Travelogue: Labor Day Weekend at the Shakespeare Festival
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Desdemona (Amy Cronise) and Othello (Derrick Lee Weeden) in the 1999 OSF production of William Shakespeare's Othello. Photo by David Cooper. From the Oregon Shakespeare Festival web site.
Itinerary: 9/4/99 – 9/7/99: Ashland, Oregon for the Shakespeare Festival by Richard Brodie

Jumping puddles to Medford

Hunnybear and I have been looking forward to our annual pilgrimage to the Ashland (OR) Shakespeare Festival for months. We booked the nonstop Dash-8 flights SEA-MFR on Horizon (Alaska codeshare) months ago for $128 each. I haven’t yet found a way to fly first class into and out of Medford—or, as one Horizon stewardess put it: “It’s ALL first class.”

After I pick Hunnybear up in Kirkland, we take the diamond lane on the 405 all the way to the airport, cruising past stop-and-go-traffic in my Pontiac convertible with the top down. We didn’t get many convertible days in Seattle this summer, but this was one of them, and the forecast for Ashland is for sunny and highs near 90! This is a welcome prospect with all the bad weather this summer up and down the West Coast—particularly because two of the plays we are going to see are outdoors.

I cruise right by my old favorite parking lot, Ajax, and head to my new favorite, MasterPark. Like last time, a valet hops right up to the car, ports the bags into the van, and is ready to go. This time I notice Alaska has a check-in kiosk right there at the MasterPark lot! We punch in our AS Mileage Plan numbers and out come our boarding passes. There’s really no point in checking luggage on Horizon, because if you just put it on the “A La Cart” outside the plane it magically appears at your destination as you exit the plane. This is one major benefit of flying these little puddlejumpers.

The MasterPark van drops us at Island 1, the closest to AS. Since we’re going to the Alaska Board Room, it’s easiest to enter through Terminal D, so we just take the elevator up one floor. When we get there, a harried woman darts out of the elevator and looks around, puzzled. “Is this—?” She begins, but cannot seem to form the words to her question. “This is the floor for the airport,” I say. She thanks me and looks both ways, trying to decide where to go. “You walk across the skybridge to the terminal,” I explained. There’s nothing a man enjoys more than giving directions. It must be genetic. If I was on my way to Natalie Portman’s house for a little get-together with her and some of the Star Wars cast and crew, and some guy wanted to know how to get to the nearest McDonalds, I’d stop and tell him.

She thanks me again, and says, “You wouldn’t know I’m a business traveler!” Red-faced, she explains that she usually valet-parks and knows how to go from there, but she parked in a different place this time. I seize the opportunity to give further directions. “If you’re in a hurry, find your airline”—I pointed at the list of airline names above the nearest skybridge—“and then cross over. It’s quicker!” This last part was shouted at her back. The opportunity to give further directions lost, we proceeded into the terminal.

We relax in the Alaska Board Room for a few minutes. As usual they have a fine spread of cheese, scones, blueberry bagels, muffins, and crackers. Bowls of mixed nuts are all over the place, so we stock up because they won’t be serving any on the flight. There is an evilly tempting bowl of “Alaska Gold Crunch”—a chocolate-covered toffee candy similar to Almond Roca—at the front desk, and the ladies implore us to chow down on them lest they have to eat them themselves. I say, well, maybe just one or two, three at the most.

For some reason we have been booked in row 9 on this flight in both directions. Row 9 on a Horizon Dash-8 is a 5-seat bench in the back of the cabin. I ask if we can move, but everything else is taken. Oh well. I can snuggle up with Hunnybear and make room for the person in that horrid middle seat. We pour a last glass of delicious Alaska Iced Tea into plastic “to go” cups and head to the gate.

