Hollywood is not usually kind to the Ozarks. Jennifer Lawrence tracking down her meth-making father? Check. Patrick Swayze cleaning up a violent roadside bar? Check. Jason Bateman setting up a money laundering scheme? Check.

Tourists, on the other hand, have long been seduced by the Ozarks, part midwestern and part southern, thanks to hundreds of acres of thick forest, picturesque views, ample hiking trails, and the expansive lakes.

As Missourians know and the the rest of the world is slowly finding out, the Ozarks are a wonderland for outdoor adventure fans of every stripe. Not everyone’s up for roughing it, though. Over the past decades, there’s been a marked effort to evolve public perception of the Ozarks from backwards backwoods to luxe natural playground.

“We enable visitors to feel like they are a part of the natural setting and the natural beauty of the area—but still [enjoy] those luxury accomodations,” says Kay Samuelson, director of sales at The Lodge of Four Seasons in Lake Ozark, Missouri.

Photo courtesy Big Cedar Lodge.


BIG CEDAR LODGE IN RIDGEDALE: Go big or go home. Big Cedar has it all, from hotel rooms with wide lake views to glamping setups and luxury private lodges. Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris bought Big Cedar in 1987 and has turned it into one of the cushiest resorts in the Midwest. Although the golf courses get a lot of attention, the spa is worth a visit, too. The 18,000-square-foot Cedar Creek Spa features eleven treatment rooms—each with its own fireplace—plus an indoor grotto pool, ice room, saunas, and more.

HOTEL VANDIVORT IN SPRINGFIELD: After opening in 2015, Hotel Vandivort has quickly become one of the top spots in downtown Springfield. The boutique hotel offers ninety-eight guest rooms, including the top-floor Master Suite, a 1,550-square-foot luxe space with a full kitchen, two-way fireplace, and a patio with sweeping city views.

Hote Vandivort is also home to The Order, the hotel’s acclaimed restaurant, that offers a chef’s table tasting menu from executive chef Caleb Strangroom along with lunch, dinner, and a popular brunch. Photo courtesy Hotel Vandivort.

THE LODGE OF FOUR SEASONS IN LAKE OZARK: If you’re looking for something more central in the state, The Lodge of Four Seasons is the premiere hotel in Lake Ozark. The resort, which opened in 1965, underwent a $15 million renovation in 2016. Golf is a big draw here, with fifty-four holes total. The marina also offers boat and wave runner rentals or chartered, professionally led watersports.

The Lodge of Four Seasons is famous for its lake views. Photo courtesy The Lodge of Four Seasons.

21C MUSEUM HOTEL IN BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS: You might consider this hotel a museum first, hotel and restaurant second. Drawn to the area thanks to Crystal Bridges, 21c makes its galleries open to guests twenty-four hours a day. 21c also commissions on-site installations, like the whimsical BuzzKill by Johnston Foster on view throughout the hotel’s restaurant, The Hive.

STONEWATER COVE RESORT AND SPA IN SHELL KNOB: Stonewater Cove calls itself “a luxury lake and forest retreat,” which aptly describes the secluded elegance. This is the “quiet” side of Table Rock Lake, offering activities as relaxing or adventurous as you’d like. Dinner at The Lodge restaurant—included with your stay—is generally four or five courses, with locally inspired dishes such as goat cheese agnolotti with braised pork jowl and Pecorino cream or grilled salmon with quinoa risotto and saffron cream. Keeping with the resort’s intimate setting, The Lodge is open only to guests except on Saturday evenings.

Stonewater Cove features dining, guided watersports, ATV tours, and zip lining, and you can add professionally guided fishing trips or even a helicopter tour. Photo courtesy Stonewater Cove.

The Lodge of Four Seasons is one of the more established Ozarks spots, featuring a large marina, three golf courses, and a spa that was recently recognized by Spas of America as the top spa in Missouri. St. Louis-based travel agent Robert Merlin considers it the luxury option at Lake Ozark, but often sends clients to more secluded spots.

“People do need to be educated, and that’s part of what my team does,” Robert says. “The trick is to both educate people that there are true luxury destinations within driving distance that are in Missouri.”

