Follow the culture trail in Arkansas’s tiny city of Eureka Springs. You’re sure in for a surprise
Think about a small city, just a blip on the map of America’s Bible Belt. It’s only a town really, but it is home to the world’s largest outdoor play about Jesus. Now think about a vibrant American city teeming with artisans and former hippies and a thriving gay community.
Chances are you’ll have two very different places in mind. But welcome to Eureka Springs, Arkansas. At first glance your typical Deep South drive-through town, at second glance, a city of contradictions with the get-up-and-go of New York City.
Clinging to the side of the Ozark Mountains, historic Eureka Springs - and its 2,000 residents - have let down their hair and let go of conservative restraint. It’s an unbelievable slice of American Pie. You’ll find outdoor art. You’ll meet an eclectic and neon-bright, tie-dyed community. And you’re constantly overlooked by a seven-storey statue of Christ.
The commanding Christ of the Ozarks stands 20 metres tall in the same photogenic pose as Rio’s Christ the Redeemer. It stares eerily across a green valley to the supposedly haunted Crescent Hotel. The New Great Passion Play, which Jesus watches from his perch, is now in its fortieth year and features hundreds of actors (mostly local families) and animals (also locals) and brings Christ’s final days on earth back to life.
Grapes and ghosts
Also under the watchful eye of the stone deity is another contradiction of a place. Prohibition of alcohol is still suffering from a hangover in the Deep South. The number of dry counties - where the sale of booze is prohibited – outnumbers the number of wet counties in the state of Arkansas. So where else would a former petroleum research chemist and his French wife set up a winery? Yep. Eureka Springs. Grapes are growing, sales are blossoming and business is booming at Keels Creek Winery and you can take a tour, plus a delicious taste, with the ever-friendly Doug and Edwige.
The spooky Crescent Hotel opened in 1886, two years before trains rolled into Eureka Springs and 14 years before running water trickled in. It has since masqueraded as a college and a cancer hospital and now, back in trade as a hotel, hosts ghost tours that are not for the easily spooked (or the cynical). Breakfast on the long veranda, or in the impressive dining room, is a must while in town. Taste the breakfast chitlins and sup some sweet tea like the locals. And the accommodation is comfortable and affordable, if you don’t mind the possibility of a ghostly visitor during the night.
Eureka Springs is a blossoming tourist town but there is no Wal-Mart (an incredible fact, given that the global chain started life as a family-run shop in nearby Bentonville), there’s no mall, no chain stores. There is virtually no trace of Middle America in Eureka Springs, which suits most people just fine. This is partly down to former European settlers and partly down to city leaders who have rejected peas-in-a-pod modernity.
Not only does Eureka Springs claim north America’s tallest Christ statue, it also brags about the planet’s largest big cat sanctuary, the globe’s biggest tuned wind chime, one million trees, and five listings in Ripley’s Believe It Or Not for a menagerie of the weird and wonderful.
In the gloriously charming downtown district, which perches on the green hillside, there’s not even a sniff of America’s beloved city grid pattern and not a single stoplight will hinder your progress. Eclectic art galleries, jewellery shops, welcoming cafes and antique vendors line the slopes, and machines pump out bubbles to add to the Deep South surrealism.
Food for thought
Try The Oasis, at 53 Spring Street, for lunch. It serves up a unique offering of “Ark-Mex” cuisine, which, of course, is Mexican food with an Arkansas twist. The place is small and crammed with locals, who always know best when it comes to matters of the stomach. But it’s worth the wait.
In lower downtown, the Eureka Springs Arts Colony is home to nine artists who share studio space, retail exposure and, according to the “colony momma”, their “creative energy.” Unsurprisingly, the romantic ambience of the city also sees thousands of couples taking their marriage vows within the city limits.
If the claims are to be believed Eureka Springs is the Las Vegas of the Deep South, the San Francisco of Arkansas (it's nicknamed Gay-reka by some, and even the San Francisco Chronicle called Eureka Springs “a remarkable microcosm” of the West Coast gay mecca), with eclecticism even New York City would be proud of.