Boarding is a little confusing because there are apparently two Gate C10s. One is the real one, and one is the one we are actually using, which is Gate C12 with a little sign plastered on the counter saying C10. Anyway, I ask the gate agent if this is the right gate for Medford and she says yes, we’ll be boarding right after the current flight to Spokane finishes. They really pack in the departures at Horizon Air—it’s quite amazing. It seems like they have flights every five minutes of the day boarding one after the other. Anyway, boarding proceeds quickly, we put our bags on the A La Cart, and step to the back of the bus.

Well, who should sit down right next to us but—the harried “business traveler” from the elevator! I turn to her and ask, “so what business brings you to Medford?” Actually, she’s not on business this time—that’s why she parked in the cheap lot. She doesn’t take up a lot of room, so the flight is as comfortable as can be expected. There is only one flight attendant, named Mustafa, so when the pilot gives the instructions, instead of saying, “Flight attendants prepare for departure,” he just says “Mustafa prepare for departure.” Mustafa speaks with a very think accent but gives me a whole can of Lemon-Lime Talking Rain, so we are friends.

The plane hits quite a bit of clear-air turbulence on our descent into the Rogue Valley, so we are delighted to arrive. I’ve surprised Hunnybear by booking a convertible from National. They had an amazing rate—cars are always cheap in Medford—and part of my philosophy is never miss an opportunity to go topless on a sunny day. This car is amazing. It is the only rental car I’ve ever seen with leather seats! We get a gold Chrysler Sebring with all the options: leather, power seats, trip computer—even gold rims on the wheels! I think National must have bought this car at a repo auction, but we’re loving it.

Given that there are no Starwood properties in the area, we’ve booked the best suite at the Peerless Hotel, a very nice little inn. Our room has a separate sitting room, a canopy bed and a two-person Jacuzzi. The amenities are very nice (Aveda products) and Hunnybear’s favorite—his and hers bathrobes. They have direct-dial Internet-ready phones and free local calls, so I’m happy too. On the way to the hotel, we stop at the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory and order the caramel apple with the most stuff on it, another Ashland tradition. In the candy store, I notice that the trademark big stuffed bear is gone. Someone bought it! At $400, I think they make a good profit on that bear, but I missed seeing it. The clerk didn’t know when they would be getting another one.

One glitch in our plans: we have tickets for Othello tomorrow night and Henry IV, Part 2 Sunday, but no tickets for the sold-out performance of The Three Musketeers tonight. Fortunately, in Ashland it’s almost always possible to score tickets “on the bricks”—the common area between the three theaters—before the show. The trouble is, we’re not sure how long it’s going to take us to get tickets and we want to have a nice dinner. So we walk to the Firefly, our favorite restaurant in Ashland, and explain the situation. They give us a reservation for 6:30 and say to call if anything changes. Well, at 5:45 we score two primo seats, so I call Firefly back and say we’re coming over. No problem! We have a delicious meal and most of a bottle of Domiane Drouhin Oregon Pinot Noir and head back to the theater. The only glitch: they don’t take American Express, so I can’t get Starpoints and have to settle for United Miles.

The Three Musketeers is superb, although I still don’t understand why a story about four guys with swords is called The Three Musketeers. Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

This bed has a tractor beam!

Westin has announced they are installing 30,000+ “Heavenly beds” in all their rooms. I think I know where they got the idea. The bed at the Peerless is so comfortable that we barely make the 9:30 cutoff for the complimentary full breakfast served each morning in the adjoining Peerless Restaurant only for guests. Hunnybear announces, “This bed has a tractor beam!”

The Peerless is located about five blocks from the Shakespeare Center at Fourth and B streets. It’s odd that a little city like Ashland would have numbered and lettered streets, and it’s only this little patch of town that has them—the rest has poetic names like Lithia Way and Pioneer St. It has only a handful of rooms, each unique. Suite 7, which we are in, is the largest, with a nice view of the foothills and windows galore. The ladies who run the place are eccentric yet professional—Gina, at the front desk, took great pains to explain all the features of the DMX music system to us, made dinner reservations, and even wrote a long handwritten note that contained information she must tell every guest. The feeling is private yet well served, unusual for such a small inn.

