Ashland is most famous these days for the estimable Oregon Shakespeare Festival, but for the Native American tribes who first settled this verdant patch of Southern Oregon, the hot springs were the stars of the show. The Shasta Indians held these waters, which are rich with lithium and sulfur, to be sacred. Many believe in the curative properties of these springs to this day.

Soaking in one of the deep, multi-jetted hot tubs at the Lithia Springs Resort with visions of "The Tempest" dancing in my head and the legendary water swirling around me, I was hardly one to argue. Indeed, there's something about this rustic Rogue Valley town that inspires a sense of restoration and renewal.

The healing power of art is usually at the core of an Ashland retreat. OSF is the jewel in the town's crown, and visitors often jam as many shows as possible into a full-throttle theater marathon. The downside of a Bard binge is that you miss out on what's happening offstage. Indeed, while I have been making the six or seven-hour pilgrimage to Ashland from the Bay Area since 1998, this was my first time steeping in the glory of the springs. That's a tragedy of its own.

Surely the Bard would approve of visitors sampling widely from the indulgences that beckon here. So here's my guide to Ashland as you like it, a small town bursting with big city sophistication. It's a breezy primer on the new, as well as the tried and true, from hotels and restaurants to wine bars and bookstores.


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Rambles and sips

I confess that I usually stick to my Ashland rituals, from eats to sleeps. I make a point of grabbing a pint at the Black Sheep, a quaint Old English pub, and tucking into the decadent omelets at Morning Glory and the to-die-for grilled rib-eye at Larks. Not this time. This time I broke new ground at every turn.

This time I visited in spring, when the weather is lovely, but the crowds are less intense than summer, and only caught five plays instead of six or seven. For the record, late fall is also a prime time to travel here.

Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon.
Lithia Park in Ashland, Oregon. (Ashland Parks & Recreation)

I made time to ramble about the 93-acres of enchanted forest that is Lithia Park, to watch the ducks glide across the blue-green waters of the pond and the dogs dash around the emerald lawn.

Then I ambled over to the Ashland Art Center, where you can buy art as well as take classes. If I'd been rushing to make a curtain, I wouldn't have had time to stroll through the open studios, which spotlight the craft of 40 local artists, from painters to fiber artists.

I also pushed my palate to experience something new. At first my adventures were a tad disappointing. The new Granite Tap House on the plaza, while praised for its pizzas, overcooked my burger and overseasoned my gazpacho. Sigh. I found solace at the new Elizabethan-themed bar, Oberon's Tavern, with its twinkly fairy lights, Renaissance-garbed staff and love of mead.

Culinary matters looked up when a local tipped me off to the hip new Lunch Show, a small cafe housed in a former butcher shop. With its sleek Berkeley vibe and local art display, it was a locavore's delight with a toothsome prosciutto and fresh mozzarella panini, a bright wilted kale and shallot side and good local tempranillo.

Emboldened by my discovery, I checked out the new Alchemy restaurant in the romantic Winchester Hotel. This place lives up to its name with magical concoctions, such as a delicate strawberry-watermelon gazpacho that I couldn't stop eating and a butter-seared goat cheese gnocchi. For the record, carnivores shouldn't miss Smithfields next door, a meat palace with a snout-to-tail philosophy. And many folks hail Coquina, in the up-and-coming Railroad District, as the best food in town. Hopes are also high for the soon-to-open Harvey's Place, which took over the spot of the beloved Chateaulin.

General scene of Ashland, Oregon.
General scene of Ashland, Oregon. (Christopher Briscoe)

Coquina doesn't do lunch, alas, so I can't report on its fare, but it's certainly a prime location in this peaceful part of town with its yoga studio, curio shops (Hill District has a tempting selection of Indian wind chimes) and art galleries. Certainly, it's a great neighborhood for people watching. Here, as in the rest of laid-back Ashland, nobody is staring at their device, and everyone has time to chat.

