Located two hours southwest of Memphis on Interstate 40, Arkansas’s charming capital city, Little Rock, frequently found itself on the front lines of 20th-century American history.
In the fall of 1957 President Dwight Eisenhower had to send in the National Guard to ensure that nine African-American students could enroll in what had been all-white Little Rock Central High School. Newsreels from that troubled time, including Eisenhower’s stare-down with Arkansas governor Orville Faubus, as well as a replica of the Esso gas station where reporters phoned in their stories from across the street from the school, are part of the Little Rock National Historic Site. Incidentally, Little Rock Central High School is still a functioning high school and one with a sterling academic reputation. NBA All-Star and current Brooklyn Nets forward Joe Johnson is an alum.
President Bill Clinton got his political start here and served two terms as a governor of Arkansas. A portrait of a 35-year-old Clinton, then the youngest governor in the United States, hangs in the rotunda of the Arkansas Capitol Building, which so strongly resembles its namesake in Washington that it has stood in for it in various films and television shows. A portrait of another famous governor, one-time Republican presidential candidate and current Fox News personality Mike Huckabee, is also on display. Incidentally, the brass doors of the Capitol were manufactured at the Tiffany factory located in Queens in the 19th century.
Although Clinton has resided in the Westchester town of Chappaqua since leaving the White House in January 2001, Little Rock still considers him one of its own. The William J. Clinton Presidential Library & Museum opened here in 2004, and spending two hours here will certainly bring back memories of what now seems like the carefree 1990s. There is a replica of the Oval Office; copies of legislation that were passed during Clinton’s tenure; gifts given to him by foreign leaders; a brief biographical film in which Clinton talks about his presidency; as well as thousands of archived documents that are available to researchers. And yes, there is a one-line mention of Monica Lewinsky and the president’s impeachment in a second-floor exhibit.
Although its population is a third that of Queens, Little Rock is not a stereotypical sleepy southern city. Its Arkansas Arts Center has quietly become one of the nation’s top art museums, with works by Georgia O’Keeffe, Roy Lichtenstein and Diego Rivera, to name just a few.
Many of the city’s restaurants, such as Ashley’s and Forty-Two, take pride in providing farm-to-table cuisine cooked in a healthy manner as opposed to the fried, fatty fare one might expect. Be sure to try an heirloom tomato, which tastes like it should be served as dessert instead of being part of a salad.
A fun way to sightsee as well as enjoy dinner and live music is to cruise the Arkansas River on the Arkansas Queen. This paddle-wheeler is quite luxurious and modern despite its 19th-century exterior.
The Little Rock Zoo, in spite of its small size, has one of the best cheetah exhibits anywhere. It’s also home to the second-oldest gorilla in captivity, 55-year-old Trudy. A baby gorilla was born here in August.
The Arkansas Sports Hall of Fame, located in Verizon Arena, pays tribute to Arkansans in both professional and amateur sports. Former Mets outfielder Kevin McReynolds is one of the inductees.
Neighboring Tennessee is well-known for its production of whiskey but surprisingly Arkansas has only one spirits manufacturer, Brandon’s Distillery, owned by Phil Brandon. The plant is located just a stone’s throw from the Clinton Library, and Phil will show you how whiskey, gin and bourbon are produced. (As an aside, Phil’s daughter Darby is on the Queens College tennis team.)
Getting around town is easy thanks to the Little Rock trolley system, which will take you to nearly every attraction. The fare is $1 per ride or $2 for an all-day pass.
The Capital Hotel is the city’s most famous. It’s a stunner, with its high ceilings, marble columns and architectural detail. The guest rooms are bigger than most Manhattan apartments. Locals routinely stop into its lobby on hot days to quench their thirsts with the complimentary lemonade that is served every afternoon.
For more information, contact the Little Rock Visitors Bureau at (800) 844-4781 or log onto littlerock.com.