Hunnybear and I relaxed after a delicious breakfast of freshly sliced and peeled fruit and Eggs Benedict. Around 11 we went for a nice jog through Lithia Park, one of the many treasures of Ashland. This park follows a stream back from the center of town for several miles with a very nice walking/jogging trail through a wooded hillside. Almost three years ago on New Years Day the stream flooded, washing out bridges and eroding much of the trail. I was happy to see it almost completely restored this year with several new bridges and nice wide bark-covered trails.

In the afternoon, we took the convertible for a spin south of town. We drove up Mt. Ashland to the base of the ski area and had a little picnic lunch we bought at Safeway (the Safeway Club Card saved us 16%, so lunch only cost a little over $10). Then we headed to the California border. I wanted to show Hunnybear how quickly the terrain changes, almost in a moment, from evergreen forest to scrub-covered golden hills, as soon as you cross the state line. But I forgot about the agricultural inspection station. California confiscates all your fresh fruit when you enter. So I said, “Let’s eat up those last two peaches, baby!” We had four miles and did a great job destroying the evidence.

When we reached the station, the guard asked us what we had, and I told him we just finished our last two peaches, and we had like half a peach that was garbage and did he want that? He said no, they don’t have trash here, but aren’t the peaches good this year? Hunnybear raised an eyebrow and asked cagily, “What do you do with the fruit?” He explained that they gather it and incinerate it to prevent the spread of fruit flies. She wanted to press him further, but I smiled and waved and drove off as HB was saying, “You eat them, don’t you? How do you know they’re good unless you eat them!" I quickly sped away, not wanting to spend the rest of the holiday weekend in some surreal agricultural detention facility.

We made it as far as Yreka, CA. Every time I go there I look for a place called the “Yreka Bakery” but I never can find it. It’s famous for being spelled the same forwards and backwards. Pretty cool, huh? We turn around and head back over Siskiyou Pass for the half-hour drive back to Ashland.

Tonight we dine at Omar’s, a steakhouse favored by locals. The food and service are great, but it’s clear they don’t spend much money on the décor. At our waitresses recommendation, I have the Top Sirloin for a laughable $13.95 including a huge do-it-yourself salad tray. It is a great steak, very fleshy—the kind that makes you grow fangs as you bite into it. Hunnybear had a superb Filet Mignon. This place is a hidden jewel, just don’t expect any more atmosphere than red vinyl upholstery, screaming kids, and men in baseball caps.

The play for the evening is Othello, and the three-hour-and-fifteen-minute production is just superb. After so many years, I continue to be impressed each time by the quality of the theater in this little Oregon town. The festival runs most of the year, from February to October, although the outdoor stage is only open in the summer. What a great place.

We don’t take American Express

Omar’s, the cheap steakhouse, takes American Express, but the expensive chichi restaurants don’t seem to. I like to pay with my Starwood American Express card because I get 1.25 airline miles per dollar spent and there’s no annual fee. My backup is the United Mileage Plus First Card MasterCard, which has terrible customer service and costs $60/year. I was going to get rid of it, but now that American Express and Diners Club have doubled their commission of foreign transactions from 1% to 2%, I’m keeping at least one card that has a 1% transaction fee. Ironically, that’s the FirstCard, which was the first to outrage their customers by announcing a 4% transaction fee on foreign purchases, which they have since backed away from. I also have the American Express Platinum card, but the $300/year fee for that is rapidly losing value to degrading customer service.

We eat at Monet tonight. It’s a French restaurant in a house on the hillside near the Shakespeare Center. We have booked a table outside in the garden, but when we get there we ask to be moved inside because of insects and heat. No problem. The chef’s name is Pierre, of course. His wife comes to the table and recites the long list of specials. There are at least 10, and by the time she is finished I have forgotten half of them. I hear other tables calling her over for a refresher course. We order a delicious escargot, the special gazpacho (after I check to make sure there’s no cilantro in it), and I have noisettes of lamb while Hunnybear has salmon. The salmon is just OK, but everything else was great. The servers all wear little French berets. Very cute. Dessert comes around on a tray, and I am disappointed to learn that there is no ice cream. I’m the kind of guy who likes a little ice cream on whatever I order for dessert, but Pierre doesn’t make ice cream and refuses to serve anything he doesn’t make himself. A nice dinner, but at those prices—$107 for two service included—I thought it would have been nice to take American Express. But these French artists...what are you going to do?

