Travel

This Small Town in Arkansas Celebrates Pride All Year Round

If it's a drag show you're after, head to Eureka Springs, population 2,000.

JeremyMasonMcGraw.com/Moment/Getty Images
JeremyMasonMcGraw.com/Moment/Getty Images
JeremyMasonMcGraw.com/Moment/Getty Images

There’s a saying among the LGBTQ+ community in Eureka Springs, Arkansas: “Not even the streets are straight.” 

It’s barely hyperbole: Over 30 percent of the 2,000 residents in this Ozark mountain town identify as LGBTQ+. The winding roads are narrow and dizzying, with zero traffic lights; it’s not uncommon to see a confused out-of-towner driving the wrong way up a hill, to the ire of residents and all those that know the Eureka rule: Just park and walk. 

In 2012, Eureka Springs became the first city in the red state of Arkansas to endorse same-sex marriage. When marriage equality passed in May of 2014, Jay Wilks-the director of LGBTQ+ organization Out in Eureka-and his husband Keith were second in line to tie the knot. They became the fourth same-sex couple ever married in the South, thanks to logistics: The measure passed on Friday night, and Eureka’s license office was one of the few opened on Saturday, with people driving in from all over to make their relationship status legal. 

“Eureka is Pride every day. The city is so accepting,” says Wilks, who originally hails from Oklahoma City. Rather than throw a Pride parade in June, Out in Eureka coordinates not one but three “Diversity Weekends” in April, August, and November.  (For official Pride events, residents head to nearby Fayetteville, Dallas, Kansas City, or Tulsa).

The Washington Post/ Getty Images
The Washington Post/ Getty Images
The Washington Post/ Getty Images

Drag legends like Lady Bunny and Miss Coco Peru have performed at past Diversity Weekends; playwright and actor Del Shores put on a show one year. There’s drag bingo, art exhibitions, live music, guest speakers, educational workshops, and even meet-and-greets to find new friends or, perhaps, a significant other. Buy a wristband for $5 and get a discount at over 60 participating businesses.

One of the best memories I have of Diversity was when I was on stage introducing some of the drag performers,” Wilks recalls. “And I looked across the street, and all these people had just stopped and lined up in front of the shops. There were people in motorcycle gear, grandparents with grandkids….and they were watching the drag show. To look out and see that mix of people, chills just went up my spine.” 

On Saturdays at the “Diversity in the Park” event, rainbow leis are handed out to the crowd at 12:15; then at 12:30 is the PDA, the public display of affection, which according to Wilks is the largest display of affection in the Midwest. “The park is just packed with people. Straight people, gay people, parents with kids. Everybody’s doing that one kiss for that one photo.” He notes that there used to be protesters, but none since 2017. Right before the pandemic, they went through 800 leis.

Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Alvarado
Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Alvarado
Photo courtesy of Jeremiah Alvarado

If the people of Eureka Springs seem particularly relaxed, there’s a good reason. The town was first billed in the 1800s as a vacation resort; tourists were drawn to the supposedly healing waters of its cold springs. The medicinal qualities were eventually debunked, but the springs remain, with upwards of 63 within city limits. You can stroll past them on the Eureka Springs Natural Springs Trail, visit the spectacular lagoon at the Blue Spring Heritage Center, or just choose your own adventure. Stay at the Palace Hotel, which features the last remaining bath house to use spring water.

Another vestige from the Victorian era is the city’s spectacular architecture. Eureka’s entire downtown is a designated historic district, and a self-guided walking loop takes you past houses that date back to the 1800s (you can also take a trolley-the roads are pretty steep). 

Unsurprisingly, many of them come with ghost stories-like the stately 1886 Crescent Hotel, recognized as one of the most haunted hotels in America. It leans into its legacy with nightly ghost tours and murder mystery plays, but it’s not the only game in town: The Basin Park Hotel offers a “Spirits of the Basin Tour,” and the Victorian-era cemetery has a variety of creepy walking tours, some led by guides wearing period costume.

shuttersv/Shutterstock
shuttersv/Shutterstock
shuttersv/Shutterstock

Other than ghosts, you might see a sixty-seven foot tall Jesus. Eureka is home to a world-famous Passion Play-a performance of Christ’s last days on earth, which religious acolytes travel from all around the South to witness. The Christ of the Ozarks memorial statue-the largest of its kind in the US and fourth largest in the world-embraces the town, arms-outstretched, from its 1,500-foot perch on Magnetic Mountain.

The play, its conservative fanbase, and its seemingly startling contrast to the area’s LGBTQ+ scene is the subject of the 2019 documentary The Gospel of Eureka, narrated by musician and actor Mx Justin Vivian Bond. The film also helped showcase the inclusive spirit of Eureka Springs, and just how fun it can be: It spotlights the bar Eureka Live, which holds weekly drag shows and is a self-proclaimed “redneck Studio 54” the rest of the time. 

“We definitely saw more people coming to Eureka after the movie,” says Wilks. During Diversity Weekend, drag shows can also be found at bars like  The Rowdy Beaver, and BREWS. The historic Grand Central Hotel brings in Drag Race girls like Willam, over-the-top drag splendor fitting in its historic Victorian digs.

You could spend a whole weekend in Eureka Springs and only frequent LGBTQ-owned businesses. For accomodations, check out the clothing-optional Magnetic Valley Men’s Resort or get a cabin at the Pond Mountain Lodge & Resort, featured in Out magazine. For something historic, try the Grand Central Hotel established in 1883, or the Ridgeway House B&B from 1908. The Wanderoo Lodge and Gravel Bar will set you up with a range of guided outdoor activities; for a woodsy option, try the Iris Hill Glamping Resort or the Grand Treehouse Resort

You’ll encounter all the classic small-town charm you could possibly handle in Eureka’s hilly streets: art galleries and boutiques, soda fountains and really good fudge. You get your hair done, or buy herbal supplements, blown glasspotterysoap, popcorn, handmade clothing, candy (in a store named Sugar & Spite), or nuts (that one’s called Eureka’s Nut House. It’s worth clicking through for a photo of a squirrel in a straitjacket.) And that’s only scratching the surface of Eureka’s LGBTQ+ presence. Not bad for a town of 2,000.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on InstagramTwitterPinterestYouTubeTikTok, and Snapchat!

Vanita Salisbury is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer. Please give her all the fudge. 

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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