Outdoor at the Ozarks
The Ozarks, though. That sounded like fun. Grandma and I agreed the mountains were amazing, with their puffs of green trees and ribboned layers of stone. Lake Taneycomo and Table Rock Lake surround the city, and Bull Shoals Lake is nearby. There are 10 golf courses, including a few championship ones, tucked among the mountains and waters. These two elements allow for all your typical nature-loving activities: hiking, boating, fishing, camping, bird-watching. Just the types of things that don’t typically spring to mind when one hears the word Branson. Outdoorsy stuff is big with the families that come here (more than 25 percent of visitors). So are theme parks, Celebration City and Silver Dollar City mix history with cool rides. The latter just opened its PowderKeg launch coaster. It rockets from 0 to 53 mph in 2.8 seconds.
There was no way I was getting Grandma to hoof it around a theme park, let alone strap into anything called a "launch coaster. " Instead, I decided to get us a teeny bit closer to nature with a room at Chateau on the Lake, promising a peaceful lakeside experience within minutes of Branson’s main drag. Seemed like a good compromise to me. It was evening when we drove the hotel’s curvy approach. A stream flowed over smooth rocks, and the hotel’s 10 stories gleamed. A uniformed valet, doorman and bellman waited.
I looked at Grandma. She was mortified. "Ber-it! " she scolded, eyes wide. "We're from Minnesota! We don't stay in places like this! "
It hadn’t occurred to me that the Chateau would make Grandma uncomfortable. I felt bad, but hoped she’d ease into it. I really liked the place. She did agree to try the hotel’s restaurant for breakfast one morning. We dined indoors, in a cafe styled to feel like the outdoors, under an umbrella and next to a babbling brook. Fancy-pants here ordered the Norwegian salmon plate. Grandma got wheat toast.
One evening, while Grandma watched the news in luxury at our hotel, I set out to find an attraction for me. There it was, just a half-mile east of the Strip: the historic downtown, five blocks of cafes, flea markets and stores along Lake Taneycomo.
I popped into Dick’s 5&10, a huge, 50-year-old store packed with paper dolls, cheese graters, Christmas decorations and lots, lots more. In a toy aisle, I ran into a fellow gawker near my age. He said his family came to Branson from Kentucky for boating and antiques hunting and stumbled upon this store. "I didn’t know anything like this existed anymore, " he said. "Even the smell is familiar. I can’t wait to tell my mom. " I couldn’t wait to tell Grandma.
The next day, we wandered downtown amid locals, families and seniors in matching tour-group T-shirts. I dragged Grandma on a scenic two-hour train ride and a sweet horse-and-buggy tour of the town. The driver related bits of town history and told us about plans for the future. Branson Landing, a $420 million lakefront development project, will feature new retail shops and a convention center, with this district at its heart. (Phase 1 should be completed this spring.)
I loved this low-key area, but when I asked Grandma what she thought, she said it was "nice. " Hardly the sort of enthusiasm inspired by a fake Frank declaring, "Branson, baby. This is where it’s at. "
Then it hit me: Why would she travel all this way for a version of her own cute small town?