By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
So I ask you: should I cry or laugh?
Drinking tea in a King's Cross caff ...
— Joe Jackson, “Down to London”
LONDON — Any visit to Britain’s sprawling capital requires a proper cup of tea or two, or 10. To leave London without having tea is like going to Seattle and not having coffee or fleeing Paris without having wine. The question is only this: What kind of tea drinker are you?
Centuries after British nobility infused the tea habit throughout their culture, tea drinking in today’s London can be enjoyed two ways: dressed up or dressed down. The daily teatime tradition still thrives throughout the city — unadulterated but also with some creative, sometimes wacky, twists. Whether you take your tea with pinkies out in the afternoon or at other times of day (early morning, late night, as part of happy hour) with no jacket required, Britain’s megalopolis still offers teatime tastes for every palate.
On a recent well-steeped jaunt, we found everything from classic tea at the Ritz (all silver pots and tuxedoed waiters) to more casual afternoon teas with whiskey, gin and nearly naked burlesque dancers. Old-fashioned or newfangled, here are two different paths through the world’s capital of tea.
Where to stay: If you’re going this way, go all the way. Avoid the bustling locations of most Mayfair hotels and splurge on the five-star glory of the Dorchester Hotel (Park Lane, 44-20-7319-7139, thedorchester.com) on the east edge of Hyde Park. The old girl has been renovated recently, and the spacious rooms and suites received a nice touch of brightness in addition to all the posh. Check the hotel’s site for frequent package deals.
Shopping: Start with some shopping along Piccadilly, an easy walk east of the Dorchester. Everyone will tell you to head north for the famous Harrod’s department store; do not listen to them. Harrod’s is a zoo, so crammed with tourists it’s nearly impossible to shop, or breathe. On Piccadilly is the more stately and elegant Fortnum & Mason (181 Piccadilly, 44-20-7734-8040, fortnumandmason.com). Each floor, from housewares to fashions, is roomy and easy to roam, and the store’s tea department beats Harrod’s hands down. Gaze at the big, gold canisters full of oolongs and darjeelings, then ask the friendly staff for recommendations.
History: Check out the first known Western-style teapot, from 1670, at the Victoria & Albert Museum (Cromwell Road, South Kensington, 44-20-7942-2000, vam.ac.uk), a splendid way to spend a few drizzly London hours. The collections here focus more on everyday art and crafts, including quite a bit of teaware, such as a lovely display of pots on two shelves in the Asia gallery. Then catch a cab due east and visit the Twinings tea store (216 The Strand, 44-0207-353-3511, twinings.co.uk/footer/our-shop), on the site of the original shop Thomas Twining opened in 1717. It’s a tiny little place but contains the full array of Twinings tea offerings, including new flavor blends and teas from South America, as well as displays of historic family artifacts, from paintings of the tea dynasty’s leaders to old advertisements and tea boxes.
Afternoon tea: Throw a teacup in central London and you’ll hit at least three hotels offering a traditional afternoon tea. Book your afternoon respite at one of these two (well in advance — like, weeks). There’s the Ritz (150 Piccadilly, 44-20-7493-8181, theritzlondon.com), allegedly the standard by which all afternoon teas are judged. “Tea at the Ritz is the last delicious morsel of Edwardian London,” Helen Simpson wrote about the experience of sipping and supping in the hotel’s golden, glowing Palm Court. The tea is fair (served in wonderful heavy silver pots), the service likewise. Because the experience is entrenched as a London must-do, the Ritz packs in five seatings a day. So you can’t exactly linger. (Seatings daily at 11:30 a.m., 1:30, 3:30, 5:30 and 7:30 p.m., from $39 per person)
For the best hotel afternoon tea experience for the price, go back to the Dorchester. Tea in the Promenade is magnificent — excellent food (including my new favorite word: the pre-dessert), superb service (they don’t just bring you hot water to revive your pot, they bring you an entirely fresh pot) and a much more comfortable setting (opulent and formal, of course, but considerably less stiff). A tip: The Dorchester’s tea is booked way ahead, like most hotels; however, the maitre d’ told me that when the weather in London is beautiful (a rarity, granted), he gets “20 to 25 percent no-shows.” The lesson, if you’re in town without a reservation: Stop by on a sunny day; they hold reservations for half an hour, and if a party your size doesn’t show, the table’s yours. (Seatings daily at 1:15, 2:30, 3:15, 4:45 and 5:15 p.m., from $35.50)
Where to stay: Just west of the West End, near the busy shops along Oxford Street, is the Mandeville Hotel (8-14 Mandeville Place, 44-20-7935-5599, mandeville.co.uk). For a small, boutique hotel, the Mandeville is smartly appointed, classy and comfortable. Its central location (and close to the Tube) makes it an easy home base for exploring London, but it also has a restaurant and full services for when you return. Check the website for holiday specials.
Shopping: For a contemporary view of the tea world, do not miss Postcard Teas (9 Dering Street, 44-20-7629-3654, postcardteas.com), a bright, sunny shop on a small, shadowy lane just off Bond Street. The owner, Tim d’Offay, has traveled the world for 15 years, imported tea for 11 years and had Postcard Teas open for five. Postcard Teas, get it? “In one sense, these teas are the postcards I send from around the world,” he said. The labels of each tea he sells are designed to look like postcards — the 50-gram postcard bags allegedly can be written on like cards and sent legally through the mails — with each cancel stamp listing the tea’s origin. The cheerful, chatty d’Offay cups teas for visitors to sample. Try his hearty Mayfair Breakfast blend, or the cocoa-y flavors of Yunnan Red Cloud, a second-pick summer tea (the first pick is used to make pu-erh).
Afternoon tea: London tea service isn’t all starched collars and prim protocol. Several places offer twists on the tradition, many of them geared toward attracting men. The Mandeville Hotel, in fact, offers a Men’s Afternoon Tea (3-5:30 p.m. Mon.-Sat., 1-5 p.m. Sun., $23.50). Instead of dainty finger sandwiches, you get stick-to-your-ribs appetizer fare, such as a sirloin sandwich with red onion and thyme jam (awesome), grilled veggies with brie on toast, a sesame beef skewer and chicken satay. Choose a stout tea to stand up to the stronger food flavors, like the smoky Mandeville Special Blend, made especially for the hotel by London’s Jing. It pairs beautifully with the whiskeys and bourbons on offer in place of the usual champagne accompaniment. The Palm Court at the Langham Hotel (1C Portland Place, Regent Street, 44-20-7965-0195, palm-court.co.uk), an easy walk east of the Mandeville, offers a daily G&T (seatings daily at 2, 2:30, 4:30 and 5 p.m., $41) featuring a menu based on the flavors of a gin and tonic, which is what you receive first, expertly mixed and in a nice tall glass. Then comes the tea, based on the botanicals of Beefeater 24; it’s a green tea base with added juniper berries, coriander, lemon peel and other whole ingredients, resulting in a strange but enticing tea, musty and musky, tasty with the munchies.
