Founded in 1879, in the days when spring waters with purported healing properties were the better-than-nothing treatment for most medical ailments, Eureka Springs became a resort boomtown. Around 4,000 people eventually lived there, with the moneyed folks building magnificent hotels, mansions and Victorian cottages that still cling like orchids to the rocky slopes of the valley where Eureka Springs sits.
With modern medicine quickly denouncing the idea of healing waters as quackery, the town’s fortunes faded. That actually turned out to be a good thing, however, as the seclusion of sleepy Eureka for much of the 20th century largely trapped its unique architecture and character in amber. In recent decades, Eureka has reinvented itself as one of the most liberal and welcoming cities in Arkansas, a very blue speck in deep red Carroll County. For over 10 years, the city has stood at the vanguard of LGBT rights, hosting twice-yearly “Diversity Weekends,” establishing a domestic partnership registry in 2007 that allowed same-sex couples to officially record their unions, recording the state’s first legal same-sex marriage at their tiny courthouse in May 2014 and voting overwhelmingly in 2015 to pass an ordinance that protects LGBT residents and visitors from discrimination. Far beyond its Christian-themed tourist trap past, Eureka is a true destination now, with romantic lodging, great shopping, fine dining and events most every weekend. There’s plenty to do and see.
Eureka Springs is known for its unique and historic lodging, making it the perfect spot for a romantic getaway. You can’t go wrong with the Crescent Hotel, the elegant, circa-1886 showplace perched on a mountain above the city. Also lovely, and right in the middle of the city’s historic downtown, is the Crescent’s sister hotel, the Basin Park Hotel at 12 Spring St., which features balcony dining, shopping just steps from the door, and relaxation at Basin Spring next door. For more adventurous lodging, try the luxurious Treehouse Cottages, headquartered at 165 W. Van Buren St. Situated at two locations in Eureka, the eight Treehouse Cottages feature cabins built 22 to 26 feet off the ground, with each including amenities like whirlpool tubs and kitchenettes. For a REALLY unique overnight, how about staying in a facsimile of a hobbit house based on those in the “Lord of the Rings” books and film series, or cottages that evoke the feel of being in the world of Harry Potter? Eureka Springs Treehouses, Castles and Hobbit Caves (online at estreehouses.com) feature all the whimsical lodging you can stand, evoking medieval castles in the air, grass-covered cabins with round doors and windows and cavern-inspired lodgings of rustic stone.
Catch some brunch
Eureka Springs is definitely the place to slow down and sit a spell, and if you aren’t enough of a morning person to rise and shine early enough for a proper breakfast, Oscar’s Cafe, at 17 White St., is perfect for a leisurely not-quite-breakfast, with a front porch that’s perfect for sipping coffee and a nice breakfast and lunch menu.
Shop, shop, shop
While Eureka Springs has long been known for its antique shops, the selection of chic boutiques has definitely taken an upswing in recent years. The first stop if you’re in town for a romantic getaway has to be The Fine Art of Romance at 60 Spring St., a lingerie and more store that features one of the most elegant selections of perfumes,adult items and boudoir fashions in the state, plus a nice selection of erotic art and books. If you’re on the prowl for quirky antiques and local art, try Mitchell’s Folly, an antique store and art gallery at 130 Spring St. that features a truly eclectic and even eccentric variety of vintage items and fine art.
Get some lunch
All that walking up and down the steep streets of Arkansas’s “Little Switzerland” should mean you’re ready for lunch. The fairly new Grotto, at 10 Center St., partially in a natural cave in the side of a mountain, has developed a devoted following among locals with its menu of wood-fired grilled items and its spelunker ambiance. It’s open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. for lunch (and 5 p.m. to 11 p.m. for dinner). If diner food is your thing, try the venerable Sparky’s Roadhouse Cafe, at 147 E. Van Buren St., which features a big menu of appetizers, sandwiches, burgers, salads and other items, with over 100 beers available to wash them down.
Grab some coffee (or an afternoon beer)
There’s no Starbucks in Eureka Springs (thank God), but you can get a java jolt or an afternoon drink at Brews at 2 Pine St. It has a nice menu of coffee drinks, and — as the name suggests — does double brew duty with a good selection of Arkansas-made craft beers. There’s a nice selection of local art, too. Brews is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., so early or late, you can find the beverage that best suits your mood.
