A good friend of mine was recently picking my brain about vacation destinations for his adventuresome family during the upcoming spring break. My answer for him was ‘Eureka Springs, Arkansas.’
“Arkansas?”, I see the eyebrows arch. Most of the people reading this blog will know me and find that my answer to be unexpected and curious. For those of you coming to this blog cold, I spend a fair bit of time gallivanting all over the globe in places like Reykjavik, Shanghai and Buenos Aires. Additionally, I am a recently relocated 18-year veteran of New York City. For all the worldliness of my former home, many New Yorkers are quick to slather the parts of the country from the west of the Hudson River to the left coast with the same sloppy stereotyped brush they themselves take umbrage with when the Heartlanders insist on seeing their city through the crime-riddled glasses of the 70s. To them, New York is still home to Snake Plissken and Charles Bronson. Or perhaps worse, still home to Jerry Seinfeld, Rachel & Ross and Carrie Bradshaw. The Northeast book on Arkansas is similarly unkind and mostly inaccurate.
To be fair, I think many Southerners are complicit in perpetuating and fomenting these unkind Northern-held beliefs about their genteel destinations: It keeps the Yankees out. I first stumbled on this ruse in the summer of 2000 when the Screen Actors Guild strike forced me to take a short gig in Charleston, South Carolina. Until this interruption in my regularly scheduled life occurred, I had no idea just how amazing Charleston is. A well-preserved/restored community with a variety of excellent restaurants, a robust live music scene, a full calendar of cultural offerings, great weather and all served with a bottomless glass of sweet tea, Charleston was simply a revelation.
And I got the feeling they intended to keep this gem hidden from us Northerners, as if it were the directions to their favorite fishing hole. Even the Northerners who were in on the secret kept to the code of Southern ‘omerta’. One night while we were out having a cocktail we struck up a conversation with a retired NYPD detective who had relocated to Charleston. He regaled us with tales of his colorful and very successful dating life in Charleston and threatened to shoot us in the face if we let the cat out of the bag about Charleston back home. Given this conversation took place over ten years ago, I’m hoping the statute of limitations on that face-shooting has expired. But who knows – they take preservation in Charleston that seriously.
Enough about Charleston and being shot in the face. This is about Eureka Springs. I had come to read about this curious corner of the Ozarks in the mid-90’s for a book that never came to pass. The book was a pre-cursor to the myriad of shows now available on Travel Channel, Food Network, TLC and similar televised ilk featuring unusual festivals held around the United States. I had planned to attend events like the Testicle Festival at Rock Creek Lodge, Montana or the Hobo Convention in Britt, Iowa. In doing my legwork on such obscure festivals one town kept coming up: Eureka Springs. At least in the 90s, Eureka Springs played host to UFO festivals, a divining conference, a frog festival, gatherings of VW enthusiasts and is home to the largest Passion Play in the world. Eureka Springs looked like my kind of town and I hoped it to be the cornerstone of my book.
Life quickly got in the way, and the adventure never happened. But I kept all the research and Eureka was never far from my domestic travel thoughts. It would be almost ten years before I would actually set foot in Eureka Springs. In 2005, my friend and business partner Pat Gallo and I were on our way to assignment to film a group of Micronesian school kids in Baxter Springs, Kansas. (Betcha didn’t know there is a significant population of Micronesians in that corner of the world. There is an extended family from the island of Truk picking mushrooms there. Oddly, enough I had just returned from the Micronesian island of Yap, but that is another story.)
When I looked at the map when we were making our plans to head to Baxter Springs via Joplin, MO, I noticed it was a relatively short 90-mile detour to Eureka Springs and Pat humored me.
Our first stop in Eureka Springs was one of my favorite and one I would return to again in 2007: Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. By happenstance, both visits coincided with the annual Kite Festival that is held there in March. The Kite Festival is a relatively low key, but endearing affair. The kite enthusiasts run the gamut from the obsessed ‘kite nerd’ to kids who have built their crafts that day out of used shopping bags. It is a delightful event hosted by one of the more intriguing families I’ve met in my travels.
