By Kristi Casey Sanders
Had Napoleon decided not to sell his American holdings, Little Rock would have been known to successive generations as La Petit Roche, a more romantic and evocative term for the view Arkansas River travelers have of the town. Best known as President William “Bill” Clinton’s hometown, it is a great destination for families, history buffs and nature lovers.
Day One: Downtown Little Rock
9 a.m. Start off your day with a bagel and cream cheese ($1.85), or a bacon, egg and cheese sandwich ($3.79) from the Community Bakery Café. Stop by its bakery counter and order some baklava ($1.25) or French silk pie ($3.25) for later.
10:30 a.m. The best way to see Downtown Little Rock is by hopping on and off the River Rail Electric Streetcar ($2 for a day pass, free for kids 4 years and under). Start off by riding the streetcar to the World and Third avenues stop, home of the William J. Clinton Presidential Center and Heifer International Headquarters.
11 a.m. Take a tour of Heifer International, a nonprofit institution that trains people how to sustain themselves and their communities by providing “no-interest living loans” in the form of livestock, animal husbandry and agricultural training, and gender equality and HIV/AIDS education. Free tours (11 a.m. and 3 p.m. M-F) educate visitors about Heifer’s mission and the building’s extensive green initiatives. If you are traveling with kids, you may want to follow up a tour with a trip to Heifer Ranch (free, 40 min. from Little Rock in Perryville), where visitors can interact with water buffalo, goats, chickens and camels, and explore a global village. (On Dec. 5 and 6, the ranch will host a free Living Nativity drive-through event from 6-8 p.m.)
12 p.m. Cross the street and visit the William J. Clinton Presidential Center ($7 adults, $5 college students and seniors 62+, $3 ages 6-17, free for ages 6 and under). Interactive exhibits focus on President Clinton’s life and political career, life in the White House, and environmental and healthy lifestyle initiatives. Until Feb. 8, “The Art of the Chopper,” a special exhibit featuring 30 custom motorcycles with an analysis of their design and style, will be on display. Two self-guided tours are available: An audio tour and a “Ideas Matter” tour, which is designed for children grades 3-7 and encourages them to think about their own leadership abilities and how they can positively impact the world around them. After exploring the museum, stroll through the park’s grounds before taking the streetcar to W. Markham at Spring stop.
1:15 p.m. Walk a couple of blocks west to Doe’s Eat Place, home of sizzling steaks ($14.50-$18.50 per pound) and “world-famous” tamales (three with chili for $3.75). The diner is a favorite of politicos (it’s close to the capitol building), and in its back rooms, Clinton supporters helped him chart his path to the White House. Photos, memorabilia and bumper stickers such as “I slept with Kenneth Starr” add to the charm of this unassuming neighborhood institution.
2-5 p.m. Hop back on the streetcar and visit the Old State House Museum (free). Collections range from Arkansas First Ladies’ gowns to Civil War battle flags and African-American quilts. Learn about frontier life in Arkansas at the Historic Arkansas Museum ($2.50 adults, $1.50 seniors 65+, $1 children under 18), which has guided living history tours of five pre-Civil War houses (hourly till 4 p.m.), and galleries of Arkansas-made decorative, fine and mechanical art. If you’re a shopper, step off briefly at the River Market to browse the art galleries and souvenir shops. Don’t miss the booklover’s paradise River Market Books & Gifts, which is attached to the Cox Creative and Showcase Arkansas galleries. Also in the River Market district is the Museum of Discovery ($8 adults, $7 ages 1-12 and 65+, free on the second Sunday of the month from 1-5 p.m.), an interactive museum of science and history with exhibits on health, engineering, insects and wild animals and Arkansas’ Native American population.
5 p.m. The River Rail’s Blue line crosses the Arkansas River and has several stops in North Little Rock. Step off at the Main at 5th stop and choose a place to dine in the historic Argenta district. Cregeen’s Irish Pub (entrees $7-$19) was constructed in Dublin, disassembled and shipped to North Little Rock; it features Irish cuisine, sports broadcasts and live music. Ristorante Capeo (entrees $20-$42) is a casual dress restaurant serving fine Italian cuisine.
