The temperate charms of Eureka Springs

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We slowly succumbed to the charms of Eureka Springs, Ark.

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The road trip to the Ozarks — 13 to 14 hours if you skip Interstate 35 — was vexed by rain, fog and floods. When the storms grew too strong, we were turned away from one inn, then accepted at another in Springdale, Ark. And when we arrived at the mountaintop burg of Eureka Springs, we were told that our room at the 1886 Crescent Hotel would not be ready for five hours. Exasperating, but that’s travel.

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Skies began to clear, as it turned out that the room at the grand Victorian hotel was, after all, ready for our arrival. After unpacking and noting the decor of the “most haunted hotel in America,” we marched downtown, which is located at the bottom of a steep ravine in this town of 2,000 citizens.

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Eureka Springs began as a place to heal Civil War soldiers. Once the railroads arrived, it evolved into a breezy resort for the wealthy, thus the scores of Victorian wonders terraced on the hillsides. It later attracted artists and misfits, quacks and con men, hippies and hipsters. These days — at least during Spring Break — it belonged to large, almost exclusively white families who looked as if their ancestors had once descended from these hills and hollows onto the green plains below.

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And here they returned in hordes to shop, eat and drink on narrow streets unabashedly set up for the tourist trade. A small, jolly St. Paddy’s Day parade, interrupted by regular traffic on the town’s only main street, provided the day’s first entertainment.

It helps to know people. Linda Leavell, retired professor, author and a longtime friend, along with her husband, Brooks Garner, introduced us to a divine spot on the edge of town, the Cottage Inn Restaurant. The couple had been coming here regularly for years. Owner/chef Linda Hager makes fresh, inventive dishes that would be welcome anywhere. And if it’s not too busy, she’ll sit and visit. So we returned there the next evening for more of her generous bounties.

We ate at some other fine spots, too, such as Local Flavor Cafe, an American-style bistro, and Mud Street Cafe, good for breakfast. Our gustatory aim, however, was not always true. So we stayed and snacked in for some meals, and ordered some crunchy pizza from the fourth-floor hotel bar to tide us through crucial primary election returns.

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Our main day trip took us back down onto the plains of Bentonville where we visited the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Created by Walmart heiress Alice Walton and designed by Moshe Safdie, the out-of-the-way major museum lives up to its outsized reputation. Strung along a series of light-infused structures above two ponds, it tells the story of American art chronologically. What is not explained is how Walton collected so many unassailable masterpieces in this day and age. It really is astounding.

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We lunched on chocolate and wine before taking in an excellent temporary exhibit on American road trip culture.

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The charm of the region only increased during a sunny hike around Lake Leatherwood in a city park just downhill from Eureka Springs.

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Also a visit to Thorncrown Chapel, designed by E. Fay Jones and constructed in 1980.

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Pictures of this tall, narrow modernist church always looked alluring. They don’t, however, give a sense of the ominous metal blades that loom overhead.

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We spent much of the remaining time reading on the broad porches and balconies of the Crescent. My main selection: Leavell’s “Hanging On Upside Down: The Life and Work of Marianne Moore.” No wonder my friend’s book has won so many awards and plaudits. It’s a magnificent biography of a key American poet.

 


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