The secret of Eureka Springs—a gay mecca in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas—is out!
While exploring the steep, crooked streets of this “town that time forgot,” you will feel as if you are in some surreal Victorian theme park. The charming architecture includes elegant, pastel-hued “Painted Lady” mansions and gorgeous buildings constructed from native Arkansas limestone. The entire town is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Even the local McDonald’s is housed in a Victorian-style building, painted several shades of lavender with gingerbread trim. For many, the appeal of Eureka Springs, Arkansas, lies in the odd but wonderful sense you feel here of having escaped the real world.
The City That Water Built
Eureka Springs has been attracting visitors from all over the world for over 125 years. While not discovered by the white man until the 1800s, the healing waters in the area had been a sacred gathering spot for Native Americans for eons.
Legend has it that a blind Sioux princess regained her sight at the springs. The site that is now Basin Spring—Eureka Springs’s epicenter today—was so revered, it is said, that warring tribes of Osage, Cherokee, and Delaware Indians would lay down their arms to drink from and soak in the pure, cool waters together.
The town was officially founded July 4, 1879, and named Eureka Springs (Greek for “I have found it”). Within a year, the population ballooned from 400 to 10,000. Eureka Springs quickly became one of America’s most thriving spa towns. The population, and flow of visitors, began to dwindle over time as modern medicine pooh-poohed the curative powers of the water. Today it is a village of just 2,300.
Long a hotspot for the hetero wedding industry—wedding chapels and honeymoon suites with heart-shaped bathtubs abound—the town made national headlines last May when the city council unanimously voted to establish a domestic partnership registry open to gay and straight couples. Openly gay city clerk Mary Jean “M.J.” Sell, who maintains the registry, is also an ordained minister who often officiates unions. Since the domestic partnership registry took effect last June, more than 150 couples from 11 states have paid the $35 fee and received certificates. Domestic-partnership status is not the equivalent of marriage—in 2004, Arkansas voters approved a state constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage—but the certificate has symbolic value for many couples and may help couples obtain partner benefits from employers that offer them.
National media attention on the domestic-partnership registry made many people aware of gay Eureka for the first time. One local preacher inadvertently helped the cause of gay tourism by declaring Eureka Springs “the most homosexual city in the South.”
Last December, the dreaded American Family Association (AFA) released a 28-minute, gay-bashing documentary about Eureka Springs titled They’re Coming To Your Town. Gay News Bureau asserts that the American Family Association may have actually boosted queer tourism to Eureka Springs: “Conversely, in a way, the AFA is one of the best ad agencies we’ve ever had. Thanks to the attention the video has generated in the blogosphere, a great many more potential tourists now know about this progressive, enlightened, inclusive off-beat little town.” In March, Oklahoma legislator Sally Kern gave Eureka more free publicity, when she condemned the town in her antigay diatribe that went around the world.
With four distinct yet mild seasons, Eureka Springs is a fabulous place to vacation any time, but gay travelers particularly like to visit for the Diversity Weekends staged throughout the year—in spring, summer, and fall (supplemented by other queer weekends, including the Eureka Gras Extravaganza in February). Throngs of gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender folk from near and far descend on Eureka Springs, and the hills come alive with the sound of partying. There are two more Diversity Weekends in 2008, August 1–3 and October 30–November 2.
Of course, a significant percentage of Diversity Weekend revelers are straight. The youth of today, even those living in the Ozarks, grew up on Will & Grace. This queer-hip Internet generation is more sophisticated than we can probably grasp. The youngsters have tons of gay friends, they Tivo Ellen DeGeneres, and they know where the best party is.
Many visitors are surprised to learn there are no gay bars in Eureka Springs. As in some parts of Europe, there just isn’t much need for them here. In the alternate universe that is Eureka Springs, pretty much all of the bars are gay-friendly.
Eureka Springs lodging options run the gamut from historic 19th-century hotels to dude ranches, modern chain motels, mom-and-pop lodges, luxury log cabins and tree houses, Victorian cottages and bungalows, and so many bed-and-breakfasts that the town promotes itself as America’s B&B Capital. There’s even a “Bikers Only” motel (Eureka is big with motorcycle enthusiasts).
How Did Eureka Get So Gay?
From its infancy, Eureka Springs has been a magnet for artists, writers, musicians, and other creative types. Long before the hippies arrived in the ’60s—and they are still here, evidenced by a referendum passed by the town two years ago making marijuana a “low priority” for law enforcement—Eureka was known for its live-and-let-live culture. And wherever you have art and music and tourism and flower children, you have an abundance of homos.
The astounding array of cultural offerings has definitely attracted the gays. The nationally acclaimed Opera in the Ozarks presents its 58th season this summer with Cosi Fan Tutte, La Boheme, and The Mikado. Once designated a “top 25 arts destination” by American Style magazine, Eureka Springs stands to benefit enormously from the 2010 opening of the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, located an hour away in Bentonville and founded and funded by Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton.
