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TRAVEL Eureka Springs, Ark.: Living on mountain time
by Kirk Williamson, Nightspots Editor

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Like the gravity of spring water running down a mountainside, Eureka Springs, Arkansas, located in the Ozarks in the northwest corner of the state, has a power to draw a diverse group of citizens and tourists ... many of whom end up as citizens. It's the kind of place that enchants you and convinces your heart that it's found its home.

The town has been a draw since the Industrial Revolution, when weary wanderers would come from the soot-soaked north to "take the waters" at a series of natural springs, which they found to have curative powers. A modern retrospect might suggest that it was simply fresh mountain air and clean water that did the trick, but the lore evolved that the water of those springs would cure what ailed you.

Cut to modern times, when a dual resurgence of hippy artist types and Christian pilgrims to the city's Great Passion Play helped to build up this mountain burg and establish its easy-going, inspirational feeling.

Most interesting is the LGBT contingency of Eureka Springs. Some estimates claim that up to 30 percent of the downtown businesses are gay-owned. Catch the members of the Gay Business Guild of Eureka Springs ( which you can find in different locations each Wednesday evening at their weekly "Prayer Meeting" ) and they'll each tell you their stories of how they came to Eureka Springs, and how the charm of this hidden gem welcomed them as one of the crowd. These residents help Eureka Springs retain its status as the "gay capital of the Ozarks."

When booking your stay in Eureka Springs, you will encounter a wide array of accommodation choices. The outskirts of town are lined with kitschy motel after kitschy motel, a proliferation which sprung up concurrent with the growing popularity of nearby Branson, Mo., before the city of Branson itself had the hotel infrastructure it needed in place.

To be closer to the action, you might choose to stay along the winding and ascending ( remember, it's in the mountains ) streets of downtown Eureka Springs. The historic Grand Central Hotel ( 37 N. Main St., ) greets you at the very beginning of the downtown area with a full spa, balconies overlooking the charming business district and The Grand Taverne restaurant, at which you can choose from a full menu of from-scratch delicacies prepared with ingredients from chef Dave Gilderson's balcony herb garden. A bit further up the winding roads you'll find Basin Park Hotel ( 12 Spring St., ), which also features spa packages at Serenity Spa, a vibrant hotel bar, and covered motorcycle parking.

B&Bs abound in Eureka Springs. Check out All Seasons Inn ( 156 Spring St., ). Proprietor Pat Fitzsimmons proved herself to be a true friend of the community in May of this year. As you might recall, for one week in May, same-sex marriage was ruled legal in Arkansas, and hundreds of couples rushed to wed before the Arkansas Supreme Court suspended that ruling one week later. In this one harried week, Pat provided free accommodations and lodging to a number of couples who sought to be married, taking a lot of stress off the backs of many happy newlyweds. Hooray for Pat!

For the more adventurous, drop your anchor at Magnetic Valley Retreat ( 597 Magnetic Dr., ), Arkansas' only all-male clothing-optional resort. And I like to explore all options. Hosts Alvin Byrd and Charlie Thomas have created a haven of freedom and sunshine, where you can sip a cocktail, get some local color by the pool, and relax with the locals, as this resort also offers season passes to the enjoy the social aspect of the retreat. It's a great way to meet and greet the gays in Eureka Springs. All roads lead to Magnetic Valley.

Now that you've settled into your room, you'll want to get out of that room and experience the town. Strap on your hiking shoes and explore the many shops of the downtown area, where a network of uphill sidewalks and connecting staircases will give both your wallet and your calves a much-needed workout.

Eureka Thyme ( 19 Spring St., ) boasts works from more than 100 local artists in a dizzying array of media, from ceramic sculpture to inlaid wooden pieces to mixed-media sculptures incorporating such innovative materials as wasp paper ( actual material from a wasp's hive ) and antique lace. Take a whiff of a stunning array of soy candles or pick up a fabric collage by Kriste-lee, "the cut-and-paste queen of the geriatric set." Shop owner and curator Marsha Havens has laid out the perfect variety of wares which highlight the artistic passions of this Ozark escape.

For jewelry with a handmade touch, peruse the baubles at Fusion2 ( 84 Spring St., ). Partners John Jarrett and John Rinehart present fused-glass jewelry and pieces created by John Rinehart himself, along side stained glass, chainmaille jewelry, Raku pottery and unique gift shopping from some of America's finest artists.

Antiquers will find no lack of delights in these hills. Some of the finest finds are found at Deja Vu ( 184 N. Main St., ). Their eclectic collection of glassware, art, home decor, and vintage toys, photographs and quilts will provide a "Eureka!" moment for treasure hunters of all budgetary stripes.

More craftsmanship is on display at Out on Main Gallery ( 269 N. Main St., ). Owner Patrick Lujan currently features works by 18 artists ( 15 of which are local ). You'll find pottery, stunningly beautiful glass pieces by Cynthia Hale and Hank Barnes, intoxicatingly intricate wire sculptures, and a few paintings from local hero Zeek Taylor, who himself studied art at Arkansas State University.

