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Eureka Springs, Arkansas: Unexpected Pleasures

Beautiful and serene, nestled in the Ozark mountains surrounded by a palette of many colors no matter what time of year you visit - that's Eureka Springs, in Arkansas, with its population of approximately 2500 people. This charming little town with its blocks of history, Victorian architecture and shops, homes and cottages, has been named one of "America's Dozen Distinctive Destinations and it's no wonder. The entire downtown has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places and it boasts the largest collection of Victorian architecture anywhere in the central United States.

History

Although the Ozark town is known today for its incredible Victorian architecture, arts, antiques and natural beauty, the original attraction was the water.

Legend has it that the Native American tribes of the area believed that the cold spring water could cure many ailments, and the surrounding land was thereafter considered sacred ground. One story goes that Sioux Indians brought the young daughter of a great Chieftain to the Spring in search of healing. She suffered from an eye affliction which had taken away her sight, much to the sadness of the people who loved their princes. The young girl bathed her eyes in the waters, and within a short time her eyesight was fully restored,

Victorians later rediscovered the water in 1856 and health-seekers flocked to the area in droves, searching for miracle cures.

Crescent Hotel, Spa and Ghosts

No doubt if the Crescent Hotel had been around in those days, the Indian princes would have stayed there during her recuperation. Alas, the grand old lady of Eureka Springs sitting atop Crescent Mountain, the highest point in the county, was not to arrive until 1886.

The regal structure was built of Arkansas limestone by Irish stonemasons at a cost of $284,000 - a great deal of money in those days. When she was built, the Crescent Hotel was the Showpiece of the Midwest and was touted as the Grandest Resort West of the Mississippi and "Queen of the Ozarks." Just at the point where the hotel was finished, the railroad had arrived at the village with its 10,000 people and brought with it thousands of tourists, all eager to experience the soothing waters of the 63 local springs. To this day, the hotel has retained its olde worlde character in its elegant Victorian-style Crystal Dining Room and its elegantly furnished guest rooms.

If you like a bit of ghostly history with your Victorian charm, then check out the ghost tour and learn about "Dr" Norman Baker and his Cancer Cure Hospital which is how the hotel began. Many dreams of a cure for cancer were never realized, but plenty of believers lost money to the famous "doctor". And while a cure for cancer can't be found here, one thing you CAN get is a cure for your stress. And you don't even need a prescription for it. Instead, check yourself into the New Moon Spa and Salon. Spa connoisseurs won't be disappointed with the treatments and facials on offer, and if you can get a room with a Jacuzzi, go for it.

Spas and rooms are not the only attraction at the hotel, however, and the whole area boasts 15 acres of gardens, solitude in the wooded hiking trails, and 100 restored Victorian shops and galleries in the village.

Thorncrown Chapel

Eureka Springs is also the site of the famous Thorncrown Chapel, also known as the Glass Church. The chapel was built in 1979, when landowner, Jim Reed, noticed that many people were visiting his land to get a better view of the Ozark mountains. Rather than fence them out, he decided to invite them in and he did this by have a chapel built - a place where they could stop for some rest and respite. This beautiful building reaches to the sky with 425 windows and 6,000 square feet of glass. Unfortunately money ran out before the building could be completed but thanks to a benefactor, the graceful building was completed. Make a point to stop by and sit in one of the pews. The chapel has been placed number four for the top 10 designs of the century.

Caverns

And if being in awe is your thing, also check out the Blanchard Springs Caverns. See how many different forms you can make out from this plethora of stalagmites and stalactites. It's a pretty "cool" place to be, both literally and figuratively. The temperature stays around 58 degrees Fahrenheit and the limestone caverns remain cool in the summer when the heat outside becomes more than you'd wish for. The Dripstone Trail takes you through two huge rooms filled with crystalline formations that range from towering columns to delicate soda straws. The caverns are believed to have been created 50-70 million years ago (pretty young actually, considering the earth is said to be at least 4.6 billion years old).

The caverns take their name from nearby Blanchard Springs which in turn was named for Civil War veteran, John Blanchard, although he never actually knew about the caves' existence.

It was a caving team lead by Hugh Shell and Hail Bryant who discovered the uppermost level of the Caverns in 1963. The Dripstone Trail was then opened to the public in 1973. The lighting here was designed by Miroslave Pflug, a native of Czechoslovakia who also designed the lighting at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York, the Kennedy Center in Washington DC and several European theaters.

Passion Play

Just like Ober-Ammergau, Eureka Springs puts on its own Passion Play, but unlike its Austrian counterpart, this one takes place every year, not every ten. The event is large in the history of the town and the cast has approximately 250 players in it.

The event has gained itself the reputation of being the number one attended outdoor drama in America. The set is 3 stories high and is the size of two football fields, all etched into a hillside. The drama opened in July of 1968 and over 7 million have now seen the event under the stars. It's open the last Friday in April through the last Saturday in October. Don't forget also to visit to the 7 story (67 foot) Christ of the Ozarks Statue, one of the most visited attractions in the Ozarks. The statue was sculpted by the late Emmet Sullivan in 1966, one of the sculptors of Mount Rushmore. During construction, it was necessary to build an elevator up the side of the two million pound statue to carry out the building work. Not surprisingly, this is the largest Christ memorial statue in the United States.

Christians and Gays Together

Apart from its surprising number of attractions, one of the other things that makes Eureka Springs so endearing is its eclectic mix or residents and visitors, whether those are earthly visitors are not. The diversity of the area can be seen in the hot rods, gospel music, UFOs and opera that have all found a place here. And they've all been made welcome, too. This is definitely a town where anything goes - and everything just seems to go very well together.

Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge

For a bit of excitement, go see the exotic cats that have been rescued at the Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge. It's one of the very few USDA licensed facilities for large carnivores in the US and is said to be the largest big cat refuge anywhere in the world. Here the staff rescue neglected or unwanted "big Cats" and provide them with a safe home in a caring environment. You'll find lions, tigers and other exotics on the 450 acre ranch. And each of the animals has its own story-many of them quite sad.

One of the panthers, for instance, was owned by a policeman (noting quite like that to persuade you to hand over your license and registration promptly) but when the panther bit his owner, the owner used pliers to break the animal's teeth. The animal was found with several nerve damage. Ouch. Luckily, the refuge owners have been able to house and care for the big cat, along with many other unwanted "pets". You'll find the refuge located 7 miles south of Eureka Springs.

Beautiful, charming Eureka Springs is Arkansas' hidden gem. Like the original meaning of the word, after a visit here, you'll find yourself saying "I found it!"- peace and relaxation, that is. And indeed, why go anywhere else, when everything you need is right here, in "America's Victorian Village."


Sheila O'Connor is a freelance travel writer living in San Francisco with her husband and 3 children. Sheila runs a market newsletter for writers and can be reached by email on sheila.oconnor@juno.com
Photos courtesy of Arkansas Parks & Tourism.

2008