One of Robert’s favorites is Stonewater Cove Resort and Spa in Shell Knob, an all-
inclusive resort that sits on five hundred acres overlooking Table Rock Lake.

“Nobody knows about it, and that’s really a shame,” he says. The family-run hotel has only a few dozen rooms. Robert suggests that Stonewater Cove is a vacation experience all by itself. “Stonewater Cove is phenomenal because they just do whatever you need done, which if you’re looking for a luxury destination, that’s kind of the definition.”

Just north in Springfield, luxury seekers can find a mix of Midwest manners, southern charm, and some of the most unique spots in Missouri, such as the Hotel Vandivort.

Opened downtown by brothers and Springfield natives John and Billy McQueary, Hotel Vandivort was originally built in 1906 as the local Masonic Temple. The boutique hotel underwent an extensive renovation and now features one of the city’s most beloved restaurants, The Order, plus a massive suite that boasts sweeping views of Springfield.

“Springfield has that mix of country and city,” says Hotel Vandivort General Manager Zack Oxley. “The Ozarks are so picturesque, and it makes sense to have that luxury component.” Zack says he’s seen interest in unique experiences grow over the past few years.

Thanks to that best-of-both-worlds mentality, Springfield has attracted world-class talent like Daniel Ernce, the chef behind Progress. After training at 108 in Copenhagen, a sister restaurant to Noma, also located there, Ernce returned to the Ozarks with a series of pop-ups before opening Progress, where the tasting menu is the highlight. With an emphasis on local ingredients, diners love the cosmopolitan feel paired with Missouri flair.

Big Cedar Lodge was originally built in the 1920s as a country getaway for two Missouri executives and their families. Today, it features guest accommodations of all varieties, including private cottages. Photo courtesy Big Cedar Lodge.

One of the earliest big-name proponents of Springfield was Bass Pro Shops CEO and cofounder Johnny Morris. The mogul purchased a Table Rock Lake property in 1987 that was originally the rustic wilderness retreat of railroad exec Harry Worman and entrepreneur Jude Simmons—emphasis on rustic. He and his family transformed the three-hundred-acre spot into Big Cedar Lodge, featuring private lodges that provide a country feel without skimping on comfort.

In the early 1990s, Morris added Top of the Rock to his empire: the property offers a Jack Nicklaus-approved golf course, the Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum, and possibly the best view in the region at Osage Restaurant, where diners can arrive in a limo service and dine on butter poached lobster with truffle crème or choose more locally inspired dishes like the elk sausage soup with kale, potato, and Parmesan or
maple-roasted bacon with black truffle grits, braised greens, Malbec reduction, and jam.

“The area as a whole has been largely ignored by the luxury industries,” says Stonewater Cove General Manager James R. Bond. “Historically, the focus has been more on family and budget friendly experiences for everyone. People now are more willing to spend and are looking for more intimate and personal experiences.”

Similarly, the southernmost reach of the Ozarks, in northern Arkansas, has felt the benefit of the Walton family. People come from all over the world to work for Walmart in Bentonville, which has jump-started the revitalization of the historic downtown.

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art was designed by the world famous architect Moshe Safdie. The list of structures he has designed spans the globe and includes Kansas City’s Kauffman Center. Photo courtesy Crystal Bridges.

Walmart heiress Alice Walton opened Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in 2011. The modern glass structure is perched upon the titular Crystal Spring and 120 acres, simultaneously a stark contrast to the natural surroundings and somehow the perfect complement.

“The goals were really twofold,” says Crystal Bridges Public Relations Director Beth Bobbitt. “One was to provide access to American art in a region that didn’t have it previously. And then the second is to really introduce the Ozarks to a broader audience. We get people from all over the world that come and visit here, and we’re starting to hear more that they think of northwest Arkansas as an arts destination and are building an experience around coming to the museum.”

The world-class arts space drew another unique experience to the area: 21c Museum and Hotel. The boutique hotel chain traditionally opens in smaller cities—Louisville, Kansas City, and Oklahoma City—to help boost the art scene and revitalize the community.