For something completely different, the Volupté Lounge (9 Norwich Street, 44-20-7831-1622, volupte-lounge.com), a self-described “decadent little supper club” hidden away in a basement near Chancery Lane, offers Tea & Tassels (about once monthly, $42), an occasional Saturday afternoon tea with entertainment: 1930s-style burlesque show. Dolores Delight belts show tunes (a stunning achievement given the tight corset), while Millie Dollar emerges in stunning gowns and then emerges from the stunning gowns, down to her pasties and tattoos. Through it all, a traditional afternoon tea menu of sandwiches and scones is served. Sounds odd? Zoe Fletcher, who created the program, says, “Well, that’s me. I like to have a gossipy tea with my friends, and I love burlesque, so it just fit.” Even stranger: I was the only male in the joint one Saturday. The rest of the crowd: all bachelorette parties. Don’t come for the tea (it’s not great) or the food — through, bizarrely, the pair of scones we got at Volupté was the best of anyplace we visited. There’s a joke in there somewhere.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
We're sitting in the Palm Court of the Drake Hotel, about as opulent as a room is going to get, and we're sipping tea.
It's just us — the dozen people attending Tea Extravaganza 2009, an independent tea tasting led by Chas Kroll of the American Tea Masters Association — and the clinks of teacups reverberate around the well-appointed room, even above the trickle of the centerpiece fountains.
Kroll is discussing the selection process for the fine, downy leaves that make up the Chinese green tea he's pouring into tiny "aroma cups." It's called Melon Slice (Top Liu An Gua Pian), from PeLi Teas, and it's a knockout — aromas of sandalwood, flavors of salt and smoke, a surprisingly bold expedition across the tongue.
"See?" says Kroll, smiling demurely. "You wonder why people still drink sodas at all."
At this particular tea party, that seems to be the rub. Around the table are 12 people who are passionate about tea — tea shop owners, tea sellers, tea lovers and three newly graduated tea masters from Kroll's ATMA course. These are people who want to affect that change, weaning people from sodas and flavored waters — even from coffee — and initiating them into the wide world of tea.
There's a lot of talk about "taking tea to the next level" and "bringing it to the masses." They mean the American masses, of course.
Almost everywhere else in the world, tea is ubiquitous, bested in popularity only by water itself. Here in the States, though, tea still largely means Lipton bags brewed in a large steel urn and dumped over ice with a lot of sugar.
"It's a challenge, educating people about it," says Daphne Jones, a Chicago marketing specialist who helped Kroll organize the Drake event earlier this month. She's also a newly certified tea master. "People understand some of the health benefits of tea, but that's about it. They don't see that there is this world of flavor and localization and customization, the same way they've discovered in their food over the last several years.
"It can be daunting, sure, but once people understand that you can have a beer-level tea or a Dom Perignon-level tea, they can start appreciating it like they do with wine."
That's where this crew hopes to help. Whether it's Kroll and his expanding tea master minions, or the many tea sommeliers cropping up at shops and restaurants around the country and throughout Chicago — all they are saying is give teas a chance.
Kroll, 62, hasn't just capitalized on the rising American interest in tea, he capitalizes it. He trademarked the phrase Certified Tea Master. Because, he says, if he didn't, who would?
"I created the American Tea Masters Association out of frustration, basically," he says.
Kroll ran his own tech company through the '80s and a tea company, Royal Dynasty Tea, in the '90s.
"Vendors would tell me all the time, 'You'd make a great tea master.' I didn't know precisely what that meant, but I liked the sound of it. So I went looking for the organization that bestowed such a title, and it didn't exist. ... So I created it."
A Chicago native "and still a die-hard Cubs fan," Kroll established the ATMA from his current San Diego home. He created the rules for becoming a Certified Tea Master and wrote the manuals for the 13-week course he teaches — over the Internet via Skype — to aspiring tea lovers around the country.
"A lot of people say you have to be in the industry for 10, 20, even 30 years to be considered a tea master," he says. "My students use accelerated learning techniques so they can at least come out of the starting gate running."
Kroll's program, he says, is aimed at the everyman. Still, the recognized professional route for aspiring tea business owners is through another program, the Specialty Tea Institute run by the New York-based Tea Association of the United States. The STI program features two foundation levels plus a professional certification.
Kroll's youngest graduate is Christopher Bourgea, 21. A student at Anderson University outside of Indianapolis, Bourgea sews his own tea bags and plans to use his certification as the backbone of his own tea company aimed at potential tea lovers his age.
"I am all about loose-leaf tea, but most people are nervous to have loose-leaf tea. I know that if I want to make tea popular with high school and college-aged kids, I'm going to have to put the tea in bags. It is pretty much the only way they will try the teas. I hope to get people hooked with the bags and then move them over to the loose-leaf."
LEARNING BY TASTE
Rodrick Markus, on the other hand, is just a dealer. He gets the good stuff, the pricey stuff — it comes by the kilo — and likes to offer prospective customers a little sample to get them hooked.
"I have friends and clients who tell me, 'Rod, just treat me like a drug addict. When I get low, you've got to get me more,' " Markus says while simmering his latest batch of quality pu-erh tea on a recent afternoon at the Park Hyatt's NoMI Cafe. "I guess you can call me a 'tea sommelier.' That term is big now, depending on which circle you're in.
"I don't see how anyone who's less than 80 years old and doesn't have a gray beard reaching the floor can be called a 'tea master.' But whatever you call me, I'm glad to be helping people learn more about tea."
Markus owns and operates the Rare Tea Cellar based in Chicago. After practicing psychology and hypnotherapy, he became an importer of wine and cigars, but 12 years ago he switched to tea.
"Tea has all the positive aspects of wine and cigars — the unique flavors, the pleasurable sensory experience, the terroir — without anything remotely negative," he says. "My old friends say, 'Aw, Rod, you've gone soft on us. We used to sit around and smoke cigars and drink wine, now you just sip tea.' Then they taste what I've got, and they get it."
The Rare Tea Cellar is aptly named. At NoMI, he doled out a delightful Emperor's Ceylon Platinum Tip tea, tasting of honey and pine, and a 1990 Vintage Reserve Silver Needle Pu-erh (yes, tea lovers, a white pu-erh!).
Markus loves the pu-erhs, teas that are pressed into bricks and aged for many years in cellars or caves.
"I'm always into the rarest of the rare, with anything. If I saw a $30 doughnut, I'd try it." Then again, he realizes he can't impose his grandiose designs on everyone. "You can't be too out-there or too much of a stickler, or you'll alienate everyone. We want to bring people into this experience, not push them away. So we try to make it as easy as possible."
RTC teas sometimes come sealed in five-gram packages, for instance, because who actually has a gram scale at home to measure just the right amount? He also sells many hand-tied display teas, which are tea leaves tied into a sphere about the size of a plump grape — simply drop them in the pot and pour the water over, then watch them unfurl beautifully.
Markus didn't pursue any tea certification. His education has come through his experience as a buyer.
"I learned more from tasting tea over and over and over," he says. "You learn more from bad tea than good tea. I've tasted the same teas 1,000 times. When I hit about my 100,000th cup, I started to finally get what was happening."
Does the average person have to try hundreds of thousands of cups of tea to get it, too? Of course not. But Markus uses his saturated experience to train servers and chefs at restaurants such as Chicago's NoMI and L2O (where he's planned 15-course meals featuring 15 tea pairings), so that the average person can sit down, ask and answer a few questions and be matched with the Goldilocks tea — the one that's juuuust right.