The show tonight is Henry IV, Part 2, and it’s done outside in the Elizabethan Theater with men playing all the roles. This show must have been the inspiration for modern-day movie sequels like Speed 2: by intermission there is no discernible plot and we are falling asleep. It seems to be an attempt by Shakespeare to satisfy Fallstaff fans with more of his antics. We decide to go home and get a good night’s sleep in the tractor beam bed in preparation for the Dash-8 flight home tomorrow.

What a weekend!

I don’t know of any other place that packs so much relaxation and refreshment into a weekend as Ashland. After a last night in the tractor-beam bed, we check out. Astonishingly. In the time since I put down the deposit on the room, the Peerless Hotel has stopped taking American Express! I use the Mileage Plus First Card MasterCard to pay the balance and ask what happened. Same story: Amex charges them too much and keeps their money too long. I’m torn, as I too am becoming more and more disenchanted with Amex, but I do like to build up those Starpoints.

We climb into the gold convertible in the sunny chill and head back to MFR. On the way we stop at the Starbucks that planted itself right in the middle of Ashland a few years ago. It arrives amid protests, but did a good job fitting in with the Main Street architecture in Ashland and now thrives. I’d rather see a Tully’s, of course, but we get the consistent Starbucks burnt-tasting passable coffee—we both order watered-down Americanos—and sigh as we take them back into the leather seats and start the engine.

I’m looking forward to refilling the car with gas. Oregon is one of the only states in which self-serve gas is illegal. So for a mere $1.539/gal, we get a professional fill-up job. I tell the attendant, “Just put you’re cheapest stuff in—it’s a rental car! And don’t top it off or anything, just do a cursory fill-up.” He thinks this is incredibly amusing and chuckles, grinning broadly. I see him start the pump then go inside and continue laughing with an unseen companion, perhaps passing on my witty comment. Lots of mileage out of that one.

Driving the 15 miles back on I-5 to the airport is a wonderful cap to the trip. The airport is tiny. The rental car drop-off is right beside the terminal building, on the side of the ticket counters. The pick-up lot is on the other side, next to the baggage claim and car-rental counters. Nice setup. As we pull up, we see a United Shuttle 737 and wonder where it flies. It has a different logo—simply “United Shuttle” rather than “Shuttle by United”—and we wonder if it is a new logo or an old one. I peruse the departures board for United as we enter. The only flights are to Portland, on United Express (6000-series flight numbers), and San Francisco, on the Shuttle (2000 series). So that is how to fly first class from Seattle to Medford: take the United Shuttle 800 miles out of the way on the 200-mile trip and connect in San Francisco. If both legs of the upgrade get confirmed, it’s only one 500-mile coupon for my Hunnybear! Of course the first-class service on United Shuttle is nonexistent and it’s hell if the upgrade doesn’t come through, but it’s something to think about.

The Dash-8 Alaska/Horizon flight back to Seattle is nice. We get the good Magic Fingers vibration in the exit row, 4, which I called last night and got us switched to by throwing my MVP weight around. Once again we use the A La Cart service and are out of the Airport in record time. MasterPark is great as before and they take the 20%-off coupon and give me yet another one. I fill out the form for my 100 Alaska Miles (yeah, baby) and drive Hunnybear over the Southcenter Hill to Applebee’s for a yummy Applebee Burger as we are both quite hungry by this time. We go pick up her car at her office in Kirkland and head home in light Labor Day traffic, both thinking, “Very Nice 5-Star Trip!


© 1999, Richard Brodie

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