Arkansas is an easy state to visit. Easygoing people. Easy to get around (except the notorious Route 40). Easy on the eyes . . .from the Ozark Mountains to the Diamond Lakes. And there's lots to do, too, from "taking the cure" at Hot Springs National Park in one of the opulent bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, to rowing a boat round one of the five "Diamond Lakes" to mining diamonds at the Crater of Diamonds State Park. No matter where you go or what you choose to do in Arkansas, you'll meet some of the nicest people. Southern hospitality is very much alive in Arkansas.
STATE TOURIST INFORMATION: (800) 872-1259
STATEHOUSE, Little Rock (501) 682-5080
The Arkansas statehouse was designed in 1899 and completed in 1916. It sits on a hilltop west of downtown Little Rock at the site of the old State Penitentiary. Made of Arkansas white marble and granite, the State Capitol is modeled after the nation's Capitol, but with the unique distinction of six 4-inch thick, hand-crafted Tiffany brass doors that shine like six gold bars peaking out from a white marble frame.
Check it out: . . . At Christmastime the Capitol is ablaze in white lights that twinkle, shimmer and reflect around the elaborately carved brass doors. Amid all this white light is the word "Peace" spelled out in a cool, tranquil blue. Very inspirational.
Tip: Another nice seasonal feature is the 100 Christmas trees on the lawn, representing all the counties of Arkansas. Each tree is decorated based on the unique feature of the county. It's a wonderful way to learn about Arkansas.
The historical section of Hot Springs is a throwback to the Victorian Era, particularly Bathhouse Row, occupying one side of Central Avenue in a straight line of old-fashioned, beautifully designed bathhouses that once catered to the rich in the heyday of the aristocratic health-seekers. Hot Springs back in the early 1900s was America's answer to Germany's Baden-Baden spa area where the upper echelon of Europe went to "take the cure" from the natural thermal hot springs.
Hot Springs National Park (501) 624-3383
Situated amid the Ouachita Mountains along the slopes of Hot Springs, Music, North, West, Sugarloaf, and Indian Mountains, Hot Spring National Park is the country's only scenic park built around an entire city. The park itself offers exquisite natural beauty and wonderful trails that overlook a city of lights below which can be seen quite magnificently from the 216-foot high Mountain Observation Tower off Fountain Street.
Tip: Along the entrance to the park are fountains of the natural hot springs where you can fill water jugs to take home some of the purest water in the land. We saw people lined up with wagons of 5-gallon containers.
Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center (501) 6231433
Don't expect a typical "Visitor Center." Not by a long shot. Sitting smack in the middle of all the other exquisite bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, this 1915 Spanish Renaissance building with the striped awnings and extra large veranda outside invites weary travelers to come in, relax and experience the luxurious lifestyle of the rich and famous of the early 1900s. The lobby, with its long paneled windows, stained glass ceilings, elaborate fireplaces, beautiful marble and mosaic tiled floors welcomes visitors with a warm glow that recalls a more genteel time in our nation's past. Every room, from the boiler room in the basement to the gym on the top floor -- and the men's and women's bath treatment rooms in between -- offers an exhilarating peak into the past.
Tip: Walk the walk. Be sure to walk the red brick Promenade in back of Bathhouse Row. The romantic meandering along fountains and the "open springs" is sensational. One almost expects to see men in top hats and women in long dresses carrying parasols. For the more adventurous, hike the many trails off this Promenade that lead to the mountaintop.
Check it out . . . along the Promenade are the open springs where you can see the water coming right out of the ground. The 4,000-year-old thermal water flows out of the springs at a temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit, and is naturally sterile. What happens is this: as rainwater seeps into the ground, it descends 4,000-8,000 feet below where there earth's extreme temperature heats the water. The purified water then makes its way back to the earth's surface through cracks and pores in the rock, which takes about 4,000 years. This is what you see standing before you at these "open springs." (Note, all the other springs were capped years ago and channeled into the bathhouses on Bathhouse Row.)
Buckstaff Bath House (501) 623-2308
The Buckstaff is the only bathhouse on Bathhouse Row that has been in continuous operation since 1912. To soak in their tubs, is to be steeped in history. The thermal bath therapy is based on the unadulterated pure thermal mineral waters from Hot Springs National Park. The establishment is privately owned, but regulated by the National Parks System.
Tip: The "Total Package" includes: mineral bath, whirlpool, hot packs (my personal favorite), Sitz bath, steam cabinet, needle shower and full body massage. The price? An unbelievably reasonable price of $33 for everything (tax excluded).
CRATER OF DIAMONDS STATE PARK, Murfreesboro (501) 285-3113
Situated among the pine forests of southwest Arkansas is a rare 35-acre diamond field, the only source of natural diamonds in United States open to the public. You can dig, pan or sluice for diamonds and bring whatever hand-tools you need to do the job. Any diamonds you find are yours to keep. Over 11,000 diamonds have been discovered by tourists since the park opened in 1972, including the 16.37 carat "Amarillo Starlight," discovered by Texan W.W. Johnson, a visitor to the park in 1975. But it's more than just diamonds buried in those mounds. Some other gems you might find are: find Jasper, Agate, Quartz and Amethyst.
Tip: Let Mother Nature do the work for you. The best time to go is after a rainstorm because diamonds have an oily outer service which mud will not stick to, making them easy to spot after a rain.
Tip: Bring plenty of food and water if you plan to make a day of this, as the sun can be pretty unmerciful on the novice prospector and no shade exists on the field.
OUR CAMPSITE FOR THE WEEK:
Timbercrest Mobile Home Park, Hot Springs (501) 525-8361
Checked out three other campgrounds before we settled here. The first two were small, dirty and pathetic. The third was pretty, situated on a lake, but all the lots were terraced on a hill which, although the lots themselves were level, they sloped down toward the lake making us a bit seasick. Luckily Ken recalled a sign for this RV park, sandwiched between the bowling alley (where, we found out later, Pres. Clinton used to bowl) and a car dealership.As soon as we pulled into the driveway, we knew it was right. Very neat and tidy. And when we went up to the manager's house there was a "Singing Santa" at the door singing "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Yes, this is the place. And the price is right, too. Only $72 per week -- including tax! (That's about $10.28 a night. While the KOA up the street is charging $28 per night!) But no showers or restrooms. The place is clean, well-maintained and the hosts are a delightful couple, who kindly let us use their phone to upload the postcards.