Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Kat's Bucket List - 8 More Must-Try Things To Do in Arkansas in 2015.

Earlier today, I posted a suggested bucket list for folks who want to travel Arkansas in 2015.  Most of the items on the list are thing I've already managed to do.  So what's on my list?

1.  Float the Caddo River.  While the Buffalo National River is very popular for canoe and kayak enthusiasts and the Cossatot is a big deal for white water rafters, the Caddo is a nice, medium to slow stream that courses through about 80 miles of the Ouachita region.  I'd love to take a summer day and make the trip from Caddo Gap down to maybe Glenwood.  Bonus points if I can manage it in an inner tube with a beverage of choice.

2.  Stay in really neat places.  I really want to spend the night in a Hobbit Cave, wake up with my own waterfall and hang out one lazy afternoon in a barn.  Frankly, I'm also very curious how a night would be living in a really big cave.  I want to share these experiences with folks who need to get out and experience the world beyond average hotels.

3.  Visit every Arkansas show cave.  There are nine show caves in Arkansas -- Blanchard Springs, Bull Shoals, Cosmic, the Hurricane River Cave, Mystic Cavern and Crystal Dome, Old Spanish Treasure, Onyx and War Eagle -- and I think it's about time I visit them all.  A year should be plenty of time to schedule tours of each and every one.  This will probably be something I do when it's really hot -- since caves and caverns keep their cool temperatures year-round.

4.  Dine on a trolley.  You think food trucks are mobile -- you haven't seen Cafe Roulant.  It's a trolley that tours Eureka Springs while offering a lunch or dinner from one of several area restaurants.  I'm anxious to give this new idea a shot.

I won't look this good, but this should give you the idea.
5.  Trout fish the Spring River.  Okay, this is probably going to sound silly.  I've been trout fishing from the bank and trout fishing from a boat, but I think it'd be cool to actually go trout fishing in waders in a river.  And the Spring River, as gorgeous as it is, seems like a prime choice.  It's a beautiful area and it's well known for its fishing.

I want to see what's at the end of this road.
6.  Find out what's at Arkansas's most remote spot.  If you go to Barton (near Helena-West Helena) and head south on Highway 85, you head into unknown territory.  I want to find the restaurants at Elaine and points south and see what's at the end of the road closest to the confluence of the Arkansas River with the Mississippi.  Call it curiosity.

7.  Order the fries at Cattleman's Steakhouse in Texarkana.  Cattleman's turns 50 in 2015, and while it's well known for steak, quail and other entrees, it's the delicacies on the appetizer menu that need to be further explored -- specifically calf fries, turkey fries and dragon fries.  It's about time I bit the bullet and shared this uniquely Arkansas experience.

The start and end point of the trail, I hope.
8.  Complete the Arkansas River Trail.  I haven't properly ridden a bike in about 10 years now and it's time that happen again.  Now that my daughter Hunter's riding and has a new, bigger bike, it's time we start training to do the loop -- the Arkansas River Trail from downtown Little Rock to the Big Dam Bridge, across to North Little Rock and back to the Clinton Presidential Center.  Heck, doing it on foot wouldn't be a bad early goal.  Consider this -- I am afraid of heights and haven't managed to talk myself into getting up on the Big Dam Bridge yet.  This will be a challenge.

That's not a whole lot of goals, but I'll be happy if I can get there.  What's on your bucket list?

The Arkansas Bucket List - 8 Must-Take Trips for 2015.

Everyone has something they've always wanted to do.  These days, that collection of daring acts and adventures is often called a "bucket list" (things to do before you kick the bucket) -- and it usually includes a good deal of places people want to go, see and do in their lifetime.

When I talk about places I go here in Arkansas, there's usually a person in the crowd who mentions they've always wanted to go there, or eat something I had there.  Rather than wait for my next adventure, here's a suggested list of things that should be on your Arkansas bucket list (and click here to see what's on mine).

1. Dig for diamonds at Crater of Diamonds State Park.  The only place in the world where you can pay a small fee and go search a big field for diamonds to your heart's content.  There have been some pretty big diamonds found at the park, but most folks go away without a large specimen to take home.  Still, it's fun and it's a good story for later. Click here for park information.

