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Shaw, Shakespeare, And Sauteed Caribou

Personal Business: Canada


Summer theater: The words evoke images of folding chairs, converted barns, and aspiring stars performing in quaint, low-budget productions. But just over the U.S. border in Ontario, you will find two theater festivals that are as polished and professional as they get.

The Stratford Festival, now in its 41st season, is one of the best places outside Britain to see the works of William Shakespeare. And the Shaw Festival in lovely Niagara-on-the-Lake offers the world's only repertory company devoted to the plays of George Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries. Both are easily accessible from much of the Midwest and East. And greenbacks are now worth $1.27 Canadian at recent rates, compared with $1.20 last May.

NO RUFF STUFF. At Stratford, don't expect museum-like Elizabethan productions. The festival makes use of contemporary dress and special effects to freshen up classics. In this year's production of A Midsummer Night's Dream, some of the characters wear business attire. This season, which runs through Nov. 14, features 11 productions, three by Shakespeare. Others include Gilbert and Sullivan's The Mikado and the musical Gypsy.

You should call soon for weekend reservations (800 567-1600). Or you might want to plan a midweek visit, when the plays, the town, and the restaurants are less crowded. Ticket prices range from $30 to $44, but check for discount packages.

The same toll-free service will help you find a place to stay. That's important, since Stratford has only a few good hotels. Two of the best bets are The Festival Inn, within walking distance of the theaters, and Bentley's, which features sumptuous suites. Or consider one of many bed-and-breakfasts.

Despite Stratford's small-town feel, it boasts some of Ontario's best restaurants. You may need reservations several weeks in advance for weekend dining at The Church (519 273-3424). It's situated in a century-old church, replete with stained-glass windows. The prix-fixe meals are divine. Sample such specialties as saut ed Canadian caribou with a juniper-berry sauce. Or try Rundles, on Lake Victoria, which features French cuisine.

While Stratford appeals strictly to theater lovers, Niagara-on-the-Lake offers a much wider variety of diversions. The town is a 20-minute drive from Niagara Falls but seems a world away from the tourist traps. You can spend an afternoon visiting galleries and shops in the beautifully maintained 19th-century village.

This year, the Shaw Festival features nine plays, including Shaw's riveting Saint Joan and the musical about the Roaring Twenties, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. The season runs through October, and you can reserve by calling 800 724-2934. Tickets go for $20 to $40. To immerse yourself in the Victorian era, consider the town's leading hotel, The Prince of Wales. Royals, its Victorian dining room, offers tasty Continental cuisine. Another good bet is Queen's Landing, a Georgian-style hotel.

PRETTY PARKWAY. During the War of 1812, Niagara-on-the-Lake was burned to the ground by American forces. You can recapture some of the spirit of that era by visiting Fort George, once a British installation, now staffed with guides decked out in uniforms from the early 19th century. Continue down the Niagara Parkway, which Winston Churchill aptly described as "the prettiest Sunday afternoon drive in the world." It runs along the Niagara River to the Falls, past the vineyards of the booming Ontario wine industry. When touring the vineyards, ask about Ontario's renowned Icewine, made from frozen grapes.

Because Stratford and Niagara-on-the-Lake are only two hours apart, you might want to take advantage of a Yankee Holidays package (800 225-2550). It features one night of midweek accommodations in both towns and a performance at each of the festivals, for $429 per couple.William Symonds

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