BEYOND BLACK AND GREEN
But what about those of us who rarely enjoy the rarified air of fancy restaurants? Who can we turn to for advice on which tea goes best with a chocolate bar or our favorite take-out sushi?
Sam Ritchey at TeaGschwendner is happy to oblige. His business cards say "tea sommelier," but he calls himself an ambassador. He, too, has an informal education in tea.
"I'm not a buyer, I don't taste teas to grade them for sale. I taste teas because I enjoy them," Ritchey says one afternoon in the clean, well-lit State Street shop. "I make it more tangible and appreciable for [customers]."
Ritchey organizes small tastings and other events at the German company's shop. He recently led an evening sampling of nine Himalayan Darjeelings.
"Granted, we're not to the point where the public is interested in something like the Himalayan tasting. That will always be a niche," Ritchey admits. "But people are now getting that there's a broad world here to explore, just like wine. There are options now for people who want to step beyond the box of black or green teas, and there are more people to lead them.
"We've already come a long way. Look at the sophistication of coffee in this country now. I'm not saying that Starbucks is a specialty company, but it's brought us a long way from Sanka."
Ready to bag the bag?
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
To start sampling good loose-leaf teas, don't go it alone. Not only are there more tea sommeliers in town to guide your first steps, there also are numerous opportunities to join other tea explorers at events like these:
The Chicago Food Planet's strolling, lunchtime Near North Food Tour visits seven spots, including a stop at TeaGschwendner for a brief run-down on the basics of good tea. See it, smell it and taste it with your friends, or make friends along the way.
$42 a person, includes all food tastings; www.chicagofoodplanet.com
Local tea blogger Lainie Petersen (www.lainiesips.com) organizes frequent outings (five in the next month) to local tea shops and restaurants, bringing like-minded tea lovers together to sip and socialize.
Register at www.meetup.com/tealovers
In the cup
Tea sommelier Sam Ritchey organizes educational and sumptuous tea tastings at the TeaGschwendner shop. This fall he's got:
"The Extraordinary History of the Ordinary Teabag," Sept. 17, 7:30 p.m.
"A Cultural Journey Through the World of Tea," Oct. 29, 7:30 p.m.
"An Evening With Edmon: Premium Green Teas," Nov. 12, 7:30 p.m.
$10 per person, reservations required; 1160 N. State, (312) 932-0639
At the table
Rod Markus of the Rare Tea Cellar guides diners through special tea dinners, pairing multi-course meals with great teas, at restaurants around Chicago. His next events include a Japanese Kaiseki Tea Ceremony on Oct. 11 at L2O, 2300 N. Lincoln Park West, and a Slow Food Tea Dinner on Nov. 19 at the fusion restaurant Naha, 500 N. Clark.
See rareteacellar.com for details.
Local tea lover Susan Blumberg assembled a handy guide, All the Tea in Chicago (Desvoeux, $9.99), which outlines the basics on just about every tea shop and afternoon tea service in Chicago and some suburbs. Use it to plan some outings with your friends.
For details, go to desvoeuxpress.com/all theteainchicago.html.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Birds caw and twitter in the jungle. Koi circle lazily in a small pond. We're sitting in an old barn transformed into an open-air studio, where Eva Lee is pouring some tea.
Lee wipes the rim of a large tea bowl, circling the teapot over its perimeter. She pours the light, bronze liquid into tiny porcelain "aroma cups." This is a gung fu cha tea ceremony, informal and chatty.
The new oolong we're about to drink had about only 50 yards to travel from bush to teapot. It grows under the shady canopy behind the studio. The proximity wouldn't be surprising in prolific tea-producing regions. But we're not in China or Japan. We're at Lee's home and garden in the jungle, just outside Volcano Village on the Big Island of Hawaii.
The 50th state is often celebrated for its Kona coffee, the premium beans grown on the Big Island's west side. But these days there's a new stimulating beverage on the island: tea. Actually, it's the oldest and second-most popular drink in the world, next to water.
Lee is one of the island's new breed of tea pioneers. She planted her first camellia sinensis bushes ("the mother block," she now calls them) nearly eight years ago in a semi-sunny spot outside the Volcano Village studio she shares with her husband, Chiu Leong, a potter and photographer.
Tea was introduced to Hawaii in 1887 but, over the years, farmers' fits and starts with the plant failed to produce a commodity-level product. Still, the Big Island's rich, volcanic soil and moody microclimates mirror many of the places where tea thrives — the slopes of China, the forests of India. Around the turn of this century, the U.S. Department of Agriculture and several state agencies gave interested tea growers in Hawaii a leg up in starting small-scale tea operations.
"The people behind the programs weren't as interested in turning tea into a big cash commodity for Hawaii. They wanted people who would experiment and play, developed something new and interesting," Lee says, between pours.
"My husband and I knew virtually nothing about growing tea before we started," she adds. "We were interested in starting something new that would have meaning to us, and we contacted Dr. Francis Zee [of the Pacific Basin Agricultural Research Center in Hilo], who was really trying to get it going here. He was skeptical, but when I mentioned that Chiu was a potter, the door went wide open. He didn't want to turn to farmers for this, because they wouldn't take the risks artists would."
Seven years later and Lee — a founding member of the Hawaii Tea Society, around 40 members strong — is hosting tea ceremonies in her Tea Hawaii studio. It's nestled in the rain forest behind Volcano Village, a comfy tourist town on the edge of the still-steaming Kilauea crater. She samples her own teas, as well as those of neighboring grower Mike Riley, pouring them into handmade cups and pots made by Leong.
Like wine, tea plants take a few years to establish before real production can begin. Lee's plants are thriving now. Her teas are for sale around the island and are served — in creative recipes, as well as alongside them — at restaurants such as Alan Wong's in Honolulu (808-949-2526, www.alanwongs.com).
"We have just the right temperature, just the right humidity," Lee says of the Hawaii climate, as she pours another cup. "We grow ours here under the shade, under the canopy, which is slower but makes the tea sweeter — better for matcha," referring to the Japanese-style powdered green tea.
Other Big Island growers specialize in different varieties of tea. Rob Nunally and Mike Longo of Onomea Tea Co., west of Hilo, use the same plant to make darker oolongs, assams and other black teas.
"I love tea — good black tea," Nunally says, walking back from several newly planted rows of the dark-green bushes. "I grew up in Fiji, drinking tea as a kid. Once we realized this opportunity was available to us, and we had this land, we thought, 'Perfect!' "
Like Lee, Nunally and Longo had no dirt under their nails when they starting planting their 2,400 tea bushes four years ago around their cliff-top home overlooking Onomea Bay. Nunally sells computers and Longo is a chiropractor.
Also like Lee, the "tea boys" at Onomea Tea have no ambitions to become big commercial tea farmers. Theirs is a specialty operation, run on a small scale for boutique buyers.
"We just plant and pick. We do the wilting over there on our dining room table," Longo says, pointing. "Then we host teas for groups and tourists. It's the perfect-sized operation to be both a beloved hobby and a serious business."