2.  Float the Buffalo National River. The very first national river, this free-flowing stream cuts through the heart of the Ozarks, and when the water is high enough to float (spring to early summer and fall), it's a wet path to glorious views.  There are outfitters all along the river, so you don't even need to own your own canoe.  Find one to book, here or here.

3. Ride a motorcycle through curvy, mountainous terrain.  The Ozarks and Ouachita Mountains sport great two-lane blacktop for challenging riding.  The Arkansas Dragon (Highway 123), Push Mountain Road and Talimena Scenic Byway are all really great scenic runs. Check out some great routes, here.

4.  Make a culinary pilgrimage.  While many of the places I talk about at Tie Dye Travels are great unknown diners and barbecue joints, there are a few that have obtained national renown and even presidential visits, including AQ Chicken House in Springdale, McClard's Bar-B-Que in Hot Springs, Jones Barbecue Diner in Marianna and Rhoda's Famous Hot Tamales in Lake Village.

5.  Ride the Arkansas and Missouri Railroad in the fall. The excursion train through the Boston Mountains takes passengers from Van Buren to Springdale and back, and in autumn the colors are glorious.  It's a pretty cool ride even when it's not autumn. Book your excursion here,

6. See where Johnny Cash was raised.  Head to Dyess to visit the town where the Man in Black grew up.  Visit a museum that talks about the Dyess colony and then ride out for a tour of the Cash family home, restored to the era when Cash was a boy. Learn more about the home, here.

7.  Walk in the steps of the Little Rock Nine.  Visit the Central High School National Historic Site in downtown Little Rock.  Learn about desegregation efforts in the 1950s and take a tour of the high school itself, where you'll hear tales of the nine brave black students who attended and the turmoil they experienced. Find information about the visitors center, here.

8.  See the elk at Ponca.  These majestic beasts come out to feed in fields at Boxley Valley and along the upper Buffalo early in the morning and late in the afternoon.  Viewing the elk has become very popular for folks who head out into the Ozarks.  Get educated on elk at the Ponca Elk Education Center.

Want to see what's on my personal bucket list? Click here.

Have an item you think should be here?  Leave your suggestion in the comments.



Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Eat The City: 9 Places To Dine in West Memphis (and Marion).

Headed to a town in Arkansas but don't know the culinary terrain? Here's the first of several travel dining guides to take you to the best and sort through the rest of The Natural State's tasty towns.

When it comes to culinary destinations in Arkansas, the capital city comes tops.  You'll find plenty of locals to share Little Rock's bounty, from the Little Rock Foodcast to The Mighty Rib, Eat Arkansas and Rock City Eats.  There are a large number of amazing eateries in Hot Springs, Fort Smith and northwest Arkansas. But let's look at some other population centers around the state.

Let's start with West Memphis.  The point of entry from travelers from the east for centuries, this town over the levee got going as the place to fuel bodies and cars during the great heyday of the early interstate highway system, with US Highway 70 rolling through town as Broadway.  Elvis not only dined here (his last breakfast before heading to report for Army duty at Fort Chaffee was at the town's Coffee Cup location), he performed here alongside many of the great blues and rockabilly giants of the era.  

While Memphis and Beale Street during the 50s and 60s had a set curfew, the many diners and bars that lined Broadway often stayed open later and captured hungry dancers and music lovers who made their way across the bridge for early morning sustenance.  

Over the years, Memphis has boomed and West Memphis has busted, but there are still a good number of classic restaurants around, serving everything from doughnuts to barbecue in style.  A number of new enterprises have cropped up as well, and if you find yourself in West Memphis for business, pleasure or otherwise, you can find a pretty good bite to eat most hours of the day.

Here are my dining picks for the city.

