"A charming Victorian city nestled in a pastoral countryside."
That's the way Stratford (population 32,000) is described in its promotional material. Often I find in my travels that these flowery descriptions are far from the truth. In this case, they are right on.
I've been here many times and I always find new things to explore. The traditional things to do like taking in a live play at the world-class Stratford Festival, eating at yummy restaurants, strolling through beautiful parklands and gardens, gazing at lovingly restored historical buildings and browsing through unique shops are still high on visitors list.
Here are a few new things that I discovered on this latest visit.
When you first arrive in Stratford, head to the Visit Stratford Information Centre at 47 Downie St., Stratford (GPS Users take note) in the heart of the city's downtown.
The city offers seven different themed guided tours. The tours begin every day at 10:30 a.m. and 3 p.m. on Saturday. They last about an hour and a half. The cost is $7 (all inclusive). I've taken these in the past and highly recommend them.
Something new is the Savour Stratford Culinary Trails Tours. There are three of them; the Chocolate, Maple, and Bacon and Ale Trail. You purchase tickets for $28.25 (all inclusive) and you have three days to visit various places along the trail.
If you want to get creeped out, try a Ghost Walk Tour offered Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. Actors from the Playmakers Theatre School will take you through the historic downtown, shady courtyards and narrow alleys and tell you about hangings and murders.
You might just possibly see a ghost! The cost is $20 for adults and $15 for children.
If you arrive on a Saturday don't miss the Perth County Slow Food Market (10 a.m. until 2 p.m.) behind Market Square, across the road from the information centre.
I bet you'll be wowed, like I was, with the City Hall. This High Victorian red brick, 12-sided building with Queen Anne features was built 1898-99.
Other places to have your camera ready to take a picture are when you walk near the Avon River, named after Stratford-Upon-Avon in England. This lazy river whispers through the city. At this time of the year, 24 white swans and one black swan own the place.
The nearby Shakespearean Gardens opened in 1936 is a spot resplendent with plants mentioned in Shakespeare's plays.
The Perth County Court House, which opened in 1887 on Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee, is a stunner. That was also the year electricity came to Stratford and electric lights highlighted architectural details.
I can't write about Stratford without mentioning the Stratford Shakespeare Festival which features four theatres. At the Festival Theatre the play, "The Merchant of Venice" began July 30 and continues until Oct. 18.
If you have teenagers, they'll know that this is the hometown of teen idol Justin Bieber. In the tourism office, you can see a guitar that Bieber signed in 2009. You can also get a free map that outlines 24 of his favourite Stratford spots.
WHERE TO EAT
On this visit, my wife Ellen and I discovered a favourite local eatery, Molly Blooms Irish Pub on Brunswick St.
We ate there on a Monday evening and were pleasantly surprised to learn burgers were half-price (as they are every Monday).
The place featured typical pub fare at reasonable prices. The atmosphere was casual and we received good service from Emily.
WHERE TO STAY
Just on the outskirts of town, we checked into the Suburban Motel. It was a good choice.
This family-owned motel had everything we needed. Mike and Amanda Weinheimer have made many renovations since Mike's family opened the place in 1963.
One of the nice features of our room was that there was a small balcony that looked onto a farmer's field of winter wheat. Rooms are in the neighbourhood of $100.
HOW TO GET THERE
From Niagara, take the QEW to Highway 403 west and then Highway 6 north to Highway 401 west to Highway 8 and follow the signs to Stratford. It's about a 2 1/2 -hour drive.