Head few hours east to Arkansas' Eureka Springs for shopping, kayaking

Eureka Springs is a bit of a dichotomy.

Nestled deep in the Ozarks of northern Arkansas " a quaint scene to rival any hamlet the Disney imagineers could create " the town is a thriving artists' community, yet is popular with bikers; it is famously GLBT friendly, yet also plays home to a "young Earther" museum; it is the site of what is purported to be one of the most haunted hotels in the country, yet a big, white Jesus with open arms stares it down from the surrounding hills.


Despite being the crashing intersection of each of these often disparate groups, or perhaps because of it, Eureka Springs is a wonderful jumble of everything. And it works beautifully, amusing wildly different people for a long weekend in equal measure.

Less than a day's drive from Oklahoma City along increasingly winding roads, Eureka Springs packs a lot in a small area. The town was founded as a Victorian spa retreat because of the natural springs frequented by American Indians, and said to have healing powers. Today, it is a center for creativity, with opera, art galleries and festivals aplenty.

The town is extremely compact and can easily be walked from one end to the other. Only a few outlying sites aren't reachable on foot, and for those, like the Thorncrown Chapel, there is a simple and cheap trolley system.

The 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa is the place to stay in Eureka Springs. It lords over the town from the highest hill with its imposing peaked roofs and heavy stone masonry. The building has gone through multiple incarnations, including a girls' school and, most notoriously, as a cancer-"curing" hospital in the 1930s.

It is that stint as a hospital that many believe led to the hotel's extreme haunting.

Nightly ghost tours lead the curious from the top of the hotel to the basement, but the tour is heavier on historical facts with a bit of intrigue thrown in than all-out theatrics (no flashlights, no velvet capes). Those facts, however, can get pretty disturbing, especially when the tour concludes in the basement surrounding an original autopsy table (complete with a convenient hole in the center in which to throw unnecessary innards) and the guide tells about the bones found in the walls and the lye pit and incinerator discovered on the grounds.

The Crescent isn't the only place in Eureka Springs with a market on ghosts. The whole town seems to teem with lore, some say because of its position on limestone, which is believed to be a conduit for the otherworldly. The Crescent also isn't just about ghosts. Like many spots in town " this being a place developed because of the healing springs " there is a fabulous spa onsite.

Eureka Springs is heavy on the B&Bs, with a number of lovely offerings in old, Victorian mansions. For something unique, check out the Rock Cottage Gardens, a clutch of " obviously " rock cottages lovingly decorated without being too twee and along the trolley route.

Galleries and gourmet food intersect in one small area in Eureka Springs " and there's not a chain in sight. Pursuits of the stomach-filling, wallet-emptying variety are found mostly along three divergent streets layered up the hills and connected by steep stairs.

The main road into town splits at Basin Park, the town center and a gathering spot for musicians, outdoor artists and even fortune tellers. The stores offer everything from jewelry, clothing, antiques and, of course, art.

Food focused on local, organic fare is easy to find in town. Local Flavor, with a wraparound balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows, is perfect for fresh ingredients with a unique flair (like a gingerbread waffle with bananas and pecans). Hidden in a nook down one of the many stairwells, Oasis is an aptly named Mexican fusion café. It is miniscule, and the prepared-on-the-spot food takes a while to reach the table, but it is all worth the wait.

For a lovely evening meal, Ermilio's Italian Home Cooking is a wonderful restaurant set up in an old house. The Italian comfort food includes unexpected delights, like a gorgonzola and apple bread appetizer or complimentary roasted garlic for the fresh bread.

Like with any great town where the people working in the small shops are usually the owners, just ask for food recommendations; they'll be happy to help.

In a spot like Eureka Springs, where the densely forested hills are crossed by rivers, lakes and springs and the hot, sultry days give way to blessedly cool nights, the outdoors are taken seriously.

The surrounding area is popular with kayakers and canoers, with easy rivers like the Kings River and White River perfect for families or the lazy. Horseback riding and hiking trails are also plentiful.

In town, a series of springs line the main road (appropriately named Spring Street) and bubble out of the limestone cliffs. Many of the springs are surrounded by lush gardens and statuary, giving it all a magical feel. One of the springs is even in a small, underground grotto, with a makeshift altar at the back to hold prayers and offerings.

That love for nature can be seen in the arts, too. Opera in the Ozarks, which is comprised of promising students, stages opera during the summer at an outdoor theater high in the hills.

In the middle of town, a parking lot is transformed into a movie theater almost every Sunday evening in summer. Bring lawn chairs (a picnic blanket gets pretty uncomfortable after a few hours) and settle in for music, contests and a fun movie.

For only a handful of hours away from the metro, Eureka Springs really does feel a world away. With the many spas, amazing surroundings and the creative nature that imbues the place, it is astonishingly hard to leave behind. "Jenny Coon Peterson

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