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!

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