The couple behind Mauna Kea Tea has slightly bigger goals. On the slope of another of the Big Island's towering volcanos (this one dormant), Takahiro and Kimberly Ino grow "a little oolong, really on the light side, some yellow tea, but our main thing is green tea." Still a young operation, planted just three years ago, the Inos have previous experience in organic farming and hope to make Mauna Kea Tea more widely available around Hawaii.
"We'd like to keep it a speciality, but we'd also like to provide commodity items for people on the island," Takahiro Ino says. "We like to be connected to the land and let people know they can enjoy that deeper connection, too, and it can be affordable."
Whether serving a niche market or a wide population, as Lee says, "there is room for all Hawaii tea growers."
By 2010, according to the Sage Group's yearly Tea Report — this year headlined "Specialty Tea Is Hot!" — annual tea sales in the U.S. are projected to double to $10 billion.
"When we traveled in China," Takahiro Ino says, "we were amazed by how Chinese culture is so connected to tea, and how it's a part of everyday life. It's like coffee is here. Everywhere there you find a teahouse. It's very natural to them.
"If we and the other Hawaii tea growers can influence that in this corner of the world or anywhere," he adds, "that would be great."
IF YOU GO
Most tea farms and gardens on the Big Island welcome visitors:
- Tea Hawaii is nestled in the jungle behind Volcano Village, a cozy outpost along Hwy. 11 at 4,000 feet, near the entrance to Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. Eva Lee welcomes visitors for tours and tea service by appointment; (808) 967-7637, www.teahawaii.com. Lee's studio and tea plantings also are part of a joint tour with the nearby Volcano Winery; the Wine & Tea package includes a guided tour of both places at 9:30 a.m. daily, $25; (808) 967-7772, www.volcanowinery.com.
- Big Island Tea is another upstart garden between Hilo and Volcano Village, in a town called Glenwood; (808) 968-1800, www.bigislandtea.com.
- Onomea Tea Co. also welcomes visitors and groups by appointment to its farm with stunning cliff-top views of the Pacific. It's west of Hilo on Hwy. 19 on the renowned Hamakua Coast, www.onomeatea.com.
- Mauna Kea Tea is further west on Hwy. 19 in Ahualoa, on the slopes of its namesake volcano. They host groups by appointment; (808) 775-1171, www.maunakeatea.com. Mauna Kea's tea fields are also part of a tour, organized by the Hawaii Tourism Authority, including two other Hamakua Coast farms (the Long Ears Coffee Co. and the Volcano Island Honey Co.) at 8:45 a.m. daily, $75; (808) 775-1000.
Between Hilo and Volcano Village, be sure to stop at the Hilo Coffee Mill. Despite the name, this shop also sells and serves locally grown teas. Owners of the shop also recently planted their own tea bushes out back; (866) 982-5551, www.hilo coffeemill.com. (A tip: For the coffee junkies in your party, drink the Ka'u brew here instead of Kona coffee. It's much smoother and more delicious.)
WHERE TO STAY: Hilo offers a few convenient, comfortable options. But Volcano Village is the snuggest spot to lay your head.
Kilauea Lodge has 12 roomy rooms and two cottages ($170-$225) just off Hwy. 11. It's homey, has up-to-date amenities (even WiFi) and sports a fine restaurant with rich dinners and fresh breakfasts; (808) 967-7366, www.kilauealodge.com.
On the other side of Hwy. 11, the Volcano Rainforest Retreat has four creatively designed, amenity-packed cabins nestled into the rainforest ($110-$260). Tranquil and cozy, these retreats pamper merely by the beauty of their natural and man-made surroundings. The hot tub during a rain forest rain shower ain't too bad, either; (800) 550-8696, www.volcanoretreat.com.
IN HONOLULU: No doubt you'll be flying into Honolulu before hitting the Big Island. Take the time for a Japanese tea ceremony demonstration at Urasenke Foundation, 245 Saratoga Rd., in the shadow of Donald Trump's Waikiki hotel that's under construction. In an exquisitely crafted teahouse, visitors are shown an abbreviated version of the formal gongfu ceremony (a full one would last up to four hours), complete with matcha tea and tasty treats. At 10 a.m. Wednesdays and Fridays; (808) 923-3059.
By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Two weeks after his reconnaissance of the coast via helicopter, Artie is leading a meeting of six wealthy, gay developers, explaining the plan about to be hatched. They're going to turn the sleepy seaside town of Long Spit into a hot spot for gay and lesbian tourists — whether the residents of Long Spit agree to this transformation or not.
"Setting couldn't be more perfect," he says, describing the town's protected beach, existing galleries and antique shops, quaint bed-and-breakfast inns and a huge hotel ripe for rehab. " 'Course, this sort of thing has never been done from a standing start. Guess we have to figure how to get it moving on all fronts at once."
That's from the beginning of William Storandt's carefree novel The Summer They Came, and in the rest of his story the developers do get things moving on all fronts — through sneakiness and deception. Basically overnight the rainbow flags unfurl, and hilarity ensues.
In reality, however, gay travel destinations have come out of the closet much more slowly, many of them building on century-old traditions as "artist colonies." But in recent decades, as gays and lesbians became more visible and empowered — and as businesses have developed an attraction to the plentiful gay dollar — they began openly marketing destinations as safe, fun getaways or party zones for the queer as folk and the L words.
In the travel business, this is just good niche marketing: Gays and lesbians travel more than most people. According to a recent survey by the National Gay Newspaper Guild, seven out of 10 U.S. adults say they've traveled within the country during the last year, but those numbers jump to nine out of 10 for gays and lesbians. The survey found they fly more, too: U.S. adults claimed an average of 1.3 flights in the last year; gays and lesbians claimed an average of 2.9 flights.
Few tourist destinations have gone untested by gay travelers, but certain spots are pinker than others. Historians are still offering competing theories as to how San Francisco and its infamous Castro district became the holy grail for gay travelers, pointing to everything from a West Coast libertarian tradition rooted in piracy and gambling to the simple fact that as a huge embarkation point for servicemen during World War II the city was occupied by, ahem, a lot of single and/or lonely men.
From Provincetown, Mass., to Key West, Fla., and from Russian River, Calif., to Rehoboth Beach, Del. — the histories of gay-friendly towns often are similar. In almost every case, it began with an "artist colony." The artists came for waterside inspiration, invited celebrity friends and threw, as one Provincetown chronicler described, "socially lenient" parties. Years after the world wars, when the towns shouldered economic slumps, gays and lesbians usually were the ones who came back, bought depressed properties, rehabbed and renovated, and — often beginning around the dawn of the 1980s — opened the B&Bs. Gay business guilds formed, ads showed up in The Advocate (the national news magazine for gays and lesbians), and old-timers grumbled a bit about all the same-sex hand-holding on the beach — until the new sales tax receipts came in.
From arty to party
In the twin towns of Saugatuck and Douglas, Mich., directly across Lake Michigan, the summer they came was in 1910. That's when the Art Institute of Chicago established its Ox-Bow summer art school in the small lakeside town, says Mike Jones, one of three owners of The Dunes resort there. "That set everything in motion, really," Jones says of the town's gay life. "As a result of that artists' colony, this town has always had a gay presence."
