A Very Arkansas Vacation
May 7, 2012 6:37 AM   Subscribe

My husband and I are thinking about taking a last-minute mini vacation to Little Rock and (maybe?) Hot Springs, Arkansas, this week. There are a couple of threads on the area on AskMe, but nothing in the past few years... so I'm hoping for updated recommendations on things to eat, do, see, etc! Interests & specific requests within!

We will have a car and will be hoping to get a last-minute hotel deal. We were thinking we should stay in Little Rock, where there seems to be more stuff to do, and go down to Hot Springs as a day trip. Would it be better to do the reverse, though? Where are the best places to stay (both specific places to stay and/or neighborhoods -- we may be doing hotwire)? Are we going to have a parking problem in either town?

For Hot Springs specifically, what is the deal on these bathhouses? Are they scary and gross or awesome and fun? Where's the best place to bathe in the hot springs, and should we drink the water??

We really need a mental break from our busy lives, so we're looking for fun and relaxing stuff to do.

In terms of food/activities, we like:
local flavor (homegrown food, local artists and artisans)
art (we are both artists)
unique or quirky
beautiful views
casual (nothing that requires fancier clothes than jeans)
relatively inexpensive (we suffer from limited cash flow but can splurge on maybe one nice meal as long as it's casual dress) ("splurge" would be like $100-125 for dinner for 2, no alcohol; "inexpensive" would be up to like $10-15 for entrees)

For this trip, we don't want:
cigarette smoke (I'm allergic)
strenuous anything (physical or mental!)
heavy outdoor activities (camping is out, scenic overlooks are in!)

In case it's not obvious, we have never been to either LR or HS before. Thanks, hive!!
posted by hansbrough to Travel & Transportation around Little Rock, AR (17 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I was in Hot Springs for a week last April for some contract work. It's a quirky little place and as I was there before the real season began, some places were closed and others closed early. Really aside from a few restaurants, everything on Central Ave, in the Boat House Row area closes by 5:00 p.m.. They might as well roll up the sidewalks. That may be different once the tourist season is in full swing. I I didn't get to go many places because I didn't have access to a car.

We stayed at the Arlington Hotel, which was charming, but was a little bit down on it's heels. The lobby is pretty nice, but the rooms, while perfectly clean, were due for an overhaul. I personally prefer that to the corporate sameness of most hotels, but I thought I'd mention it. The hotel also has smoking rooms and since you mentioned that you were allergic, if you stayed here you'd want to make that clear and make sure that your room was as far away as possible form that section.

Being carless, I only had access to the restaurants and sights along bathhouse row. Most of my recommendations are along Central Ave and all are within walking distance from the Bath houses. I can't think of anywhere that you would be out of place wearing jeans.


You are not going to find any gourmet food in Hot Springs, but the places below had good atmosphere and/or food.

The Pancake Shop - this place is right out of the 1950s. I don't think that anything, but the prices, has changed since then. Great pancakes, great little breakfast place right across the street from Arlington Hotel.

Rolando's Nueva Latina Restaurant - Very comfortable, nice staff, and decent food.

German Brau House - good beer, outdoor seating, but the food was mediocre.

Bohemia -- My work colleague ventured here hoping for more German or Eastern European food ; it's not. Bt he thought the food was good, if not what he had been hoping for.

Central Park Fusion - This is an odd place from the weird frog sculpture outside to the trying too hard to be sophisticated menu, but I had a very tasty meal here with a nice glass of wine.

I think that my work contact said that there are some nice places to eat over by the lake (which is scenic) but we didn't get there.

Sightseeing: Bathhouse row is very quaint. One of the old bath houses is the Hot Springs National Park visitor center so check that out. You can get information there regarding scenic hikes and overlooks. One of the bath houses is now a private spa type place. I think that you'd be remiss in going to Hot Springs and not having some sort of hot bath treatment. The Arlington also has a spa. As far as I know, there is no natural outdoor spring pool, but there are fountains where people fill jugs of water for free.
posted by kaybdc at 8:24 AM on May 7, 2012 [1 favorite]

There's the Clinton Library in Little Rock. It's a pretty major attraction, I would think.

Scenic vista-wise: Petit Jean State Park is not too far from Little Rock (1.5 hours from downtown) and offers several trails and overlooks. Many of the trails are quite short and easy to walk, and some of the overlooks you can basically drive up to. One of the big attractions, Cedar Falls, does have a 2 mile roundtrip trail to get to it. If you like waterfalls it's probably worth the trip. I imagine the falls will be running pretty well this time of year. The restaurant at the park lodge (and the lodge itself) is going to reopen tomorrow after a two year renovation, so that might be worth checking out.