Breakfast:  Howard's Donuts.
So much more than just your average doughnut shop, this original location now has spin-offs in Memphis proper.  Cinnamon doughnuts, German chocolate and red velvet varieties and cream-topped (rather than filled) pastries are all sinful delights.  The true specialty is the Hawaiian fritter - a pineapple-chunked pastry with heft.  Look for the daily scripture on the whiteboard.
1711 N. Missouri * West Memphis * (870) 735-2046

Barbecue:  William's Bar-B-Q.
Want a great barbecue sandwich? You won't get ribs or wings at William's, but you will get huge, fat Boston butt sandwiches with thick sauce and chunky slaw.  Hearty.  But don't wait too late in the day, or you'll just have to settle for a burger.  Oh, count all the TV sets in the restaurant, working and not, just for fun while you wait.
106 S. 14th Street * West Memphis * (870) 735-0979 * Lunch Tuesday-Saturday.

More barbecue:  Roadside Bar-B-Q.  This little shack just off I-40 is where you get ribs in West Memphis.  The pork sandwiches are celebrated, and the barbecue chicken is lauded.
196 Arkansas 147 * Bob Ward * (870) 733-9208 

Burgers/Pie:  Big John's Shake Shack.
Catfish, chicken, barbecue and country ham sandwiches all grace the menu at this dairy diner opened back in 1977, but you'll want to get the burger here, too.  And saving space for pie is not an option.  There are fried pies, baked pies, icebox pies, fruit pies, cream pies, nut pies, chocolate pies, and even a pie made with Tang.  Say hello to Ms. Loretta and enjoy all the Elvis memorabilia.  Also serves breakfast.
409 Military Road * Marion * (870) 739-3943 * Facebook * Mon, Tue, Thu 8 a.m. - 7 p.m., Wed 8 a.m. - 6 p.m, Fri 8 a.m, -  8 p.m., Saturday 11 a.m.-8 p.m.


Bakery:  The Parsonage.
A great secret in downtown Marion, this old church facility is now a bakery and restaurant featuring great sandwiches, salads and a marvelous Saturday brunch.  The waffles are of legend.  Best spot in the area for a good vegetarian meal -- and fish dishes all through Lent.
198 Military Road * Marion * (870) 559-2133 * Facebook * Tue, Thu 11 a.m. - 3 p.m., Wed, Sat 11 a.m.-7 p.m., Sat & Sun 9 a.m.-3 p.m.

Steak: Bourbon Street Steakhouse.
Located within Southland Gaming and Racing, this high-end steakhouse offers quiet, candlelit dining and sumptuous, almost gratuitously tender steaks and fresh seafood.  Bourbon Street holds claim to the best prime rib in the area, and the Lafayette Blue Crab Cakes are fantastic.  Date night stuff. Reservations suggested.
Inside Southland Gaming and Racing * West Memphis * (800) 467-6182 * Website * Wed & Thu 5-10 p.m., Fri & Sat 5-11 p.m., Sun 4-9 p.m.

Mexican:  Mi Pueblo.
Good, cheap, somewhat authentic Mexican fare.  Chile relleno is a hit, and burritos are ample.  I keep being told about the margaritas... take that for what it's worth.
650 West Service Road, Suite 121 * West Memphis * (870) 702-6151 * Lunch and dinner daily.


Ark-Mex:  Pancho's Mexican Restaurant.
Still kicking since the 1950s, this classic Ark-Mex lays claim to one of the first cheese dips in the state.  Unlike everywhere else, here it's served cold.  Enchiladas, tostadas, burritos and everything else you'd expect to find, plus a salad dressing people beg for.  Kids love this place.
3600 East Broadway * West Memphis * (870) 735-6466 * Website 

Italian:  Uncle John's.
A short drive from West Memphis, the Marconi family still cranks out traditional pastas, ribs ad such in an old storefront in Crawfordsville.  Go for the toasted ravioli and the lasagna.  Read more here.
5453 Main Street * Crawfordsville * (870) 823-5319 * Lunch Mon-Fri, Dinner Tue-Sat.

* * *

If you must dine the chains, here's what's available:
Lenny's Sub Shop (a sandwich chain out of Memphis) * 1806 N. Missouri Street * (870) 772-9700
Domino's Pizza * 1405 N. Missouri Street Ste. C * (870) 735-7600
Krystal * 1804 N. Missouri Street * (870) 732-3375
Popeye's Louisiana Kitchen * 1344 N. Missouri Street * (870) 735-4212
Cracker Barrel * 1600 N. 6th Street (south service road)* (870) 733-0469
McDonald's * 3901 Petro Road (in the truck hub) * (870) 735-6881
Denny's * 3000 Service Loop Road (next to Flying J) * (870) 400-2094



Intrepid.

