to eat
▪ Greenleaf Restaurant: A low-key breakfast and lunch favorite on the town square with tables in back that look out on the creek. 49 N. Main St.; www.greenleafrestaurant.com; (541) 482-2808
▪ The Brickroom: A new entry in town, the modern bar and restaurant hosts music in the open spaces of its casual dining room. Craft cocktails and great upstairs view of the creek have made this an emerging hotspot in Ashland’s nightlife scene. 35 N. Main St; www.brickroomashland.com; (541) 708-6030
▪ Amuse Restaurant: Amuse is a fine upscale restaurant featuring contemporary French/Northwest cuisine. Cozy and elegant, it won the Northwest Palate Magazine Reader’s Choice Award as best new Oregon restaurant a couple of years ago. 15 N. First St.; www.amuserestaurant.com; (541) 488-9000
▪ Standing Stone Brewing Co.: This brewpub extraordinaire offers pizzas, salads and chili as well as its own beer. 101 Oak St.; www.standingstonebrewing.com; (541) 482-2448
▪ Morning Glory: An Ashland classic for big home-style breakfasts. Across from Southern Oregon University. 1149 Siskiyou Blvd.; (541) 488-8636
▪ Pangea: A friendly little soup-and-sandwich cafe using local and organic ingredients with lots of world flavors for dishes such as a Turkish wrap with grilled chicken or tofu, garlic-hummus, lettuce and spicy Turkish relish in a spinach tortilla. Soups vary daily. 272 E. Main St.; www.pangeaashland.com; (541) 552-1630
▪ Coquina: Another newcomer to Ashland’s culinary scene, Coquina calls itself “American nouveau” with seasonal, thoughtful and ironically a certain European flair. Specialties include Brussels sprouts fried with house potato chips and Pecorino Romano, and duck breast with a sunchoke purée. Serious food in a nonpretentious atmosphere. 542 A St.; www.coquinarestaurant.com; (541) 488-0521
Where to see actors after the show
Martino’s: Across from the Bowmer Theater and right next door to the Tudor Gift Shop, this dark divey bar fills up with actors and stage technicians as soon the shows let out. There’s a patio and food, but the real attractions are the cheap drinks and casual close-ups of the talent. 58 E. Main St. (541) 488-4420
Call The Bee’s Marcus Crowder, (916) 321-1120. Follow him on Twitter @marcuscrowder.