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 seven 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 sophisticated friends relocated to this obscure town in the Ozark Mountains, but soon discovered why Eureka Springs is hailed as “One of the most scenic towns in the US” and “The top place to visit in each state.”  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.  Painted in pastels with contrasting trim and stacked one behind the other on 20 steep hills, it is postcard-pretty and overflowing with galleries, cafés, entertainment, and charm.

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.

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!

Halloween Seance at the Crescent, the “most haunted hotel.”

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 that the Eureka Springs and North Arkansas Railway had to be the first destination for our curious kids.

Lunch aboard the Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway is a treat for anyone who enjoys trains. Photo courtesy of Eureka Springs & North Arkansas Railway.

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 rail yard.

Children play on circus train cars in Eureka Springs, Arkansas. Photo courtesy of Philip Courter.

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.  Walmart heir Alice Walton not only spearheaded the museum, she has the wherewithal to acquire any piece of American art that she desires.  Entrance is free and there are small tables where children inspired by the likes of Sargent, Whistler, O’Keefe or Andy Warhol can try their hand at drawing.  One of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Usonian houses was relocated from New Jersey and meticulously reconstructed on the grounds.  This was the first time we had been inside any of his iconic dwellings, which seemed claustrophobically small, yet Zen-like in its perfection.

ELEVEN, delightful restaurant at the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, AR. Photo Courtesy of Philip Courter

Eleven, the museum’s restaurant in a glass-enclosed bridge over a pond, serves small plates of “High South” cuisine that elevates mountain home that both our littles and parents enjoyed.  After each excursion we returned to the Crescent Hotel where some napped while the others enjoyed the pool or exploring the expansive property with lawn games, a playground, ice cream shop, and tram ride to town.

War Eagle Mill: See a working gristmill and have lunch. Photo Courtesy of Philip Courter

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 allowing 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 final expedition to the Turpentine Wildlife Refuge, was sobering.  The children were amazed to see tigers, lions, leopards, cougars up close and we were startled to learn the scope of the exotic animal trade in the US.  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.  Even worse, 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.  Best of all, Eureka Springs had more than enough to entertain us all.

 About the Author:

Gay Courter is a bestselling novelist (The Midwife, Code Ezra, Flowers in the Blood) and documentary filmmaker.  She travels for both work and pleasure since her first around-the-world trip at age six.

Author Gay Courter