ASHLAND, Ore. — It’s easy to fall under Ashland’s spell.

The magical city of about 21,000 in the foothills of the Siskiyou Mountains of southern Oregon is renowned for the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, stylish restaurants, verdant Lithia Park and outstanding outdoor recreation.

I’ve visited Ashland many times and wondered how it fared through the pandemic, a particularly difficult period for theaters and tourist destinations. On a recent trip, I had a chance to take in the theater, rafting, restaurants and epicurean delights, wondering: Will the place still cast a spell over me?

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A tough couple of years

Like many theaters, the OSF closed in 2020. In 2021 it produced digital releases and limited in-person performances. This year, OSF mounted a comeback with more in-person plays, but several were canceled due to “unprecedented” coronavirus case numbers.

One-third of Ashland’s 350,000 yearly visitors come for the plays while increasing numbers enjoy the outdoors and culinary experiences.

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I booked a room for myself and friend and frequent travel partner Chris Olsen at the Ashland Springs Hotel, which features lovely art deco furnishings, well-appointed rooms with comfortable beds and views over the town. Located in the heart of town, the hotel makes a great base for exploring the region.

In the evening, we walked through Ashland’s Victorian houses and large oak trees, passing deer browsing the neighborhood gardens and teenagers with pink and green hair riding skateboards along the sidewalks. After 10 minutes, we reach the Peerless Restaurant, located in Ashland’s Historic Railroad District. The restaurant boasts a magical outdoor garden and dining area, crisscrossed with strings of lights. Sitting down at an outdoor table, I felt the magic of Ashland returning.

Chris chose an expertly crafted vodka martini and the flat iron steak while I enjoyed a dry French rosé and the king salmon, perfectly prepared and served on a bed of seasonal vegetables. We relished a superb glass of Sauternes while watching the sun set behind the Siskiyous.

Rafting on the Rogue

The next morning, I booked a half-day, 6-mile rafting trip on the Rogue River for an introduction to the geography, flora and fauna of the region. Momentum River Expeditions picked us up at our hotel and drove us to a nearby put-in at Fisherman’s Ferry.

Guide Tyler Pohle fitted us with life jackets and helmets then gave us a safety lecture, emphasizing the importance of staying in the boat and explaining how to climb back in if you fall out.

He demonstrated how to grab someone by the top of the life jacket to yank them back in the boat. A lively, enthusiastic character with bronzed skin and muscular forearms, Tyler exudes confidence and competence.

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Find quiet wilderness and a touch of luxury on a river so treacherous, it’s known as the ‘River of No Return’

“This trip is a perfect introduction to rafting as the rapids get progressively bigger,” he said. “You have a chance to get into the swing of river rafting before the big rapids come up.”

The raft bobbed like a cork until the current caught us and pulled us downstream. We drifted past a forest of oak, pine and madrona trees, with houses scattered back from the shore. I spotted osprey nests, a bald eagle at the top of a dead tree, the squiggle of a blue heron taking flight.

“Paddle together,” he coached. “Keep an eye on your partner.” We practiced paddling forward and backward, trying to get in sync before the rapids.

After passing a few easy ones, I heard the roar of the Lineman rapid, a Class II on a scale of I to VI, with I being flat water and VI being essentially un-runnable. Tyler lined up the raft and we dropped into the rapid, enjoying the cold spray of the water and the adrenaline rush of plunging and swirling through the pool.

After passing through it, Tyler decided to “surf” the rapid, steering the boat back into the whitewater. “Batten down the hatches, boys,” he said. “We’re taking on water.”

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Waves rushed over the bow of the raft, drenching me with cold water, then Tyler turned the boat the other way to give Chris the same treatment.

After surging out of the rapid, we passed a flock of beautiful merganser ducks and Canada geese balancing on one foot. Stopping for a moment, Tyler set up a table and served lemonade from a thermos, laying out cheese, crackers and strawberries.

We returned to the raft to prepare for Ti’lomikh Falls, the finale: a Class III rapid, more complicated and potentially dangerous. We steered the raft through a boulder garden, then moved right toward two tiered drops.

“Paddle forward!” our guide yelled, and the raft plunged through the first drop. Tyler corrects our position and aims the bow toward the second rapid, a 6-foot drop. “Down!” he ordered as the raft crested the lip of the falls.

I grab my paddle, lean forward and feel the boat soar then smash into the bubbling whitewater below, absorbing the shock and savoring the thrill.

Soon after, Tyler pulled us from the water near Gold Hill Sports Park, and we headed back to Ashland, talking animatedly about the rapids, the countryside of the Rogue Valley and future river trips.

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The grand finale: Shakespeare (and dinner)

Later that evening, we walked into town for dinner before attending Shakespeare’s “The Tempest.” I was delighted to see the city’s restaurants bustling with patrons.

I booked a table at Osteria La Briccola, a secluded spot above Ashland Creek. We sat outside, enjoying the burbling creek and the warmth of the summer sun. We split a plate of burrata con prosciutto di Parma e zucca fruit, a version of the dish as delectable as any I’ve eaten in Italy. For the main course, Chris chose the pesto with handmade tagliatelle. I had the beef tenderloin in red wine sauce. Washed down with a tempranillo from nearby Abacela Winery, the dishes were outstanding.

I was tempted to order dessert, but we had a play to attend.

It’s a short walk to the Elizabethan Theatre, the site of so many plays I’ve enjoyed over the years. As one of Shakespeare’s most magical dramas, “The Tempest” seemed a great choice for the evening.

With its majestic outdoor stage open to the sky, the theater is an amazing place to see a play. Things started promisingly with a loud and boisterous storm, the actors straining to keep from getting blown offstage. The costuming and staging brought the drama to life.

I realized how much I’ve missed live theater over the pandemic and was full of anticipation for the spectacle. As the actors began speaking, I thrilled to the rich, ornate language of the Bard. As the main character Prospero says, “We are such stuff as dreams are made on; and our little life is rounded with a sleep.”

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The old magic seems to be returning.

Several actors conjured the magic. The oafish and inarticulate Caliban (James Ryen) demonstrated a genius for physical comedy. He and the shamelessly conniving Stefano (Jonathan Fisher) stole the show.

They and the rest of the cast helped bring back the magic of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival, the words of the Bard once again echoing across the brightly lit stage and out into the surrounding hills.

Through a few tough years of COVID-19, Ashland, this enchanting retreat in the Siskiyous, still casts its spell.

If you go

Ashland Springs Hotel, 212 E. Main St., Ashland, Oregon; 888-795-4545; ashlandspringshotel.com; rates vary, starting around $150 per night

Momentum River Expeditions, 3195 E. Main St., Ashland, Oregon; 541-488-2525; momentumriverexpeditions.com; $70-$89

Oregon Shakespeare Festival, 15 S. Pioneer St., Ashland, Oregon; 800-219-8161; osfashland.org; tickets vary based on performance and time

Osteria La Briccola, 18 Calle Guanajuato, Ashland, Oregon; 541-708-0775; osterialabriccola.com; Lunch: Friday-Sunday, noon-3 p.m.; Dinner: Monday, Wednesday, Thursday, 5-8:45 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 5 p.m.-close; entrees $20-$40

Peerless Restaurant, 265 Fourth St., Ashland, Oregon; 541-488-6067; peerlessrestaurant.com; Tuesday-Saturday, 5-9 p.m.; entrees $20-$60, cocktails $12-$16

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