Jacqueline Wolven has challenged the circle of Arkansas Women Bloggers to come up with a word for 2015, a single word to color what comes ahead. When she first posted her thought, I chose the word audacity... but audacity has two meanings, one strong and one annoying. So I'm clarifying.

My word this year is INTREPID.

Merriam-Webster defines intrepid as feeling fearless, very bold or brave, characterized by resolute fearlessness, fortitude and endurance.

The word has been used to describe reporters frequently, especially the intrepid Lois Lane of Superman fame. It's also the name of a series of Starfleet ships in Star Trek... fellow geeks may remember Spock sensing the demise of 400 Vulcans on the NCC-1631, or the NCC-38907, which responded to the Khitomer disaster... but most of you probably are shaking your head at my references...

I didn't start this journey fearless. I was scared to death back in September 2007 -- leaving TV with no job, few prospects and no real idea of what I was going to do next. But over time I lost a lot of that fear. I learned that I could think on my feet, support myself and create opportunities. For four and a half years I built on the idea that travel writing was the only thing I'd ever do.

Still, fear crept into my life. I took a job in 2012 and stayed with it for two and a half years, partly because it was the safe thing to do. Indeed, a steady, regular paycheck with benefits seemed smart. But I lost something along with it. I lost my freedom.

I took up the audacious flavor of my life again this past August, leaving that job to cobble together once again a life as a writer on the road. This time, I have no net, no spouse to fall back on, no set assignments to chase. But I do have three books and a blog and I think I have enough interest from readers to make this work.

This year I resolve to be intrepid, to lose the fears that every freelancer grapples, to step out and accept the challenges and share the stories of the world around me, to entertain and inform hospitably, to cheer and remind and enthrall readers. The time for doubts is over. I have done this before. I can do it. I will do it.

Monday, December 29, 2014

Sunday, December 28, 2014

A Wee Bit of Wee Betty's Cafe in Jacksonville.

Okay, I'm going to start off with this - can I really call a restaurant cute? I mean, diminutive is pretty descriptive, as is ethnic or eastfacing or blue, but cute? Okay, I have found a cute, and it helps satisfy my Doctor Who-inflicted cravings.

I speak, of course, of Wee Betty's Cafe.

One of my friends, Alex, suggested this place to me, and so Grav and I wandered out that way to meet up with Alex and his friends.  He's apparently a regular.

Wee Betty's has been open since July of 2013, and it's a grand yet tiny shop packed with British canned goods, tea and tiny round tables, perfect for two. Well, there were five of us, so we mashed together between two tables and scanned the menus.

I'll be honest, I was getting to know my new friends and didn't do what I needed to do as far as taking photos went.  Neither did Grav. We were enjoying the company and our tea, which came to the table the proper way, with milk!

I loved that the menu stated this as a good place for "a wee cuppa tea and a blether."


I also love that the menu's appetizers, or Lite Snacks as it said, included (I kid you not), toast and tea, toast and beans, toast and cheese - because of course, toast. I bit back the thought of asking if they'd cut the toast into tiny soldiers and arrange them according to rank. I've spent too much time lately watching Red Dwarf, apparently.

So we're all talking, and I get an order of curry chips. Because of course I do. Because to me, the true test of a British restaurant is whether or not it gets curry. Yes, I have had proper Indian curry sauce served to me on fries, and while delicious, it's not right. 


I didn't have anything to worry about here. Yes, clearish curry sauce on fries. I could eat this all day. Really I could.


But I didn't, because we had other things to try, like the Scotch pie that came to table. Is this not the epitome of a cute savory pie? Especially with that perfect bubble of gravy?

Gravy!  Yes!


Alex and Grav both went for the fish and chips, and this is where Wee Betty's truly shined. Mind you, it took some time for our dishes to make it to table, owing to the single cook operating both kitchen and register. But this nice curled cod is just proof that the Wee Betty's folks know what they're doing. And of course, malt vinegar was involved.

