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Arkansas’ Ozark Originals

Hip, Historic Eureka Springs

There’s no place quite like Eureka Springs, a delightfully distinctive town where the streets are laid out up and down the slopes of Ozark hills. The city’s entire downtown area is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is full of local, independently owned restaurants and boutique shops.

Many groups enjoy free time to roam the streets of downtown and chat with local merchants. The area also has some signature attractions, as well as some new group experiences that are gaining ground.

The Great Passion Play, along with the accompanying Christ of the Ozarks statue, is a mainstay in Eureka Springs. The outdoor drama will celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer, and groups can experience the wonders of this large-scale production in a variety of ways.

“The Great Passion Play now has a behind-the-scenes walking tour,” said Karen Pryor, director of sales at the Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission. “It’s pretty interesting. I try to get my groups to see the play before they take the tour because if they take the tour first, they will see how some of the special effects work and then will be expecting them during the performance.”

The Christ of the Ozarks statue, which sits on the grounds of the Great Passion Play overlooking the city, celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2016 and has undergone a top-to-bottom restoration.

Groups that enjoy shows also make time to take in a performance at Intrigue Theatre, where a couple performs optical illusions and brain-teasing tricks in an intimate setting. And the area’s tourism community has developed a new experience for tours that includes a dinner experience at Castle Rogue’s Manor just outside the city.

“It’s a replica of a medieval castle on the banks of Table Rock Lake,” Pryor said. “You can do a tour of the castle and the gatekeeper’s cottage, and then have a catered dinner there. It’s a complete evening event.”

Fort Smith’s Frontier Justice

The story of Fort Smith is a colorful tale of frontier justice and the characters that inhabited the expanding territory of America in the 1800s. At the southern end of the region, the city grew up around the fort of the same name, which was established in 1817 as a government outpost in what was then the Wild West.

Today groups can explore Fort Smith National Historic Site to see the barracks, the courtroom and the gallows that were used for some 80 years to govern the territory. Many also choose to experience the area’s colorful history firsthand with a performance by Miss Laura’s Players, a troupe of performers led by Carolyn Joyce, tour and travel sales director at the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau, who plays the titular role of the city’s historic madam.

“I have been portraying the character of Miss Laura for 25 years,” Joyce said. “Today it’s a three-person skit, which is all comedy. The group has come to town for a hanging, and Miss Laura comes down to make sure that everyone knows about her business. And a huckster shows up selling a magical cure-all elixir.”

Though these experiences have been a core part of Fort Smith’s appeal for years, exciting new developments are taking place as well. Construction is underway on the U.S. Marshals Museum, which is set to open in Fort Smith in 2018. And a mural initiative called the Unexpected has brought new color to downtown buildings.

“They brought in international artists to do some unique paintings on our buildings,” Joyce said. “They’re gorgeous, and it has brought so many people downtown. Each artist has their own concept of what they wanted to paint on the buildings. It’s now included in our driving tour.”

The project started in 2015, with 11 murals created in about a week’s time. The results were so positively received that more artists came during the summer of 2016 and created 11 more murals, bringing the city’s total to 22. Groups can arrange tours that showcase all the best public artwork in the city.