Eureka: What an experience

I don’t quite know what to say about Eureka Springs. It’s equal parts history, natural beauty and distinctive character. And for a quick weekend getaway, it’s a delight! There’s a lot to like about this small town (population only about 2,100) in the beautiful Ozark Mountains of northern Arkansas. It’s unique, and in some ways it feels stuck in time. That, too, is part of its mystique. It has charm, for sure.

Eureka Springs was first settled in 1879, and named on July 4 of that year. There are wonderful old homes — many of them now B&Bs — that rival San Francicsco’s “painted ladies.” Log cabins, imposing stacked stone family homes and simple, single-story cottages exist along steep inclines and winding lanes. There are pizza places galore. There are casual diners and a few fast-food outlets; there are fine dining places with white linen tablecloths and attentive waiters. Old-fashioned bars attract a biker crowd come to ride the high curves and twisting back lanes. A local brewery and plenty of watering holes with more than their share of character and characters attract lively, friendly crowds.

On the labyrinthian streets, you’ll find historic buildings housing trinket and t-shirt shops, underground grottos from which the “healing waters” once flowed freely, an old-time photo parlor that proclaims “Weddings Performed” and distinctive hotels and eateries. Street art and street musicians coexist in the small downtown. Public sculpture and old memorials are much in evidence, as are the public buildings and hotels with historical plaques.

A well-preserved Carnegie Free Library is a commanding presence on one of the main streets, and it’s still in use. The old depot and railroad roundhouse are attractions at the edge of town; a popular excursion takes visitors on a four-and-a-half-hour trip over restored Eureka Springs and North Arkansas track. You can also book a lunch or dinner expedition ride to enjoy a trip into the past in a restored dining car. Along the way are extraordinary scenic vistas.

For a first-time visitor, an orientation ride on the “hop on-hop off” Eureka Springs Transit is a must. Ride the four different routes for an overview of Eureka Springs. It’s as much a local public transportation staple as tourist aid, taking passengers almost anywhere in, and out of, town. Its price is more than reasonable at $6 a day for unlimited time and distance. You’ll rub shoulders with local residents toting grocery bags, and others on their way to work or heading home after a long day.

The varied routes are perfect for exploring at your own pace, and it certainly beats walking up and down steep hills on foot, or trudging long distances in unfamiliar territory.

Drivers are helpful and knowledgeable, even willing to “bend” the schedule a bit so a rider can hop off and grab a free paper, or snap a cell phone photo of a giant sculpture from just the right angle! Stops are plentiful along each route and trams run every 20 to 30 minutes all day long, so there’s ample time to explore a site — or several — should you choose to do so.

We drove to Eureka Springs — it’s a pleasant four hour trip from our home. We traveled through pretty country on curving two-lane state highways. But, once there, we parked the car and rode the tram. It brought us to Thorncrown Chapel, where we were entranced with the architecture and the story of this inspiring place. The soaring wood and glass structure is perfectly integrated with its natural surroundings. The tram also brought us to the famed Passion Play site, with its recreated ancient Jerusalem stageset and other themed attractions. The 65-foot high Christ of the Ozarks statue, reminiscent of similar works in Rio de Janeiro, Lisbon and Havana, towers above the surrounding forest, but is perhaps more impressive from a distance than it is up close.

The downtown trolley station is well-situated for a walk around town. Visitors can enjoy lunch, browse funky shops, visit the historical museum or simply admire wall murals and interesting architecture. Spend as long as you like, knowing that another tram will arrive within just minutes. On a walk about town or in any neighborhood, you’ll find something wonderful around almost every corner: a grotto carved into a hillside, an iron fence dripping with flowering vines, the suggestion of a face in a towering old oak, a lush garden with a bubbling fountain, whimsical yard art decorated with strings of lights, or a house clinging to a cliffside over a massive boulder. There is beautiful statuary and whimsical signage.

We could have disembarked for a visit to the Crescent Hotel, built in 1884 and known for its resident ghosts and always-fully-booked ghost tours. Its site, at the crest of the highest hill in Eureka Springs, is reason enough to want to spend some time there (which we did, later the same day, when we returned for pizza at the fourth-floor Sky Bar. The view was mystical, with a haunting landscape of moving mist that shrouded the mountains all about us. Gleaming white in the distance, the Christ of the Ozarks watched over the setting with outstretched arms.

