You guys. We have to talk about Arkansas. You know, the state that the Clinton's hail from. Because that's literally all I knew about Arkansas before going there other than geographically where it is, of course.
Let's back up a few steps though. For those of you who haven't been with me since I started this travel blog then it's important you know that I started it because I am on a mission to see all 50 states before I turn 40. Technically 50, but I always add a footnote and say "51" because even though Washington DC isn't a state, it's still a pretty major part of the United States that I think I should see.
The quick and dirty details are that as of two weeks ago I had seen 30 states and in just over a month I will be 35. What qualifies as seeing a state is spending the night and doing at least one thing in the state. So for example, while I've been through the Dallas airport more times than I can count, that is all I've seen of Texas so I don't count it as having been to Texas. In short, it's fair to say I can definitely make all 50 (51) states so long as I stay strategic and smart about my vacation time and planning.
Now, in the interest of being completely honest I have to say that Oklahoma and Arkansas were pretty low on my list of "states left that I'm excited to visit". It wasn't that I thought anything particularly bad about these two states, but they didn't have an "oh my word you MUST visit this city/town/park/etc" factor.
But that's the thing about a mission to see all 50 states. You have to see them all. And if being a traveler has taught me anything, it's to put all personal bias and assumptions aside and go in with an open mind. Plus I'm from Iowa, the state that people like to term "a flyover state" and it drives me crazy because there are some seriously beautiful parts of Iowa, so I hate the assumptions.
So here was the plan - drive from Cedar Rapids, Iowa to Tulsa, Oklahoma (8ish hours). Spend the night in Tulsa than head over to Hot Springs, Arkansas (4 hours). Stay in Hot Springs for two days than drive home (10ish hours).
If you're wondering why I left Oklahoma out of this post it's primarily because we were only there one night. I don't feel like it was enough time for me to talk to you about things to do and places to eat, and all the things you'd need to know to plan a vacation. But Hot Springs, Arkansas? That I have covered.
We stayed in a yurt. I can already hear it - "a what?" The easiest way for me to describe a yurt is to think of a very large tent that is constructed in a circular format, but it's very different in that has hardwood floors and large wooden beams that hold it up. It comes equipped with a mini fridge, coffee maker (thank you coffee gods), beds, a table, couch and is climate controlled.
Because I've had so many questions about our yurt stay, I'm actually going to go further in detail on the experience of staying in a yurt in another post, but what I can tell you is that I had originally booked a hotel in downtown Hot Springs, then on a whim (or rather a scroll through my Instagram) I decided to see what the website Glamping Hub had to offer. For the same price as a hotel I was able to book us a yurt so we could try a totally different experience.
WHERE TO EAT (AND NOT TO EAT)
Oh Hot Springs. A foodie's paradise you are not. Here is how this went down. We arrived into Hot Springs late afternoon, got checked into our yurt, discovered it had a Keurig and decided to head into town to get some coffee creamer, walk around a bit, and have dinner. We were tired. Exhausted. We stayed up wayyyyyy past our bedtimes in Tulsa, had too much drink, and then were up early and in the car to head to Hot Springs.
Craft Beer Cellar
After getting our coffee creamer we stopped at a place called Craft Beer Cellar so that Dylan could do his perusing of local craft beers to buy and bring home. It was a really cool place and had it not been for the fact that a local Holiday Costume Run was occupying almost every inch of the place and boozing it up, we likely would have stayed longer.
Belle Arti Ristorante
Sigh. How do I sum up Belle Art Ristorante. It's like a shabby not-so-chic Olive Garden but with darker wood, dimmer lights, and smaller tables. And a grand piano, which is exactly what you want to hear blaring at you as you're trying to have a conversation with your dinner date, right?
Maybe I'm being too harsh on Belle Arti Ristorante. Maybe it was the fact that I was in the 'feed me all of the food' stage of my hangover. Who knows. Let's discuss the service first. Our server was a nice enough guy. He meant well and was kind to us, which is certainly a good thing, but here's how our conversation went:
Me: What is your soup of the day?
Server: Um, I'm not sure, I'll go check and be right back.