Eureka Springs celebrates its May Festival of the Arts with events and activities, gallery walks, and special exhibits every day throughout the month. Any time of year, visitors to the Art Colony can see a dozen artists at work and purchase pieces directly from the artist. The Eureka Springs School of the Arts offers summer workshops taught by local artists. The Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow provides fellowships to visiting scribes—which recently included this author—and presents public readings and other events. On May 9, the Writers’ Colony and a local bookstore will host an evening with Texas musician, writer, and former gubernatorial hopeful Kinky Friedman. Then, on May 17, Eureka Springs Theatre Company will stage a town talent show.
Eureka sightseeing attractions include Onyx Cave Park, which marks the site where the Cherokee people stopped on the Trail of Tears-forced march from Georgia in 1839; Quigley’s Castle, a singular nature-inspired residence and garden; Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a big-cat home; the world’s largest wind chimes, built at Celestial Windz Harmonic Bizaar; Keels Creek Winery; and the Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway excursion train. The most popular tourist activity in Eureka Springs, however, is just piddling around town, exploring the narrow, winding streets of this small burg (which has no stoplights and only two four-way stops). Browse the specialty shops and art galleries downtown, and hang out at Eureka’s epicenter, Basin Park, the site of everyone’s favorite Diversity Weekend ritual—a mass public display of affection.
Cartoonist/entrepreneur Robert Ripley immortalized the landmark Basin Park Hotel, built in 1905, in his “Ripley’s Believe It or Not” newspaper panel series as the eight-floor hotel with every floor at ground level. (The hotel is built against the side of a hill, and walkways on the rear of the building connect each floor to terra firma.)
The Crescent Hotel & Spa, built in 1886, is a stately limestone “Castle in the Air” with its own fascinating history—which includes one-time ownership by the notorious medical charlatan Norman Baker. Supposedly haunted, both the Crescent and Basin Park offer ghost tours.
A 67-foot Jesus
Along with the many GLBT travelers who visit and spend their dollars in Eureka Springs, religious tourists are also important to the area. Christian attractions include May–October productions of The Great Passion Play, a Bible museum, another museum
devoted to debunking evolution, and a garish 67-foot statue of Jesus, Christ of the Ozarks, which can be seen from miles around. Local wags have dubbed the boxy, white, seven-story figure the Milk Carton of the Ozarks; others say it looks like Willie Nelson in a dress. All of this was the vision of villainous white supremacist and anti-Semite Gerald L. K. Smith, who is buried at the foot of the statue, making it the world’s largest gravestone.
All is not lost, though, for GLBT churchgoers. More ecumenical and lacking offensive racist baggage is Thorncrown Chapel, a popular site for weddings and other ceremonies. The stunning glass-and-wood structure designed by architect E. Fay Jones has been ranked fourth on an American Institute of Architects list of the greatest buildings of the 20th century.
Many gay Christians in Eureka attend the Metropolitan Community Church of the Living Spring, which recently weathered an embezzlement scandal. The MCC congregation worships in the facility of another GLBT-affirming church, the Eureka Unitarian Universalist Fellowship.
Where’s the Gay Bar?
Though there are no gay bars, per se, in Eureka Springs, there are no straight bars, either. Gay and straight residents and visitors mingle comfortably in a handful of nightspots catering to all.
The cozy underground nightclub Eureka Live (35 N. Main St., 479/253-7020, www.eurekalive.net ) may not be a gay bar, but it comes awfully close.
Five other bars are considered especially gay-friendly: Jack’s Place (37 Spring St., 479/253-2219), a favorite for karaoke; Henri’s Just One More (19½ Spring St., 479/253-5795), a martini bar; Tiki Torch (75 S. Main, 479/253-2305, www.tikitorchclub.com ),
where all the kids come to dance; The Lumberyard (105 E. Van Buren/Hwy. 62, 479/253-0400), a lesbian-owned venue that hosts Diversity Weekend drag shows; and The Cat House Lounge (82 Armstrong at Main St., 866/363-9976), where popular local bluegrass band Mountain Sprout often plays.
Pampering—a Eureka tradition
While nobody comes here to “take the cure” anymore, the spa-town tradition continues at the Palace Hotel and Bath House (135 Spring St., 479/253-7474, www.palacehotelbathhouse.com), built in 1901. Enjoy a mineral bath in one of the original clawfoot tubs or a eucalyptus steam bath in an antique wooden barrel steam cabinet.
In its heyday, the Palace was not just a hotel, but a brothel as well. Nowadays, the Palace is sometimes called The Phallus. You can understand that moniker when you take a gander at the hilariously suggestive vertical sign, said to be the first neon sign west of the Mississippi.
Massage is hugely popular in Eureka. The practitioner considered the best in town by many is Dominic Fabis at the Eureka Massage Center (117 Wall St., 479/253-5498, www.eurekamassagecenter.net). Après massage, treat yourself next door at North Star (119 Wall St., 479/244-6200, www.northstarjuicebar.com), an excellent vegetarian restaurant and juice bar.
