lake of the ozarks

from the small screen to bigger than life

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By Vivian Nweze

Vivian Nweze is a bubbly, Nigerian-American Host, Actress, Producer, & Style Influencer with more than 37k followers @VivaciouslyViv. You've seen her on: NBC's Access Hollywood, Steve Harvey's talk show, MtvU, Fox, VH1, The Daily Buzz, Rolling Out, Amplify Africa and LaPalme Magazine She has been featured on Refinery29, Elite Daily, Influencive, Bustle and was the youngest honoree on Buzzfeed's "Top 5 Black Female Entertainment Journalists Under 30 in Hollywood.”

Netflix’s gritty drama Ozark was rightfully nominated for nine Emmy awards, which resulted in a Best Director win for its leading man and occasional director Jason Bateman. I’ve interviewed Jason more than once and think Ozark is quality content, but it’s in stark contrast to my experience in the real place. I got to visit Lake of the Ozarks during Labor Day Weekend, and let’s get something clear—there is a lot more to this vacation mecca than you ever see on the show.

Visiting the Lake of the Ozarks was a much-needed vacation from the hectic reality of living in Los Angeles. I didn’t know how badly I needed some spiritual rehab, until my best friend Dan and I arrived at Springfield-Branson National Airport. Hopping into our rental car, we were soon surrounded by beautiful nature. I felt an almost-forgotten sense of calm wash over me.

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Vacationing away in Margaritaville

We arrived late that night at Margaritaville Lake Resort, a massive and festive complex formerly known as the Tan-Tar-A Resort. When we entered our room, we were greeted by a sweet gift basket, chock-full of Lake of the Ozark goodies. I don’t know if we were more excited about the fudge inside or the room’s amenities, including an overwhelmingly large flat-screen TV and incredibly soft, luscious beds. We slept well and were so comfortable that it was hard to get up in the morning.

However, we were here to explore, and managed to start our trip with an informal tour! While exploring our surroundings the next morning, we met the nicest security guard Chuck, who walked us around and gave us a little history of the massive complex. There wasn’t much chance of us being bored—between the bowling alley, arcade, spa, marina, indoor waterpark, outdoor slide and multiple pools, we had enough entertainment to last our entire trip. But, as tempting as all that was, it was time to get out and see the sights.

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More than a lake

A lot of Lake of the Ozark’s fame and charm is focused on water activities, which is totally fair! I was looking forward to trying out paddle boarding and sipping a cocktail poolside. But we had a list of must-see attractions, and, thanks to our trusty rental car, the long stretches of lakeside roads were no match for us. Our first stop was Bridal Cave, a perfect example of Mother Nature’s beauty that had been carefully formed over the millennia. The hour-long tour led us on an educational journey through stalagmites, stalactites and the history of Native Americans who would marry there, giving Bridal Cave its moniker. I definitely felt like Indiana Jones meets Lara Croft Tomb Raider as I made my way through narrow passages and posed against the historic cave walls. It was an adventure well worth our $20 ticket.

Next up? It was time to explore a castle! Inside of Ha Ha Tonka State Park, you’ll find the ruins of Ha Ha Tonka Castle, built by wealthy businessman Robert Snyder in 1905. Despite two devastating fires, much of the castle is still standing because the base and walls are made of stone. Though there are no windows or ceiling, it is still a majestic structure—and a great place to get your steps in!

Ok, Netflix fans, I know what you’re thinking—didn’t we visit any Ozark filming sites? Uh, of course we did! Dan and I ventured out to Lover’s Leap, a lookout peak steeped in local lore of star-crossed lovers that also served as the setting of the first episode’s final scene. It’s sure to satisfy even if you aren’t a true-blue fan of the show—you can’t beat that stunning view of the lake.

Stomachs rumbling, we decided it was time to call it a day and make our way back to the hustle and bustle. We stopped at Redhead Lakeside Grill & Yacht Club. This two-story restaurant features a deck that you can drive your boat up to, and it was buzzing! There was a live band playing, and outside were dual pools and a bar. Bonus points? They had a ton of gluten-free options, which I appreciated.

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Maybe Marty missed the party?

T he next morning started out bright and early, as we hopped in our car once more. I kept marveling at how vibrant everything was—definitely not like the gloomy place that Jason Bateman’s character, Marty Byrde, escapes to. Our destination? Bagnell Dam—it’s the whole reason the lake even exists! The dam is surrounded by places to eat, shop and play, some directly inspired by the Netflix hit. We stopped by Tucker Shuckers restaurant to see the wall that Jason Bateman actually signed. He also handwrote a kind note to the restaurant and bar, thanking them for their hospitality. Right across the street is Marty Byrde’s, an Ozark-themed bar with lots of show tie-ins. Be sure to check out their gift shop and try Darlene’s Killer Lemonade—yes, it’s named after that Darlene!

We grabbed lunch nearby at the swanky JB Hooks restaurant before returning to Margaritaville to embark on our fabulous Tropic Island Cruise, a steal for only $20 a person. I felt like a celebrity onboard our luxury charter yacht. I caught friendly waves from fellow boaters, people on jet skis, paddleboards and even from the windows of the lakefront mansions. If you didn’t catch that, I wrote mansions! One thing you do not see at all in Ozark is a hint of the luxury real estate around the lake. Over the intercom, our captain told the costs of a few—my favorite one was valued at just over $4.5 million. Want another fun fact? Movie star and Missouri native, Brad Pitt, has a home here!

Ready to keep the party going, we decided to check out Dog Days Bar and Grill. It honestly felt like we were walking into a Vegas pool party. Top 40 hits were blaring, and the large outdoor pools have standup islands to hold drinks and snacks while in the pool. You have your pick from multiple bars, and in the evening we went inside for a live band.

After a quick nap and dinner, we were eager to see more of the Lake of the Ozarks nightlife. Some friendly locals directed us to Shady Gators. The venues are open from daytime to late at night, and it’s a must if you like to dance! Shady Gators had a live country band playing on one stage, and then on another side of the venue was a DJ playing Top 40 pop, hip-hop and electronic music. This party-paradise is so big that it even has an outdoor area with a micro music festival vibe that you would expect to find only at bigger venues. There were outdoor cabanas and a big stage with an EDM DJ and singer performing. Dan and I had the best time dancing the night away!

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“I kept marveling at how vibrant everything was—definitely not like the gloomy place that Jason Bateman’s character escapes to.”

Diving into Lake of the Ozarks

On the final day of our trip, it was time to take to the lake and try paddle boarding. Can I just say that I loved it? It might have even been the highlight of our trip! We didn’t have to go far. We rented paddleboards from the Margaritaville’s Marina and took to the water. It was so relaxing to be a part of the lake, working up our courage to try stand-up paddling along the shore. Our marina rentals weren’t limited to paddle boarding either—paddleboats, water skis and jet skis are all available so long as you have someone with a motorized vehicle license or who is older than 36 years old to drive the boat. There’s even an app, Anchor Up, where you can book someone to captain a boat for you if you’d prefer to sit back and enjoy the ride.

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So, is Netflix’s Ozark actually like Lake of the Ozarks?

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I traveled to the Lake of the Ozarks. Would I find my much-needed relaxation? I think Dan and I were both happy to discover that the show (the majority of which is actually filmed in Georgia) doesn’t paint it in an accurate light. Lake of the Ozarks is a vacation gem, with both family-friendly and festive young adult options. So if Marty Byrde’s Emmy award-winning debacles have made you second guess future travel plans to Lake of the Ozarks, just remember—it is a fantastic work of fiction and not a documentary.

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