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Room and Bard

As I hurtle past a long string of state and national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, national forests, snowcapped mountains and glimmering lakes, I'm thinking that the Sacramento-to-Ashland route, with stops on either end, would make the perfect two-week vacation.

I need every ounce of my feeble willpower to avoid detouring a bit to the east into Lassen Volcanic National Park, whose volcanic peaks and glacial lakes have long been on my wish list. I soldier on a while. But about an hour outside Ashland, I succumb to the allure of Shasta Lake. I'm driving right past some of its 370 miles of shoreline. The lake's shiny blue surface is 30,000 acres, and I can no more resist that than I could a free peanut butter Twix bar.

The Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage. (T. Charles Erickson)

Now, I'm morally opposed to jet skis and their polluting filth. But a WaveRunner, which is basically a jet ski for two, seems to be calling out to me. I toss aside morality, and am rewarded with two of the fastest hours of my life.

Despite its size, Lake Shasta can get relatively crowded with houseboats and water skiers and such. But by 4 p.m., they're nearly all gone and I have this massive, beautiful place as my private playground.

I'm already manically happy by the time I reach Ashland. Both the town and the hotel I've chosen -- the Ashland Springs Hotel -- simply feed my natural high.

The hotel was built with great fanfare in 1925 by entrepreneurs convinced that the town's mineral springs could make Ashland more famous than Germany's Baden-Baden or New York's Saratoga. Wishing to be ready for a wealthy clientele, they built a luxurious structure laced with crystal chandeliers, gilt and stained-glass windows. The crowds were slow in coming. World War II made it worse. The hotel fell on hard times, and even closed for a while. But after two years of lavish restoration, it reopened in 2000.

Despite my detour, I still have time to dine and stroll the few blocks from the hotel to the Elizabethan Stage. The 1,200-seat open-air theater is patterned on London's 1600 Fortune Theatre and is so acoustically acute that actors don't need microphones.

On a cool summer's night beneath the stars, I'm treated to Broadway-quality acting as scheming characters unravel the plot of "Much Ado About Nothing." Since my last exposure to Shakespeare in college many years ago, I'd forgotten that I much prefer Shakespeare's tragedies to his comedies, which are often too silly for my taste. In fact, I'm thinking that the play is aptly named.

Then again, the exquisite puns and turns of phrase can't help but amuse. The language is a tour de force, or as the poet Coleridge once wrote about another Shakespeare comedy, it's a unique specimen of "poetical farce."

The following morning, on the hotel's breakfast balcony, I overhear people at several different tables discussing the previous day's performances. It's as if I've landed at a convention of English professors, except no one is wearing tweed.

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