Oh baby! Stratford's got a superstar attraction. This charming town in southwestern Ontario, about three hours from Buffalo, has always been known for its outstanding Shakespeare theater, swans swimming lazily on the Avon River, well-kept gardens, fine dining, quaint shops and culture.
But for the younger crowd, preteen girls especially, it's all about The Bieber. Justin Bieber, the adorable singer with the famous hair, has sold millions of albums, fills major arenas with screaming fans and is reported to be worth $100 million. Not bad for a 17-year-old.
Bieber was born in Stratford. Dedicated fans, and they're all dedicated, have been flocking to their idol's hometown ever since he became an overnight sensation with a home movie of him singing posted on YouTube. To cater to this new group of visitors, Tourism Stratford came out with a Justin Bieber map showing key points of interest. There are 18 places in all, from where he went to school and played hockey, to the restaurant where he went on his first date and spilled spaghetti and meatballs all over himself. (There wasn't a second date, in case you were wondering.)
My 9-year-old son, whose name is also Justin, is a big fan, and so we decide to visit. The first stop is a Subway restaurant -- the chain sandwich shop. But it isn't just any Subway; it's Justin Bieber's favorite fast-food restaurant, the one where he used to hang out. We enter the strip mall eatery, map in hand, and order our turkey sandwiches. There's no sign of the superstar anywhere, no photo, newspaper clipping, nothing. It's just a Subway shop in a decidedly untouristy part of town.
"So Justin used to hang out here," I ask the teenage girl behind the counter. She nods her head.
"Did you ever serve him?" I ask, eager to get information.
"No," she says with a sigh. "But I went to high school with him."
"Sick!" my son pipes up in an awed voice.
"What was he like?" She shrugs her shoulders and asks what we want on our sandwich, obviously not wanting to talk, or perhaps tired of answering the same questions. I'm amazed that our first stop yields someone who has such a direct relationship to the superstar singer. But as our Justin odyssey progresses, it quickly becomes evident that in this small town of 30,000, there are few people who don't have some sort of connection.
We continued on the tour, taking pictures of Justin's school, the Stratford skate park where he worked on his boarding skills and the arena where he played hockey. The Avon Theatre, which has always been known for its history and world-class performances, is now famous as a place where Justin used to busk, as seen on YouTube by millions. According to the map, he earned $150 to $200 per day during the tourist season, saving enough to take his mom to Disney World. When my son read this, he tells me he'll take me to Disney World, too. I tell him to take me out to dinner instead. Of course, it has to be a place associated with Justin Bieber.
Since we've already been to the famous Subway, we are left with three choices: King's Buffet, his notorious first date spot, Madeline's Diner, Justin's mother's favorite restaurant and the Pour House, where Justin played pool with his friends. We chose the last option, because it is right across the street from the theater. The hamburgers at the sports bar are a big hit, and the fact that Justin hung out here is icing on the cake. Like Subway, there's no indication that a superstar of Justin's stature had set foot in the place, but our waitress confirmed that the teen sensation had indeed spent a lot of time here.
We end our Justin day at Scoopers, where the pop star, like lots of other kids in Stratford, enjoyed ice cream after soccer games. It's the best find of the day and has everything you can wish for in a neighborhood ice cream parlor, from the kids hanging outside to every kind of yummy ice cream treat imaginable inside. This will definitely be a stop on future visits to Stratford.
It's fun to explore another side to this tourist town, but we also make sure to see a top-notch performance at the Avon Theatre and feed the swans on the river.
If you go:
The Justin Bieber map can picked up from the Stratford Tourist Office, 47 Downie St., across from City Hall (800-561-7926). You can also download it online at www. welcometostratford.com/ spring/justin-bieber.html.
For more information on Stratford, visit www.welcometostratford.com.