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Fall Getaway to Eureka Springs, Arkansas

Art, history and a splash of kitschy fun mingle in Eureka Springs, a Victorian town nestled in the wooded hills of Arkansas. Set aside an autumn weekend to savor its colorful charm.

The spirit of a mountain town

Patricia Taylor's voice swells, filling the towering sanctuary of Thorncrown Chapel with the sweet melody of an old-time hymn. Commissioned by a retired local teacher in the 1970s, the glass-walled church sits in the woods a couple of miles west of Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

As you walk to the door, you can see right through to the trees beyond. Soaring gray beams evoke a Gothic cathedral; it's a modern riff on the medieval notion of columns leading eyes up to God. The architecture seems to melt away, leaving you in a gold-dappled glade with the tingly sense that heaven and earth merge when a breeze flutters the foliage.

As Patricia's song ends, a van parks outside, and a guide in a corseted dress and jaunty hat hops out. She shepherds her camera-toting flock into the church and cajoles Patricia into singing another hymn. The sight of a Disneyfied guide in a sublime chapel perfectly captures the spirit of this arty-Victorian, classy-kitschy mountain town 50 miles southwest of Branson, Missouri.

Click ahead for more information on a fall getaway to Eureka Springs. A suggested two-day itinerary, including a visit to Thorncrown Chapel (pictured), is on slides 5 and 6.

Eureka Springs, Arkansas

History and tourism

Eureka Springs flourished in the 1800s when visitors flocked to drink from the town's mineral springs. Gingerbread-trimmed houses sprouted like wildflowers from the Ozark bluffs, and hotels opened to accommodate the crowds. Eureka Springs deteriorated with the advent of modern medicine but has emerged as an artists' colony and wedding destination -- and, when the summer heat mellows, a lovely end to a fall drive.

Beyond the budget motels and Pine Mountain Jamboree marquee on US-62, you'll find a maze of impossibly steep streets lined with quaint homes and inns. Spring Street packs galleries, gift shops and restaurants. Tiny parks protect natural springs, and spas echo the town's history as a haven for healing. Even the old-timey photo studio and saltwater taffy machine have an air of legitimacy here. This has always been a tourist town; maybe the Victorians took fudge home, too.

Pictured: Visitor Steve Pointer aims for fall foliage in downtown Eureka Springs.

Passionate pursuits

Like many of the artists who live in Eureka Springs, Edwige Denyszyn moved here after a visit. She and her husband planted a vineyard and opened Keels Creek Winery and Art Gallery. Pouring samples of an oaky red, Edwige says, "It's like a university town without the students. Everybody's very passionate about what they're doing, and most of us are not from here."

She's right. All around Eureka Springs, visitors will encounter "settlers" making a go of it doing what they absolutely love, often to the benefit of the 800,000 visitors who traipse through this town of 2,000 each year.

Potters Gary Eagan and Steven Beacham show elegant white vases and cozy pinecone coffee mugs at Zarks Gallery, the showroom above their studio. Two couples have spectacularly rehabbed a 19th-century building as The Stone House, a chic yet cozy wine bar. And at Cottage Inn Restaurant, guests savor slabs of chef Linda Hager's caramel-soaked coconut cake.

Pictured: The Stone House pairs wine with beautiful cheese plates.

Fall favorites

At Heartstone Inn Bed and Breakfast, sisters Pat Henderson and Jane Vanderstraaten ply innkeeper Cheri Rojek for the ingredients in her garlicky hominy grits. They meet here three times a year, and when asked about their plans for the day, the sisters don't hesitate: shopping.

"Spring is gorgeous. Summer you tolerate. But fall is our favorite time," Pat says. Petunias still bloom on the porch, but the leaves have begun to turn. Fall is familiar. As kids, their father brought them here for apple and sorghum harvests. They've come to Eureka Springs at every stage of their lives. Maybe, more than shopping, what brings them and so many back is the sense that in this funny little town in the mountains, you can stop the clock for a few days and just be.

Pictured: Winding roads make driving in the Ozark hills a thrill.

Two-day Eureka Springs getaway: Day one

Eureka Springs unfolds along Spring Street. Ride the trolley to the top of the hill and shop your way down, (479) 253-7333; eurekasprings.org. The mother-daughter team at Wilson and Wilson Folk Art Company paints colorful collectibles, (479) 253-5105; wilsonandwilsonfolkart.com. You'll find more local art at Zarks Gallery, (877) 540-9805; zarksgallery.com, and Eureka Thyme, (479) 363-9600; eurekathyme.com.

For lunch, try the Oasis, an "Ark-Mex" fusion cafe, (479) 253-0886. Later, relax on a tram tour, (479) 253-9572; eurekatrolley.org. Jovial guides dish local lore, and you'll get a great view of the Christ of the Ozarks statue rising above the trees, (800) 882-7529; www.greatpassionplay.com.

Enjoy a glass of wine on the patio at The Stone House, (479) 363-6411; eurekastonehouse.com, or sample a few varieties at Keels Creek Winery and Art Gallery, (479) 253-9463; keelscreek.com. Italian food at Ermilio's is a must-do, (479) 253-8806; ermilios.com. Or try sesame-crusted goat cheese salad at Local Flavor, (479) 253-9522; localflavorcafe.net.

Time to rest your weary feet. If you planned way ahead, you snagged a cabin on stilts at Treehouse Cottages (pictured). From $145. (479) 253-8667; treehousecottages.com

Heartstone Inn Bed and Breakfast is also a gem. Buy the cookbook to make the recipes at home. From $105. (800) 494-4921; heartstoneinn.com

Eureka Springs

Two-day Eureka Springs getaway: Day two

Mornings are peaceful at Thorncrown Chapel, (479) 253-7401; thorncrown.com. Soak in Eureka Springs' history (literally!) at the Palace Hotel Bath House, (866) 946-0572; palacehotelbathhouse.com. The restored spa isn't chic, but visitors love The Works, a sort of living history spa treatment including a soak in a claw-foot bath.

Have an alfresco lunch at the Garden Bistro, (479) 253-1281. Then hit the road. A pretty 28-mile drive from town, the War Eagle Mill sells stone-ground baking mixes in cute calico bags. (479) 789-5343; wareaglemill.com

In neighboring Hobbs State Park, the paved Van Winkle Trail loops past an old sawmill, (479) 789-5000; arkansasstateparks.com. On the way back to town, stop in at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a sanctuary for rescued big cats, (479) 253-5841; turpentinecreek.org. (Bring a hat and water; the 45-minute guided tour has almost no shade.)

For dinner, the Cottage Inn Restaurant serves Mediterranean-inspired dishes such as a roast duck bathed in thyme-perfumed cranberry chutney. It'll leave you craving one more day in Eureka. (479) 253-5282; www.cottageinneurekaspgs.com

(A version of this story appeared in Midwest Living® September/October 2011.)

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