Known for it’s natural beauty and, of course, as the home of Wal-Mart, Arkansas has emerged as a thriving arts, music and foodie destination in recent years. Southern charm is paired with an adventurous spirt and fresh culture of the growing, youthful population to make Arkansas a surprisingly original vacation destination for those looking to relax amid nature while enjoying all of the modern draws of the ideal weekend getaway. LuxeGetaways’ Eric Althoff journeys through three very different cities (Little Rock, Hot Springs and Bentonville) to provide the ultimate Arkansas travel guide.
The first thing that came to mind when I arrived at the Capital Hotel in Little Rock is that this surely must be a vestige of the “Old South.” The elegant white columns and golden capitals gave me a sense that here, along the banks of the Arkansas River, an out-of-towner would be made to feel welcomed with a little bit of that Southern hospitality… and some amazing food.
It began even before I made it into the lobby, as a helpful doorman in resplendent attire held open the Capital’s main entranceway. I had been in town less than an hour, but I was already feeling the hustle of my Northern life fading away.
At check-in, a very helpful clerk named Lindsey gave me a rundown of the property’s 130-year history. President Grant stayed here in 1876, barely a decade after Union forces routed Confederate soldiers and occupied Little Rock for the remainder of the war—thus giving the North a key hold over waterways west of the Mississippi.
The Capital underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation to bring it into the high-end market for the modern traveler. It has kept the old world glamour—evidenced by the elegant lobby—but has married it effectively to modern convenience in a new paradigm referred to as “Southern comfortable.” Chef Joel Antunes’ modern take on classic foods can be enjoyed at twin restaurants Capital Bar & Grill and One Eleven on the ground floor.
I took the elevator to the top floor and found my room at the end of a carpeted hallway. Inside, I was greeted by lushness from another era. The furnishings were of a red-and-white motif, calling to mind costume dramas that were so often a hallmark of the television miniseries of my younger days. A chaise lounge sat near the door, facing wall-to-wall windows fronted by one layer of transparent drapes, and a second layer—in red—that would keep out sunlight in the early morning.
A bed fit for President Grant awaited me, next to a carefully sculpted wooden bedside table. There was also a writing desk, reading chair and an unimpeded view of the Main St. bridge that stretches across the Arkansas River into North Little Rock. It was a rather royal vibe, and I felt like a king as a chilled bottle of Mersoleil 2017 Chardonnay awaited me on the small dining table. I was home.
I began my visit with lunch at nearby Trio’s. The spicy spinach dip and pita chips were a great way to start; and I followed that up with the shrimp enchiladas, served with Monterey Jack cheese in a flour tortilla and topped with a spicy jalapeño cream and pepper sauces. The meal concluded with the strawberry shortcake that was served with huckleberries, a specialty of the region. As it was a fine afternoon, it was suggested that I take a walk over—and I promise I’m not clever enough to make up this name—the so-called “Big Dam Bridge,” which is the longest pedestrian and bicycle bridge on the continent at 4,226 feet. It was a pleasant walk across the span, below which the rushing waters of the Arkansas spins turbines for electricity.
Being a tourist can make you thirsty, so the next stop was Stone’s Throw Brewing, which boasts more than 20 tap handles, all of which are shaped like the state of Arkansas. The Amadeus Vienna Lager (clever) was very smooth, and I also enjoyed the Riverdale Pale Ale with its refreshing taste, as well as the Cold Day in Hell Kellerbier.
All that food and beer required some exercise to balance out the caloric intake, and so it was on to the riverfront for a sunset kayak tour with Rock Town River Outfitters. A rather friendly dog named Grizzly sniffed everyone in hello while his human, Sam, gave us an overview of the path we would trace upriver as the light left for the day.
The sun went low, and we all turned on the kayaks’ lights to help us see in the dark and make our paddle-mates visible. Sam expertly forded a route for a good hour before we let the natural pull of the currents get us safely back to the dock.
To cap off this eventful day, I trusted the locals and visited a most unusual cocktail bar in the Hillcrest neighborhood called Ciao Baci. From the outside it looks like any other unassuming home on the block, but inside was a wine menu for every taste, and I enjoyed a fine glass while ever-so-politely eavesdropping on the various conversations from Little Rock’s elite.
The next morning, I took a walk in the neighborhood surrounding the Capital hotel, trudging past Bill Clinton Way and taking in the River Market and Riverfront Park, all of which are staples of the amazing revitalization that Little Rock’s formerly “forgotten” waterfront has undergone. (The Clinton Presidential Library was also part of this master plan.)
For a decadent champagne brunch, it was off to Loca Luna, a local staple thanks to owner/chef Mark Abernathy’s four decades in this location (he’s also been featured on Food Network). I kicked things off with a rather tasty mango mimosa and white cheese dip that Chef Abernathy says was the first ever concocted in the country (in 1988). Next came a waffle as a “palate cleanser,” but it seriously could have been a meal unto itself. Following those delicious, syrupy carbs, I chased it with the “Louisiana Blowout” cast iron breakfast bowl.
