Arkansas and the rock of Little Rock

by Jeanette.Scott

Find out how former President of the US (and Arkansan) Bill Clinton oversaw a transformation of the state capital, proving to be a rock for Little Rock. Then discover what you can do in the city

“After 9/11 the first call George W Bush made was to the CIA. The second was to here,” Jordan Johnson says.

Jordan is a fresh-faced thirty-something with a stiffly ironed shirt. He leads the tour.

“Here” is the William J. Clinton Presidential Centre (1200 President Clinton Avenue, 72201; 501-374-4242; www.clintonpresidentialcenter.org) in Little Rock, Arkansas.

Encased in glass and hovering on stilts above the Arkansas River, the Clinton library sits proudly in the once down-on-its-luck Bible Belt city.

“The government needed the secure documents that are housed here,” he added, “they needed to know about certain terrorist groups and the latest intelligence had been carried out during Clinton’s time.”

Six cargo planes worth of documents, all residing in America’s Deep South.

Love or loath Bill Clinton, hate or find heaven in modern architecture - the library cannot fail to make an impression.

The library

The word library is misleading. There is no spectacled woman with a bob and a woollen jumper acting as a shadowy keeper of the books, no lingering mustiness. It is, in effect, just a storehouse for all the physical remnants of Clinton’s reign: 80 million documents; two million photographs; 20 million emails; a gift from 10 Downing Street; outfits draped over dummies; a life-like homage to Clinton’s Labrador Buddy; and more than 83,000 other artefacts. The library does not feature that blue dress.

But behind the impressive vital statistics there’s a building that has picked the fortunes of Arkansas’ capital off the floor and shoved a dollar bill in its pocket. Tourism revenue generated by hotels and restaurants has climbed steadily ever since the Clinton library opened in 2004.

Jordan is spokesman for Clinton’s foundation and he knows the former President well.

“He is one of the most popular people in the world,” the 30-year-old adds with genuine fervour; his sleeves now rolled up, “and he’s considered to be a rock star by a lot of people.” Jordan is one of them.

A replica of Clinton’s Oval Office (every president redecorates to some degree) features mementoes of his Arkansan roots and, a stickler for detail, Clinton ordered the same carpet fabric used in the White House for the replica Oval Office and placed every book in the replica bookcase in the correct position: “I was here till at least two in the morning helping him,” Jordan said with a proud smile.

A not so proud moment from the Clinton era is confined to a mere footnote in the library. Just one mention of Monica Lewinsky can be found among the words littering the main exhibits. Blink and you’ll miss it.

Arkansans are proud of their most famous, some would say infamous, son.

President Clinton Avenue slices through downtown Little Rock. Other attractions in the city include the arts centre (MacArthur Park; 501-372-4000; www.arkarts.com), the Historic Arkansas Museum (200 East Third Street; 501-324-9351; www.arkansashistory.com) - a pleasant stroll around the state’s frontier history for a reasonable $2.50 - and the Central High School National Historic Site (school and visitor centre at intersection of Daisy L. Gatson Bates Drive and Park Street; 501-374-1957; http://www.nps.gov/chsc/index.htm; entry is free but call to reserve a tour of the school).

The Little Rock Nine

Clinton sites the crisis at Central High as a pivotal moment in the shaping of his political views. In 1957 the school became a political battleground. In the eye of the storm stood nine black students. They defiantly marched through a baying mob of white people to attend the school of their choosing.

The Little Rock Nine were blocked not only by the spitting, kicking mob, but also by the state governor and his National Guard troops. Riding the wave of popular white opinion and sticking two white fingers up to the government’s desegregation ruling, Governor Orval Faubus remained defiant.

That was until President Eisenhower rushed 1,200 troops in to pave a safe passage for the courageous black students. Informative guides conduct thought-provoking tours of the school - a daughter of one of the Little Rock Nine leads some tours.

Other attractions

Arkansas’ greatest attractions lie in the great outdoors outside city borders. The state does fishing, canoeing, hiking and spotting wildlife really well.

But while you’re in the city take a look at the Capitol Building (Capitol Avenue; 501-682-5080; www.sosweb.state.ar.us). The building itself is interesting, if political history gets you going, but the remarkable ‘Testament’ sculpture - depicting the city’ s most famous nine students - stands on the lawn and is worth the visit alone.

Take a stroll along the Arkansas River and check out the parks, pavilions and live music of the charming River Market (President Clinton Avenue; www.rivermarket.info). If you aren’t fortunate enough to catch the eclectic farmers' market held there every Tuesday and Saturday from May to October, then visit the year-round Ottenheimer Market Hall and fill up on coffee and cupcakes; cuisine from Mexico, Thailand and Japan; or a giant Arkansan helping of some kind of meat.

Where to eat

Despite stereotypes, Deep South doesn’t equal deep fried.