9 p.m. and beyond If you’ve still got the energy to explore Little Rock’s nightlife, take the streetcar back to the River Market district. Sticky Fingerz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack (ages 21+, cover $5-$15) features live music acts almost nightly; shows range from dub-conscious soul to progressive and punk rock. Willy D’s Dueling Piano Bar (ages 21+, call for cover) offers high-energy piano shows upstairs and an ultra-lounge downstairs. Revolution Music Room (ages 21+, cover $15-20) is a live concert venue connected to a Mexi-Cuban Kitchen. Entertainment ranges from multi-media shows to rap and rock acts.
Day Two: Nature’s delights
8 a.m. Depart for historic Hot Springs (62 minutes from Little Rock), once a playground for the rich and ailing, who flocked to its thermal baths, and gangsters such as Al Capone, who kept an apartment at the Arlington Hotel Resort & Spa (room 442) and enjoyed the town’s lax attitude towards gambling and prostitution. No one is sure why the water reaches temperatures as high as 143 degrees Fahrenheit, or why the hot springs only run down one side of the historic downtown. The water that bubbles to the surface has been Carbon-14 dated at 4,000 years old, and it is high in silica, calcium, magnesium, free carbon dioxide, bicarbonate and sulfate. People still make pilgrimages to fill water jugs with the “miracle” water, and you can, too, at several public fountains along Central Avenue (a.k.a. Bathhouse Row).
9 a.m. Enjoy breakfast in the Arlington’s Venetian Dining Room, which resonates with 1920s glamour, and decide which outdoor adventure you feel like embarking on.
10 a.m.-4 p.m.
Option 1: Tee off at the Hot Springs Country Club. Two 18-hole championship courses wind through the Ouachita foothills, past natural springs and lakes. The Arlington course, originally built in 1927, offers challenging play along Bentgrass greens and steep Bermuda fairways. The Park course, originally designed in 1898, is a longer, more open course with plenty of water hazards and stunning views. Dining is available at the Clubhouse.
Option 2: Learn about the history of Bathhouse Row at the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum, which is operated by the National Park Service. No reservations are required for spa treatments at the Buckstaff Bathhouse, which has operated continuously since 1912, and is the last remaining bathhouse of its kind. The Traditional Bathing Package ($50) includes a thermal mineral bath, whirlpool, Swedish massage and loofa mitt scrub. The Whirlpool Mineral Bath package ($22) includes a tub bath, hot pack, sitz bath, vapor cabinet and needle shower. Then stroll down the street and enjoy a modern spa experience and lunch at the recently reopened Quapaw Baths & Spa. For $15, you can walk in and enjoy the public thermal bath, but if you want to experience one of its high-end body treatments ($80-$85/50 min.), massages ($45-$100/25 min., $75-$189/ 50 min.) or facials ($50-$80/25-50 min.), call ahead. Couples baths ($60) and massage packages ($215) also are available.
Option 3: There are 26 miles of trails in the Hot Springs National Park, ranging from .1 mile to one mile. Burn off breakfast by taking a brisk hike, stroll through Hot Springs’ historic shopping district, and then head to Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre botanical garden. Highlights of the self-guided tour include the Evans Children’s Adventure Garden and the breathtaking, glass-enclosed Anthony Chapel, which gives visitors the feeling of being embraced by nature on all sides. Enjoy a picnic lunch at the Garvan Pavilion, before exploring the garden’s amphitheater, boat docks and nature preserve.
5 p.m. Arrive back in Little Rock. Stop for dinner at Loca Luna (entrées $12-$19), one of Arkansas’ most celebrated neighborhood restaurants. The eclectic bistro is known for its cheese dip, hand-fired pizzas, pastas and hearty portions of comfort food.
Day Three: History and culture
10:30 a.m. Enjoy a leisurely brunch at Aydelotte’s (entrées $9-$14), a New Orleans-style fine dining restaurant in a 1930s house.
12 p.m. Kick off the morning’s sight seeing with a visit to the USS Razorback, a 311-ft. submarine that houses the Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum ($2-$6). Tours spotlight the submarine’s naval history and the living conditions of submariners.
1 p.m. Explore the Quapaw Quarter of historic homes along Center Street, between 22nd St. and W. Daisy Bates Blvd. Highlights include the Arkansas Governor’s Mansion (1800 Center St.), the ornate Ragland House (1617 Center St.) and the stately Hornibrook House (2120 Louisiana St.).
2 p.m. It’s difficult to comprehend how heated the topic of segregation was only a generation ago. Visit local sites important to the 1957 desegregation crisis of Central High School on a bicycle tour, guided by park rangers. The recently opened Visitors Center has powerful oral history exhibits and a documentary movie that puts the bravery of the Little Rock Nine in perspective.