But my delight for the night was the Cornish pasty. With beans. Because... okay, yes, my Arkansas friends, this looks like someone put beanie weenies on a fried pie. And essentially, that's what it looks like at first.


But it is not. No, these beans in their lovely tomato sauce were a nice starchy addition to a pie already stuffed with vegetables and beef. Oh my. I am quite pleased.

I need to make a return trip and do a proper review, but as I said, we all got to talking. These things happen. And how wonderful it is to share dinner with friends. That has to happen more often.

Wee Betty’s Cafe is located at 1336 John Harden Drive in Jacksonville (501-765-3531). There's a Facebook with news and such. I'm coming back for scones, y'all.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Wonders at The Capital Hotel.

One of the most dazzling Christmas trees in the country, according to Forbes Travel Guide, stands in the lobby of the Capital Hotel in downtown Little Rock.  But it's not all you need to check out when you
head to the corner of Markham and Louisiana in downtown Little Rock.  There are lots of fantastic delights to be found within.

Even from outside, the Capital Hotel looks jolly, with evergreen boughs and gigantic pine cones in wreaths on just about any window.  More branches form a swag arbor over the entrance, where snappy young men are ready to steer away your car via valet (and if you go there to eat, it is free, just be sweet and tip, please).

Those white and brass doors open into a lobby full of holiday cheer, celebrating the season with extraordinary measures.

Those extraordinary measures include performances, such as this one Grav Weldon captured of the Fort Smith High School Choir performing on the stairs at the back of the lobby.



Musical groups perform throughout each December in the lobby here. The acoustics in this atrium are powerful and you can hear music clearly through every section of the two-story hall.

The decorations don't end with the lobby.  Boughs adorn hallways, smaller Christmas trees can be seen in corners in guest halls and every meeting room is adorned.  Small details are noted, such as the flight of nutcrackers on the first flight of stairs.

These nutcrackers stand at attention on the landing between the first and
second floors of the grand staircase.
Upstairs on the second floor, visitors can lounge and converse surrounded by
holiday trim and evergreen branches.
The second story balcony overlooking Markham is festooned with lighted trees.
Great glass globes in silver and gold are hung with care there at the lobby
bar just inside One Eleven.
Inside the entrance to the hotel, you'll find a gingerbread house large enough for the kids to enjoy.  Under the direction of Pastry Chef Matthew Dunn, elves crafted spun sugar into windows, structure out of Rice Krispy Treats and flour and sugar into gingerbread walls.  Piped icing details and handcrafted decorations complete the little house, surrounded by the largest lollipops you'll find anywhere.  There are even candy treats to try -- but don't eat the gingerbread house, please.

A fine chocolate-tiled roof complete with a chimney.
Amazing sugar-glass windows.



And of course, there's the tree... marvelous in its splendor, a 27' monarch that took six men to bring into the atrium and lift into position.  Click here to see what that looked like.

Grav Weldon used his special skills to capture the entire tree, no easy feat as photographers will tell you.

That should be on a Christmas card.


The tree is generously decorated with white lights, gold and gilded ribbon and hundreds of glass ornaments, from top to bottom.  It's impressive in not only its height but in its lushness.  This is indeed a regal Christmas tree.


But look closely.  In addition to the baubles and balls and fancy glass shapes that cover the tree from its base to its zenith, you'll notice some special ornaments.


Yes, that's a glass ornament of the Capital Hotel.
You may also notice a book in front of that tree.  It's a wish book, and if you have a Christmas wish, you can place yours there.  But you'd better hurry, since Santa will be picking it up right before Christmas Eve to take with him.


So while you have free time over the holidays, or if you're visiting Little Rock this Yuletide season, consider a drop-in at the Capital Hotel.  Oh, and grab a bite to eat, too.

You'll find the Capital Hotel at 111 Markham in downtown Little Rock.  Call (501) 374-7474 or visit capitalhotel.com for more information.


Sunday, December 21, 2014

Three Books Down, More To Go.