I also ventured into undiscovered country in terms of hotels. For part of my stay, I enjoyed the serenity of the Ashland Creek Inn, a vine-covered boutique hotel built from the bones of an 1880s grain mill. Tucked away on the banks of Lithia Creek just blocks from the theaters, this is a small, chic place with themed suites where the decor is constantly being curated. In the Copenhagen suite, the simple lines of Danish modern design brighten the spirit. To get in a tranquil mood, gaze at the koi and deer from your own private deck, sleep to the sound of the babbling brook and wake to a gourmet breakfast cooked by the on-site chef.

However, if you dream of truly getting away from it, the Lithia Springs Resort is the place to pamper yourself. The hotel has recently undergone a complete renovation and emerged as a sparkling spalike retreat with clean lines and a whimsical mix of textiles, glass, metal and wood. Framed by a lush English-style country garden, 28 suites and bungalows (more rooms and a pool are under construction) serve as a private sanctuary. (One caveat: There is an unsightly car dealership next door). The resort taps into the hot springs 500 feet below and pipes them straight into your own soaking tub so you can indulge whenever you please.

In the interests of journalism, I made sure to have a good long soak in my own private tub. I came away reinvigorated and my skin had a silky feeling it didn't have before (it should be noted that the water has a distinct aroma of sulfur). I capped that guilty pleasure off with a visit to Chloe's, a downtown salon and spa that locals rave about, for a massage and pedicure that came with an organic brown sugar scrub -- and a mimosa. That state of rapture led me to indulge my shopping habit.

Shoe envy

For the record, no self-respecting fashionista should miss out on the splendors of Earthly Goods, a gold mine of Dansko shoes, Village Shoes (where footwear is raised to the level of sculpture) and Lithia Park Shoes, if your tootsies demand comfort as well as style. Warning: if you have a footwear fetish, the no-sales-tax thing may entice you to do some real damage to your pocketbook.

Bibliophiles will also find their bliss browsing through vintage, rare and new books at the town's half dozen bookstores, including Shakespeare Books and Bloomsbury. These quaint little shops beckon those who worship the printed word all the more in this digital age.

Of course, if your idea of soaking up local culture involves libations, by all means get your grape on. You can savor and swish local varietals at the stylish Enoteca tasting room and the hip Liquid Assets Wine Bar. For a closer look at the South Oregon terroir, drive just a few minutes to reach the Weisinger Family Winery, now run by a new generation of oenophiles. I stopped in on my way out of town for one last view of this gorgeous valley from the winery's sun-drenched deck.

That brings me to the only thing wrong with a trip to Ashland. At some point, you have to leave this little corner of paradise and return to reality. As Prospero put it, our revels now are ended. I'll have to wait until next year to give white-water rafting a whirl.

Contact theater critic Karen D'Souza at 408-271-3772. Read her at www.mercurynews.com/karen-dsouza, and follow her at Twitter.com/karendsouza4.

IF YOU GO

Headed for Ashland? Here's where to eat, drink, sleep and ...

PLAY
Oregon Shakespeare Festival: 11 plays on three stages from February through November. Details: 15 S. Pioneer St.; www.osfashland.org.
SLEEP
Ashland Creek Inn: A chic boutique hotel tucked into the banks of Lithia Creek. Rooms $130 to $425. Details: 70 Water St.; www.ashlandcreekinn.com.
Lithia Springs Resort: Plush spa bungalows and suites with hot spring water piped into private soaking tubs. Rooms $129 to $279. Details: 2165 W. Jackson Road; www.lithiaspringsresort.com.
EAT
The Lunch Show: Seasonal, farm-to-fork fare in a fast, friendly cafe environment. Details: 165 E. Main St.; thelunchshowashland.com.
Alchemy Restaurant & Bar: A romantic restaurant with sophisticated cuisine at the Winchester Inn. Details: 35 S. Second St.; www.alchemyashland.com.
SIP
Oberon's Tavern: Sparkling lights, Shakespeare kitsch and all manner of ale and mead abounds in this bar. Details: 45 N. Main St.; oberonstavern.com.
Weisinger Family Winery: A beloved family winery, run by a new generation of corkheads. Details: 3150 Siskiyou Blvd.; www.weisingers.com.
SHOP
Earthly Goods: The mother lode of high design, high comfort footwear from Dansko to Merrill -- don't miss the clearance rack in the attic! Details: 142 E. Main St.; www.earthlygoodsashland.com.
Village Shoes: A cheeky international selection of gorgeous footwear with high price tags. Details: 369 E. Main St.; www.village-shoes.com.
Shakespeare Books & Antiques: A treasure trove of rare and used books and curios. Details: 163 E. Main St.; shakespearebooksandantiques.com.
The Paddington Jewel Box: A shop with trinkets and baubles so yummy you may try to eat them. Details: 180 E. Main St.; www.paddingtonstationashland.com.
RELAX
Chloe: A friendly, full-service salon that covers everything from locks to tootsies. Details: 150 Lithia Way; chloeorganicsalon.com
Waterstone Spa: A serene temple to the healing power of touch. Details: 236 E. Main St.; www.waterstonespa.com.