On the art tip, no visit to Eureka Springs is complete without an exploration of The Art Colony ( 185 N. Main St., ). This collective space of 12 different studios, spanning media from stained glass to beadmaking to scrimshaw to "gypsies," was originally constructed in 2006 as an after-high-school project under the guidance of founders Cathy and JD Harris. Artist Atom Bleu's custom stained glass work can be found all over town ( including the sunny piece pictured from Magnetic Valley ). Jewelry artist Josh Clark taught me about "soutache," which is a combination of traditional bead embroidery and textile. The artists are more than willing to share these sorts of personal touches with you, echoing the spirit of art and discovery that this collective embodies.

Hungry yet? Good, because the dining scene in Eureka Springs is among the jewels in its crown. Start your day at Nibbles Eatery ( 79 Spring St., ). Partners Nick Roberts and Garnet Blanchette give you the best in nourishing breakfast fare. The Hearty Health Blast, with strawberries, banana, almonds, rolled oats, orange juice, yogurt and honey, gave me all the energy I needed to tackle the daily rush ( and has caused me to seriously step up my smoothie game at home ). Throw the Toasted Western ( with three scrambled eggs, ham, onions and cheese on your choice of wheat berry or sourdough bread ) on top of that, and you're fueled for hours to come.

When lunchtime cravings come knocking, answer the call at Mud Street Cafe ( 22 G S. Main St., ). Located in what locals refer to as "Underground Eureka," Mud Street offers a menu of fresh selections among the limestone walls, large wooden beams and stained-glass lighting. I opted for the California wrap with avocado, cucumbers, fresh mushrooms, chopped apple, feta, sunflower seeds, and balsamic vinaigrette. I further opted for the Moonshine Bloody Mary, because "vacation" plus "Ozarks" equals day-drinking of locally-crafted moonshine. Do the math.

Another lunchtime winner is DeVito's ( 5 Center St. ). Enjoy the meticulously-spiced soft shell crab po' boy, flash-fried with shredded romaine, tomatoes and a spicy remoulade on a ciabatta loaf, while enjoying one of the best overlook views in town on their outdoor patio.

Fresh ( 179 N. Main St., ) more than lives up to its name, with a diverse offering of farm-to-table dishes. I went simple with the roast turkey sandwich with Swiss cheese, greens, tomato and honey cup mustard vinaigrette, served with cole slaw and homemade potato chips. Try the selection of freshly-squeezed juice blends. The "Delight," with carrot, celery, beets and green apples, filled my soul with vitamin-y goodness. After your meal, pick up a fresh-baked dessert or some cured meats to go from their quaint culinary marketplace.

My favorite dinner of the trip was the pan-seared amberjack filet at Ermilio's ( 26 White St., ). It was prepared with a raisin-caper butter sauce, white wine and a whisper of ginger. This followed three of the most sumptuous stuffed mushrooms I'd ever eaten and was followed by some desserts I was glad to have to walk off afterwards. The eight-layer tiramisu picked me up with its sweet, lingering amaretto flavor. But I saved my strength for the Italian cream cake, with its ooey-gooey butter-rich icing, insulating the warmth of soft layers of coconut- and pecan-flavored cake. This hotspot is Italian done right, complete with vintage photos ( and recipes ). If you know me, you know I'm a sucker for that classic Italian-American feel. Ermilio's is a place where I can really feel at home.

Located as it is among America's most beautiful mountain range, Eureka Springs boasts some remarkable outdoor activities. Take a hike around Lake Leatherwood ( ) and marvel at mountains and clouds as reflected in the serene no-wake lake. Camping and cabins are also available March 1 through Nov. 30. Devil's Eyebrow ( ) leads you downhill through some of Arkansas' most prisitnely preserved nature to a peaceful ravine, seemingly miles away from the hustle and bustle.

Speaking of hustling ( and bustling ), sample some of the nightlife Eureka Springs has to offer. While there are no official "gay bars" to be had, you'll find many spots which cater equally to the queeniest of queens and the butchest of bikers. It's just that kinda town. Eureka Live Underground ( 35 N. Main St., ) is probably the gayest place you'll find. As you walk in, you'll find a table of hats, and you are encouraged to play dress up. Owner Lee Keating is the sexiest guy in town ( okay, he bought me shots to say that, but I may have anyway ) and you can dance the night away with Lee and the diverse and welcoming crowd.

Hear some real "hill music" at Chelsea's Corner Cafe and Bar ( 10 Mountain St., ). Not only can you get live music almost every night of the week, but their Freakin' Eurekan pizza, with mozzerella, onions, broccoli, green peppers, black olives, mushrooms, spinach, zucchini, tomatoes, and artichoke hearts was, hands down, the best veggie pizza I have ever had. But don't take it from me. It was voted runner-up to "best pizza in Arkansas" in 2010 by the Arkansas Times People's Choice!

Enjoy your time in Eureka Springs. You can plan to visit during the popular Diveristy Weekend ( follow for upcoming information ) or just plan a relaxing getaway in the "gay capital of the Ozarks." And don't be too surprised if you find yourself relocating permanently. Happens all the time!

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