In a few days, I'll officially begin the research for my fourth book, which is tentatively titled Classic Eateries of Southern and Western Arkansas.  For six months, Grav Weldon and I will spend a great deal of time crisscrossing the Ouachita Mountains and what's called LA -- Lower Arkansas -- by residents there.  We'll be seeking out restaurants that have been around 20 years or better, iconic institutions that have earned recognition by diners.  We'll be taking in stories, sampling dishes and picking up recipes.  And in the end, there should be a book.

Right now, Classic Eateries of the Arkansas Delta is selling pretty well, I'm guessing... though strangely enough, its predecessor Classic Eateries of the Ozarks and Arkansas River Valley is selling better.  Took a long time for the Ozark book to catch on, but hey, I'll take it.  Arkansas Pie: A Delicious Slice of the Natural State still holds its own.

A few days ago, in an online conversation, someone mentioned how I was doing this and working a full time job.  I'm guessing the word didn't get out, so I'll set the record straight.  On August 1st, I left my previous position to concentrate on researching and writing about Arkansas foodways full time. Yes, I'm also going to be writing about other things, particularly travel and history and such, but I believe there's a need to chronicle Arkansas's food past to show where we've been and where we're headed.

This wasn't an easy decision.  But it's one of which I'm certain.

See, seven years ago I made one decision that changed the course of my entire life.  I was a television producer with 12 years under my belt and enough heft (don't laugh) to keep doing that for the rest of my life.  A lot of things contributed to the decision to leave TV, and I've beat that horse to death over time, no need to resurrect it and flog it again.

What I discovered was that through my own hard work and dedication, along with a willingness to travel and a bit more than a little insanity, I could and indeed have made writing as a career work for me.  It wasn't something I came to immediately or that was immediately successful, but it's something I know in my heart is the right thing to do.  I didn't realize food was going to be one of my fortes but I've embraced that as well.

Thing is, it isn't easy.  It wasn't easy when I was working a full time job that paid my bills and my gas money to get me to those locations here and there so I could do my research for any of these three books.  Frankly, the choice to follow writing as a full-time career is a "damned if you do, damned if you don't" enterprise in which I'm exchanging the security of a salary for the time to do the things I need to do.  Not everyone would make that choice.

I need help.  Believe me, I'm writing as much as I can, and I've been blessed with some remarkable opportunities.  What I really need now happens to be resources -- places to stay when I need to be in the far reaches of the state doing this research, gas to get me there, prayers I can keep my 10 year old Honda going long enough to get it all done.  Nearly two weeks ago I astounded a couple of people who assumed that each restaurant I wrote about comped my meals and knew about my visits and the stories I'd write for my blog and my books.  That's not how I work.  Honestly, if I did allow that to happen, that sort of research wouldn't be a financial drain, but it'd drain my credibility.  I was trained to be a journalist.

I realize this is a ramble, but this time of year I usually resort to a ramble or two to get the thoughts piled up in the back of my head transported out to make extra space for the new things coming in.

So here's the TL;DR (too long; didn't read) for y'all.  I have three books out.  They're for sale, and they make good fodder for your glove compartment in your car, to pull out and skim through when you're looking for a bite to eat.  Or something to soak up when you're reading in the tub.  I'm not judgmental.  I'd appreciate it if you considered buying my books for yourself or someone else.  I don't get a lot off of them but whatever money happens to come in makes it easier for me to put gas in my tank and get somewhere.  You can order them here.

I'm also looking for sponsors who might help me cover what I do, keep me on the road and such.  That may be asking a lot, but hey, if I don't ask... well, there you go.

Yes, there's another book ahead.  Two for certain -- the one after this one will be on greater Little Rock, which I'm saving for last.  Maybe more.  Maybe I'll get up the gumption to go shop around some of my fiction and we'll see where that goes. Who can tell.

One thing's for certain -- I do plan to keep on keeping on.  I have an insatiable curiosity that needs to be fed, and a desire to keep sharing stories.  That work for you?  Awesome.

Oh, that one more thing.  I need recommendations.  Yes, my family hails from southwest Arkansas, but I haven't been in every nook and cranny.  If you have a restaurant I should check out, please leave a message here in the comments or email me at kat@tiedyetravels.com.

Thank you.