“The whole place has boomed in the past six years,” says 21c Bentonville General Manager Emmanuel Gardinier. “People are stunned when they come here, because when you go to the square of Bentonville, it really looks like Mayberry a little bit—a very old school, slow-paced, and quaint little town. And then you’re going to bump into someone who probably worked in Hong Kong for four years before coming to work for Walmart or is just visiting from New York for the museum.”

Although the Ozarks has a reputation in pop culture for standoffishness with outsiders, much of the economy has been tourism based for decades, and the area seems keen to accommodate development. The key is incorporating everything the region already has to offer; you won’t see developers razing thousands of acres of forest, but rather using resorts, restaurants, and museums to highlight the unique natural surroundings.

“Unfortunately with Netflix, a lot of my friends who aren’t from here, they see that and they’re like, ‘Oh, that’s what [the Ozarks] is,’ ” Robert laments, referring to the series Ozark. “I’m like, ‘But that’s not what it is.’ ”

The Ozark plateau and its heavily forested highlands occupies mainly southern Missouri and northern Arkansas and northeastern Oklahoma. The hospitality industry there expects that the central location and increasing profile will continue to grow. It is ready to fulfill the demand for exceptional experiences. There is already a private airport serving chartered flights to Stonewater Cove, among features that may surprise newcomers.

“Those are my favorite reactions, you know, when there was no expectation or they hadn’t done any research and kind of stumble upon us and are really delighted with not only the museum and our offerings, but the surrounding community and the natural beauty of the Ozarks,” Beth says. “So that’s best case scenario, that they’re just completely surprised and delighted.”


PROGRESS IN SPRINGFIELD: After an acclaimed pop-up series, chef-owner Daniel Ernce opened Progress in 2018. Start with prosciutto toast made with Newman Farm prosciutto, Neighbor’s Mill ciabatta, Terrell Creek aged Romano cheese, fig jam, and olive oil, then move on to the Newman Farm smoked pork loin over pork-braised beans, pickled mustard seeds, and a pecan vinaigrette. For something really special, try the Korean-inspired bossam, featuring two pounds of Newman Farm pork shoulder with Bibb lettuce, ginger-scallion sauce, cucumber salad, gochujang mayo, peanuts, and kimchee puree.

REVERIE IN SPRINGFIELD: Located on the roof of the same building as Progress and masterminded by the same team, Reverie offers craft cocktails and small plates in an intimate environment.

THE HIVE IN BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS: The Hive, located inside 21c Museum and Hotel, continues the boutique hotel’s penchant for art, both on and off the plate. Six-time James Beard Foundation award semifinalist Matt McClure serves up hyperlocal and seasonal menus featuring his take on cuisine of the “High South.” The drink menu is just as thoughtful, ranging from local craft beer from Ozark Beer Co. and Kentucky bourbon to shaken cocktails such as the Beet Poetry, with aquavit, elderflower, agave, apple, beet, citrus, and absinthe.

Matthew McClure, chef behind Bentonville’s The Hive, has won six James Beard Awards in addition to a best new chef award from Food + Wine. Photo courtesy The Hive.


CRYSTAL BRIDGES MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART IN BENTONVILLE, ARKANSAS: The region’s premier destination for fine art attracts plenty of visitors and national attention to Bentonville. The collection spans more than five hundred years and focuses on American art, such as favorites Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter and Andy Warhol’s Coke bottles, plus works by Georgia O’Keefe, John James Audubon, and Jean-Michel Basquiat. The grounds also feature a restored 1956 Frank Lloyd Wright house that was relocated from New Jersey in 2015 after repeated flooding.

ANCIENT OZARKS NATURAL HISTORY MUSEUM IN RIDGEDALE: This museum is part of Top of the Rock and is one of the state’s only museums highlighting its pre-United States history. Inspired by Chicago’s Field Museum, the massive Ancient Ozarks Natural History Museum features prehistoric skeletons, life-size dioramas of animals that roamed the Ozarks thousands of years ago, and galleries spotlighting Native American tribes of the region, plus pieces from Johnny Morris’s personal collection.