(Comes back, tells me the soup of the day)
Me: Great, and do you have any specials?
Server: Yes, let me go check what those are.
(Comes back and reads specials to me)
Me: Okay, my last question is there here on your menu you have a steak section, a chicken section, and a seafood section. Do any of these come with sides, or is it ala carte since nothing is listed? (Thinks to myself "oh dear god don't let him have to go check on this too")
Server: Oh yes, so the steak comes with mashed potatoes and mixed veggies, the chicken comes with asparagus and a baked potato, and the fish....(well I honestly forgot what the fish came with for the side. But you get the point).
Part of me felt bad. I'm a former server and bartender so I have a great amount of empathy for servers. I wasn't trying to put this guy through his paces and I wasn't asking the questions just to be an ass. I was between two items, and if one of the steak meals didn't come with sides than I was considering soup, depending on what it was.
Now, the food. Let me start out with a positive - my steak was cooked perfectly and the blue cheese I asked for on top was melted to the perfect point with a crispy light brown layer on top. It was great. It was also luke warm. Like when you cook something too soon and have to let it sit to cook the rest of the meal. And the potatoes were flavorless. A little salt and pepper wouldn't have hurt anybody. And the bruschetta type bread they brought out at the beginning was stale as could be. To point to being crunchy. Bad crunchy.
Needless to say we paid our well meaning server and headed out. Perhaps the Belle Art food gods just weren't in our favor that evening, but it's not a place I would recommend to you fine readers based on my experience.
The Pancake Shop
The Pancake Shop was a bright, shining, and delicious meal and a wonderful follow up to Belle Arti Ristorante from the previous night.
It's everything you want in a breakfast. Quick, homemade, diner-style with a friendly face. Having been featured in both the New York Times and Southern Living I was pretty sure that we had a winner on our hands before even arriving. Since we had went to bed early the previous night we were up before sunrise to photograph the lake and headed downtown for breakfast by 7:45am.
The place was 90% full when we walked in just after 8, so we bellied up to a small bar and ordered two coffees to start.
For breakfast we each got eggs and their homemade sausage patties which were incredible. Being at a place called 'The Pancake Shop' we both thought it was important we should order a pancake; something we never do at home. I ordered the apple and Dylan the blueberry, and maybe it's the fact that I eat pancakes maybe twice a year, but it was hands-down the BEST pancake I have ever had. It just melted in my mouth. And apple? Well now I'm a pancake snob who will look down upon regular ol' blueberry pancakes (Kidding!). But I'm not kidding when I said that apple pancake was the best I've had.
I couldn't recommend The Pancake Shop highly enough, but I advise on getting their before 8 otherwise expect a wait.
Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery
After hiking around Hot Springs National Park (see below for details on the park) we decided to have some beers at bathhouse turned brewery, Superior Bathhouse Brewery. While I tend to be more of a vodka or wine girl, I do like beer and craft beer is definitely Dylan's thing, so what a better way to drink back the calories we'd burned while hiking in the morning.
I'm not going to go into detail about the beers because I honestly don't know much about the details of craft beer making, but I will say that I enjoyed ALL of the beers in my flight, which is quite rare. And Dylan really liked his beers too, which is a much better endorsement.
We also decided to eat lunch at Superior and it was fantastic. I had a BLT panini with mashed avocado with a side of bacon, blue cheese potato salad (I'm a sucker for blue cheese), and it was fresh, easy, and delicious. All of the food sounded great and peeking at other people's meals I easily got the impression that you couldn't go wrong with what you ordered.
Capone's Ohio Club
Capone's Ohio Club is right across the street from Superior Bathhouse Brewery and also happens to be Arkansas' oldest bar, established in 1905. Home to famous gangsters like Al Capone, Bugsy Segel, Bugs Moran, and Lucky Luciano, it also was frequented by many Major League Baseball players such as Babe Ruth during spring training in the early 1900s.
Today the bar boosts live blues and jazz music and maintains the dark and timeless vibe of it's history.
We stopped in for a quick drink after lunch but I would encourage you to check it out in the evening during the live music for a true experience.
