“Rockin” Little Rock
By Suzanne Ferrara
Little Rock is far from little, and no one knows that more than the locals who will repeatedly tell you it’s a “big-little city”. Little Rock may have gotten its name from French explorers who identified the area by a small rock formation they called “La Petite Roche” on the Arkansas River in 1799, but those early settlers would not recognize the land they discovered so long ago. This city, a mini-metropolis, has developed by leaps and bounds over the last 20 years, and offers visitors more than ever before.
One thing is for sure, Little Rock is chockfull of political lure; it’s a city from where governmental deals and national historical events have rocked the nation. Add to its lengthy repertoires a myriad of award-winning restaurants, entertainment venues, museums and outdoor adventure, and you’ve got a prime vacation destination.
Once you arrive, make a bee-line straight to the historic luxury Capitol Hotel, which opened in 1873, and is ironically known as the “Front Porch of Little Rock.” Attention to detail is an understatement in this refined oasis which has a quiet grace about it. The Capitol Hotel’s grand staircase is said to be a “sweet spot” for political hopefuls announcing their candidacies. (Tip: The Capitol Hotel’s Chuck Magill and Stefan Piraux, the chief concierge, exude Little Rock hospitality and are full of knowledge about both the hotel and the city).
With its marble columns, grand hallways, towering ceilings and floor-to-ceiling windows in every room, you can’t help but feel the history in the Capitol Hotel. The elevator is so large that, according to legend, it was constructed to easily accommodate President Grant and his horse. By the way, the historic State Capitol, the oldest state capitol building west of the Mississippi River and the location of President Clinton’s election night celebration in 1992, is just down the block.
Before you head out to explore the highlights of Little Rock, make a stop at the hotel’s Capitol Bar and Grill, a place where political deals have been struck for more than a century. Here you can sip a legendary cocktail and tempt your taste buds with award-winning provincial comfort dishes. (Recommended: The Best Spiced Pecans and Pimento Cheese appetizers, followed by the one of the best hamburgers in Little Rock, and finished off with some amazing house-made banana pudding). The cocktail menu, meanwhile, is full of historical libations like The Seersucker and hand-crafted cocktails with a new twist like the Crop Duster.
Who needs the White House? The Clinton Presidential Center, which is the presidential library of Bill Clinton, showcases fascinating artifacts from his presidency including full-scale replicas of the Clinton-era Oval Office and Cabinet Room. Here you can find out how it feels to sit in the Commander in Chief’s chair (be sure to take a photo).
There are 79,000 artifacts, 80 million documents, and Bill Clinton’s
Presidential limousine is on display. There’s even a heart-warming letter from Mother Teresa (canonized a saint September 4th) addressed to the first lady. An array of awe-inspiring and one-of-a-kind gifts given to President Clinton are on display; however, for those objects not on exhibit, museum visitors can get a sneak peek inside the vaults to see more phenomenal possessions.
President Clinton’s story unfolds before your eyes from his campaigns to his inaugurations to his notable policy-making, and it’s all revealed through a myriad of items, photographs and videos that are sure to capture your attention. While the exhibit really brings to life President Clinton’s presidency, it also intimately shows visitors a real example of how the US President lives while leading the country.
Who needs to go to the Olympic Games? You can see some of the most inspiring artifacts used in the Olympics up close and personal at the Clinton Presidential Center. The temporary exhibit called, American Champions: The Quest for Olympic Glory, includes memorabilia featuring dozens of American Olympic athletes including a U.S. Olympic Hockey Team hockey stick and puck used to win the Silver medal (also on display) in the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Games. You can also experience what it feels like to sit inside the 4-man bobsled piloted by Steven Holcom at the 2010 Games in Vancouver; this bobsled is a replica of the Night Train which was used to win the first gold medal for an American bobsledding team since 1948.
The Quest for Olympic Glory also includes artifacts dating back nearly three-quarters of a century. The Silver medal and Team USA sweater and track jersey worn by Clyde Scott in the 1948 Olympic Games in London, Peggy Fleming’s figure skating costume from the 1968 Winter Olympic Games in Grenoble, France, and the 1936 Western Union Telegram to President Franklin D. Roosevelt on the selection of Jesse Owens as the head of the American Olympic ‘welcome home parade’ are also part of the exhibit. This display showing the strength of the human spirit through the Olympics is sure to inspire everyone. You can easily spend an entire day at the Clinton Center, so be sure to carve out a lot of time to enjoy this unmatched experience, highlighted by both permanent and temporary exhibits.
While at the Clinton Center, be sure to check out the 30-acre Clinton Presidential Park surrounding the museum on the riverfront. The site was once part of the rundowned warehouse district and has been revitalized with pathways and gardens thanks to President Clinton’s vision. Be sure to cross the historic 1899 Rock Island Railroad Bridge, which was converted into a pedestrian bridge crossing and offers scenic views of the historic Arkansas River.
