from london to the simple life in altus, arkansas

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By guest blogger Fabien Reynaud.

I never thought that after viewing a television program, my partner and I would end up in what at first felt like the middle of nowhere. Altus, Arkansas to be exact. Little did we know at the time, but apparently this was the place to be for wine and hospitality.

Altus is a town in Franklin County, Arkansas, in the United States. The city is located in the Boston Mountain range between the Ozark Mountains to the north and the Ouachita Mountains to the south. It is home to three of the six Arkansas wineries and the wine region known as the American Viticultural Area, or Altus AVA.

When we visited, the population was a mere 817. When the Iron Mountain Railroad laid rails up the Arkansas River Valley in the 1870s from Little Rock to the Oklahoma border at Fort Smith, Altus was the highest point on the track. The town’s initial development was due to railroad efforts to promote German immigration to settle lands adjacent to the railroad.

I suppose you are wondering what television program I watched that led me to want to go to Altus, Arkansas. Well, it’s quite simple and when you hear it, I am sure you will say, “Oh yes of course, that’s it!”

Altus was the location for the first season of the reality television show The Simple Life, starring Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie. For those who have never heard of the program, let me give me the highlights of the show. Paris and Nicole agreed to leave behind their cellphones, credit cards and celebrity status to move in with a family in Altus for a month. What was supposed to be an experiment in learning how to adapt to doing chores and getting their hands dirty, turned out to be a failure.

During the first season they managed to ruin a dairy farmer’s milk supply, wreak havoc at a local Sonic Drive-In and take advantage of an employer’s credit card. They ultimately got fired from every job they had. This was greatly upsetting to the host family.

I made contact with the Mayor of Altus at the time and the Mayor was so enthusiastic about receiving emails from England that my partner and I were inspired to go and visit Altus and its people. We never realized what a warm and friendly welcome was in store for us.

We stopped at the gas station that Paris and Nicole used to hang out with the boys. We met the owner and even got his autograph. Then, we made our way to the City Hall of Altus. We were greeted by the Mayor herself not with a shaking hand but with a hug. Her protocol was “I don’t shake hands, I hug,” which made us feel very comfortable and very welcome. We arranged to meet up later that day at a local bar and played pool.

The next day, everybody in town knew who we were and stopped to say hi. We went for a burger at Sonic’s. We went shopping at CV’s Family Foods. We were invited to a Council meeting at the City Hall and got interviewed by the Altus Spectator newspaper and made front page news.

One of the main highlights of coming to Altus was to meet the host family, which we did. They were a great family to be around. We chatted like there was no tomorrow, and felt like we had known each other for years. They introduced us to their wine products and we had quite a memorable evening.

We had meant to stay in Altus for two nights but we enjoyed it so much that we extended our stay by another two. We stayed at the local Bed and Breakfast and really began to feel like part of the family and at home in this town full of genuinely friendly people.

We loved the place so much that we came back the following year for the Grape Fest, with its amateur wine and grape-stomping competitions. I assume that coming from London we had traveled the most distance to get to there.

For those who are interested in a taste of wine and of the simple life, the Altus Grape Fest is held the last weekend of July, and more information can be found at http://altusgrapefest.com/.

Fabien is a French expat currently living in the United Kingdom.

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