Branson of the 21st Century

By Christine Loomis

Behind waterfall Dogwood CanyonThe Branson, Missouri, I recall from nearly 20 years ago was all about kitsch with a small dose of nature and a side of downright tacky. Today, it doesn’t take long for visitors to discover that Branson offers a more sophisticated experience and a greater emphasis on Missouri’s lush, natural environment. Not that the kitsch has disappeared entirely.

There’s the 43-foot rooster at The Great American Steak & Chicken House and pseudo Mount Rushmore featuring mega heads of Elvis and Marilyn Monroe instead of Thomas Jefferson and Theodore Roosevelt. Yet even some attractions that seem tacky at first glance are intelligent, moving and thought provoking. Case in point: Titanic Branson.

The museum does beg the question, why here? The answer is John Joslyn, former Los Angeles TV producer and Branson fan who was co-leader on the expedition to the site of the famous wreck in 1987, which provided the framework for a TV documentary. Joslyn’s passion and expertise expanded into the permanent Titanic Museum attraction.

Don’t let the outside fool you. The building in the form of a smaller-than-life Titanic echoes some of Branson’s cheesier attractions, but the inside is utterly compelling. The interactive experience gives guests a feel for what life was like on the doomed ship, from the cramped third-class cabins to the grandest suite. More than 400 artifacts from Titanic are displayed.

Branson Zipline & Canopy Tours, Wolfe Creek PreserveAt entry, guests receive a boarding pass with information on a real passenger, then in the memorial room discover whether he or she survived the fateful trip. Along the way are experiences—a lifeboat to sit in, platforms tilted at alarming angles duplicating the increasingly sloping decks as the ship sank, a precise replica of the grand staircase to walk and a container of water the temperature of the frigid North Atlantic—28 degrees—to plunge a hand in. Among the most emotionally charged rooms is one dedicated to the ship’s musicians who heroically elected to play to the very end, a scenario that seems more Hollywood than real life but isn’t. My boarding card linked me to 22-year-old Bertha Moran, a factory worker from Troy, New York, who survived the voyage though her brother and most of her fellow third-class passengers did not. All the stories are told and all are moving.

When it comes to nature, Branson has an embarrassment of riches. The lush, forested hillsides of the Ozarks and two manmade lakes, Table Rock and Taneycomo, offer settings for land- and water-based adventures. Located seven miles north of town in Wolfe Creek Preserve, Branson Zipline Canopy Tours is an extensive network of zip lines, towers, bridges and trails. Tours range from 1.5 to 3.5 hours. Daredevils desiring maximum thrills can try a 100-foot vertical free fall from a tower; harness and safety lines notwithstanding, it’s formidable enough to unnerve even the bold. 

Entrance to the gallery bridge exhibiting early 20th-century art; photography by Timothy Hursley. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas. For all its downhome aesthetic and affordable prices, the area isn’t lacking for money. Bass Pro Shops founder John Morris, who started with a tackle business in the back of his father’s Springfield, Missouri, store, is on the Forbes list of world billionaires. The avid angler and conservationist acquired 10,000 acres of prime Ozark Mountain land south of Branson, a landscape of spring-fed trout streams, limestone bluffs, shady groves and waterfalls splashing into still pools. Dogwood Canyon Nature Park offers everything from hiking and biking to fishing, archery, horseback rides and tram tours. Its 6.5 miles of paved trails crisscross streams and handmade stone bridges, as much works of art as functional, and wildlife tours roll into Arkansas for up-close views of Morris’ herds of elk, bison and longhorn cattle.

The area’s most intriguing natural landscape is Marvel Cave with its vast Cathedral Room 300 feet below ground. Tourists have traipsed through these subterranean caverns for more than 100 years and tours include some 600 steps. Silver Dollar City, the stellar Ozarks-themed park built around the cave entrance, has rides, shows, excellent artisan demonstrations, a water park, restaurants and shops.

Branson is known for its theatrical shows. While some are persistently hokey or rooted in faded celebrity, others deliver engaging, contemporary entertainment. The Amazing Acrobats of Shanghai live up to their name with stupefying acts of balance and skills that meld traditional acrobatics and plate tossing with Cirque de Solei-esque flexibility and artistry.

Musicians of TitanicNot surprising, Branson dining is as varied as its attractions. On Main Street in historic downtown, leave the everything-you-don’t-need confines of Dick’s 5 & 10 to mosey over to Greek Gyros & Deli for authentic gyros (traditional or vegetarian) served with tzatziki sauce made fresh by the Greek owners. For an elegant dinner, book a table at Chateau Grille at Chateau on the Lake where fine dining—including a balsamic blueberry salad and fall-off-the-fork barbeque short ribs—comes with superb sunset views over Table Rock Lake. There’s good reason to splurge on the famous Southern fried chicken at Silver Dollar City, and Branson Landing, a riverside setting of retail shops, activities and restaurants, offers additional choices.

It’s not a restaurant but home cooks should pop into The Spice Agent on Main Street to peruse the extensive collection of usual and unusual spices, herbs and rubs—many ground and blended by hand by the affable owner, a wealth of spice knowledge. Tell him your favorite recipe and ask for suggestions to spice it up. My find: balsamic vinegar powder.

Branson hasn’t entirely shrugged off its hokey reputation, but it’s definitely garnering a new one and plenty to entice travelers who want something different.

Day Tripping in Arkansas

The author at the 21C hotel in BentonvilleMissouri’s neighbor offers two nearby towns and remarkably different experiences. Eureka Springs, 50 miles southwest of Branson, has long been a haven for artists. Amble along Spring Street and drop into galleries and boutiques. Good bets: Eureka Fine Art Gallery and Norberta Philbrook Gallery. Follow that with a beverage at Brews (a coffee shop and taproom). Outside of town, take a guided tour in Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, a haven for rescued big cats and other critters. The donation-dependent refuge also offers unusual lodging, including a tree house and an RV park.

Bentonville, HQ for Walmart, has an architectural and cultural masterpiece in Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Opened in November 2011, the facility was founded by the Walton Family Foundation and houses a permanent collection spanning five centuries. The architecture—expanses of glass, wood and metal overlooking and integrated into two ponds—takes its inspiration from the nearby natural spring for which the museum is named. Fittingly, Bentonville is also home to a 21C Hotel, the third property in the art-driven boutique brand and walking distance to Crystal Bridges. 21C has its own quirky artworks—look for bright green penguins in unexpected places—as well as the excellent Hive restaurant helmed by Chef Matthew McClure, two-time semi-finalist for the James Beard Foundation Best Chef. If you want to overnight in upscale digs, this is your spot.

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