Arkansas, the birthplace of Johnny Cash, Rosetta Tharpe and Levon Helm, has leapt into ‘you-gotta-see-this’ status while still honoring its noble hillbilly roots. Exploring this Northwest corner of Arkansas, every curving, hilly road leads to Eureka Springs, an eclectic, liberal-art colony in a sea of traditional conservativism.
With a population hovering around 2000—minus a steady stream of visitors—one-quarter of its locals make a living via the arts. It’s a random-hug kind of place where conformity is an oddity. Arkansas’ version of Key West has no traffic lights or stops signs and remains to be a living architectural museum sporting Victorian and “carpenter Gothic” gems built between 1880 and 1910.
The healing springs that made the town famous still gurgle, but are outshined by the 1960s hippie-counterculture tradition that forever changed this one-off hamlet.
Overlooking but escaping the buzz of Eureka Springs is the majestic-mountaintop 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa, which is a world unto its own. The evolution of this palatial Historic Hotel of America included it being a women’s college and a charlatan-run cancer hospital from 1937-39.
This world-class landmark on the edge of a tiny-but-influential town has five-floors of hallways cavernous enough to accommodate an 18-wheeler. This full-service woody castle on the hill is a beacon for the State of Arkansas and Ozark Mountain region. It features 72 rooms with upscale suites and four luxury cottages. Guests enjoy the New Moon Spa & Salon, hot tub, swimming pool, immense Crystal Dining Room and a throwback-style top-floor bar serving gourmet pizza.
The steadfast concierge and bellman will surely also encourage you to experience the property’s 15 acres of manicured gardens and hiking, biking, and walking trails that loop through the Victorian village’s Dog Park, Skate Park and City Playground. There’s never a shortage of things to do here. The nightly ghost tour illuminates the “Most Haunted Hotel in America,” inspired by tales of the evil doctor who bilked cancer patients here in the late 1930s.
Nearby, 48-foot-high Thorncrown Chapel is a mostly-glass atrium worship masterpiece that celebrates its woodsy setting by inviting nature inside as well as the spirits. Wood-framed, it’s mostly composed of windows—425 of them providing 6,000 square feet of clear glass. The majestic setting is enhanced as it sits atop 100 tons of colored flagstone that allow it to blend in with Mother Nature.
A bit further to the west is Bentonville, Arkansas, where Sam Walton’s time at the local Five&Dime inspired the birth of multinational Wal-Mart. The once-sleepy village has since grown from 2,000 to more than 50,000 residents thriving in a what is now a progressive, mountain-biking-friendly epicenter with all the intrigue and comforts of a trendy hotspot. Walton’s children continue inspiring the local humanitarianism via the Brightwater Institute and The Hive restaurant in their 21C Museum Hotel.
A few miles outside Branson, Silver Dollar City is a dynamic theme park nestled into a gorgeous setting of hills and forestation that doubles as a tribute to this no-plains/no-farming landscape where people survived via the wood-crafting trades (including furniture making) along with blacksmiths, glass blowers and coppersmiths. There’s also an onsite culinary school and 100 other things to do.
The park, born as a 1960 sideshow to an underground cave large enough to house the Statue of Liberty, has a multi-generational employee track record and a busy calendar of theatrical and musical events including the annual Bluegrass & BBQ Festival, which recently featured the amazing Baker Family.
I found the globally competitive thrill-seeking rides an easy entrée into America’s faddish need to get in the moment. One of four roller-coasting monsters that majestically rise above the tree line, the 2-minute adrenaline rush on the Time Traveler puts you in the moment, to say the least. Rest assured, their on-staff meteorologist keeps an eye out for lightning.
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