By KAREN D'SOUZA
In 1887, when the last Golden Spike was pounded into the tracks in Ashland, Oregon, and the iron horse officially encircled the nation, the Railroad District was the bustling hub of the Rogue Valley. The area was bristling with railroad workers, Chinese immigrants, gamblers and hustlers of all stripes, looking to make their fortune in the Wild West.
Nowadays, the star of the town is the Oregon Shakespeare Festival
, which is celebrating its 80th anniversary by staging 11 plays on three stages for nine months. But old-timers are quick to point out that the rambunctious spirit of the railroad's golden age has not yet vanished. Indeed, there's one feisty ghost, in particular, who is said to roam the halls of the historic Peerless on 4th, a stylish 1894 hotel that seduces its guests with the romance of the past, from clawfoot tubs to hand-painted, trompe l'oeil murals and stained-glass lamps.
The Victorian ambiance is only heightened by the hotel's supernatural guest, a genteel lady named Amelia with red hair piled high atop her head. To be clear, I never caught a glimpse of Amelia (thank goodness!), but the lights in my swanky suite flickered on and off every once in a while, so I suspect she may have been paying me a visit. There was also one goose-bump-filled evening when I returned to the hotel in the wee hours, having walked back from the theater through an eerie pea-soup fog, visions of the Dickensian romp "Fingersmith" still dancing in my head. As I passed through the empty hotel lobby, I thought I heard the unmistakable creak of the antique hobby horse bouncing all by itself. No power on earth could have compelled me to turn back and check.
My idea of making a connection to the past has a whole lot more charm in the bright light of day. If you have a hankering for history, there's no better place to stay in Ashland than the historic Railroad District. It's only six blocks away from the crowds of Main Street, but it feels a universe away. Here, locals lounge over ridiculously good java and chocolate croissants from Noble Coffeehouse
, while they listen to street musicians, or stroll through one of a half-dozen art galleries in the area. Yoga studios, holistic wellness centers and the Ashland Co-op
offer a window into the pleasures of the mellow, eco-friendly Ashland lifestyle. It's a little like Berkeley, only without the crime, traffic and stratospheric price tags.
Just across the street from the Peerless, you'll find Revive, a picturesque shop that specializes in revamped antique furniture, housed in the town's old firehouse. It's a place where you can be fashionable as well as green, which is the sweet spot in Ashland. For the record, this is also a terrific town for thrifting. Vintage addicts can rummage through designer castoffs at Deja Vu, just up the road. (Since there is no sales tax in Oregon, it's almost like everything is on sale.)
Saunter through the Railroad District and you'll also encounter the cheeky Push art gallery, the fanciful Gallerie Karon
(where the proprietor will regale you with local haunting lore), the eclectic Jega Gallery & Sculpture Gardens and the pastel and charcoal wonders of Studio A.B.
But the tastiest way to sample local culture in these parts is at Coquina
, a farm-to-table treasure where organic, seasonal cuisine is raised to the level of high art. The Quilcene oysters are dressed with an addictive shallot and sherry gelee; the beet salad beckons with cherry-red beets, chewy oyster mushrooms, fennel marmalade, black truffle oil and pan-fried chevre; and the wine list is well curated to show off local treasures. In all honesty, the food is so delectable at Coquina that the fare at the Playwright, a nearby gastropub, pales by comparison, despite its very cozy atmosphere and well-poured pints.
The other must-munch on my list is at Ashland's Lunch Show
, a convivial purveyor of locally sourced lunches that dishes up a toasty roast beef, cheddar and caramelized onion sandwich with a horseradish cream so yummy it's hard to stifle the moans. Homemade potato chips are a nice bonus.
If you're like me, a theater vacation means spending six or seven hours a day in a theater seat -- and walking as much as possible the rest of the time. So keep on trucking down the street toward Gathering Glass
for an eye-popping demonstration of glass-blowing alchemy. The crafters here are steeped in the centuries-old tradition as it's done on the Venetian island of Murano, but they also tap into a vibrant Pacific Northwestern vibe that makes their glass sculptures pulsate with whimsy. The delicate glass grapevines and flowers popped with fiery colors so mesmerizing that I stared too long and almost missed my curtain. Happily, it's a quick walk from the Railroad District to the Oregon Shakespeare Festival theaters, where Mary Zimmerman's masterful revival of "Guys and Dolls" is guaranteed to put a song in your heart.
As always, parting Ashland is such sweet sorrow -- but you can take some of sting out of your departure with a pit stop at Deux Chats
, a bakery that has locals lining up for its sinfully gooey cinnamon rolls and decadent chocolate chip cookies. Rolling out of town is a little bit easier with a piece of Ashland melting in your mouth.