-- K. D'Souza

TOP FIVE PLAYS

When Angus Bowmer launched the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland in 1935, the city fathers were skeptical that the Bard would be a big seller. They hedged their bets by holding boxing matches on stage during the day. Nearly 80 years later, the fisticuffs have been forgotten, and Shakespeare is still packing them in. An estimated 300,000 theater lovers visit Ashland every year.
Many theater buffs try to pack as many plays as possible into a short stay. I have been known to fit seven into a long weekend. But it can be hard to decide which of the 11 shows playing on three stages to choose. Here are my top five picks for this season in Ashland.

THE TEMPEST

Tony Taccone's magical production fuses primal dance and beguiling plays of light to refresh this story of an old wizard ruling an island at the end of his days. Here the minions of Ariel (a compelling Kate Hurster) are Butoh-style figures who exist outside of time and space. Echoes of the witches in Taccone's "Macbeth" at Berkeley Rep back in the day, these ethereal figures were potent enough to balance out a far too mellow take on Prospero by festival vet Denis Arndt. Alejandra Escalante and Daniel José Molina bewitch as the young lovers Miranda and Ferdinand. Runs through Nov. 2.

WATER BY THE SPOONFUL

The second part of Quiara Alegría Hudes' Pulitzer-winning "Elliot" trilogy, this is a deeply moving drama about Iraq veterans, poverty, drug addiction and the need for human connection. Smart, funny and startling in its poignancy, this play explores the way the Internet can bind communities together across time and space. Shot through with gripping performances by Vilma Silva, Nancy Rodriguez and Daniel José Molina, it's an unforgettable new play. Through Nov. 2.

A WRINKLE IN TIME

Whimsical and inventive, this adaptation of the beloved sci-fi fantasy book is a guaranteed charmer for kids of all ages. Anyone who read the book as a child will delight in director/adapter Tracy Young's clever, metatheatrical approach to Madeleine L'Engle's fable. Astutely cheeky performances by festival veterans Dan Donohue, Judith-Marie Bergan and Kate Mulligan illuminate this 100-minute world premiere. Through Nov. 1.

FAMILY ALBUM

This is the latest alt-rock musical from the creative team of musician Stew ("The Negro Problem") and director Heidi Rodewald, who raised the roof with the Tony-winning "Passing Strange," first at Berkeley Rep and later on Broadway. This world premiere musical spins around a band of middle-aged rockers embarking on a make-or-break tour. Runs July 1 through Aug. 31.

THE GREAT SOCIETY

This is the highly anticipated sequel to Robert Schennkan's LBJ drama "All the Way," which debuted at Ashland and is now on Broadway, starring Bryan Cranston of "Breaking Bad" fame. The Pulitzer-winning playwright ("The Kentucky Cycle," "Handler") has a thrilling command of history as well as keen insights into the glory and abuse of power. ACT and Ashland veteran Jack Willis will star as the president, as he struggles to pass landmark Civil Right legislation in the wake of the JFK assassination. In this sequel, LBJ also begins to fight a "war on poverty," even as the war in Vietnam spins into chaos.
The world premiere runs July 23 through Nov. 1.

-- K. D'Souza