This is the kind of place that won’t let you leave hungry, and I only wished I had several stomachs to try even more.
Little Rock residents are very proud of their local history, which is more complex than people think. Accordingly, I toured the USS Razorback, a submarine that saw action in Tokyo Bay during the Second World War and came to be berthed here in the capital of the state whose largest university’s mascot is, of course, the Razorbacks. After her wartime service ended, the boat was sold to the Turkish navy, and when you walk through the sub’s corridors, you see signage in both English and Turkish. Upon decommissioning, the Razorback enjoyed her final globe-crossing adventure as she was towed from Turkey, across the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, then up the Mississippi and Arkansas rivers to finally rest here in Little Rock.
To further immerse me in Old South history, I also visited the Old State House Museum, where the governors and Arkansas legislatures of yore met from 1836 until 1911. The Greek Revival building served as the backdrop for both of President Clinton’s 1992 and 1996 election night victories. The former state and house chambers are on view for the curious, as are exhibits on how Arkansas and the South have both changed with time.
Incredibly, Little Rock had still more cuisine to show me, and so for dinner it was off to Table 28, where Chef Mark Rains sources local ingredients to fashion such unique apps as quail lollipops, okra fries and octopus “elote” and bone marrow gratin—all of which show attention to not only taste but presentation. Table 28 is a cozy spot, located in the lower level of the chic Burgundy Hotel, and it has an upscale, yet approachable feel. I had to try the pork cheek as my entree, followed by a rather creative s’mores dessert platter. Quite an experience.
My last time in town, the Rock Town Distillery had been in the process of opening its new downtown location, and fortunately this time, distiller Jim Murray had thrown open the doors of the new barrel house. Through chemistry, Arkansas wheat and other grains are transformed into delicious bourbon, vodka and gins. (It’s also the first legal distillery in the Natural State since Prohibition ended.) The new tasting house is a grand location, with hipsters sampling bespoke cocktails and the barkeep spinning LPs on a turntable near the cash register. I tried all of the wares and took with me a bottle of the single barrel bourbon back to the Capital for some shuteye.
This trip proved to me yet again that Little Rock is truly a lovely city to visit.
Hot Springs National Park is one of the few naturally preserved areas in the country where you can relax in modern mineral baths. And this is precisely what visitors to The Waters hotel in central Arkansas can do while at this luxurious property located on the so-called “Bathhouse Row” of central Hot Springs.
The Waters recently underwent a multimillion-dollar upgrade, which has made its king-size rooms spaciously lavish. My room had a great king bed with amazing pillows and high-thread count sheets, and the perimeter of the bed even illuminated with multicolored soft lights that gave the room a warm feeling of home. The room was made complete with a nice bathroom and amazing artwork by local artisans that had me feeling very comfortable in this home-away-from-home.
The room was quiet, and perfect for reading or just allowing a little time to unwind. But soon it was time to walk across the street to the only brewery—anywhere—actually located inside a national park.
Yes, in a former spa, proprietress Rose Schweikhart has been cooking up craft beers at Superior Bathhouse Brewery utilizing waters that emanate from deep within the earth below the building itself. It is the only brewery in the world that uses thermal spring water in their concoctions, which can be enjoyed in conjunction with beer cheese and giant pretzels made right on the premises.
Next door, a National Park Service ranger offered a guided tour through the old Fordyce bath houses, which showcase implements once used to treat patients. However, these look like they would be more at home in a “Saw” film by today’s standards. (I’m not sure anyone felt “better” after being hosed down by the fire hose-like instruments.) This is the history of wellness, showcased right in the heart of Bathhouse Row, where more, uh, “modern” treatments are put to use today.
Just down the street, I was admitted into the Quapaw Baths & Steam Cave, where luxurious relaxation truly commenced. A very friendly clerk checked me in, offering a key to be kept on my person at all times while my clothing and personal effects remained behind in my locker. The changing rooms were exceptionally tidy, and once suited up, I walked into the main pool area where several pools of various water temperature awaited. The name of the game here was becoming one with the moment, allowing the day’s cares to evaporate amid the spring-fed waters.
In a separate room was a steam cave, where vaporized water from within the earth passed over stalactites and stalagmites whose surfaces showed the coating of minerals that is nature’s bounty. The steam room was indeed balmy, and an attendant seated just outside warned me that he would check on me after 10 minutes. As I am sure he expected, I could not take the heat that long…
After soaking for an hour or two, I indeed felt renewed. And after being indoors, it was good to then head away from central Hot Springs to the spacious Garvan Woodland Gardens. Set on 210 landscaped acres, it is home to numerous species of plants and various fauna—including several proud peacocks. On a private tour via a golf cart, I was shown the depths of the property, including a treehouse for “kids of all ages” that would make the Swiss Family Robinson jealous. The property is filled with flowers, stone bridges and lovely waterfalls; all of these make amazing wedding photo backdrops.
