Leaders of the small town of Ashland, Ore., were so dubious of a professor's request for money to help fund a Shakespeare production over the Fourth of July that they insisted one day be devoted to boxing matches.

The boxing never really caught on. But Angus Bowmer's idea did. Sixty-nine years after his initial production of "Twelfth Night," the Oregon Shakespeare Festival sells more than 381,000 tickets to theatergoers in Ashland, population 20,000, during its 81/2-month season.

In three state-of-the-art theaters, Equity Guild players strut and fret their hours upon the stage close to 800 times each year between February and October. Just over half the plays performed these days are classic and contemporary, the remainder by the Bard.

Yet the kind of crowd that would be attracted to boxing will still find Ashland to their liking, and not just for the blood and gore that sometimes spills onstage during Shakespearean tragedies. While the finely bred and highly cultured come and go, talking of beauty over high tea or daintily picking their way through bookstores and art galleries between the matinee and evening performances, courser visitors made of sterner stuff can climb the peaks of snow-capped Mount Ashland, or shoot whitewater rapids, or Jet Ski a nearby lake, or hike ancient tablelands, or mountain bike, or ride extensive trails, or gallop through orchards and rolling foothills on horseback or -- from early winter to late spring -- ski.

For the soul who equally embraces the pleasures of mind and body, Ashland is like a dream. This has got to be the only place in the world where whitewater rafting outfitters volunteer the information that they guarantee to have you back in time for Shakespeare.

At first glance, Ashland is just a particularly prosperous small town surrounded by exceptional natural beauty. But keep walking.

You''ll stumble over more than a dozen art galleries and several stellar bookstores within a few blocks. You'll discover there are six more theater companies in town besides the Oregon Shakespeare Festival company, which is one of the nation's largest nonprofit theater companies in the world. You'll also meander past dozens of restaurants, at least two microbreweries and a college campus. And during a stroll through town, you'll naturally wander at some point into a 93-acre park designed by John McLaren, the landscape architect famed for his design of San Francisco's Golden Gate State Park.

Ashland is quite simply the biggest little town you'll ever see, and wish you never had to leave.

Lake Shasta Detour

You can fly within about 15 miles of Ashland, landing in Medford, Ore., home of the pear and apple orchards that fill the Harry and David's gift baskets so familiar during holiday seasons. Alternately, Ashland, in southern Oregon's Rogue Valley, is a beautiful 41/2-hour drive from either Portland, Ore., or Sacramento.

I'm drawn to the Sacramento option in part because it looks as if you couldn't get lost between there and Ashland even if you were directionally challenged, which I am. It's such a straight shot up Interstate 5, it looks as if crows planned the route. Moreover, a glance at the map shows huge green areas that promise a scenic adventure.

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.

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.

'Round the Clock Theater

The following day I have a choice of five plays, counting only the festival offerings: matinees include Shakespeare's "The Comedy of Errors" and a contemporary play set in an urban American ghetto, "Topdog/Underdog" by Suzan-Lori Parks. Evening choices include the classic "Raisin in the Sun" -- an older counterpoint to "Topdog" -- and two Shakespeare tragedies.

You can easily make an entire day in Ashland all about theater. Many people do, starting on a typical day with a backstage tour at 10 a.m., a lecture at noon, then a 2 o'clock matinee. That leaves you enough time to schedule a viewing of a genuine Shakespeare folio before the free nightly music and dance performances that precede the 8:30 p.m. curtain openings at the three festival theaters.

Each season, the festival produces 11 plays -- five Shakespeare and six classic and contemporary choices, including a world premiere or two. But the plays are rotated in such a way that a visitor can take in a maximum number of shows. Stay three days and you can see, or at least choose from, eight or nine different plays, since the festival's theaters generally offer a matinee and an evening performance daily.

I'm ready to grab tickets for "Topdog/Underdog" and "Raisin in the Sun" when I learn of the nearby Britt Festivals, in the historic town of Jacksonville. The festival, which is housed in an outdoor amphitheater similar to Virginia's Wolf Trap, happens to be hosting Garrison Keillor and his Hopeful Gospel Quartet. Can't miss that.

As long as I'm driving 15 miles or so over to Jacksonville, it makes sense to do a little winery tour and some tastings along the way. Plus I need time to visit some of the two dozen art galleries in Ashland, and I want to see the Japanese gardens in Lithia Park -- so named because its naturally carbonated spring water is loaded with lithium, which could explain its supposed healing powers. About all that leaves time for today is the Backstage Tour.

The tour begins in the $21 million New Theater, the most intimate of the festival's three theaters. Opened in 2002, it holds between 200 and 300 audience members, depending on how the moveable seats are configured. Stagehands are changing the set from the past evening's performance, preparing it for a matinee.

I also go behind the scenes of the 600-seat Angus Bowmer Theatre, named for the man who put Ashland on the cultural map.

I have tickets for tomorrow night's performance in the Angus Bowmer for "The Royal Family," by George Kaufman and Edna Ferber. But I'll start out my final day in Ashland on the Rogue River, hitting the rapids with one of the half-dozen whitewater rafting outfitters in town.

Within a short drive of Ashland, I'm in sparsely populated areas of rolling hills, mountains and orchards. Outfitters offer half-day rafting adventures on the Rogue, which intersperses mellow floating with bursts of adrenaline-kicking rapids about a half-dozen times. For those with an entire day to spare -- even so you'll be back in time for evening performances -- you might want to choose the more challenging Klamath River. A one-day trip takes you through 42 major rapids; a two-day campout takes you to a remote and uninhabited canyon, and through 74 rapids.

I pick the half-day option, spending the afternoon shooting the rapids of the Rogue. I'm on the water only a few minutes when a fox swims by. Moments later there is no time to be looking for wildlife, because I'm paddling for my life, or so it seems.

When I finally come to the end of my occasionally heart-stopping journey, I float in calm water for a bit and watch an osprey feed her chicks on a tree along the banks of the river.

Then it's back to civilization, for another dose of culture, and beauty of another kind.

Ashland, Ore., combines the outdoors with the arts. Above, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival's Elizabethan Stage. Below, "Henry VI, Part One."Ashland's Oregon Shakespeare Festival company performs in the New Theater (above). Below, the event's Dance Kaleidoscope and the Terra Nova Consort.