Tanya Jackson Smith has been caring for “big cats” since she was an eight-year old girl. In the early 90s, the Jackson family would take on it’s life mission as a refuge for unwanted exotic cats when a former breeder and black market dealer on the run from the law showed up with 38 big cats that no longer had a home. With access to a 500-acre ranch just outside of Eureka Springs, the refuge was established and has since grown to care for scores of lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, puma and grizzly bear. As you discover in visiting Turpentine Creek is quite easy for the average American civilian to acquire a big cat. It’s a whole other matter to care for one and more often than not, the cats that become too much to handle for their inexperienced owners (or for a number of unscrupulous breeders) they end up with Tanya and her family. There are a number of these refuges in the United States and Turpentine is among the best of them.
Location does play a factor in their ability to care for the animals. A significant portion of the animals’ diet is provided by a neighboring Tyson Foods processing plant that donates chickens and chicken parts unfit for human consumption by FDA standards. The rest of the blanks are filled in by volunteers and people like you who donate money & materials to Turpentine Creek. (Hint, hint: Click here to donate)
A more intriguing way to support Turpentine Creek is to stay there! They have built five cabins proximal to the habitat as well as having an RV & Camping Site. When I took my wife there for a vacation to celebrate our engagement, we stayed in the Treehouse and it was one of the more unique places I have stayed. It was right up there with the monastery in Transylvania, the lighthouse on Kangaroo Island and the caboose in Landrum, SC. We woke up to the sound of tigers ‘chuffing’ which I don’t imagine you can experience anywhere in the world outside of India and doubtful there is anywhere safer to do it.
Heading into town from Turpentine Creek, you quickly get sucked into Eureka Springs itself. As I had hoped from my original research, it is an island of weirdness in the sea of Middle American milquetoast. Carved out of stone by natural springs and good-natured freaks, Eureka Springs welcomes a collision of cultures from bikers to healers, artists to hillbillies, Holy Rollers to the plain old curious. It is the site of a 7-story, two million pound concrete Jesus and several haunted hotels. Spring water runs in stone conduits along the sidewalks and it bubbles from the walls. The whole town seems to be built on a 60-degree grade and I’d be willing to bet that it holds the record for most number of stairs per capita in the world. (I think it does actually hold the record for most number of B&B’s per capita and another distinction is that there are no perpendicular streets in town due to the grade of the mountain.) There are little statues of pixies, gargoyles and mythical creatures scattered about town, crammed into nooks and tucked into crannies. It once was the playground of gangsters and gamblers. Eureka Springs has tapas and BBQ, diversity and bluegrass, Harleys and shiatsu. It is a paradise of paradox.
Both times I have visited, we’ve stayed at the Basin Park Hotel. It’s definitely a ‘vintage’ hotel with a great balcony restaurant that overlooks the main street of Eureka Springs as well as a funky bar on the top floor with a cool billiards set-up. This particular hotel holds the distinction of being the only hotel in the world with eight ‘ground’ floors. That is each floor has an exit at the rear which leads out to the cliff behind it at level with the floor. I don’t have any personal confirmation but I suspect like the 1886 Crescent Hotel up the hill, the Basin Park is haunted.
Most of the folks reading this blog know I like my beverages. For that I have two recommendations. For the morning coffee and breakfast, go underground and check out the Mud Street Café. It’s a beautiful space carved out of the stone and their coffee is excellent.
For adult beverages, I have to tell you that the Chelsea Corner Café is one of my favorite watering holes on earth. In keeping with the Mos Eisley Spaceport vibe, it resembles the Cantina where Luke and Obi Wan engage Han Solo. Hopefully, you won’t have to dispatch any bounty hunters while you are there but you never know. There is a sign at the front door expressly forbidding firearms so let’s hope if you run into Greedo he heeded the sign. All I know is that the first time I went into this cozy cavern, we heard an unexpectedly good jazz trio singing to a gaggle of disgruntled Corvette owners who were washing down their speeding tickets with mason jars of Guinness.
My kind of place.