The famous Anthony Chapel is conveniently located inside Garvan Gardens. It is a breathtaking structure with pews and support beams in the ceiling that are all fashioned in wood that blends in beautifully with the surrounding woods. This is a popular destination for weddings, so reservations are strongly recommended.
What was so interesting about spending time in Hot Springs, apart from the relaxing and communing with nature’s bounty below the earth, was learning about the intriguing history of the area—not all of it above-board. On a walking tour of the nearby Arlington Hotel, I learned this old structure not only hosts the oldest working elevator in the state of Arkansas, but it was also a hangout for Al Capone. The notorious gangster not only enjoyed the ritzy life offered to him in this town while taking advantage of the springs to cure what ailed him (physically, anyways), but he also had a secret escape route built into his room’s closet for the frequent raid by Prollies.
It was fitting to end my day in Hot Springs at the Ohio Club, where the likes of Lucky Luciano, Bugsy Segel, Bugs Moran and Capone himself—a statue of whom sits out front of the establishment—mixed it up back in the day. Al Jolson performed here, and the Ohio Club keeps the music running nightly even now. The flashy mobster also mingled with some of the best ballplayers of their time (Babe Ruth, Cy Young and more), who came to train on the hiking trails of the “Happy Hollow.”
I sat at the bar and ordered a Madden’s No. 1, a lager made across the street by Superior Brewing as a throwback to a similar brew popular during the Jazz Age. Capone’s picture adorned the wall, and as I drank, locals inquired about where I wad from, and if I was enjoying their town. The hospitality was refreshing.
Bentonville, in Northwest Arkansas, was once the “far side of nowhere,” to quote the Social Distortion song. But that has all changed thanks to the vision of one Sam Walton, whose five-and-dime shops would expand so much that one day Walmart would become the nation’s largest private employer.
Bentonville has grown up around the megacorporation. One of Sam Walton’s daughters built a world-class art museum here; Geena Davis co-founded an annual film festival that brings in her friends from California; and craft cocktail bars and chic restaurants dot the downtown corridor. Hipsters are moving here from Austin and Memphis with the “secret” officially out, and with them came well-kept mountain biking trails and the outdoors industry to match.
At the center of it the happenings sits the 21c Museum Bentonville hotel, one of several “museum hotels” in the company’s portfolio. The brand is so dedicated to this unique offering in the hotel world that the ground floor offers an ever-changing roster of artworks near and far, from historical to the very present.
Even checking-in, I didn’t feel quite like it was a hotel. The art was visible in every direction. But after being assured this was my hotel, I walked from the main desk toward the elevator, passing intriguing works of art every step of the way.
My room was lengthy, with a foyer area that opened up onto a living area with king-size bed and L-shaped sofa. A writing desk sat at the corner by large windows, which peered down onto one of the numerous plazas that make Bentonville so pedestrian-friendly. The decor was a welcoming shade of white that seemed to only increase the sense of how large the room was. To top it off—and in keeping with the property’s motif—various artworks had been positioned on the walls. It feels like you are sleeping inside a museum.
I was then shown around the 21c’s lobby art collection. The exhibits rotate, and one of the mainstays was a recycled plastic penguin from the Cracking Art Group. I was told that the 21c Museum Bentonville is the only hotel in the chain that was built to suit; all others were repurposed from other constructions.
For lunch I was seated at 21c’s restaurant, the Hive, with chef Matthew McClure. McClure is a native of Little Rock who studied in Boston before returning to his native state. He works hard to showcase “what Arkansas food is” for his guests. It is not just traditional Southern food, as McClure makes sure to incorporate the food of the area’s recent immigrants into the Hive menu.
“Everything that grows in the U.S. grows here,” he said as local tomatoes and pimento cheese with bacon jam were served up as appetizers. The roasted chicken shawarma was fabulous, and was complemented with the sweet and spicy fries.
For my first excursion off campus, I was taken to the Walmart Museum, “hidden” behind a facade of one of the original “Walton’s 5-10.” Sam Walton’s business savvy put Bentonville on the map, and the rather extensive exhibits gave me a sense of his life from youth to his rising to become one of America’s titans of business. As I walked through the decades of Walton’s life, displays showed how new outposts of the brand multiplied year upon year—first mostly in the South but then around the country, and eventually around the world.
Walton’s Presidential Medal of Freedom was on display for his contributions to the economic health of the nation. Near the end of the exhibits were various newspapers that announced Walton’s death on April 5, 1992, at the age of 74. What came through on the tour was that even as Walton’s fortunes increased, he never forgot his roots. He even continued to drive a pickup truck rather than a flashier, more contemporary ride.