Although experiencing Eureka Springs can feel a bit like entering a time warp, being thrust into the long-ago culture of a small town is magical, if a bit disorienting. Residents insist that everybody knows everyone else, and that no one bothers to lock their doors. We stayed just two nights at The Bridgeford House, a charming B&B conveniently located on Spring Street. Its location put us only a few steps from the trolley stop, and we were greeted by waves from friendly passengers as we enjoyed breakfast on the front porch, served with a smile by Innkeeper Will Lawlor, who is himself a relative newcomer to Eureka Springs. We enjoyed chatting with him, and sharing our impressions of this interesting historic destination.

Is Eureka Springs worth a visit? Absolutely. It’s nothing if not unique!

Leaving home, again and again . . .

Leaving home, again and again . . .

When I’m traveling, I try to ask other people why they travel. It’s a good way to strike up conversations with strangers, and every trip is better when experiences are shared with other people. Beyond that, though, I am deeply interested in why people leave home and family with a desire to see unknown places. The answers are telling, running the gamut from “Because I can,” to “It’s fun,” to “I’m checking another place off my bucket list!”

Some say they travel to see things; others because they have an interest in food or nature, in art or history, in geography or the geo-political and cultural qualities that both unite and separate us. Some simply have the time, energy and funds to be away from home as much as possible. A few enjoy collecting “travel trophies.”

My personal favorite? “I’ve never been here before.

Whatever the underlying reason, there is no doubt that more people travel to more places more often than ever before in history. At least they used to — before COVID-19. As restrictions are lifted and confidence in the efficacy of vaccines and effective treatments grows, travel is sure to rebound.

U.S. airlines and foreign carriers serving U.S. destinations carried an all-time high of 1.1 billion systemwide (domestic and international) scheduled service passengers in 2019, 3.9% more than the previous annual record high of 1.0 billion reached in 2018.

In 2018 alone, according to The Maritime Executive, 28.5 million people booked a cruise. That number rose in 2019 to 29.7 million. And then, in early 2020, the cruise industry shut down, virtually within days, due to the Coronavirus pandemic. However, the Los Angeles Times reported one year ago that bookings for 2021 were up more than 40% over 2019. Today, even though cruising has resumed only marginally in the United States, and only a few ships are sailing from foreign ports, there is much demand.

Cruise line schedules are now available for the 2022, 2023 and even 2024 seasons. Undoubtedly, new records will be set, and each reintroduced itinerary becomes a reality. Right now, prices are low, and ships are not filled to capacity, so if you’re considering a cruise, book now.

There is little dispute about the enormous pent-up demand. “Other places” now seem more appealing than ever before. World travelers and families who have been too long without a vacation are once again looking at places to go, whether they be budget getaways or luxury resorts. If you relate more to “getting gone” than to coming home, as I do, then you no doubt know the feeling.

The Realities of Cruising in a Post-Pandemic World

With that in my mind, I recently booked a quick four-night cruise out of Galveston, Texas, as a “dip my toes in the water” experience. Just before the world shutdown, my husband and I had sneaked in a short Royal Caribbean cruise out of Galveston to Costa Maya and Cozumel, Mexico, so it was fitting that we should pick a similar itinerary for our return to cruising. I am happy to report that, although this journey was much too short to qualify as a dream vacation trip, it was a good experience. I can now say with conviction that I am ready to begin traveling again in earnest; to once again anticipate the thrill of new ports and foreign destinations.

Cruising is different today, to be sure. One of the most noticeable differences right now is the reduced numbers. On Royal Caribbean’s Independence of the Seas last week, a ship with more than 1,900 passenger staterooms meant for at least two occupants per cabin, there were just over 1,200 guests. There were probably an equal number of crew members. The ship was not empty, but it was quiet. There were other differences as well; Some venues had reduced hours and there was no buffet dining available for dinner. But the atmosphere was upbeat, and the service was impeccable. Ship’s crew and port staff were attentive, informed and obviously happy to be back at work.

Read more in coming days about our experiences on this short cruise.

Cleaning and sanitizing protocols are extensive and enforced; all crew is masked at all times; and guests are required to don masks in public areas and encouraged to wash hands and/or sanitize often. Surfaces are frequently cleaned and wiped, and the percentage of vaccinated guests is near 100%, except for children under 12. I am certain the same is true for all cruise lines. All passengers were required to show proof of a negative COVID test performed no more than two days prior to boarding. My travel companions and I felt perfectly safe and protected on board.

In case you’re wondering, I have already booked other trips — for later this fall and early next spring. So, when the time is right to leave home once again, where is it that you will go?

As Jack Kerouac wrote, “All of life is a foreign country.”

I hope you’ll come along with me to see the world through my lens. And I can’t help but hope that you’ll also venture out to see the world for yourselves.