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Branson, Missouri, feeds columnist’s soul — and belly | News OK |

Branson, Missouri, feeds columnist’s soul — and belly | News OK

BRANSON, Mo. — I’ve had a love affair with the Ozark Mountains for more than 20 years. Since I first breathed in those hills and hollers in northwest Arkansas, I’ve been seduced back countless times. The Ozarks feed my soul — especially in the fall when the leaves change colors.

I hadn’t visited Branson, though, since Branson Landing debuted in 2006. It’s more than worth the about 4 ½-hour drive from Oklahoma City, if you just relaxed right there at the well-appointed Hilton Branson Convention Center, as I did last month — and shopped, ate and listened to live music at the more than 100 stores and restaurants along what looks like a river but is really Lake Taneycomo, a man-made reservoir on the White River.

If you stay elsewhere in Branson, a free trolley will deliver you to the Landing. Kirkland’s and the Bass Pro Shops are there and Bass Pro’s sister restaurant, White River Fish House, which juts out on the water. I had catfish and jalapeno cornbread that was delicious.

The locals have a saying that “No one starves in Branson.” They ain’t kidding.

A few blocks opposite Branson Landing is historic downtown Branson with two breakfast choices — institutions really: The Farmhouse Restaurant and Clockers Cafe, where you can enjoy a hearty ham, grits and biscuit kind of day-starter. If there’s a wait, no worry. Pop into the charming 100-year-old dime store next door — Dick’s 5 10 — to view the owner’s arrowhead collections, World War II prints signed by guys who flew them and other displays, or buy a toy cap gun, a Golden book, chiffon scarf or specialty soda. The store literally is packed with a mix of nostalgic and funky/quirky stuff.

Back to good eats. It’s mostly not the rides that annually draw millions of visitors to Silver Dollar City, but the 60 craft shops and unique boutiques, including parlors that every year make 90,000 gallons and pounds of homemade ice cream and candy, respectively. Between browsing or Christmas shopping at glass-, pottery-, leather-, candle-, basket-, soap- and jewelry-making shops where artisans, in a re-created 1880s mining town, make crafts on site, visitors literally eat their way around the 100-acre park.

Aside from favorites like pulled pork sandwiches, turkey legs, foot-long pretzel dogs on a stick, double-battered/double-dipped fried chicken and hot apple dumplings with cinnamon ice cream, the park just this year introduced some 200 new healthier items, including strawberry, spinach, antipasto and vegan bean salads. My favorite is their signature succotash, a stir fry of okra, corn, squash, chicken, green peppers and onions cooked in 5-foot skillets. You can learn how to make the tasty dish yourself at an on-site cooking class taught by resident chef and homegrown Missouri girl Debbie Dance Uhrig (who also swears by adding vodka to her pie dough for flakier crusts).

Uhrig is among the park’s 1,300 employees, 60 percent of whom have 20 years or more service. The employees, or “citizens,” joke that after two years, you’re a lifer; you’ve become part of the park’s culture. You can more than feel that pride and utmost customer service as you walk the comfortable, tree-shaded pathways of the park while a steam train shrilly rings “Woo, Woo!” on a regular basis.

The roller coasters, water, carousel and other rides are tucked into nature, in a circle around the park. The wooden coaster Outlaw Run and multi-looping steel coaster WildFire drop down the Ozark mountainside at thrilling speeds. Meanwhile, a new two-minute Time Traveler coaster, which will debut this spring, will reach speeds of 50.3 miles per hour and feature a 100-foot high point, 90 percent vertical drop and individual cars spinning 360 degrees.

To burn off all the vittles you’ll undoubtedly consume, be sure to leave time for a one-hour tour of Marvel Cave, which starts in the gift shop and is included in the day pass. Designated a National Natural Landmark, the cave features a 20-story entry room and many awe-inspiring rock formations.

Here are other shows and attractions worth checking out:

• Raiding the Country Vault at the Starlite Theatre: Billy Yates (who composed for George Jones, Kenny Chesney and others), Michael Peterson (who sang the hit songs “From Here To Eternity” and “Drink, Swear, Steal Lie”) and other top industry talent treat you to the greatest country music hits ever, with tidbits about the various artists’ lives displayed on a background screen. Think about a preshow happy hour, with craft beer and barbecue nachos, at the adjacent Gettin’ Basted restaurant next door.

• Titanic Museum: View about 400 actual artifacts, like room keys, china plates, the sole surviving Bible, mirrors, hairbrushes, deck chairs, postcards or menus, mailed or recovered from the ship that sank on its maiden April 1912 voyage, two hours and 40 minutes after striking an iceberg, taking all but 705 of the 2,208 souls aboard. Submerge your fingertips in 28-degree water, the same temperature that killed capsized passengers in 20 minutes. Grab on to the railings of a recreated broken-in-two, angled deck. And listen to a present-day pianist play “Nearer, My God, to Thee,” the last song played by the eight musicians who, versus scrambling to get on life boats, played on to calm and comfort passengers.

• Chicago’s Navy Pier Ferris Wheel: Moved to Branson last year, it stands 150 feet tall, holds 240 passengers in its 40 gondolas and lights up at night.

• Showboat Branson Belle: Enjoy a full-course dinner and a variety show — with singing, unbelievable tap dancing, magic and comedy — while cruising Table Rock Lake at 5.5 miles per hour.

• Bigfoot on the Strip: Attractions include a slingshot ride, arcade, mini golf and yummy food truck dining.

Editor’s Note: The Oklahoman was a guest of Branson/Lakes Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and Silver Dollar City.

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