3 p.m. Fuel up with a slice of pizza ($1.37) and a pint of homebrewed beer ($3.50) at Vino’s and then explore the Arkansas portion of the Trail of Tears or the Arkansas Arts Center‘s contemporary art galleries (free).
5 p.m. Watch the Peabody Hotel Little Rock ducks parade from the lobby fountain to their home on the ballroom level. Contact the hotel in advance, if you or your loved one is interested in acting as honorary duckmaster for the ceremony.
6:30 p.m. Cap off your Little Rock adventure with dinner cruise aboard the Arkansas Queen, which serves three-course dinners ($25-$35) and provides after dinner entertainment.
- Arkansas Arts Center 9th and Commerce, 501-372-4000, arkarts.com.
- Arkansas Inland Maritime Museum, 120 Riverfront Park Dr. North, 501-371-8320, aimm.museum.
- Ayedelotte’s 5524 JFK Blvd., 501-975-5524, aydelottes.net.
- Central High School National Historic Site 2125 Daisy L. Gatson Bates Dr., 501-374-1957, nps.gov/chsc.
- Community Bakery Café 1200 Main St., 501-375-7105, communitybakery.com. Open M-T 6 a.m.-8 p.m., F-Sa 6 a.m.-10 p.m., Su. 7 a.m.-8 p.m.
- Cregeen’s Irish Pub 301 Main & Broadway, 501-376-7468, cregeens.com.
- Doe’s Eat Place 1023 W. Markham St., 501-376-1195, doeseatplace.net. Closed Sunday.
- The Empress of Little Rock 2120 S. Louisiana, 877-374-7966, theempress.com.
- Heifer International One World Ave., 501-907-2600, heifer.org. Tours at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m.
- Heifer Ranch Perryville, 501-889-5124, heifer.org. Closed Sundays.
- Historic Arkansas Museum 200 E. Third St., 501-324-9351, arkansashistory.com.
- Little Rock Convention & Visitors Bureau Markham and Broadway, 501-376-4781, littlerock.com.
- Loca Luna 3519 Old Cantrell Rd., 501-663-4666, localuna.com.
- Museum of Discovery 500 President Clinton Ave., 501-396-7050, amod.org.
- Old State House Museum 300 W. Markham St., 501-324-9685, oldstatehouse.com.
- Peabody Hotel Little Rock Three Statehouse Plaza, 501-906-4000, peabodylittlerock.com.
- Quapaw Quarter Association 501-371-0075, quapaw.com.
- Revolution Music Room (RumbaRevolution) 300 President Clinton Ave. 501-823-0090, rumbarevolution.com.
- Ristorante Capeo 425 Main St., 501-376-3463, capeo.us. Dinner only; closed Sundays.
- River Market 400 President Clinton Ave., 501-375-2552, rivermarket.info.
- River Market Books & Gifts 120 Commerce St., 501-918-3093, cals.lib.ar.us.
- River Rail Electric Streetcar 901 Maple, 501-375-6717, cat.org.
- Sticky Fingerz Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicken Shack 107 S. Commerce St., 501-244-9550, stickyfingerz.com.
- Trail of Tears Association 1100 North University, Ste. 143, 501-666-9032, nationaltota.org.
- Vino’s Pizza, Pub & Brewery 923 W 7th St., 501-375-8466, vinosbrewpub.com.?
- William J. Clinton Presidential Center & Park, 1200 President Clinton Ave., 501-374-4242, clintonpresidentialcenter.org.
- Willy D’s Dueling Piano Bar 322 President Clinton Ave., 501-244-9550.
- Arlington Hotel Resort & Spa 239 Central Ave., 501-623-7771, arlingtonhotel.com.
- Buckstaff Bathhouse 509 Central Ave., 501-623-2308, buckstaffbaths.com.
- Fordyce Bathhouse Museum & Hot Springs National Park Visitor Center 300 block of Central Ave., 501-624-2308, nps.gov/hosp; trail information at nps.gov/hosp/planyourvisit/trails.htm.
- Garvan Woodland Gardens 550 Arkridge Rd., 501-262-9300, garvangardens.org.
- Hot Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau 134 Convention Blvd., 501-321-2835, hotsprings.org.
- Hot Springs Country Club 101 Country Club Dr., 501-623-4981, hotspringscc.com.
- Quapaw Baths & Spa 413 Central Ave., 501-609-9822, quapawbaths.com.