"We were born this way," he adds about the town.
On either side of the mouth of the Kalamazoo River, Saugatuck and Douglas actually were born as fur trading posts and lumber camps. But by the late 1880s, several passenger ships were leaving Navy Pier for the six-hour trip to Saugatuck-Douglas, making the area the perfect getaway for work-weary Chicagoans, many of whom strolled down the gangplanks and into the town's long-gone dockside dance hall, the Pavilion. Weekender cabins popped up soon after. "By then, Saugatuck already had a reputation as a kind of anything-goes community," said Larry Gammons, the original owner of The Dunes resort. "It was a real getaway. That is, people came here to let loose a little bit. It was like Las Vegas — what happened here stayed here. At least they hoped."
Cynthia Marquard, of Chicago's Aqua Terra Travel and author of a travel column for Chicago's Windy City Times gay and lesbian weekly for more than 20 years, remembers going to Saugatuck "as a younger woman" in the 1970s with her partner Darlene. "It used to be terribly tacky," she says. "It was the meeting place between Chicago and Detroit. Gay guys would come over from Chicago on their motorcycles. They got every kind of crowd."
Gammons and partner Carl Jennings, now semi-retired in Saugatuck and running Bentley's Antiques on Center Street, used to weekend in Saugatuck (which used to be referred to as "the Cape Cod of the Midwest") from their Grand Rapids home in the 1960s and '70s. He said they looked around one day — at all their gay friends in Saugatuck-Douglas, the boat parties they were having, the gay business people who would sigh during their Saugatuck weekends and say things like, "If only we could just live here" — and saw an opportunity. When a piece of property came available, they pounced.
In 1981, they opened The Dunes, which is now the largest gay and lesbian resort in the Midwest. It's on 20 acres in Douglas, has dozens of rooms and its own complex of nightclubs. For gays and lesbians on vacation, it's party central.
The transition wasn't easy, though. "There was a lot of resistance," Gammons says. "Even though this town was accustomed to a gay presence for all those years, all of a sudden here was this large property. Instead of 25 or 30 people at the Blue Temple [gay bar], there were a thousand at The Dunes. It was jarring to some folks."
The arrival of The Dunes was a bit more public than some locals preferred. "There'd been ... let's call them eccentrics in this town for a long time, and that was fine," said a Saugatuck business owner who requested to remain anonymous. "When they opened The Dunes, though, it was a kind of public declaration — 'Here we are!' — and I think most people around here were a lot happier when it was an intriguing town secret rather than a tourist attraction."
The very fact that in 2005 a story about gays and lesbians features a heterosexual requesting anonymity instead of the other way around, however, is itself an indicator of the sea change that's taken place in and around Saugatuck-Douglas. "Really, this is a surprising place for this kind of acceptance to happen," Jones says. "We're right in the middle of right-wing, hunting-lodge hell, but in Saugatuck-Douglas, people just seem to check their issues in the car. Part of that is because it's gays and lesbians who fixed up a lot of the town, and because our tourism helped fuel a lot of the tourism that keeps the town afloat."
Felicia Fairchild, executive director of the Saugatuck-Douglas Convention and Visitors Bureau — which now markets the area as "The Art Coast of Michigan" — is quick to point out that gays and lesbians are a minority among Saugatuck's tourists: 15 percent to 20 percent. She is also, however, quick to credit their importance: "What we like about the gay travelers is that they are conservative, well-educated and they tend to promote the town well and remain quite loyal."
Gammons himself tries not to overestimate the importance of his property, The Dunes. "People think that because there's a gay resort and a gay bar someplace, that all gay people will support it," he says. "The truth is that a lot of gay people travel to places with gay bars and gay resorts — not because they want to go to or stay at those places but because it means that the city itself is gay-friendly. They may end up staying at a quiet B&B and may never go to a bar, but the existence of gay establishments means they are more likely to be comfortable throughout the community, that they'll be accepted at the straight restaurants and other places. That's the side of gay tourism that I think most people don't think about, and that's what's been most important in the development of this little town."
Fortunately, Saugatuck's development has been comparatively slow. We say "fortunately" because that means the town is still somewhat of an affordable getaway. Elsewhere in America, the gentrification engendered by the initial wave of rehabbing gays and lesbians has created an ironic backlash. The same bohemians and gays who breathed new life into many sleepy tourist towns now can't afford to live there anymore.
"It's shock what's happened in Key West," Gammons says. "The gay community there is almost gone now." And in a New York Times article a month ago, writer David Colman noted this about Provincetown: "A real estate boom has spread unease, pitting wealthy newcomers and developers against the townies, artists and free spirits who give the enclave its bohemian character and who now fear it is being gentrified out of existence."
The growth of gay tourism in Key West was a bit more ... intentional, hearkening back to the boardroom in Storandt's novel. Marquard knew a former Chicagoan, the late Walt Malone, an ad man who helped capitalize on the gay tourists exploring Florida in the '80s. "He was part of a group who said, 'If we gather together a bunch of the guesthouse owners and we decide to make this a gay destination, it will become a gay destination.' "
Key West didn't start as an official artists' colony, but it had its share of gay artists. Playwright Tennessee Williams moved to Key West because he enjoyed being able to swim year-round. The nearby naval base and its steady stream of single men didn't hurt, either. He lured like-minded pals, including writer Truman Capote, who bought houses and threw parties. Stephen K. Smith, a sales manager for the Monroe County Tourist Development Council, sees this as the foundation that Malone and others built upon with the Key West Business Guild.
"It was a targeted effort," Smith says. "We bought space in the Advocate's old pink section, where all the co-op ads were, and started selling Key West as a gay destination. Daytona Beach had been a gay mecca in the early '70s, drawing a lot of the New York and D.C. crowds. The Parliament House had popped up in Orlando, with a drag bar and a dance floor. Then Marlin Beach [south of Miami] drew the Daytona crowd, and it just kept moving south."
Smith works this gay and lesbian history into the trolley tour he has scripted, and he cites figures from his office of up to 625,000 gay and lesbian tourists visiting Key West every year. But even Smith reluctantly acknowledges the island's shifting fortunes — that gentrification, while good for the economy, has driven up prices on the island and moved the demographic of those tourists up the economic scale.
At the end of curling Cape Cod, Provincetown has gone through several transformations since the Pilgrims landed there — from Yankee whaling town to Portuguese fishing village to bohemian artist enclave to, today, one of the world's most popular gay resorts.
Surprisingly, each of those segments of society contributed to the "P-town" of today. Karen Krahulik, a former Duke University professor who starts as a Brown University dean in January, turned her dissertation on this subject into a book, Provincetown: From Pilgrim Landing to Gay Resort, published in June (NYU Press, $29.95).
"The turning point in Provincetown was not so much in the '80s, when the real marketing began, but in the post-war era," Krahulik says. "This is when a group of town leaders attempted to get rid of the gay element in town" by adopting ordinances designed to shut down gay and drag bars, "and negotiating that struggle was pivotal in terms of Provincetown's success as a gay community. Some towns succeeded in those efforts, but in Provincetown that didn't happen ... The town debated back and forth, and in the end I don't want to say the gay community succeeded as much as I'd say that Provincetown succeeded as a community and became an accepting enclave. ...