A number of other day spas around town can satisfy your pamper-me needs. For a list, check out www.eurekasprings.com/healing.
Among the numerous gay-owned shops is A Byrd’s Eye View (36 N. Main St., 479/253-0200, www.abyrdseyeview.com), which features a gay section with gifts and personal items.
Gourmet Eureka (123 Spring St., 888/838-0838, www.gourmet-eureka.com ) is a specialty food shop owned by Danny Abraham and Bill White, who moved there from Houston four years ago.
Easily the most unique shop in town is the gay-owned Mountain Eclectic (104 N. Main, 479/363-9059), where an active spring flows inside the store. The dwelling was originally a cave-cooled residence built around Gadd Spring.
Other gay-owned retailers include The Cherokee Store (164 W. Van Buren, 479/253-5656, www.cherokeestore.com ), Fusion Squared (84 Spring St., 479/253-4999), Regalia (128 Spring St., 479/253-2202, www.regaliahandmade.com ), Out on Main (269 N. Main, 479/253-8449), Fain’s Herbacy (61 N. Main St., 479/253-5687), and Sweet Spring Antiques (2 Pine St., 479/253-6644).
Patronize “Family”-Operated Lodgings:
Twenty percent of the 3,000 rooms in Eureka Springs are gay owned. Tradewinds Motel offers a discount of $35 to any couple who visits to take advantage of the registry and stays two or more nights (with its campy Rock Hudson Suite and cute 1940s motor court, perhaps the gayest place in town).
For the quintessential bed-and-breakfast experience, try the beautifully appointed Heart of the Hills Inn. Located high above downtown is The Woods Resort, a secluded property with 23-foot-high tree-house bungalows that feature Jacuzzi tubs and fireplaces. Owner Frank Green, a rare Eureka native (most residents hail from somewhere else), can arrange commitment ceremonies, which start at $50. The quaint Candlestick Cottage Inn is located near downtown. Under the same ownership is Autumn Moon, a vacation house at nearby Lake Lucerne (sometimes called Lake Lesbian). Innkeeper Denise Coleman, an ordained minister, is available for anybody who wants to get hitched. Pond Mountain Lodge and Resort, once the estate of the man who invented the Toni home perm, offers horseback riding and fishing ponds. Owner Judy Jones welcomes non-guests who just want to stop by for a trail ride on horseback. Eureka House is a spacious two-bedroom vacation rental on 12 acres, perfect for a group.
Eat, Drink, and Be Mary…
Eureka prides itself on its incredible restaurants, and some of the very best happen to be gay-owned: Ermilio’s (26 White St., 479/253-8004), Katherine’s Café Amoré (2070 E. Van Buren/Hwy. 62, 479/253-7192), Gaskin’s Cabin (2883 Hwy. 23 N., 479/253-5466), and Sonny’s Pizza (119 N. Main, 479/253-2307).
New Delhi Café (2 N. Main St., 479/253-2525), which serves an Indian food buffet and deli sandwiches, is one of the hottest live music venues in town. (Eureka singer/songwriter Rachel Fields, an occasional performer, is a superstar waiting to happen.)
Falling in the “gay-friendly” category are Local Flavor (71 Main St., 479/253-9522, www.localflavorcafe.net ) and Caribe (309 Van Buren/Hwy. 62 E., 479/253-8102).
Continental Express offers daily nonstop flights from Bush Intercontinental to Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport near Bentonville. Allow a good hour and a half for the winding drive from Bentonville to Eureka Springs. The lowest advance purchase round-trip economy fare (at press time) was $356, listed at www.continental.com.
Another option: Southwest Airlines (www.southwest.com) offers service from Houston Hobby to Tulsa, Oklahoma, which is about 155 miles from Eureka Springs, with its “Wanna Get Away” fares that start at $189 roundtrip (via Dallas). Continental Express offers nonstop service from Houston Intercontinental to Tulsa (the lowest advance-purchase round-trip fare at press time was $226).
Gay-owned Eureka Springs Limousine (479/244-6320, www.eurekalimo.com) serves both the Bentonville and Tulsa airports. Fares start at $55.
Greyhound offers regular service to Bentonville. The round-trip fare at press time was $202.
Eureka Springs is located in the northwest corner of Arkansas, just south of the Missouri border, and is about 628 miles from Houston. Don’t rely on Mapquest’s 10-hour estimate. Given the mountain roads in Arkansas, you should expect at least 12 hours of drive time.
With all it has to offer the GLBT traveler, Eureka Springs should be considered on par with Key West, Provincetown, and Palm Springs as a gay vacation paradise. Once you visit, you will definitely want to return. And who knows? You may have a “Eureka moment,” as I did, and decide to stay.
Bradley David Williams is a longtime contributor to OutSmart. He lives in Eureka Springs and maintains a blog at www.emailtromtheozarks.blogspot.com.