Travel: Finding the Classier Side of Branson

Branson has a reputation for family fun and musical Americana – but there's a quieter, sophisticated side to the Vegas of the Midwest.

John Scott Lewinskiby John Scott Lewinski

Branson, Missouri draws different comparisons to other well-established travel destinations. Some look at as the smaller, less expensive Las Vegas of the rural Midwest. Others put it in competition with major family destinations such as Gatlinburg, Tennessee and the Wisconsin Dells. 

Whichever of those angles you choose the underlying message is, while Branson has plenty to offer fun seekers, there’s little to recommend the area for the more grownup, sophisticated traveler. Sure, a family with young kids or country music loving retirees can have the blast of a lifetime in Branson without the breaking the bank. But, is there enough for a single guy or a young couple to do if they don’t want to sample zip-lining, Bible shows or the Baldknobbers?

After spending a long weekend with my boots on the Missouri turf, I found enough quality accommodations, well-designed golf courses and upscale dining to recommend a quick trip to our nation’s heartland.

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The Branson scenery is undeniably beautiful. Like Gatlinburg and the Dells, the town’s tourist attractions built up around a preexisting natural attraction – Lake Taneycomo and its natural layered rock formations, in this case. So, visitors looking to get away from the theme parks, tourist shops and tassels of kids can hike, off-road or boat into the wild.

For those looking for a more sophisticated path through a bit of Missouri, Branson has a selection of very strong golf courses for a variety of budgets and skill levels. I took a run at a couple – Payne Stewart Golf Club and Top of the Rock. 

The great Payne Stewart was born not far from Branson in Springfield – the town that supplies the airport most Branson visitors frequent. Known for his flamboyant style on the course — with color coordinated knicker outfits to match – Stewart won two U.S. Opens and a PGA Championship in a career cut short by a tragic plane crash in 1999. Payne Stewart Golf Club is part local golf attraction, part museum and part tribute to Stewart.

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A full-length, 18-hole course, Payne Stewart offers challenging, but rarely frustrating terrain. There’s enough sand and water to keep an amateur player honest, and a couple holes offer green and hazard layouts that make it very difficult to hit the putting service in regulation. Still, as long as the player has at least some length in his or her game, it’s easy enough to get around his resort style course.

In keeping with its commemorative style, each hole has a connection to some aspect of Stewart’s life and career. All the tee boxes are marked with signs sharing some personal story of the titular golfer’s playing days, while some holes share design features from the Major Championship courses where Stewart achieved his greatest professional glory.

Payne Stewart Golf Club includes a complete clubhouse shop, restaurant and bar, banquet space and museum displays including Stewarts equipment and memorabilia — including one of his U.S. Open trophies.

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Just a poke down the highway, the latest golf attraction in Branson is Top of the Rock – an elite par three course designed by the legendary Jack Nicklaus.Situated amidst an entertainment venue including a massive Bass Pro Shop, a natural history museum and a cave exploration attraction, Top of the Rock also offers a pretty, hilly and very sandy driving range designed by Nicklaus rival and drink designer, Arnold Palmer.

While a little pricey for a par three with greens fees set at $135, the course owners throw in range balls, a Lost Canyon Nature Trail tour and an unnecessary golf cart (…because, if you can’t walk a par three course, think about sticking to the range and leaving the living alone…). 

Top of the Rock also offers the Himalayan Putting Course – a vast, hilly expanse with multiple hole targets where golfers can work on pretty much any line or distance they want to sharpen. The Branson designers took the idea from a similar feature at Royal St. Andrews in Scotland, and the huge Missouri version is challenging enough to keep a golfer occupied for hours.

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When not enjoying the outdoors or swinging the clubs, grownup travelers can rest assured there are quality accommodations and more than a few good meals languishing between the motels and chain restaurants marking much of Branson. I stayed at the clean, efficient and modern Hilton Promenade at Branson Landing. Connected to an outdoor shopping center and overlooking a busy waterway, the Hilton’s rooms are spacious and manned by a courteous and professional crew.

Across the street, the Branson Landing sister hotel — the Hilton Branson Convention Center – houses one of the areas top gourmet restaurants. Level 2 Steakhouse offers both classic and unique modern recipes locally sourced by Executive Chef Jeff Luzius. I kept it classic and went with a filet. And, if I keep coming back for the steak, I can get a knife with name on it via the restaurant’s Cut Club.

So, Branson successfully offers different entertainment to different folks. Travelers can play it earthy and stick to the venue’s more traditional attractions — or they can take the road less traveled and unearth these kind of upscale attractions hidden amidst the tourist hustle and bustle.