The Misfits Fit in Eureka Springs

Eureka Springs. Photo by Phil Baker.

Nestled in native limestone is a place some have called the largest open-air asylum in the South. Eureka Springs, Arkansas, is a town that is as much an enigma as its origins. The trees wear hand-crocheted sweaters by local fiber artist Gina Rose Gallina, and they line up brightly to welcome you.

Years ago, a frequent visitor to the area came into an establishment and told the bartender that he had finally figured out exactly what Eureka Springs was all about. The barkeep, a native Eurekan, looked at him skeptically and asked what he thought.

The visitor replied: “Eureka Springs is like Mayberry, with pot and gay people.”

Never have I heard a more apt description.

Native American legend boasted of Eureka’s healing springs. Dr. Alvah Jackson is typically credited with locating the spring, and in 1856 boasted to anyone who would listen that the waters of Basin Spring had cured his eye ailments. After the Civil War, Jackson marketed the spring waters as “Dr. Jackson’s Eye Water.” He ended up being a big quack, but he sure put the town on the map.

And entrepreneurial spirit still thrives in Eureka today. A sleepy but vibrant town of a little less than 2,000 souls that’s a five-hour drive from downtown St. Louis, Eureka truly has a little something for everyone, especially those in the LGBTQ community. Lodging, dining, art of any medium, festivals, outdoor activities — all in an environment that is not only welcoming to us, but would not be Eureka without us.

Eureka Springs was the first city in Arkansas to issue a same-sex marriage license and has enacted a city ordinance designed to protect its LGBTQ citizens. The vibrant and bustling historic downtown contains countless businesses that are gay-owned and operated, with a strong Gay Business Guild leading the way with new ideas and a fresh perspective.

Eurekans celebrate just about any occasion; “Diversity Weekend” three times a year, antique and auto shows, parades of all kinds and parties in Basin Park. In the last decade, Mardi Gras has become an enormous month-long party. After Hurricane Katrina, some New Orleans residents found a haven and a fresh start in Eureka Springs and brought with them the Crescent City’s mysterious and decadent traditions. The officially sanctioned “Krewe of Krazo” (Ozarks spelled backward) has ten separate parties and raises money for multiple charities — an opportunity to enjoy the fun of a Bourbon Street experience at a fraction of the cost.

There are countless lodging options, but among the loveliest are the cottages and cabins offered by Eureka Zen (169 Spring Street). The luxury and simplicity of these accommodations will pass muster with even the most discerning traveler. Begin your rejuvenation process with peaceful, spa-like cottages in the heart of historic downtown Eureka Springs. Every Eureka Zen home transforms your experience into what owners Jill and Rod Slane call “living relaxed.” Every possible detail has been taken care of.

“Like Mayberry, with pot and gay people.”

For the foodie, Eureka Springs offers a delicious number of choices. Local favorites for breakfast and lunch include Mud Street Café (22 Main Street, 479-253-6732) and the Oasis Original Ark-Mex (53C Spring Street, 479-253-0886). In its 30th year, the Oasis is the oldest continuously running restaurant in the historic downtown and offers a number of locally sourced vegetarian and vegan options. The salsa verde is famous around the globe. Local Flavor Cafe (71 South Main Street, 479-253-9522) offers a tasty menu with something to suit just about any palate. For dinner, the Grotto Wood Fired Grill and Wine Cave (10 Center Street, 479-363-6431) is fine dining at its best, a destination for that romantic evening or even a group outing. 

Outdoor enthusiasts can enjoy the three lakes within a few miles, bike and hiking trails, a dog park, paddleboards, kayaks and canoes. But why get up early when you can stay out late? Nightlife is never boring when there are so many venues for live, local music and expertly crafted cocktails. Head out to Brews (2 Pine Street, 479-244-0878), located at the top of the winding downtown, for local craft beer, locally roasted Arsaga’s coffee, wine and small plates all backed by ambient sound. Want to go where the locals are? Meet at Chelsea’s Corner Café (10 Mountain Street, 479-253-6723) for pizza, drinks and some of the best local talent in this part of the country. Eureka Live Underground (35 North Main Street, 479-253-7020) boasts the largest dance floor in town, drink specials, karaoke, drag shows and theme parties. 

The staff and owners of these establishments are warm, inviting and truly in the business of ensuring a good time. When people ask where the gay bars are, Eurekans have been known to reply, “They’re all gay. There’s a seat at the table for anyone, anywhere.” 

Eureka Springs is a place where the misfits fit, and all are welcome.   °

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