As Bentonville’s population has become more “hip,”, the desire for outdoor activities has also increased. Steep Ozark Mountains hikes are a few hours away, but mountain biking provides a great alternative locally. I had only been muntain biking one time, so the professionals at the shop promised a great workout across “relatively easy” terrain.
Thing is, her definition of “easy” was different than mine. The wooded hills around Bentonville have some steep grades. I was getting a good workout and plenty of laughs were hurled my way due to my frequent stops, but breaks were great to gaze at the many artworks that line the Bentonville biking trails. I had a great view of just a small part of the exterior of the magnificent Crystal Bridges art museum from a small bluff. On these paths, nature and art became one.
For dinner, I visited Yeyo’s, a Mexican dining spot that once-again proves how much Bentonville’s food scene relies on immigrant cuisine. To “celebrate” me surviving the bike ride, I kicked things off with a mezcal flight—as one does—along with chips and salsa. Tortillas are made right in-house, and the locavore menu is supplemented by vegetables grown nearby. The barbacoa enchiladas were scrumptious, and a small course of mini-churros for dessert capped off my day nicely.
Breakfast the following morning was enjoyed at Cafe Louise that is located at Thaden Fieldhouse, an airstrip named for famed Bentonville aviatrix Iris Louise McPhetridge Thaden. It is a private airport, where celebs and the elite business travelers are known to arrive and depart far from the madding crowds. The hippie hash was a super-fun wake-up call at breakfast, with its vegetable complement mixed with eggs, hot sauce and feta. I followed this up with the trout toast that was garnished with capers, pickled red onion and a soft scrambled egg to get this second day kickstarted right.
Bentonville is perhaps trying to become the “new” Austin, and nowhere was this more evident than the so-called “House of Song,” a homegrown musical laboratory where songwriters are invited to “reside” in one of the house’s bedrooms and create, create, create. Proprietor Troy Campbell, along with partner Poul Krebs, started this operation in—you guessed it—Austin, but Campbell saw the need for a second location in the booming area of Northwest Arkansas. His mission is to bring together people from various musical traditions in one place, where they can bounce ideas off one another with the collaborative process yielding greater results.
Campbell (a guy with a winning smile) has worked in the industry for decades, earning praise from no less than Bruce Springsteen in the process. Campbell said he stages concerts and other events here in the warm months, and he is conscious of providing a space for everyone to continue creating in a supportive environment.
I then drove to the magnificent Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, which is the realization of a dream by Alice Walton to have a world-class facility not in New York, London or Washington, but in the same town where her father started the Walmart empire from humble beginnings. Many initially dubbed the venture the height of folly, but no one was laughing after the phenomenal facility, designed by the renowned Moshe Safdie, opened to the public Nov. 11, 2011.
The museum contains only works produced on this continent, and as I entered the galleries, Alice Walton’s attention to spreading art appreciation to a wider audience was on display with everything posted in both English and Spanish. Works from America’s indigenous people comprised the first rooms, and I then walked forward through American history, with portraits of the Founding Fathers going hand in hand with works by African American artisans from across the centuries—all telling the complicated narrative of this country. There was a haunting sculpture of a “bread line” of Depression-era men in hats waiting for some food; and works continue through the Art Deco and later periods of American expressions to arrive at the present’s ironic and postmodern commentaries on our times.
I could have spent hours there, but that would probably still not be enough to take it all in. Crystal Bridges is a rich cultural gift not only to Arkansas, but to America.
Dinner was at the Preacher’s Son, where Chef Matthew Cooper has fashioned a gastronomic delight sourced from Northern Arkansas’s breadbasket. Cooper has celiac disease, so he has put great thought into making his menu gluten-free, but no less delicious. I quickly sensed this during the appetizers. The chicken meatballs had so much pizzazz I was tempted to get them as my main, and the eggplant hushpuppies put a unique spin on an old Southern favorite. The smoked chicken salad indeed had a fiery flavor profile, and the braised lamb pasta, with its delicate presentation, did not disappoint the eyes or the taste buds. The meal was complimented with a hearty Marichal Merlot from Uruguay. A dessert of fruit ricotta and honey blueberries officially put me into food heaven.
My final stop on this gastronomy odyssey led me to a “secret” door, and then down some steps to the subterranean speakeasy-style cocktail bar called Undercroft. With bartenders dressed in finery and low lighting, the atmosphere made me feel as if I had just stepped out of a ‘30s gangster film. Bespoke old-fashions with a base of Woodford Reserve were a specialty here, and made this unique experience one I would not soon forget.
I dined like a king and enjoyed all the local treasures during my time in this charming city with amazing people I met along the way. Bentonville is one-of-a-kind!