Vacation close to home
By Wayne Bell
This has been one crazy summer at the movies! First, “Indiana Jones” opened very well with mixed reviews. Then came “Sex and the City,” which broke box office records within its genre and wildly exceeded the expectations of even studio executives at New Line/HBO. Then came a series of hits like “Hancock,” “Hulk,” “Wall-E” and “Mama Mia,” which, despite poor reviews, had the highest opening weekend ever for a musical.
Then the big daddy of them all, “The Dark Knight,” opened to record numbers. It now carries the distinction of the highest grossing opening day and weekend in history.
At first glance, this entire moneymaking summer trend shocked me. Aren’t we in a recession? Aren’t we all suffering every time we buy food or gas? Haven’t you noticed more empty tables at restaurants? So how can everybody else be suffering and yet the movie theatres are packing them in?
I really started to question this entire trend, until I sat down and actually thought about it. Movies are doing incredible business this summer because they are providing an escape from the economy. The truth is, people can’t do some of the things that they normally do during the summer because it is just too expensive.
If you wanted to go to a major sporting event, it could cost $500 or more. If you wanted to spend the weekend at the lake, it would cost you hundreds of dollars between the gas and the party food. If you wanted to take a vacation, well, you’re out of luck? Or are you? No! There are alternative vacation destinations in our own backyard which, are much more affordable then some of the trips I took as a child.
Maybe this isn’t the year to go to Walt Disney World, South Dakota or New York, but the time to look at more affordable, yet fun, vacation spots. That way, you won’t have to use a shitty movie to provide you with the escape you truly need. On a side note, isn’t it interesting that going to the Malco has now become an affordable prospect?
Time: Less than an hour
When I was growing up, Eureka Springs was the go-to destination every summer. My parents drug me to War-Eagle, every spring and fall, but it was the summers in Eureka that I really remember. I remember going to Hart’s grocery store and getting cold drinks and fruit and just enjoying an afternoon in downtown. I would beg each of you to rediscover the lost treasure that is Eureka Springs. Eureka offers some really fantastic shopping, dining and outdoor activities. Plus, there really isn’t a more scenic area in the Ozarks.
While in Eureka make sure to enjoy some of the finest dining in the state. Some of my personal favorites include Autumn Breeze and the Bavarian Inn. Being the child of a German family, trips to the Bavarian were frequent as a child. These two locations are just a small sampling of the fine cuisine that Eureka offers. Other popular options include Rogue’s Manor and Ermilio’s.
Eureka hosts a variety of quaint stores that specialize in local craft work, fine gifts and some tourist fair. Eureka also has a variety of moderately priced hotels that will satisfy your wallet. We’ve seen rooms for under $40 a night.
Time: About two hours
State parks get a bad wrap. They are traditionally seen as money grabbing bird retreats. I won’t deny the fact that some state parks are a bit stodgy and boring. However, the crown jewel of Arkansas parks has to be Mount Magazine, the highest point in the state. The newly constructed Lodge at Mount Magazine is beautiful and provides some of best views in Arkansas. There are also 13 cabins that, like the rooms at the lodge are roomy and well appointed. It’s a secluded retreat of the finest scale. You would expect to find something like the Lodge at Mount Magazine in Colorado or in a Disney Park, but it’s right here in our fair state.
I get a bit sick of hearing about it from the state tourism department, however, it really does live up to the hype and is a fantastic weekend vacation spot for Northwest Arkansas families. The lodge has a huge indoor pool, hiking trails and all the rooms have mountain views. The outdoor deck is filled with huge wooden rocking chairs where you can enjoy the sunset or just sit and read a good book.
The food at the lodge restaurant is tasty and the prices are reasonable. The restaurant took a major hit from reviewers in the opening days, but it has greatly improved. It is worth the drive to have a great weekend at one of Arkansas’ finest spots. The only problem, it’s sometimes difficult to get a reservation.
Time: Three hours
Okay, I should preface this by saying that my feelings on Little Rock are mixed. Growing up close to Little Rock (Vilonia…eek), frequent trips to Little Rock were a weekly occurrence. Therefore, I never really appreciated Little Rock until recently.
Little Rock has something that Northwest Arkansas doesn’t…a place for the late 20/30somethings. In Northwest Arkansas, we have lots of options for the college aged as well as the affluent Wal-Mart vendor types. However, the young business professionals have kind of got lost. All credit to Fayetteville for trying with the Young Professionals Group and a few clubs like Speakeasy. Even the Arvest Ballpark provides a nice alternative on Thursday Nights. However, our culture doesn’t really compliment young business professionals. Our downtown area is lovely, but is way too expensive for most of us (I’m 27) to live. In Little Rock, the entire downtown area becomes alive at night with young professionals rolling up their sleeves and enjoying the bars, clubs and restaurants downtown with their colleagues from work.