Fisherman's Wharf Seafood and Steakhouse
"We just ate at a Red Lobster but without the Cheddar Bay Biscuits." That was Dylan's take as we left Fisherman's Wharf Seafood and Steakhouse. And he was 100% spot on.
Fisherman's Wharf was a restaurant that I had found while researching places to eat in Hot Springs. Other bloggers raved about it. "It's on a lake" they said; "go there for some fresh seafood" they promised. Hell, maybe I've been spoiled by seafood in Portland, Boston, New Orleans (literally anywhere else) but this was not a restaurant I'd send anyone too. At best it was "fine". If you're into fried anything and your version of "fresh fish" is frozen breaded tilapia that has been thawed and cooked, than you'll love Fisherman's Wharf. I don't consider myself a food snob (though I'm aware I'm sounding a bit like one), but I have believe there are much better places in Hot Springs to eat. And if you find them, let me know.
WHAT TO DO
While Hot Springs the town is home only approximately 80,000 odd people, what it lacks in food it makes up for in things to do, and some beautiful scenery.
Hot Springs National Park
Established as a national park in 1921, Hot Springs National Park is the oldest park maintained by the National Park Service in the United States. It is also the smallest National Park, but perhaps the most accessible as well as the hot springs are nestled between bathhouse row and the Hot Springs Mountains.
Bathhouse row? Downtown Hot Springs is home to the grandest collection of bathhouses and has been designated a National Landmark. Stretching for miles, only two of the bathhouses are still running, while the rest have been converted, just like Superior bathhouse was converted into a brewery. For no charge you can explore each bathhouse and get a glimpse into how the ultra wealthy used to use their version of spas.
Right behind bathhouse row are a maze of trails that weave through Hot Springs National Park and up to Mountain Tower, which is a grand tower that overlooks the city of Hot Springs. The tower costs $8 per adult to go up, and be sure to hold on to your hats because it's a vortex of wind, regardless of what the wind is like on the ground.
As far as actual hot springs, we only saw one. And it was really disappointing. I suspect it was because literally every trail was being repaved. We got a bit of the ways up where you access other trails to hike back into the park and each one of the damn ones was closed. It was a huge bust and incredibly disappointing.
I am going to get more into Catherine's Landing in my post about our stay in our yurt, as that is where we stayed, but I wanted to note them in the 'Things to Do' category here because while we visited at a time when it was a bit too chilly for any lake activities, I could definitely tell it would be a wonderful place to canoe, kayak, swim, etc during those warm months, giving way to plenty to do.
Downtown Hot Springs
Downtown Hot Springs is an easily walkable town. You can pick anywhere on the main drag to park (or utilize their free parking garage) and stroll up and down, weaving in and out of cute artisan shops, bars and restaurants.
We found some really great local shops so while I wasn't really split on the food, I was quite impressed with the shopping.
Garvan Woodland Gardens
The highlight of the trip was, without a doubt, Garvan Woodland Gardens. Full credit goes to Dylan for discovering this place during some pre-vacation research. Garvan Woodland Gardens is a botanical garden/woodland forest that is maintained by the Fay Jones School of Architecture + Design from the University of Arkansas.
Marked paths guide you around what is easily one of the most beautiful places I've ever hiked, and the vivid fall colors made it almost seem magical.
The weekend we arrived was when they started their holiday light show, which essentially covered the entire woodlands and gardens with beautiful holiday lights. While normal hours are 9-5, during the holiday lights the gardens open at 3pm, which is when we arrived. The sun goes down around 4:45 and it was the perfect time to walk the miles through the woods and see the beautiful grounds, then do a nother loop at dusk to admire the lights.
After you're done there is a chapel on the property that is absolutely incredible, so be sure to walk over and check it out.
The truth about my trip was that it was what I expected - average. While the food was at best hit and miss, the scenery was great, but after traveling as much as I have I can tell you that there is other great scenery in the United States, in locations I prefer better. I found the people to be incredibly nice but there just wasn't a 'wow' factor for me. I didn't dislike anything about Arkansas, but I don't think I'll head back there unless I have a reason to.