Little Rock has come a long way since the days of European settlers who tried to limit Quapaw Indians’ alcohol consumption and the era of destroying whiskey distilleries. In fact, just a few blocks away from the Clinton Presidential Park, the whiskey is overflowing. Here lies the Rock Town Distillery, Arkansas’ first legal distillery since prohibition! In fact, in a complete paradox, while half of Arkansas’ 75 counties are dry, Little Rock is pouring out its spirits and promoting its locally produced libations with a tasting tour.
Rock Town, which was named one of the ten best Southern Distillery Tours by USA Today, is one of several stops on Greater Little Rock’s Locally Labeled Spirits Passport Tour. This artisan craft distillery is where you will find the coveted award-winning 2015 American Micro Whiskey of the Year, awarded in the revered Jim Murry’s Whiskey Bible.
Arkansas native Phil Brandon is the founder of Rock Town, and he offers award-winning distillery tours seven days a week, and by tour’s end, you’ll taste all of Rock Town’s award winning spirits. Phil will take you through the whole process of making spirits from grain to glass, and uncovers the genesis of bourbon, vodka and gin. But the Locally Labeled spirit tour extends beyond the Rock Town Distillery stop; it includes nearly a dozen homegrown craft breweries and wineries all of which feature beverages that are sure to please.
One of the most fascinating and unusual stops in Little Rock is the ESSE Purse Museum, the only purse museum in America and one of only three in the world. This private museum takes an intimate look at the evolution of purses and its personal contents from American women for more than a century. Viewing the development of handbag styles and the intimate items women carried in their purses during each extraordinary decade gives one a true testament and perspective of how different eras affected women’s lives. This is a ‘don’t miss’, one-of-a-kind experience, and it’s all in Little Rock!
The ESSE purse museum unveils how purses evolved from an accessory primarily designed to hold ladies’ coins to an essential carrier of necessary contents reflective of a woman’s core. The ESSE purse museum also reveals how purses became a fashion statement, showpieces to costly labeled designer bags. The myriad of styles, kaleidoscope of colors and materials on stage are truly an eye-full.
While the museum is a 20th century gallery, for a contemporary exhibit of the purses various women carry today and their contents the ESSE Purse Project blog continues this intriguing show online. The project encourages women to send in photos of their handbags, their contents, their age and occupations, and to share it all with the world via the internet.
While you can’t buy a purse from the museum exhibit, you can purchase a handbag at the museum’s store. You can choose from their collection of vintage handbags to handmade originals made of leathers, canvass and metals.
For a moving historical experience, about a mile away from the ESSE Purse Museum, you can walk up the same steps as the “Little Rock Nine” did at Central High School in 1957. The national historic landmark and proposed world heritage site also has an extensive visitor center across the street which offers interactive exhibits and details on the Little Rock Nine’s place in civil rights history. (Time tip: You will need a couple hours to really enjoy the depths of the visitor center’s exhibit.)
In case you didn’t know, Little Rock is a secret foodie town with a plethora of award-winning tasty dining options. In addition to the Capitol Hotel’s Capitol Bar and Grill, be sure to enjoy the array of culinary offerings in Little Rock’s South Main District. This must-experience of an up-and -coming neighborhood boasts unmatched restaurants and shops that make sustainability and locally-sourced products a top priority.
A visit to Little Rock is incomplete without a visit to The Root Café, a local favorite which uses local meats, eggs, bread, produce, cheese and nuts. The Root has an award-winning breakfast and lunch and its homey atmosphere exudes character with antiques and collectables. Nearly every Saturday morning you will find Little Rock Mayor Mark Stodola, who like the plethora of locals, enjoys the quality savory dishes.
Another award-winning must visit (and a popular spot for local food critics) is the South on Main which is both a restaurant and entertainment venue. Chef Matthew Bell serves innovative dishes with a southern flare which reign at South on Main. In addition to creating savory, unforgettable dishes, Chef Bell strives to make sure all employees are like family, and this relationship is evident by the up-beat team spirit displayed at one of Little Rock’s most popular restaurants. Grab a table and enjoy a delectable dinner as you enjoy some culturally-rich entertainment born from content associated the Oxford American magazine. Trotters with Creamed Greens, Pumpkin Seeds & South on Main Grape Jelly, and Pork Ribs with Twice Baked Potato serve as memorable starters and main dishes.
Anytime is the perfect time to step back in time at the Loblolly Creamery also located in the South Main District. Once you open its street-cornered door, you instantly realize you are in a special place. Grab a seat at the marble counter of this neighborhood soda fountain and ice cream bar located inside The Green Corner Store & Soda Fountain. There’s nothing like the mouthwatering taste of a freshly churned scoop of ice cream and baked goods made with farm-fresh dairy products and local quality ingredients. Loblolly Creamery serves a plethora of unique, mouthwatering flavored homemade ice creams with flavors like Lemon Berry Ice Box Pie and Little Rock-y Road, and refreshing soda fountain phosphate sodas, like the old fashioned concoctions created in the late 1800’s, are also served. Need a gift? The Green Corner Store and Soda Fountain has several specialty and locally made items. You will find it hard to turn yourself away from this place which oozes old time atmosphere.
Rest assured, you won’t see all that Little Rock has to offer in one visit;
For more information go to: www.littlerock.com