Goat cheese salad with Yukon gold potatoes from James at the Mill, AR

Goat cheese salad with Yukon gold potatoes from James at the Mill, AR. photo by Karen Kuzsel

The last things I expected from a weeklong trip to the Arkansas Ozarks were haute cuisine or elegant, preserved Victorian architecture in a city seemingly populated by a contrasting mix of retro hippies, spiritual wellness gurus and European fashionistas. Nor did I expect to be awed by the largest museum in the country dedicated to American art.

So, you’re probably wondering what I did expect. My husband and I were in AR for a family vacation. Usually when visiting those family members we stay in the Little Rock area. From those repeated trips, I can testify that none of the restaurant meals we’ve eaten would even be considered mediocre by Orlando standards. This time we were meeting family in the mountains, to lodge for four days in a cabin not far from the Buffalo River. To translate that into terms most of you will relate to, we were miles from the nearest cell phone service and a good half-hour drive to a grocery store.

The cabin was loaded with amenities like cookware (no dishwasher), flat screen  (DVD’s,no TV), comfy bedding, plush towels and the requisite dead animal skins and carcasses lining the two-story dark wood walls. The weather was chillier and grayer than hoped for, but not as bad as predicted. (Do weathermen ever get it right?) We soaked in the hot tub, charred s’mores over the outside fire pit, hiked to waterfalls over rocky terrains and steep slick steps, read, played games, and spent quality time with one another.

All that was terrific, but what I want to share is the Arkansas I didn’t know was there.

My husband is a primo travel guide and arrangements-maker. He studiously researches roadways, attractions, weather patterns and which B&B’s and boutique hotels would appeal to our historic and romantic notions. I check out restaurants.

We flew into the NW Arkansas Regional Airport in Bentonville on Allegiant Airlines, picked up our Hertz rental, and headed to Johnson, AR to stay at the Inn at the Mill. My husband said it looked charming from the reviews and photos. Nothing he saw in advance prepared us for this sanctuary in the midst of sprawl. The mill was built in 1835 and is the longest running business in the state. In the early 1990’s, world-renowned architect James Lambeth renovated it into a full-service hotel, which today includes 38 guest rooms and two designer suites. The furnishings are classy, the staff Southern-hospitality rich. We registered during the nightly wine & cheese cocktail hour. No cheddar and Swiss cubes from a warehouse club store. These were orbs of goat cheese surrounded by herbs, slices of brie and other select noshes. Even the wines were tasty, as is often not the case for such events.

Before heading to our room, we noticed a mammoth, glass-and-light wood contemporary restaurant next door. Both the inn and the James at the Mill are owned by Chef Miles James. We are told this is Arkansas’ only five-star restaurant. I can’t guarantee that statement’s

James at the Mill: spacious, contemporary, elegant. photo by Russ Wagner

James at the Mill: spacious, contemporary, elegant. photo by Russ Wagner

veracity, but I can swear to its five-star surroundings (including a bared tree reaching from the lower dining room to the top of the slatted glass ceiling), haute cuisine and a wine cellar that has earned it an Award of Excellence from Wine Spectator for 14 consecutive years. Russ began with a warm goat cheese salad with Yukon gold potatoes, Arkansas peppered bacon and warm frisse. I feasted on a perfectly-cooked duck salad with corn and red cabbage sautéed in a light Asian sauce. My carnivorous husband devoured the seared center cut tenderloin of beef with Arkansas peppered bacon and chive noodle cake, sautéed spinach, truffled asparagus and reduced red wine sauce. I dined on the sumptuous pecan-crusted Wild Scottish salmon with buttered leeks, fingerling potato and ginger-cilantro-corn-cream sauce. I understood it was a house favorite and it certainly became mine. Everything was beautifully plated. Oh, guess I should mention that the prices were actually quite reasonable, with highest entrée at $36.

The cocktail reception and morning’s continental breakfast were served in a cozy lobby area that really looked more like a chalet living room, with dark stuffed couches and chairs and fireplace. Not sure how the original mill machinery occupying one portion of the room would fit into the chalet schematic, but it worked as living proof of the inn’s origins.  Fresh Danish and breads, seasonal fruits, Greek yogurt, an array of cereals and hot coffee put us back on the road with full stomachs and happy thoughts.

Post our cabin adventures, we headed for a two-night stay in Eureka Springs. Eureka was founded in 1879. The springs were reputed to heal all that ails, which attracted year-round visitors. Today there are spas on every block, mixed in among stunning odes to Victorian architecture, many of which are on the National Register. If there were spas on each block, surely there were many more intimate B&Bs and boutique hotels housed inside those Victorians. The Victorians were the draw for us. They were nestled into rock walls that seemed to have been sculpted. Steep steps lead upwards into narrow streets, uneven pavement, and a colorful blend of boutique shops boasting local artisan crafts, clothing and jewelry. There seems to be three types of people who inhabit Eureka Springs: long-haired, tie-dyed dressed hippies who tuned into the laid-back lifestyle and never left, spiritual wellness enthusiasts who run or frequent the spas, and those who follow the path symbolized by the city’s famous Passion Play.

I can go into depth about Eureka Springs, but instead, here are my highlights. If you want to know more, just ask.

