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Perhaps Arkansas is not the first place people think of when they want to find a sexy travel spot with a jet-set crowd and a reputation for excitement. And they are right.
But Arkansas can certainly give folks a vacation they won't find elsewhere. If they avoid the wrong places.
Hot Springs National Park is all right, but the focus of the park is on bathing. Being bathed, more specifically. The pride of the park is its "Bath House Row," a boulevard lined with several disgustingly ornate, recently renovated, early 20th century bath houses where people get bathed in natural spring waters by people in white uniforms. Thousands of tourists love Hot Springs; they are all very old.
Little Rock can be enjoyable, and people can actually visit a rather sizable stone for which French explorers apparently named the city. The city zoo even holds several hippopotamuses. And there's a nifty Polo outlet store there. But no one goes to Arkansas for cosmopolitan features. (Even if there were any.)
Fayetteville is the home of the Hogs, or the Arkansas Razorbacks, who are currently the second best college basketball team in the nation. The only point of interest in Fayetteville is the University of Arkansas main campus. Playboy once voted it the top party school in the nation. Enough said.
Pine Bluff is...Actually there are no good things to say about Pine Bluff. Rand-McNally named it the worst city in the nation in 1988. ABC News even showed up to film a 20/20 segment. Those who decide to venture into the city anyway should be prepared for the omnipresent stench of the paper mill, the city's only industry.
Jonesboro is nice for those who want to see an air force base or a condemned chemical plant.
Bentonville could be an option; after all, the wealthiest person in the United States lives there and really does drive an old pick-up truck. And from the size of Fort Wal-Mart, the gargantuan office complex of the nation's largest discount retailer, I would guess that Sam Walton owns more office space in Arkansas than the state does. But chances are that Walton will not talk to tourists. Those who want to see a large office building can go to the Pentagon. It's closer to Harvard, and Colin Powell works there.
Despite all the wrong places, however, those who search will find an Arkansas they will never forget. The sheer beauty of "The Natural State" (as it was recently renamed by the state legislature; "The Land of Opportunity" just didn't fit, I guess) is remarkable, and the wise traveler will take advantage of this.
Lake Quachita, Greers Ferry Lake and Lake Hamilton provide for excellent water-skiing and camping. A well-funded state park system means there is much land that remains pristine.
Outdoor types flourish in Arkansas. Those who can avoid being shot by one of the abundant hunters, including, on occasion, President Bush, will find a chance to put all of that L.L. Bean equipment to use. A Jeffersonian pastoralism still prevails among the natives of these rural areas; some call it backwardness, but the attitude remains.
For those less committed to outdoor integrity, small, family-owned grills can usually be found around the larger lakes. Breakfast is the best meal, with real corn bread (not the sweet stuff Harvard Dining Services serves) and grits. "Cholesterol" is still just another chemical to these restaurants.
If the chicken tastes familiar, the reason is that Arkansas is home to the largest poultry farms in the country; Don Tyson even lives there and sells Harvard its Chickwiches. Arkansans are very proud of this. I once asked a woman at the state Bureau of Tourism what food is the state's specialty. "We get a lot of chickens here, I guess," she said. Arkansan food is actually a mixture of the three cultures which fight for attention in the state: Tex-Mex, Southern and Cajun. (Contrary to what New Englanders believe, Arkansas is not in the Midwest.)
Arkansas will not allow a fast pace. Even at Hot Springs' Oaklawn Park, the best horseracing track south of Churchill Downs, the atmosphere is friendly and relaxing, especially when the infield is open on Saturdays. And a hefty state tax break has given the track enough money to attract some of the best horses in the nation.
Any visitor to the state will feel the tension between the urban and the rural. Discovering these two cultures can be the best part of a trip. Only in Arkansas can people visit a real blacksmith in Smackover who plays the banjo and then go to the DMZ bar just south (in Little Rock) to hear some of the most alternative of the alternative music in the nation. Interested travelers should show up early on Wednesdays for poetry readings and performance art that only a New Yorker could appreciate.
"Arkansawyers," as the natives used to be called, don't exhibit the ostentatious pride of Texans. They don't have the high-priced attractions other states may offer. But Arkansas will make you feel at home, even if you're from Tahiti or Maine or Wyoming
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