"Provincetown markets itself heavily as 'the landfall of freedom.' This, after all, is where acceptance and tolerance came ashore."
During the last two decades, the same process of gentrification has swept across the cape, much of it spearheaded by gay and lesbian entrepreneurs and business people. And now that the town is rehabbed and renovated, the property values are through the roofs.
"But now the average price for a single-family residence there is about $650,000. That tells you right there who can afford to live there," Krahulik says.
And where's the next gay and lesbian hot spot? A cool place, actually.
"Given the political climate here and there, I'm booking a lot of trips for gays and lesbians to Canada," Marquard says. "Everyone wants to go get married. And now they can."
IF YOU GO
Just a 2-1/2-hour drive around the lake from Chicago, these twin towns are chiefly a summertime escape, but the fall foliage is turning around the harbor and along the beaches — and most shops and restaurants stick it out through the holidays.
Gays and lesbians are, of course, welcome to stay at The Dunes, 333 Blue Star Highway in Douglas (269-857-1401, www.dunesresort.com). Rooms and cabins are available, and with a nightclub, bar and cabaret in the complex, you may never have to leave the place. Except to grab great grub at the Kalico Kitchen across the street, featuring fried catfish good enough to make a Southerner weep.
The Belvedere Inn, 3656 63rd St. (269-857-5777, www.thebelvedereinn.com), is gay-owned, if not gay-marketed; it does a brisk business in weddings throughout the summer. Vacationers of every stripe will find this converted mansion on the edge of Saugatuck a rewarding respite — the friendly charm of a B&B, the amenities and style of a boutique hotel. Tea on the terrace (look at those gardens!) and dinner in the restaurant (one of the co-owners is the chef) make for one splendid evening.
While strolling Saugatuck's shops and galleries, stop into the Pumpernickel's, 202 Butler (269-857-1196), for tasty and affordable sandwiches, brunch items and a glass of wine. For dinner, you might avoid the dark, foreboding seafood dives and sports bars in Saugatuck and cross the river to Douglas for the chic notions of Ameri-can cuisine at the Blue Moon Bar & Grille, 310 Blue Star Hwy. (269-857-8686), or the "comfortably upscale but never uptight" Copper Grille, 24 Center St. (269-857-7100), with a great patio and refreshing menu.
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
It was way late in Las Vegas one breezy summer night,
and I couldn't sleep. Not that this is a problem in Vegas --
sleeping is uniformly discouraged in that mecca of mayhem
and momentum — but it was a predicament for me. My intrepid
party and I had spent the day riding an actual roller
coaster around the New York, New York Hotel and Casino
complex and a virtual roller coaster in the IMAX "Race for
Atlantis" ride in the Caesar's Palace mall. There was also
the harrowing bungee ride atop the Stratosphere tower and
the swooping simulation of Star Trek: The Experience. I'd
seen a lot of action, I smelled of muscle cream and the
after-dinner coffee at the all-you-can-gorge buffet was
furthering my punishment by holding my eyes open.
I padded downstairs to the lobby of our hotel, the
Debbie Reynolds Hotel and Casino. Unlike the other glitzy
amusement-park hotels in Vegas, you can actually pad into
the lobby of Debbie's place. There's a homier air to the
place, and we'd even run into Mama Reynolds herself in the
halls before. She'd begun referring to my companion and I
as "the boys."
Two elderly women were in the tiny casino, maintaining
looks of fierce determination and making a couple of nickel
slots sing their siren song. A lonely, bored bartender
slumped over the waitress stand watching ESPN across the
tables in Bogie's Bar. It was unusually sedate for 2 a.m.
in a Vegas hotel, and I didn't mind a bit.
I wound up in the movie theater, a small screen and
about 50 seats that was kept running 24/7. I sat down in
the middle of "The Tender Trap" and chuckled my way through
that wild party scene. After that, there was some
documentary footage of Bing Crosby. Reporters were asking
him questions as he walked into a Hollywood studio office
one sunny day in a crisp baby-blue suit and a neat straw
hat. He was talking about a new film project that would get
under way as soon as his co-stars finished their "gig in
Vegas." He was waiting on them because "Vegas is more fun
These days, the idea that Vegas is more fun than
Hollywood is a debate drawn on generational lines. The old
guard laments the recent Disneyfication of the Strip, the
blasting of landmark casinos to build live pirate ship
shows, and the odd transformation of gambling into "gaming."
The young families of the '90s, though, cheer the
family-friendly attractions and the covering up of the
city's inherent sleaze element. You can still have fun in
Vegas, but in vastly different ways.
Debbie Reynolds' hotel is a good example of the desert
city's molting. The dumpy little building still looks like
an excavated Holiday Inn and still stands on Convention
Center Drive just a block off Vegas' famed Strip, but it's
out of Debbie's hands and into a Bulgarian head-lock. A
debt-plagued Reynolds sold the struggling hotel and casino
at auction this summer, weeks after my charming visit. The
buyer: the World Wrestling Federation. We visited again
just before Christmas, and the switch from "Singin' in the
Rain" to "Wrath in the Ring" had already begun.
The once colorful staff has vamoosed, replaced by
neckless security men and empty floors where Hollywood
movie memorabilia had been gathered, its memories
flourishing in this humble cranny. The photos of classic
film stars that lined each floor's hallways were up for
grabs. Debbie's magnificent Hollywood Movie Museum was
vacant. When warm weather returns to the valley this
spring, an entirely new tower will be constructed over the
existing casino, which will be enlarged and remodeled. The
whole structure will be covered in black glass and boast a
giant neon lightning bolt running from the roof to the
entrance. Wrestlers and wrestling fans of every dimension
and shade soon will hoot and growl and yee-hah up and down
the formerly dignified hallways. There will be much ooh-ing
Which is not a bad thing. Vegas is all about ooh-ing and
ahh-ing, and the transformation of Las Vegas — from frenzied
flophouse to family-friendly funhouse — has rescued the city
from a slow slide into extinction. With hotel owners
constantly trying to one-up each other, the displays and
attractions are the most bold and dazzling you're likely to
find anywhere in the world. Vegas is now the most
iconoclastic city in history, determined to provide its
visitors with a one-of-a-kind experience.
Still, while Vegas erects an enormous replica of the
Great Sphinx, builds a sparkling new casino with a richly
Italian theme and opens countless buffets offering food
from around the globe, the city's uniquely American
heritage is disappearing faster than a roll of quarters at
the Wheel of Fortune slot machines. It's great to spend a
day or two wandering through the wonders of the southern
Strip, but even the most bubbly traveler eventually suffers
from stimulus overload. After a few days of costumed
chambermaids and animatronic waiters, you'll probably start
hunting someplace you can get a drink without an Egyptian
barge hanging over the bar. Such remnants of a more
grounded Vegas still exist. In fact, we found our favorite
across from the Debbie Reynolds hotel: the Silver City
Casino. Sure, it's got a theme, but unless you look up at
the dirty Western wallpaper over the gaming tables, you'd
never know it. The carpet and the change ladies have been
there since the '70s, and it's worth braving the entrance
for the cheap and tasty food alone (esp. the 99-cent
breakfast after 11 p.m.). The Silver City, on Las Vegas
Boulevard just north of Convention Center Drive, has a
compact floor of slot machines that pay off better than
most of the name-brand casinos. There are no attractions or
dazzling displays here, save the colorful blend of frat
boys and grizzled old-timers at the craps table. Drinks are
even cheap when they're not free to gamblers. The Silver
City is nothing but clean, hard gambling with nothing to
distract you from the simple and perilous joys therein.
