|The word Niagara conjures up images of thundering falls and a raging river. But 20 minutes down the road from Canada’s renowned tourist attraction lies a pastoral world revered by theater lovers, as well as those seeking a soothing autumn retreat.
For 47 seasons, the Shaw Festival (800/511-SHAW, www.shawfest.com) has attracted more than 300,000 visitors to the picture-postcard town of Niagara-on-the-Lake. Taking center stage every April through October is a stellar lineup of diverse shows, ranging from classic dramas to sophisticated comedies to blockbuster musicals. (New York magazine calls the company “the best repertory theater on the entire continent.”)
The festival was conceived in 1962 by Niagara-on-the-Lake lawyer Brian Doherty, who admired the works of Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw so much that he wanted to revitalize them for the stage. Through the years, the festival has incorporated other authors into its repertoire — the only requisite is that all plays produced must have been written or be set during the years 1856 to 1950, the period in which Shaw lived.
“Although we stay true to that time, we believe it’s really important to stay fresh,” says festival executive director Colleen Blake, “and talk about issues that are still with us today.”
This year’s schedule is testament to that mission: Each of the 11 productions showcased exude a sense of timelessness. They include Shaw’s “Mrs. Warren’s Profession,” a tale of ups and downs that occur in mother-daughter relationships; and “Getting Married,” a provocative look at the state of matrimony. Other gems featured are the Leonard Bernstein-Betty Comden-Adolph Green musical “Wonderful Town,” with its lyrical reference to Ohio; and Ann-Marie MacDonald’s haunting “Belle Moral,” the tale of a house shrouded in mystery and secrets.
The venues hosting the plays are works of art in their own right. The 327-seat neo-classical Court House Theatre is a national historic site dating from the 1840s. Built as a vaudeville house in 1915, the opulent 328-seat Royal George Theatre is adorned with Edwardian gilt molding. The Shaw’s flagship, state-of-the-art Festival Theatre, which opened in 1973, has room for 856 patrons and houses a retail shop filled with exquisite jewelry, books and theatrical souvenirs. Stop for a quick bite before, between or after acts at the Festival Theatre Café, which offers light meals and decadent desserts.
Although the footlights burn brightly, theater isn’t the only attraction in this quaint turn-back-the-clock town. It boasts an eclectic array of shops, which include Greaves Jams & Marmalades (55 Queen St., 905/468-7831), an 81-year-old establishment famous for an assortment of spreads — ranging from kiwi to triple berry — and the Angie Strauss Galleries (125 Queen St., 888/510-0939), featuring original oil paintings, Raku pottery and blown glass.
For an ultimate weekend of pampering, check into The Prince of Wales Hotel (6 Picton St., 888/669-5566), a Victorian jewel featuring elegantly appointed suites and rooms reflecting the era in which it was built. Spend the morning at the hotel’s Secret Garden Spa, where rejuvenation awaits via a tempting palette of treatments, including a Honey Citrus Scrub with fresh lemon, orange and lime pulp, warm honey and sea salt; and the Rose Moor Mud Body Wrap, made with an intoxicating blend of pink and red rose petals. Indulge in the hotel’s signature afternoon English tea that brims with exotic brews from around the world, delicate finger sandwiches and sumptuous scones.
History buffs will want to stop at the Fort George National Historic Site, which served as British Army headquarters during the War of 1812. Now maintained by National Parks of Canada, the former battleground is filled with earthworks and palisades, along with meticulously restored officers’ quarters and blockhouses. (For more information, call 905/468-4257 or visit www.pc.gc.ca/lhn-nhs/on/fortgeorge.)
The temperate climate and sandy soil have nurtured grape growing and winemaking in the region. Tours and tastings are offered at more than a dozen wineries dotting the area, including Peller Estates (290 John Street East, 888/673-5537), which offers a daily menu of unique wine and food pairings; and Inniskillin Wines (1499 Line 3 on the Niagara Parkway, 888/466-4754), known for its award-winning icewine bar.
For more information about Niagara-on-the-Lake, call the Chamber of Commerce at 905/468-1950 or visit www.niagaraonthelake.com.