My Vacation: Hiking, Hot Springs and Red Curry
When my daughter was deciding among several colleges, I tried my best not to influence her based on any of my own desires. Although as parents we don't want to admit it, some of us want more for our college-bound kids than a great education. We hope they also pick a school in a fun place to visit.
Privately, I kept my fingers crossed for the University of California at Santa Cruz (great surfing), the University of British Columbia (cosmopolitan city) or even the University of Montana (mountains). But after a weekend visit her senior year and an enticing scholarship offer, she decided on a small liberal arts college in the middle of Arkansas. So much for my getaway plans.
After a recent trip this spring to visit our daughter, now a junior at Hendrix College in Conway, many of my misconceptions about the south changed. The Natural State may not top many vacation destination lists, but I was surprised and impressed by its abundant natural beauty, eclectic history and quest for culture. Now, I can't wait to return for her graduation next year.
Here's my report:
Best moment: On our first day, we drove about a half hour southwest of Little Rock to check out Hot Springs, the childhood home of Bill Clinton and a funky resort town known for its therapeutic waters. We loved touring Bathhouse Row, the eight eclectic, turn-of-the-century mansions in the downtown filled with once-lavish spa amenities and hydrotherapy contraptions. In its heyday, millions of health seekers traveled here to soak away their aches and pains. Today, scientists believe any health improvements visitors experienced were not from the heat of the spring water, but from beneficial minerals they consumed when they drank it.
Best shot: Stained-glass window above the men's bath hall at the restored Fordyce Bathhouse, which is also a museum and visitor's center
What I learned: Arkansas was the first state to set aside federal land to preserve a natural resource, even before Yellowstone. Thomas Jefferson originally deemed about 5,500 acres in Hot Springs a "reservation" (not to be confused with a Native American reservation) in 1832, and the land was renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921.
Best meal: Sharing a corner border with Texas, Arkansas loves its beef and BBQ. But as vegans, we were relieved when our daughter introduced us to Saigon Cuisine, a family-owned Vietnamese restaurant near her campus. Who knew we could find many of our favorite Asian delights: spring rolls, pho, red curry and even boba tapioca drinks.
Most fun: Sitting on a large, flat rock in the middle of a rushing stream with my daughter and husband, sharing tangerines and chocolate after a hike through Petit Jean State Park.
Most surprising: I knew some counties in the south are still "dry," but driving 20 miles just to score a nice bottle of wine made us feel like we might have a little problem with the sauce. Of course, the bottle we bought was a California wine, and for some reason, it cost a lot less than we would pay for it at home.
Don't miss: As an art lover, I couldn't wait to visit the new Crystal Bridges Museum (above), a nature-inspired, glass-and-wood compound built by Walmart heiress Alice Walton in the tiny Ozarks town of Bentonville, in the northwest corner of the state. Critics have lauded the collection of American art as possibly the best in the world. News reports of a massive "storm cell" (aka killer tornadoes) headed that direction forced us (wimpy Californians) to postpone our pilgrimage. Next time!
Best tip: The weather was perfect in mid-April: breezy, soft and warm. Our daughter said fall also is glorious. I think we are all grateful school is out during their hot, sticky summers. In other words, choose wisely when you visit.
Janine Robinson is a writer and editor who blogs about gardening and outdoor living ideas from her home in Laguna Beach, Calif.
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