Hot, hot, hot–hot car, hot music, hot springs–is the theme of this 275-mile drive amid the wooded Ozark Mountains of southern Missouri and through sparsely populated Arkansas.
Branson, Missouri, calls itself the “live music capital of the world.” The town, implausibly, has 6050 residents and more theater seats than Broadway. We’re talking about 56,000 backsides on cushions. Country music is what made Branson famous, but the bill of fare also includes comedy and variety, with shows from as early as 9:00 a.m.
Highway 65 runs southward from Branson to Harrison, Arkansas, where downtown’s tranquil, tree-lined square has a poignant memorial to the 140 hopefuls who left in 1857 en route for California. They all died or were kidnapped during the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah.
Harrison is also where the really great driving starts, as Highway 7, one of the Natural State’s scenic byways, snakes and switchbacks into deep, river-cut valleys, over crests, and along ridges with great views to east and west. The road runs through folksy Booger Hollow-“Population 7 countin’ one coon dog”-before dashing down to the Arkansas River’s valley.
At Dardanelle, we turn west for Paris, then enjoy a road that climbs to within a short walk of the summit of 2753-foot Mount Magazine, Arkansas’s highest point. Hang-gliders jump off a cliff while climbers try to stay attached at one of several breathtaking viewpoints.
We scamper down the mountain and rejoin Arkansas Scenic Byway 7 at Ola. This smile-a-mile road eventually reaches Hot Springs, the charming little spa city that in 1832 became the focus of what was, in effect, America’s first national park. Therapeutic waters flowing at 850,000 gallons a day made “The Nation’s Health Sanitarium” one of the western hemisphere’s most fashionable resorts. We end our drive by strolling along Central Avenue and relaxing at Buckstaff, the only one of Bathhouse Row’s elegant buildings where visitors can still “take the waters” in style.
Melody Lane Inn, Branson, Missouri (800-338-8598; www.melodylane inn.com). Within easy walking distance of major attractions.
Down Town Hotel & Spa, Hot Springs, Arkansas (888-624-5521; www.angelfire. com/ar/downtownerhs). One block from historic Bathhouse Row.
Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa, Hot Springs, Arkansas (800-643-1502; www.arlington hotel.com). Evokes the resort’s golden age of 1911-1939.
Do be prepared to make slow progress through Branson’s straggling theater district. Traffic often flows like molasses at absolute zero.
Do budget at least thirty minutes for Mount Magazine State Park’s visitor center.
Don’t visit Hot Springs on a weekend unless you like being kept awake as motorcycles roar along Central Avenue at 2:00 a.m.
Eat & drink
Landry’s, Branson, Missouri (417- 339-1010; www.landrys seafood.com). Very busy. Specializes in seafood and has a good wine list.
Neighbor’s Mill Bakery & Caf, Harrison, Arkansas (870-741-6455; www.neighbors mill.com). Their motto: “We knead your dough!”
Belle Arti, Hot Springs, Arkansas (501-624-7474; www.citiesintouch. com/bellarti). Candlelight, excellent service, top-notch Italian cuisine.
Missouri Division of Tourism (573-751-4133; www.visitmo.com).
Arkansas Department of Parks & Tourism (800-628-8725; www.arkansas.com).
Branson Convention and Visitors Bureau (800-214-3661; www.bransonchamber.com).
Hot Springs National Park (501-624-2701; www.nps.gov/hosp).
What we drove
Most of this challenging and inspirational route could have been created solely to delight the driver of a new Porsche 911 Carrera S. Germany’s iconic sports car provided huge reserves of power and grip while riding better than expected on poor surfaces. One Hot Springs lady studied the yellow coupe for several minutes, then said, “I didn’t know Ferrari made such a beautiful car.”