Little Rock should be very proud of what it has accomplished. I was shocked at how different it is from just 10 years ago. On my last visit, I jogged in the morning down to the Farmers Market and enjoyed the Clinton Library and Children’s Museum. My evenings were spent with friends enjoying great dining destinations like Ferneau and Caprizios. The lodging options in Little Rock includes a variety of ranging from the The Peabody to the Hampton Inn. Little Rock, especially downtown, really seems to have its stuff together. It’s a great destination for young couples.
If you have a family, hit up a Travelers game or the Little Rock Zoo. Kids would love the Children’s Museum and maybe even the Clinton Library.
Little Rock has something for everyone. I love to stop by Fresh Market with my cooler on the way back to Northwest Arkansas. This fantastic gourmet market should be the envy of all foodies in NWA. It makes our closest option, the great little Pinnacle Station look tiny.
Finally, if you are looking for a great drink to unwind, try Copper Grill & Grocery downtown. Their Lemon Blueberry Martini is great. However, the showstopper has to be the Red Pepper Martini which blends crushed red peppers and cool mint with simple syrup and vodka, and comes complete with a floating smoky red pepper ring. I know it sounds odd, but it might be the best mixed drink I’ve ever had.
Give Little Rock a chance to prove what a great weekend destination it has truly become
Time: Two hours
Tulsa continues to surprise me. When I first moved here and told people that I wanted to go to Tulsa, they always looked at me and said “Why?” However, Tulsa impresses me on a number of levels. The classic Utica Square shopping area provides a wealth of upscale shopping and hosts a variety of great restaurants including Wild Fork and Stonewall Kitchen. There is something really beautiful about walking around the historic looking Utica Square. It has so much charm that it really puts our Pinnacle Promenade to shame.
Tulsa also has the famous Zoo and Riverwalk. Both provide a great place to take the kids for an inexpensive good time. Adults will want to be sure and visit Peoria Street (Tulsa’s upscale alternative to Dickson) where you’ll find great restaurants like Keo and Kocoa. I am a fan of the surplus of wine bars and unique clubs.
Tulsa’s reputation as an industrial or boring city has really been turned upside down. This would defiantly be a vacation destination that I would recommend to couples looking to unwind affordably.
Time: About two hours
Okay, if you have read any of my articles before, you know that I harp on Branson. The truth is, I am still as shocked that Branson isn’t as tragic as it used to be. Branson has turned into an affordable, attractive and fun destination for a family trip.
When I was growing up, my family would drag me to Branson to see some near death performer (and I use that term loosely) sing their hits from the ‘70s. I used to roll my eyes at them, but now Branson has provided enough alternative activities that my sightings of Andy Williams and Mel Tillis are kept to a minimum.
The first thing that I would recommend in Branson is the historic downtown area. The Branson Landing shopping and dining area has completely revitalized the downtown area. Old stores that were struggling are now packed with the same crowd that also frequents Bass Pro. Mom and Pop diners are packed with the same crowds that funnel into Joe’s Crab Shack and Cantina Loredo. Downtown Branson and Hollister are great places to unwind, shop and dine.
If you make it to the classic 76 drive, there is plenty to do besides just seeing shows, like outlet shopping at The Grand Village and Tanger. However, if you are dead-set on seeing a show, I would recommend Dixie Stampede. I know, I never thought those words would come out of my mouth, but it’s a decent show that kids really like and the food is very good. Some of the show tickets are pricey, but when you consider that you are also getting a meal, it becomes a better value.
Finally, Silver Dollar City has grown into a great destination. One warning, Silver Dollar City can get very hot, very quick. Sometimes it is unbearable in the summer. The park has quaint little shops and eateries where you can escape the heat and the food has really improved. World Fest in the spring has a good selection of reasonably priced ethnic foods. I also like the fall festival, however, the most popular are the holiday festival and the summer children’s fest. Go early in the day to beat the heat and the parking problems.
So pack your bags
In this troubled economy, it may be time to look closer to home to get the kind of escapism that we all require as the temperatures rise and the IQ’s go down. In the end, just realize, although affordable, a trip to see “Hellboy” or “Space Chimps” isn’t the kind of vacation that you need and deserve. The economy and the times are hard on people now, so kickback and give yourself a creative, affordable and fun “local” vacation.