Other things to do include The Rep theatre and the Arkansas Symphony (depending on when you'll be there). If you like dinner theatre, Murry's has been around forever.

If you like baseball there's the Travelers.

For Hot Springs specifically, what is the deal on these bathhouses? Are they scary and gross or awesome and fun?

I think they mostly operate as spas nowadays. They are awesome and fun if you like spas.

Where's the best place to bathe in the hot springs, and should we drink the water??

Not sure about the former, but yeah you can totally drink the water.

relatively inexpensive

That doesn't eliminate too much in Arkansas. McClard's is a pretty well-known place in Hot Springs. It's been a while since I was there, but the reviews have held up okay.

Brave New Restaurant is a pretty good place in Little Rock and would be right about in your splurge price range without pushing it. Its website kinda sucks: here's a direct link to a sample menu [pdf].

If you like barbecue, one of my favorite places is Terri-Lynn's in Little Rock. I always stop by there when I'm in the area.

cigarette smoke

Restaurants in Arkansas are smoke free, with the exception of those that only allow people over 21, so that mostly takes care of that.

local flavor (homegrown food, local artists and artisans)
art (we are both artists)
unique or quirky

You might consider Eureka Springs the next time you go to Arkansas. It's too far for a daytrip from Little Rock, but it's got a lot of that kind of thing. Fly into XNA and it's a short trip from the Fayetteville area.
posted by jedicus at 8:47 AM on May 7, 2012

I used to live in a town not far from Hot Springs and have had baths at the Arlington within the last few years.

The bath house experience was...intimate. I can't remember exactly the level of service we purchased, but in included a bath in the hot springs, a cool shower, a massage and maybe some time in a sauna. The bath part of the experience reminded me a lot of being bathed...like when I was a kid...except I was an adult being bathed by an adult. The attendant was very pleasant and respectful, but yeah, it's a bath. If you are particularly modest, you might be uncomfortable. I have to admit that my friend and I got a case of the giggles and that was that.

Once the bath/sauna/shower experience was over, we were both pretty soggy and I might have liked a shower so I could have freshened up before I moved on to another activity. I just went directly home.

I have never stayed overnight at The Arlington or any of the other places on Bathhouse Row, so I can't speak to the rooms. The rest of the place is, as noted above, well-worn. It's not shabby exactly...just tired. There's dancing in the lobby some weekend nights, and that is fun. If you plan to be in Hot Springs in the evening and swing dancing is your thing, you might enjoy that.

Nthing the suggestion for The Pancake House.

Hot Springs is in a beautiful part of the state and as noted above, there are lots of outdoorsy things to do that are accessible in and around Little Rock/Central Arkansas.

Enjoy it!
posted by heathergirl at 9:16 AM on May 7, 2012

Response by poster: So, is there any place you can go take a bath without an attendant? I saw that Quapaw Baths has a couples bath. I'm assuming this is more therapeutic and less sexy, but if there's an attendant involved, I don't think that would be our thing!
posted by hansbrough at 9:23 AM on May 7, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks so much for the suggestions so far, guys. They are awesome! Keep them coming please!!
posted by hansbrough at 9:23 AM on May 7, 2012

Homegrown food in LR: The Root Cafe, Hillcrest Artisan Meats, Kent Walker Artisan Cheese, Diamond Bear Brewing Co., Vino's.
posted by box at 9:25 AM on May 7, 2012

Art: Arkansas Studies Institute, Arkansas Arts Center, Gallery 26.

Views (these require fairly short walks): Big Dam Bridge, Pinnacle Mountain State Park.
posted by box at 9:30 AM on May 7, 2012

For Hot Springs specifically, what is the deal on these bathhouses?

The bath houses along bathhouse row are overseen by the National Park Service. They use the former Fordyce Bathhouse as the visitor center and another building for administrative offices. The NPS has leasing agreements with private vendors to the other bathhouses. When I was there last year, in addition to the visitor center, one was a museum of contemporary art, one or two of the other bathhouses were empty and closed to the public. I think one of them was slated to become a restaurant. Both Quapaw andBuckstaff bath house was operating as a private spa and as they closed earlyish and I was working everyday until 5:00 p.m., I didn't get to check any of the baths out.
posted by kaybdc at 9:42 AM on May 7, 2012

There are beautiful lakes and rivers in Arkansas. Lake Ouchita and Lake Hamilton near Hot Springs are popular. You can rent a party barge or ski boat and spend the day on the lake.
Greers Ferry lake about an hour and a half north of Little Rock is also very nice. There are many nicely furnished cabins around the Hot Springs area for rent.