Ashley’s at the Capital Hotel (111 West Markham; 501-374-7474) dishes up the finest ingredients that have grown in, or formerly dined upon, the state’s rich ground. For seriously fine dining, three courses for $49 is a snip (think smoked trout, duck breast, followed by southern pecan pie). If I only get to eat one dessert for the rest of my life, it would be the pannacotta with lime.

If you want meat or seafood, and a pile of it, take a little tour out of the city centre and head to Cajun’s Wharf (2400 Cantrell Rd; 501-375-5351; www.cajunswharf.com). It’s the sort of place you see on funky adverts for bourbon. Groovy, chunky interiors; a band on the deck hanging out over the river; a surprising collection of cracking American wines; a few ironic nautical knick knacks; and a bill that won't bust your bank, even if your waistline is bulging (average main course $20). Lose your inhibition, take a table in the thick of it, and enjoy.

Where to sleep

For classy southern hospitality done really well, stay at The Capital Hotel on West Markham. It’s not cheap, you’d do well to bargain them down to $120 for a double, but you get the little things that make your stay - Molton Brown bath products, robes, a turn down service etc. If you can afford a Capital Great Room, you could rent out your colossal bathroom as a second bedroom.

The Peabody Little Rock (3 Statehouse Plaza) also does southern warmth at a similar price. Even if you don’t stay in the luxurious (if a little bland) rooms, you can still marvel at the famous duck parade in the lobby at 11am and 5pm. The birds have been a Peabody institution since the 1930s when a slightly tiddly manager put his live duck decoys in the fountain after a hunting trip.

Sadly, there’s not much in Little Rock in the way of non-chain accommodation, but the Legacy Hotel and Suites (625 West Capitol Ave) does clean elegance in an historic building from just $79.

Bill’s summary

Clinton claims the final words about his rock for Little Rock in commentary on the library’s audio guides. Talking of the transformation, he says “you see a lot of these early 20th, late 19th-century buildings, full of stores and restaurants and micro-breweries and things like that and I like the idea that we’ve helped rebuild the downtown. But mostly, it’s just a beautiful, beautiful spot.”

Jeanette.Scott

As a travel writer and photographer I've contributed to the LA Times, Lonely Planet, Real Travel, The Australian, The Herald Sun (Australia) and, of course, as an editor and writer on www.simonseeks.com. Following a stint in hospitality, I started my media career in 2002 in newspaper journalism, and I've written for the Guardian, Metro, Coventry Telegraph, Coventry and Warwickshire Times and Living magazine.

According to a fairly pointless Facebook application, I've visited 24% of the planet. Good to know, although there are ten minutes of my life I'm never going to get back. I'm fascinated by our planet and whenever I visit a place that's new to me - be it Barbados, Burkina Faso or a previously unvisited corner of Britain - I want to capture it. I want to keep the confluence of smell, noise and vision; the expressions on the faces of the people; the layers of history; the unfamiliar food and drink. I fasten it in my mind's eye - but when my memory fades, I've got a stack of photographs and a thousand furiously jotted notes to remind me.

Favourite places - my home town of Chester, New Zealand's south island, Malaysia, Fiji, Melbourne, Norway's fjords, Italy (mainly the restaurants), Greek Islands, London, Edinburgh, the Lake District, and home (Chester, though my true "home" will always be Warwickshire).

My Chester

Where I always grab a hot drink: A coffee with the grand (and quite surreal) decor of Oddfellows as the backdrop is a treat; but when my sweet tooth is raging the Blue Moon Café can’t be beaten for hot chocolate with lashings of whipped cream and marshmallows.

My favourite stroll: Treading the wooden slats of the Queen’s Park Bridge is pretty unique. I cross it every morning and evening to and from Simonseeks HQ. For a look at real life in Chester, cross the bridge from the city, drop down to riverside and head away from the direction of the racecourse. You’ll find grand homes and, eventually, the meadows (the scene of a very special New Year’s Eve midnight picnic for me).

Where to be seen: At the races of course! After a day at The Roodee get your hands on one of the coveted Bedouin tents to dine/drink/people watch from in the outdoor space at Oddfellows.

The most breathtaking view: Get the lift to the fifth floor of Abode and check out the view from the Champagne Bar. It’s both unique and breathtaking. If you’re not thirsty, stand on the steps of the High Cross (the pointy monument where the four main streets – Watergate, Eastgate, Northgate and Bridge – meet). Behold The Rows and let the history of the buildings and the buzz of modern life around you slip into your memories.

The best spot for some peace and quiet: Grosvenor Park is perfect in winter but the first rays of sunshine draw picnicking crowds. Act like a local and cross the Queen’s Park Bridge to find your haven in the meadows.

Shopaholics beware!: Visit any of the stores (ground and first floor level) on The Rows and shop accompanied by centuries of history.

Don’t leave without...clocking some time with the Eastgate Clock. Put your shopping bags down, take a picture if you must, but make sure you climb the steps and simply stand and watch the world go by for a while.