Get closer to your spiritual side
No trip to Eureka is complete without a stop at the mammoth Christ of the Ozarks, 937 Passion Play Road, which consists of a vaguely boxy, seven-story concrete Jesus forever waiting for Godzilla to give him that promised hug. How many times has Big JC’s weird pose been emulated by bored vacationers for a funny photo? Uncountable, but it’s definitely high on the roadside kitsch meter. For a more refined walk on the God side, visit the lovely St. Elizabeth of Hungary Catholic Church, 30 Crescent Drive, just below the Crescent Hotel. Completed in 1909, the lovely stone church has the distinction of appearing in “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” because, thanks to the hilly terrain of Eureka, the entrance to the church grounds is through the bell tower. The grounds are open and lovely day or night, but we prefer the frisson that a nighttime stroll gives. If you’d rather go more secular with your ponderings about the nature of the universe, you can always head for the famous Inspiration Point at 16498 State Highway 62 W, featuring commanding, beautiful views of the countryside.
Dinner bell is ringing
If you’ve got time to wait a bit, you should try to get a table at local favorite Ermilio’s at 26 White St. Situated in a former home near the Crescent Hotel, the Italian restaurant is easily the most popular in the city, but operates solely on a first-come, first-served basis, with no reservations. Once on the waiting list, though, you’ll have plenty of time to rub elbows with other diners in the cozy upstairs bar or on the front porch. If you’re looking for a romantic dinner, try Le Stick Nouveau, a small French restaurant below the New Orleans Hotel at 63 Spring St. Featuring such signature items as duck a l’Orange and escargot, it’s been getting rave reviews and fills up quickly, so reservations are encouraged.
Get your Scooby Doo on
With the craze for all things paranormal, Eureka Springs is a natural for looking for things that go bump in the night. Buttressed by a visit from the cable reality show “Ghost Hunters” some years back, the Crescent Hotel does a booming business with its ghost-themed tours of the building. Visitors will hear of the various alleged ghost sightings in the basement, which once served as a morgue when the hotel was used as a hospital, and “Michael,” supposedly the ghost of an Irish worker who fell to his death while the hotel was being built in the 1880s. If that’s not enough spooks for you for one night, The Basin Park Hotel also offers ghost tours.
Tuck in again
Another local favorite, Mud Street Cafe at 22 S. Main St., features great coffee and a big slate of breakfast foods, including pancakes, hash browns, croissants, wraps, muffins, scones, bagels and more, plus omelets in seven varieties. For something a little more exotic, try The Oasis at 37 Spring St., which bills its cuisine as “Ark-Mex,” with Mexican-inspired huevos for breakfast.
If you’re looking to get in touch with your inner kid, stroll on in to Tee Rex Toys at 34 Spring St. A Willy Wonka-esque shop full of unique T-shirts, games, books, children’s toys, vintage items and more, it’s the fruit of the wonderful brain of Jayme Brandt, a local artist and designer who looks at the world with a poet’s eye. Also, if you love the toasty feel of a pair of warm socks (and some uber-specific shopping), stop by the For Bare Feet store at 35 Spring St., which features thousands of pairs of socks in all styles and colors, including specialty socks for sports fans and designs taken from popular culture.
Visit Fay’s little chapel in the woods
While in Eureka, both praying types and architecture lovers (we’re not saying those two can’t overlap) are honor bound to genuflect at architect Fay Jones’ magnificent Thorncrown Chapel, a lithe, light-strewn construction of angled wooden beams, glass and stone situated on state Highway 62 about two miles out of town. Considered one of the top 10 American architectural masterpieces of the 20th century by the American Institute of Architects, the chapel is the crown jewel of Jones’ storied career.
Visit Lake Leatherwood
The biggest city park in Arkansas, Lake Leatherwood City Park, at 1303 County Road 204 north of town, is a 1,610-acre oasis in the mountains, built around the shining 86-acre Lake Leatherwood, created by the dam the WPA built on West Leatherwood Creek in the early 1940s. With over 25 acres of trails and plentiful birds and wildlife, the park is the perfect place for a long stroll, a hike, a bike ride, fishing or canoeing.
Now that you’ve walked off all those calories from lunch and dinner, you’re ready to chow down on some real Neanderthal fare. Take a drive out to Gaskin’s Cabin Steakhouse, at 2883 state Highway 23 N, about three miles out of town. Started by a former bear hunter and the perfect mix of rustic and refined, Gaskin’s is a carnivore’s delight, with chops, prime rib and a variety of aged, hand-cut steaks, plus a great wine list. If a walk on the wild side is more your speed, head to the Cathouse Lounge at the Piped Piper Pub and Inn, 82 Armstrong St. Popular with the bikers who make their way to Eureka in droves these days, the Cathouse has a menu full of hearty fare to fill you up after a long day on your hog: the perfect pairing for cold beer and good times.