Take a spin in a golf buggy at Branson, Missouri’s Top of the Rock.
Take a spin in a golf buggy at Branson, Missouri’s Top of the Rock.

American road trip you need to take

Thanks to brooding crime dramas including Sharp Objects and Ozark, this region has been made famous as dark, forbidding and dangerous.

But visit during the glorious autumn months and it couldn't be more different, greeting you with a dazzling riot of reds, oranges, yellows and greens tumbling over rolling hills for as far as the eye can see.

Tucked away in this sumptuous scenery are little gems of towns, offering world-class food, culture and the most unexpected delights you'll experience anywhere in the United States.

If you're looking for a road trip on which you aren't visiting all the same restaurants and attractions as your friends, forget the well-trodden paths down the California coast and Route 66, and try Missouri and Arkansas.

WHY YOU SHOULD DRIVE THROUGH 'FLYOVER COUNTRY'

The midwest is only vaguely known by Australians, and too often dismissed as rural, dull and devoid of culture - recipient of the cruel nickname "flyover country".

But to bypass states like Missouri and Arkansas (officially a peripheral southern state but part of the National Park Service's Midwest Region) is to miss out on not only excellent outdoor activities in its rugged landscape but the thrilling treats hidden within the vast natural beauty.

Missouri is known as the "Cave State", and most are located in the limestone rock of the Ozark Mountains. At Top of the Rock in Branson, you can hop in a golf buggy and drive yourself through the splendid scenery and into a dark cavern filled with stalactites and stalagmites.

 

Thornchurch chapel is set in woodland.
Thornchurch chapel is set in woodland.

 

The architectural gem is a popular wedding venue.
The architectural gem is a popular wedding venue.

 

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a world-class gallery that can compete with New York’s best.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art is a world-class gallery that can compete with New York’s best.

 

The city itself is similar to the better-known Pigeon Forge in Tennessee (home of "Dollywood") - a mini-Las Vegas filled with neon lights, country music shows and over-the-top theme park style attractions. Dolly Parton has an offering here too - her Stampede Dinner Attraction show - and there are endless rollercoasters, mini-golf courses, go-karting and a surprisingly good Titanic-shaped museum run by a local former crew member who led a wreck discovery expedition.

Just over the border in Arkansas lies Eureka Springs, a picture-postcard Victorian era Ozark town that could not be more different from Branson. If you thought this part of America was solidly Republican, this historic city built around natural springs has attracted just the opposite - a plethora of left-wing bohemians and artisans who hold weekly festivals. We visit at Halloween and the prettiness of the homes covered in cobwebs and pumpkins and preserved old hotels on winding hilly streets creates an atmospheric, horror movie effect.

Nearby is the magnificent Thornchurch Chapel, set in woodland and made of glass and beams, an architectural feat and wildly popular for weddings.

 

Branson, Missouri’s over-the-top attractions.
Branson, Missouri’s over-the-top attractions.

 

The impressive Titanic Museum.
The impressive Titanic Museum.

 

WORLD-CLASS CULTURE IN THE MIDDLE OF NOWHERE

The appeal of a city most famous as the birthplace of Walmart may not be immediately obvious. But the flourishing food and art scene in Bentonville is in fact an intriguing cultural phenomenon.

As the business grew into America's biggest retailer, founder Sam Walton made a demand. Every product with a presence at the superstore had to have an office in Bentonville. That means vast multinationals such as Heinz, Kellogg's and Kraft had to send at least one or two staff members to set up shop in this unassuming little town in the middle of nowhere.

These cosmopolitan professionals from New York and Chicago brought with them a demand for high-quality entertainment and culture. What's more, the wealthy Walton family made a point of investing in the area.

Whatever you think of the influence of massive corporations on art, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art opened by Sam's art-loving daughter Alice is one of the best galleries you'll see, up there with London's Tate Modern or New York's MOMA.

Stop in at The Hive for a spectacular lunch or dinner and be sure to try the pimento cheese starter with bacon jam.

 

Hipster Fayetteville — the Clintons’ former home — is a mecca for lovers of food, politics and cute bars.
Hipster Fayetteville — the Clintons’ former home — is a mecca for lovers of food, politics and cute bars.

 

In historic Fort Smith, we visited real-life Wild West brothel Miss Laura's and a National Historic Site featuring 19th-century military forts, gallows and wild stories of outlaws and sheriffs.

Hipster Fayetteville boasts top college football games, a burgeoning music scene and an elegant central square with popular farmer's market. It's also a foodie haven, where you can spend an afternoon devouring mouthwatering gourmet popcorn and inventive cocktails at the cosy Maxine's Tap Room, one of the oldest bars in Northwest Arkansas.

There are interesting attractions for those enthralled by US politics here, too. The fascinating Clinton House Museum is situated at the first home shared by Bill and Hillary, where they married in 1975 while working at the University of Arkansas School of Law. In the nearby state capital of Little Rock is Mr Clinton's Presidential Library, which displays gifts and mementos from his time at the White House, and a Purse Museum that chronicles women's lives through the ages using the style and contents of their handbags.

An important piece of history is Central High School, where visitors can take tours and learn about its vital role in desegregation. It tells the story of how nine nine African-American students persisted in attending class despite a violent mob of 1000 that saw the military calling in to protect them.

 

Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna will take you back in time for a mind-blowing food experience.
Jones’ Bar-B-Q Diner in Marianna will take you back in time for a mind-blowing food experience.

 

The delicious, homestyle pies at Wilson Cafe.
The delicious, homestyle pies at Wilson Cafe.

 

A bundle of cotton at harvest-time in the fields.
A bundle of cotton at harvest-time in the fields.

 

SOUTHERN DREAMS

The beauty of this road trip is that Arkansas is bordered by some classic destinations for Australians visiting the US - Tennessee, Mississippi, Louisiana and Texas - so you can tack other popular spots on to your journey.

Head through the state's agricultural region in the east towards Tennessee, and the vibe is unmistakably southern as you drive through endless fields of cotton, rolled up like giant reels.

Southerners are famously proud of their barbecue, and Arkansas is typically overlooked beside the celebrated versions in Tennessee or Texas. But at Jones' Bar-B-Q diner - a small, century-old rundown shack in Marianna - you'll find a mind-blowing example that attracts visitors from across the country. The award-winning smoked pork is prepared out the back in traditional cinderblock pits and served simply on sliced white bread with sweet and tangy sauce with slaw.

If you're looking for more homestyle options, Wilson Cafe serves grilled shrimp salads, sandwiches and mac 'n' cheese, plus the sort of American pie (think coconut or buttermilk) that would convert even the most dedicated lover of the meat variety.

In nearby Dyess, you can visit the isolated farmhouse that was the birthplace of Johnny Cash, restored to look exactly as it did when one of the state's most legendary musicians lived there with his impoverished family.

From here, it's just a hop, skip and a jump over the Mississippi River into Memphis and on to the rest of the world.

You'll just have a different story to tell.

This reporter travelled courtesy of Brand USA and American Airlines and stayed at Marriott Hotels.

The picture-postcard town of Eureka Springs.
The picture-postcard town of Eureka Springs.


Surfer badly injured in remote reef break

Surfer badly injured in remote reef break

Arlon was left overnight with his hip dislocated

Surf club saved by apprentices

Surf club saved by apprentices

The club faced an uncertain future and would have ceased operation

Expect delays after Pacific Motorway crash

Expect delays after Pacific Motorway crash

Emergency services are at the scene of a crash