By Gay Courter
I don't know about your family, but our children and their spouses have very specific — and divergent — ideas of what constitutes a vacation destination. We wanted all 15 of us to gather for our golden wedding anniversary celebration (including seven grandchildren under 7 years old). They wanted baby-friendly, immersive and stimulating activities.
"How about Arkansas?" we asked and were met with a resounding "Huh?" and "What will the kids do there?" We had the same reaction when friends relocated to this obscure town in the Ozark Mountains, but we soon discovered why Eureka Springs is hailed as "one of the most scenic towns in the United States" and "the top place to visit in Arkansas." Cradled between two mountains of lush hardwood forests, the village was founded in 1879 by visitors drawn by the lore of healing springs. Today the town has the largest collection of unspoiled Victorian houses in the central United States. The buildings here are painted in pastels with contrasting trim and stacked one behind the other on 20 steep hills. It is postcard-pretty and overflowing with galleries, cafes, entertainment and charm.
The quintessential place to stay — both then and now — is the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa, a palatial structure perched high above the village on 15 acres of manicured gardens, hiking and biking trails. The traditional rooms in the main building are filled with treasures and spirits - literally — because the Crescent is America's "most haunted hotel" with nightly ghost tours to meet the guests who checked out but never left.
To give the four families privacy, we booked four Craftsman-style Crescent cottages in a wooded area across from the main building. Each had two bedrooms and baths, a full kitchen, dining, living room and deck — two with hot tubs. The town is known for its many dining options, but we didn't expect any would appreciate our troop of hungry toddlers. The hotel set up a family table for us, and for simplicity, we ate breakfasts and dinners together there.
Two of our grandsons are "trainiacs" — from Thomas and Friends to the Japanese Shinkansen — so we knew the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway had to be the first destination for our curious kids. We boarded the beautifully restored 1920s-era dining car at noon and were served pre-ordered meals suitable for even the fussiest palate. A turn blowing the train whistle was a thrill for the older children. Afterward, they climbed and explored the various steam engines and rolling stock in the railyard.
The next day's jaunt was a one-hour drive to a world-class destination: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville. The glass-and-wood structure designed by Moshe Safdie links a series of pavilions set on 120 acres of ponds, flowering trees, sculpture gardens and springs. Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton spearheaded the museum, where the entrance is free and there are small tables where children inspired by the likes of Sargent, Whistler, O'Keeffe or Warhol can try their hand at drawing.
The museum relocated one of Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian houses from New Jersey and meticulously reconstructed it on the grounds. It seemed claustrophobically small, yet it was Zenlike in its perfection. Eleven, the museum's restaurant in a glass-enclosed bridge over a pond, serves small plates of "High South" cuisine that both our littles and parents enjoyed.
After each excursion we returned to the Crescent Hotel, where some napped while others enjoyed the pool or explored the expansive property with lawn games, a playground, ice cream shop and tram ride to town.
The next day we had lunch in nearby Rogers, the home of the War Eagle Mill that dates back to 1832. Lovingly restored, this working gristmill has an 18-foot water wheel that rotates a turbine that allows the millstone to grind various grains into flour. The riverside site was perfect for family photos. Upstairs in the Bean Palace restaurant we relished homemade soups, sandwiches and the house specialty: cornbread and ham-flavored pinto beans.
Our expedition to the Turpentine Wildlife Refuge was sobering. The children were amazed to see tigers, lions, leopards and cougars up-close, and we were startled to learn the scope of the exotic animal trade in the U.S. Thousands of large cats are privately owned without meaningful regulation to keep the animals or the community safe. Ignorant buyers fall in love with these "adorable kittens," imagining - wrongly — that they will be able to domesticate and care for them. Avaricious breeders purposely produce exotic white tigers and mixed breeds, but these same recessive genes carry diseases that cripple the animals. As we toured the facilities, which include safari-type housing for guests, we were educated about the former cruelty to these rescued creatures who will live out their days in this humane sanctuary instead of the wild where they belong.
The last night we held our anniversary dinner in the Crescent Hotel's conservatory and managed to have both an elegant and toddler-friendly event. The secret: impeccably fast service, a teepee play area, and plenty of running-around space both inside and out. Eureka had shown us a memorable time - all of us.
WHEN YOU GO
1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa: www.crescent-hotel.com
Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway: www.esnarailway.com
Crystal Bridges Museum: www.crystalbridges.org
War Eagle Mill: www.wareaglemill.com
Turpentine Creek Wildlife Sanctuary: www.turpentinecreek.org
Gay Courter is a freelance writer. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
A good base for a holiday in Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is the 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa. Photo courtesy of 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa.