Looking for a gay-friendly mountain getaway with tons of charm? Just yell ‘Eureka! (Springs)’

ED WALSH | Contributing Writer   lifestyle@dallasvoice.com

Mardi Gras parade in Eureka Springs

OUT IN ARKANSAS | The Mardi Gras parade in Eureka Springs is just one of the many gay-friendly celebration in this welcoming town — the only one in Arkansas that lets gay couples register their unions.

It wouldn’t surprise most people to know that the rural community of Eureka Springs (population: 2,200) has a large evangelical Christian population. Indeed, the city’s best-known landmark — a seven-story statue of Jesus on a hill outside of town — is the third-largest statue of Christ in the world. Nightly outdoor passion plays draws Christian participants from all around the world. In another part of town, the stunning glass Thorncrown Chapel was ranked fourth on the American Institute of Architects list of 20th century structures.

Yet despite this fundamentalist bent, Eureka Springs has a huge gay community. The city’s tourist board estimates that as many as 30 percent of residents are LGBT.

The Northwest Arkansas town depends on tourism, with many visitors gay, making them an important part of the city’s economy. No wonder the city doesn’t celebrate gay Pride once a year, but three times with a trifecta of “diversity weekends.” The gay rainbow flag can be seen proudly displayed across town.

Eureka Springs began domestic partners registry three years ago and is still the only place in Arkansas where same-sex couples can register their relationships. The town also outlaws discrimination based on sexual orientation.

“I can’t imagine living anywhere else,” says Lamont Richie, the openly gay head of the Eureka Springs Transit System. Richie moved with his partner to Eureka Springs from Houston 18 years ago and said he has never felt safer. His partner, Steve Roberson, owns the Quicksilver Art Gallery.

The city’s laid-back style offers something for anyone, though it probably appeals more to couples than singles. There are no gay bars in town, though most are gay-friendly and some have nights that are targeted toward the gay community.

Even without any gay bars to speak of, there’s no shortage of gay-friendly watering holes. Eureka Live is one of the more popular bars for LGBTs — Wednesday nights particularly.
A good example of the city’s gay-friendliness can be found in the gay hotel accommodations website, PurpleRoofs.com: It lists in excess of two dozen gay-owned or -friendly hotels and inns, more than you’d find in most major cities.

About an hour’s drive from Fayetteville, Eureka Springs sits in the heart of Arkansas’ Ozark Mountains. It’s a seven-hour drive from Dallas and the closest major airport is the Northwest Arkansas Regional, itself an hour’s drive from downtown.

Eureka Springs was born in 1879 after word first got out more than a decade earlier that the city’s more than 60 springs may have medicinal healing powers. In its heyday (between 1890 and 1910), the city’s population was more than 20,000 — nine times what it is now. The medical tourism industry help fund the infrastructure that kept Eureka Springs on the tourists’ sights long after the waters’ healing properties were debunked.

Visitors often say Eureka Springs reminds them of San Francisco, from the steep hillsides to the Victorian architecture. Many homes are built directly into slopes with ground level entrances on top, bottom and middle floors (the Basin Park Hotel has street-level entrances on each of its four floors).

Named by American Style magazine as one of the top 25 arts destinations in the U.S., the area’s serene beauty attracts artists who keep Eureka Springs’ more than 30 galleries stocked with some of the finest homegrown art you will find anywhere.

Diversity Weekends usually take place in April, August and October, which include a series of parties and social events. Each weekend features a gathering in Basin Park in which couples are encouraged to gather and embrace each other in unison. Upcoming weekends are Aug. 6 and Oct. 29.

Hotel rates are generally the most expensive in October when people flock to the Ozarks to view the spectacular fall foliage. But no matter when you come, rates are very reasonable, with budget hotels starting around $39/night; you can find a nice B&B for not much more than that.

The only exclusively gay hotel, the rustic Magnetic Valley Resort, sits on three acres on the outskirts of the city and offers a heated pool and sauna. The historic Crescent Hotel and Spa is gay-friendly and very appreciative of the gay market. Even if you are not staying there, be sure to stop by for a nightly ghost tour — the hotel embraces its haunted residents almost as much as the city does its gay ones.

Visit EurekaSprings.org. For information special LGBT events, visit DiversityPride.com or EurekaPride.com.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition June 18, 2010.