Just south down the Strip is the elegant Desert Inn.
Aside from booking quality musical entertainment, the
Desert Inn sports the ultimate Vegas casino. Again, no
gimmicks or amusements here — just a beautifully decorated
room full of pricey tables. You'll see the vacationers in
Bermuda shorts at tables next to the oil barons in tuxes.
Nearby is the Sahara, one of the first hotel and casinos
built on the Strip. The casino there is pretty shabby, but
the breakfast buffet is an inexpensive lifesaver when the
harsh light of day rouses you from your hotel bed. Unlike
most of the city's notorious buffets, the Sahara's morning
spread is simple and hearty.
Most of the casinos downtown retain their former dignity
despite Fremont Street being turned into a pedestrian mall
covered for several blocks by an arched ceiling with hourly
light shows. This is where much of the city's hard-line
bettors have retreated — plenty of plaid sports jackets and
Foster Grants murmuring into payphones. The Gulch and the
Nugget still boast slots and tables worth the investment.
While you're downtown, enjoy a bountiful but affordable
continental meal at the Plaza. The entire Fremont strip is
your atrium view.
When the tables have taken you for granted, blow the
rest of your cash on shows. This is the real pleasure of
Vegas. Skip the overblown fads of "Lord of the Dance" and
impersonator Danny Gans and take in the classics before
retirement takes them away. Siegfried and Roy are still
taming tigers at The Mirage, and Lance Burton, Master
Magician, still tricks the eye at the Monte Carlo.
Two of the best shows involve the kicking up of heels.
"The Great Radio City Spectacular" at the Flamingo Hilton is
a classic Vegas extravaganza, full of feathers and thighs
and sequins. It stars the Radio City Rockettes plus Susan
Anton or Paige O'Hara, and it's running indefinitely with a
dinner show and cocktail show every night except, oddly
enough, Fridays. The other show features just as many
fabulous dresses even though the stars are really men.
"Boy-lesuqe" with Kenny Kerr is the longest running
headlining show in Vegas, and the drag is phenomenal.
Kerr's bawdy repartee with the audience and his crew will
have you in stitches, and if you're lucky he'll do
Streisand. "Boy-lesque" runs Tuesdays through Saturdays at
Jackie Gaughan's Plaza.
Also not to be missed is the Liberace Museum. Drive east
on Tropicana in search of it, but don't be hunting for a
palacial estate. The museum is housed in four different
spaces of an east Vegas strip mall, the main building is
probably an old IHOP. The cheap admission is worth the
chance to see the gaudy leftovers of this enormously
popular late performer. The rhinestone jumpsuits are one
thing, but the rhinestone Rolls Royce is a sight to
Check schedules for Debbie Reynolds, too — her show is a
spunky set of singing, dancing and movie memories. She'll
pop up for performances every now and then because she
still lives in Vegas, even though commercially — as the
wrestlers take hold — there's not much of a home for her
BY THOMAS CONNER
© Tulsa World
EUREKA SPRINGS, Ark. — You could hurl a chunk of the
native limestone just to the north and east and hit a small
child in Branson, Mo., but that entertainment boneyard
culturally is worlds apart from this charming hamlet in the
Sure, Eureka Springs gets its share of buses packed with
sightseeing seniors, but these same Ozark hills serve as
neat dividers, organizing the area into distinct cultural
compartments. You can visit whichever part of Eureka
Springs you want to visit — hibernating in your B&B or
exploring the ridges and restaurants. Best of all, even
after its recent growth spurts, you can soak up the town's
tightly woven community spirit without once feeling like
the yokel tourist. Most of the buses stay out on the
highway, dumping the polyester press at the ham-n'-beans
"kountry kitchens" and sub-Branson hootenannies like the
Ozark Mountain Hoe-Down. The real treasures are in the
heart of the historic old town — treasures for those seeking
a romantic, easygoing getaway that is wholly organic and
adult. Let the families meander the topography to find the
Great Passion Play or the surreal and dinky Dinosaur World.
The heart of Eureka Springs, though, beats with a truly
romantic and natural pulse. Exposition
The unique character of Eureka Springs is easily
explained by its history. As the name suggests, this
particularly picturesque area of northwest Arkansas first
lured visitors to its natural springs. Indians said the
waters bubbling from the rocks had healing powers, a claim
white settlers latched onto in the late 19th century.
During the Victorian era, the city blossomed around the
construction of numerous bath houses and sanitoriums, where
desperate health seekers came to "take the cure" of the
As modern medicine developed, water cures became quaint
and fell out of favor. Two world wars and the Great
Depression took a heavy toll on Eureka Springs, and many of
its grand Victorian buildings were torn down to salvage the
lumber. The town quickly became a relic, full of abandoned
mansions and unkempt springs.
In the '60s, though, two distinctly different groups
came together to recover the area. As explained in "How We
Got This Way (The Short Version of a Very Long Story),"
published on the web site for the Eureka Springs Tourist
Center (http://www.eureka-usa.com), the two groups had
different ideas of what it meant to restore Eureka's "sacred
ground." Groups of artists, writers and nature advocates
collected in the historic district, restoring the old
architecture and opening bookstores, galleries and
restaurants. Out on the highway, Christian visionaries
Gerald and Elna Smith created their own tourist mecca: the
Great Passion Play, with nightly dramatizations of Jesus
Christ's last week on earth.
It's the same dichotomy that makes Tulsa such an
entertaining place to live — the high concentrations of both
liberal, civic-minded people and conservative,
religious-minded people. The diversity is rich and makes
the place difficult to market.
And isn't that what you want most in a vacation spot --
something that's difficult to describe, tough to drape with
splashy advertising and full of surprises? Sounds like
heaven, and Eureka Springs is more than a little slice of
it — a la mode.
Autumn is the ultimate chance to take in Eureka's
splendors, too. The dollops of tree-covered peat that
carpet the area transform into a rainbow of color each
October, like Magic Rocks in a goldfish bowl. This year's
summer heat may soften the autumn palate a bit, but it's
still the ideal chance for adults to get away, take stock
of time and have a cappuccino while the newlyweds clatter
down the brick streets in horsedrawn carriages and Ford
Escorts strung with soda cans.