Main Street, Eureka Springs, AR. photo by Russ Wagner

Main Street, Eureka Springs, AR. photo by Russ Wagner

*Bring your walking shoes. You simply cannot see this city without walking. The pavement is uneven. Steps are steep. So are the streets that feel like you’re climbing a mountain. Oh…. You are!

*Literally, there are more B&Bs and boutique hotels than I’ve ever seen in one place. We stayed at the Palace Hotel & Bath House Hotel. The former brothel was built in 1901. We loved the original floors, carved woods, and ornate metal deco framing in the lobby. Loved our spacious room with lacy curtains, Jacuzzi tub for two, and Victorian décor. The room refrigerator held cheese & crackers, a split of “champagne” refreshed each day, sodas and bottles of water… all complimentary. Breakfast was brought to us. It was a plate of the most artistically-beautiful arranged fruit to form a flower. Each piece was sliced and curved, framed by 3 types of grapes and a slice of fresh creamed pastry.

*You have to visit Eureka Springs’ most famous, and reputedly haunted, Crescent Hotel. She sits atop a high hill and looks like you’d expect a beauty built in 1886 to appear. The caged registration desk, lobby pipe organ, sculptures, period décor and grounds are simply beautiful.

*While walking, we came across a church that’s been converted to the Intrigue Theater, home to an illusionist and medium show. No way was I going to even think of not going. The intimate setting was perfect for the two-hour family-friendly show, filled with illusions, mentalism, hypnosis, magic and medium-ship (albeit that latter was done strictly for entertainment). Sean-Paul and his lovely wife, Juliane, provide fun, awe, comedy, and mystery. She has a killer shape and wears one dazzling costume after another. (Costume-junkie that I am, how could I not notice?) They connect well with the audience and engage the audience throughout. The theater is open Thursday through Saturday. Seated is limited to 50, so don’t wait to purchase tickets.

Illusionist Sean-Paul and Juliane, the Medium amaze at the Intrigue Theater

Illusionist Sean-Paul and Juliane, the Medium, amaze at the Intrigue Theater

*Our first afternoon in Eureka, we snacked on the 2nd floor balcony restaurant of the Basin Park Hotel. (There are three restaurants in the hotel.) We had a bird’s eye view of the famous flatiron building, the stretches of hills and valleys beyond the hotel, and could people watch. We shared some yummy loaded potato soup and their signature Tex-Mex Egg Rolls filled with spicy chicken, corn, black beans, peppers, onions and melted cheese.

*Dine at Local Flavor. There were many choices we’d considered, but after asking at least half a dozen shopkeepers and business owners where they would take their friends and clients, this was the one consistent recommendation. (Three others with big nods were Grand Central Hotel & Spa’s restaurant, Ermilio’s Italian Home Cooking, and the Bavarian Inn.) It was a Wednesday night. Most other restaurants we passed were fairly quiet, but we had to wait 45 minutes to get in here. The food and service were outstanding. We weren’t starving, so we skipped appetizers but relished their dense, fresh bread and olive oil. Dinners come with salad, veggie, wild rice or mashed potatoes. Russ went for their signature 8 oz filet with red wine mushroom tarragon cream sauce. I had trouble deciding until I spotted Chicken Saverio. Just looking at the description of sautéed chicken breast layered with goat cheese, olive tapenade, pine nuts and served on bed of arugula with a balsamic reduction had me salivating. It was even better than it sounded.

*We only had one negative food experience during our week in Arkansas. We wanted to have a lighter meal on our second night in Eureka before going to the Intrigue Theater. Chelsea’s pizza place was recommended. It’s a tiny room atop a very smoky bar and billiards room. Service was awful. It took an hour for us to get the pizza. The waitress kept disappearing because she was delivering orders. The pizza was huge, but the crust required a saw. Typically I wouldn’t mention a negative restaurant review, but after speaking to a couple townsfolk, I heard our experience wasn’t unique.

*If you treasure the taste of strong coffee, there’s really only one place in town to have it. No, I am not joking. We were jones-ing for “real” coffee after four days in the cabin with a barely-functioning coffeepot. Mud Street Café has international flavors, wonderfully fresh salads, soups and sandwiches in an artist’s enclave with a 60’s-70’s vibe. Mud Street Café is closed Tuesday and Wednesday and only open through lunch.

Our journey ended with a stroll through the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, built in 2005 by Alice Walton (of the WalMart family) and designed by legendary architect Moshe Safdie. The curvaceous contemporary museum takes its name from the nearby Crystal Spring.  The museum’s collection features American masterworks dating from the Colonial era to contemporary times. The grounds include a series of pavilions, two creek-fed ponds, meeting and classroom spaces, and a large, glass-enclosed gathering hall. Oh yes, and a large glassed-in dining area that overlooks the ponds. The portions were large. The food locally sourced and the flavors spot-on.

Karen Kuzsel is a writer-editor based in the Orlando area who specializes in the hospitality, entertainment, meetings & events industries.  She is a Contributing Editor-Writer for Prevue Magazine and is an active member of ISES and MPI. She writes about food & wine, spas, destinations, venues, meetings & events. A career journalist, Karen has owned magazines, written for newspapers, trade publications, radio and TV. As her alter-ego, Natasha, The Psychic Lady, she is a featured entertainer for corporate and social events. karenkuzsel@earthlink.net; www.ThePsychicLady.com.  @karenkuzsel; @thepsychiclady

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