Be aware Arkansas can be very hot between now and mid September.

Garvin Gardens near Hot Springs is nice.
posted by Justin Case at 12:51 PM on May 7, 2012

Food Redux: Argenta Farmers Market. Best x in town: pizza, Damgoode Pies or US Pizza; beer selection, Flying Saucer; wine selection, Ciao Baci; coffee, Guillermo's; barbecue, Whole Hog or Sims; Mexican, La Hacienda.

If staying at a hotel, aim for downtown, rather than West Little Rock or North Little Rock.

If aiming for an airbnb or whatnot, consider Hillcrest, Capitol View, Stifft Station, Quapaw and Argenta.
posted by box at 1:14 PM on May 7, 2012

Dessert: Loblolly Creamery.
posted by box at 3:41 PM on May 9, 2012

The best burger and pizza in Little Rock are actually made by the same restaurateur: Big Orange for burgers and ZaZa for pizza. Both places are usually packed, and they're kinda fancy-pants as burger and pizza joints go, which means a bit pricier too (they also take you away from downtown), but hoo boy are they worth it. Non-gourmet, for pizza (Little Rock's actually an awesome pizza town), I second box's suggestion of Damgoode, and for burgers I prefer Arkansas Burger Company. Bosco's is a chain (as is the Saucer), but they have good beer and good food.

Crush wine bar in downtown North Little Rock has excellent wine, and the best Italian restaurant (nicer, pricier) in the state is there too: Ristorante Capeo. If you enjoy a well-made cocktail, the Capital Hotel Bar & Grill is great. Ulysses S. Grant once drank there. They make a mean sazerac, have a (lord help me) whiskey menu, and the fried black eyed peas are great. The food's excellent too, and I think it's locavore. It's a nice place, but you don't have to dress up.

As to barbecue, I'm a wholehearted advocate of Sims, but they cater to a special kind of barbecue enthusiast, I think. Most people go for Whole Hog, and it's fine, but I always wonder where they got all their trophies, because it's not quite that good. If you're adventurous and like soul food, go to David Family Kitchen south of downtown. It is well made, no-bullshit food.

If you like good Mexican food, get your ass down to southwest LR. There's a grocery store down there called La Regionale, and in the back there's an amazing restaurant. Best tacos I've ever had, and cheap.

If you like Indian food, get to Taste of India in North Little Rock. It's in a strip mall area, kind of tucked off the main drag, but the food is really, really good.

I agree that if you're in a hotel, you want to stay downtown. North Little Rock doesn't have any good hotels that close, and west LR is one big strip mall. You've seen it.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:12 PM on May 9, 2012 [2 favorites]

Taco trucks! Taqueria Samantha, off Geyer Springs near Baseline. Ask 'em to make it hot. Try to hit the food truck parking lot at Asher and University, too. And the Bananaleaf Indian truck off Markham.

If you like records, check out Arkansas Record And CD Exchange, Been-Around, Green Corner Store and maybe Savers.
posted by box at 8:37 PM on May 10, 2012

And I was at Your Mama's Good Food the other day, and it was great. Homestyle Southern stuff. Redbone's downtown in the River Market area does good neo-Cajun, and Flying Fish has good fresh seafood.
posted by box at 8:42 PM on May 10, 2012

@middleclasstool hit the nail on the head.

that said, if you want pizza, damgoode is the place to go.

Ark Burger COmpany is great.

Sims is significantly better than Whole Hog. It is not really even close when it comes to 'que, but like he/she said - specific group.
posted by knockoutking at 6:31 AM on May 11, 2012

Response by poster: Thanks, everyone!! We took many of your suggestions and had a great trip!

For future info-seekers, another place we really enjoyed that wasn't mentioned in the thread was Cafe Bossa Nova, which serves delicious Brazilian food in LR.
posted by hansbrough at 9:13 AM on May 12, 2012

Awesome. Bossa Nova is indeed fabulous. Haven't eaten there in months.
posted by middleclasstool at 12:22 PM on May 14, 2012

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