Located two hours southwest of Memphis on Interstate 40, Little Rock, Arkansas’ charming capital city has 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 their 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 seem like the carefree 1990s. There is a replica of the Oval Office; copies of legislation that were passed during his term; gifts given to Clinton 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. Yes, there is a one-line mention of Monica Lewinsky and his impeachment in a second floor exhibit.
Although its population is a third of that of Queens, Little Rock does not fit the stereotype of a sleepy southern city. The Arkansas Arts Center has quietly become one of the nation’s premiere art museums as it features 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 fried, fatty fare that you would expect. Be sure to try an heirloom tomato that tastes like it should be served as dessert instead of being part of a salad.
A fun way to sightsee as well as enjoy a tasty buffet 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 showboat exterior.
The Little Rock Zoo, in spite of its small size, has one of the best cheetah exhibits you’ll find 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 the Verizon Arena pays tribute to Arkansans who have succeeded 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 is 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 that 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 hotel as it was built on the site of a 19th century bank as is evidenced by its high ceilings and marble columns. 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 www.littlerock.com.