For several years, my wife, Wendy, and I have been talking about visiting Eureka Springs, Ark.

We had heard about how unusual it was, with large buildings built onto the side of mountains and other notable characteristics.

We finally made it there last weekend and the experienced surpassed our expectations. And to say the place is unique is certainly an understatement.

First, a bit of history. Nestled in an extremely rugged portion of the Ozark Mountains in northwest Arkansas, Eureka Springs was founded in 1879. Colonization of the mountainous location began earlier in the 19th century as people were drawn by springs that were said to have healing powers in their waters.

Over time, giant hotels, elaborate homes and other ornate structures were erected on the steep terrain, creating an attraction that still brings in thousands of visitors. The town’s current population isn’t much above 2,000, but along with the hotels there are dozens of restaurants and bed-and-breakfast establishments, as well as with countless shops in the historic commercial district that offer a colossal variety of items.

The location of Eureka Springs is so extraordinary, it has been nicknamed the “Little Switzerland of America” and the “Stairstep Town” because of the winding, up-and-down nature of its streets and walkways. In fact, some of its buildings have street-level entrances on more than one floor.

The Working Bunnies of Eureka Springs

The Houston Herald’s Doug Davison pets Gumbo, one of the “Working Bunnies” at East By West in Eureka Springs, Ark. 

To be sure, some of these structures are virtually on the sides of cliffs and putting them up literally required chopping out sections of solid rock. It’s astonishing to witness and ponder.

And get this: No two streets intersect at a 90-degree angle and there are no traffic lights.

Many of the buildings in Eureka Springs are on the National Register of Historic Places, including numerous old homes now converted into bed-and-breakfasts. One of those is the Bridgeford House Inn on Spring Street (built in 1884) where Wendy and I stayed, where host Mark Hicks goes out of his way to gracefully deliver up comfort and class to his guests.

One thing Wendy and I agreed upon about Eureka Springs was that it’s a great place to eat. We had dinner one night at Pepe Tacos at Casa Colina, and came across the best beef chimichanga we had ever tasted, and a crab cake appetizer that was indescribably edible. By recommendation of a local man and woman we made friends with while hanging out around a huge bunch of bikers who were in town for a gathering, we went the next night to The Grotto Wood-Fired Grill and Wine Cave.

Oh, man! The salmon, steak and pork chop that ended up on our table were all – to say the least – in the higher echelon of dining enjoyment.

Incidentally, meeting Mac and Carline was so cool, and spending time with them for the better part of two nights was such a pleasure. It added a special aspect to our trip and spoke volumes about the type of people living in the area.

As Wendy and I walked around the historic district for hours Saturday and Sunday, street musicians were commonplace and the shop proprietors were all friendly and welcoming. Among the many stores we stopped in was “East By West” on Center Street, home of the famous “Eureka Springs Working Bunnies.” You have to see it to believe it; if you buy something, a rabbit gives you your change and receipt (of course, with a little help from a nearby biped with thumbs).

Our “clerk” was Gumbo, a big brown and white short-haired boy. Based on his demeanor, he loved his job. And based on his appearance, he was obviously not overworked.

We’re talking “must see.”

Another must-see is a few miles away from Eureka Springs: the Thorncrown Chapel (a.k.a. the “glass chapel”). It’s a surreal sanctuary structure, sitting (of course) on the side of a mountain in the middle of the forest featuring eye-pleasing architecture with a lot of glass, stylish wood and rock. The story of how it came to be is also unusual, and it opened in 1980 and has since had more than 6 million visitors.

At night, those of you who enjoy good live music might consider Chelsea’s Corner Cafe & Bar. We enjoyed some quality rock and roll performed by the Diversity Band, a four-piece group whose two men and two women all take turns with lead vocals, and pump out some fine guitar, drums, keyboard and bass. 

Anyway, I could go on for hours about Eureka Springs. But let me close with a reminder and a recommendation: The place is built on the side of steep mountains, so bring your best walking shoes.

And if you go, be prepared to navigate some curvy two-lane highways to get there, and then to experience a very unusual and wonderful place.

Doug Davison is a writer, photographer and newsroom assistant for the Houston Herald. Email: ddavison@houstonherald.com.

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