Here are some suggestions for a lovers' weekend away:
Don't miss Autumn Breeze, home of one of the finest
meals I've ever enjoyed. This simple, elegant restaurant
just south of U.S. 62 on Arkansas 23 (past the Bart Rocket
show, thank heavens) bills itself perfectly as "A Dining
Pleasure." As you gaze upon the lit-up woods behind the cozy
restaurant, enjoy the coconut beer-battered shrimp — with a
heavenly orange-horseradish sauce — before a wholly
satisfying meal. The Veal Olympic swims in an angelic
lobster sauce, and the Beef Wellington is baked to
perfection. The crowning glory is the famous chocolate
Still feel like Mexican food? Avoid the poor service and
reheated chow at Cafe Santa Fe and opt for innovative
vegetarian fare at The Oasis. Hidden down a set of stairs
on Spring Street, this tiny kitchen — and you eat
practically right there in the kitchen — creates tasty and
fiery new combinations from the same old formulas.
Enjoy fine continental cuisine at Jim and Brent's
Bistro, on Main Street south of the museum. The cozy
cottage high on the bluff also offers a breezy deck for
relaxing outdoor dining. Don't skip the cheese loaf as an
As autumn breezes grow crisper, duck into the Mud Street
Espresso Cafe in a basement at the first bend in Spring
Street. It's a clean, well-lighted place with a kitchen
open late, but the creative coffees and sinful desserts
(from peanut butter-chocolate cake to sweet potato pie) are
the main attraction.
Devito's, on Center Street just past Spring Street,
balances elegance and ease, all the while serving
magnificent Italian food. It's just far enough removed from
the bustle to make it both accessible and peaceful.
Before you depart, make the brunch at the Cottage Inn,
west on U.S. 62. Recently featured in Bon Appetit magazine,
this airy abode serves a divine midday meal, from the basic
pastries to succulent polenta cakes. Be sure to get the
banana nut bread, too.
Whether you drop in for drinks or stay for the grand
meals, Rogue's Manor on Spring Street is a captivating
rest. The giant panes in the Hideaway Lounge gaze onto the
vertical cliff against which the curiously designed B&B was
constructed. The view only gets better with each sampling
from the bar's wide array of single-malt scotches.
Bring your Visa card
The cool shops are centered in the old downtown area,
along Main Street and up Spring Street. Even the T-shirt
shops lack the overbearing kitsch of most tourist traps. In
fact, seek out one T-shirt shop, in particular:
Geographics, "Purveyors of Decadence in Academia." They print
just about anything you can dream up to put on a T-shirt
and are far more clever with their designs than those who
give too much away by wearing "I'm With Stupid."
Many of the most clever shops can be found along the
high and low ends of Spring Street. Women will enjoy
Charisma, 121 Spring, an arty closet featuring earthy
designs by local artists. Its sister store just down the
wooden stairs is the Back Porch. It's heavy on teddy bears
but keeps the precious quotient palatable by including some
smart antiques and colorful china and stemware.
Antediluvian decorators will love the shop next door,
Garrett's Antique Prints. The bins are full of matted
prints, maps and etchings, many from books, dating back
into the 16th century — many surprisingly affordable.
Down the hill are some intriguing
candles-clothes-and-oddities shops. Crazy Bone, 37 Spring,
has a unique line of hardwood wall clocks with handpainted
faces, in addition to its array of funky furnishings and
Brighton leather goods. New Agers will have to pace
themselves among the street's numerous retailers brimming
with candles, bath salts, aromatic therapies, herbal
remedies, native drums and a geologist's archive of
crystals and stones. Magic moments
Some recommendations for non-billboarded attractions,
treats and oddities:
The city is named after its waters, and there are 63
active springs within the city limits alone. Many of them
are on private property, but pay attention as you stroll
along streets in the historic loop for the dozens of small
parks surrounding some of the springs. Most are planted
like cottage gardens and make sweet moments of quiet
Several local churches make for profound or merely
curious stops. Thorncrown Chapel, off U.S. 62 West, is a
breathtaking example of architecture incorporating nature.
It's high-paned sanctuary transcends the boundaries between
indoors and outdoors and is liable to bring out the
gooseflesh no matter what your spiritual beliefs. St.
Elizabeth's Catholic Church is worth a look-see, too. It
made "Ripley's Believe It or Not" because it's the only
church known that you enter through the bell tower.
After a long day of exploring and climbing those
Arkansas hills, treat yourself to a massage at the Palace
Bath House, 135 Spring Street. This local monument is the
oldest Eureka Springs bath house still in operation. Though
the minerals are now added to the water, the service and
treatments available are exceptional, peaceful and
Mushy couples should pack an old pair of shoes and head
down the Beaver Dam scenic loop off U.S. 62 West. Keep your
eyes peeled for the infamous Shoe Tree along the side of
the road. You can't miss it — it's a towering oak and it's
absolutely covered in old shoes. The origin of this oddity
is rooted in a legend of young love: apparently, about 15
years ago, Billy and Becky went for a ride after a local
hoe-down and wound up in the back seat along the side of
the road during a violent storm. In a fit of glee, they
took off their shoes and ran about in the rain. Billy
lovingly joked about Becky's ratty, old work boots, and she
dared him to fling them into the tree. He tied the laces
together and hung them on a branch on the second toss.
Since then, couples have tossed their own shoes into the
tree as a sign of flowering affection. So far, the
sneakerosis has led to no lasting botanical damage.
For the night
Though I could find no official designations, surely
Eureka Springs in the bed-and-breakfast capital of the
world. It seems as though 90 percent of the town's
Victorian homes — from the cottages to the sprawling barns --
have found new lives as boarding houses.
The two hotels looming on the town's physical and
cultural skylines are the Basin Park Hotel — built on a hill
so that every floor is a ground floor — and the Crescent
Hotel — complete with a documented ghost.
On our most recent visit, we tried something different.
The Enchanted Forest is about two miles north of town on
Arkansas 23, and it features three spacious cabins high on
a hill and deep in the woods. Despite the steep drive up
the hill (bring your SUV), the silent seclusion was welcome
after each day of hiking busy streets and trails. Each
cabin features a full kitchen and a hot tub, plus a roomy
deck with the ultimate view of the coming fall foliage.
Rates are amazingly reasonable. Call (800) 293-9586 for
information and reservations.
IF YOU GO
Information: For all the information you will ever need
about Eureka Springs, dial up the web site for the Eureka
Springs Tourist Center, http://www.eureka-usa.com. Really,
this site has everything you need to know about where to
stay, where to eat, where to go, where to shop, how to get
there and how everyone else got there. You can even fill
out a form requesting specific information and receive a
reply via e-mail.
Where: The easiest way to get there: head east on U.S.
412, which branches off of U.S. 44 just before Catoosa. The
road becomes the smooth and scenic Cherokee Turnpike before
cutting through Arkansas. At Springdale, head north on U.S.
71 about 20 miles to Bentonville. Turn east onto U.S. 62
and wind your way to Eureka. Be warned — the curves will tug
at your stomach. (You can also continue east through
Springdale and weave your way through state highways to
Arkansas 23, which approaches Eureka from the south. It's
much more scenic, but slower.)
Accommodations: In choosing someplace to stay, consider
what you will be doing there. If you plan to spend most of
your time strolling around the historic district, ask your
B&B if they're on or near a trolley route. It's a charming
town, but cramped, so parking can be problematic. Even so,
the trolleys don't run very late at night, so make sure you
won't be caught walking up those steep hills on a stomach
full of rich food and spirits.
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.