Come fall, Arkansas will dominate the travel scene. Why? On November 18 the William J. Clinton Presidential Center, located in Little Rock, will open to major media fanfare. All past presidents (except, of course, Ronald Reagan) will be there, as will a bevy of celebrities, journalists and camera crews.
My advice? Get there first. Now. This summer. Before the tourist-swarm.
Yes, the Presidential Center will be terrific�filled with exhibits designed by the same folks who created the Holocaust Museum in Washington D.C. as well as a replica of the Oval Office and the Cabinet Room. It's located near Little Rock's popular River Market District and near the Old State House Museum.
But Arkansas is made for ambling. It's all about small towns and big lakes, friendly people and folksy traditions. Mountain View, for example, is only 100 miles from Little Rock but it's another world entirely.
People aren't in a hurry in Mountain View. We arrive at eleven o'clock on a clear bright morning and find two couples still enjoying their morning coffee on the porch of the Wildflower B&B. "I come down here five times a year�or more," says Floyd Wilson, who lives 250 miles away in a suburb of St. Louis, Missouri. "I come for the music. It's the best place in the world for old-time country music."
Evidently. According to the sign at the entrance to this one stoplight village, the same sign that says Mountain View is home to 2,876 people, the town is the "folk music capital of the world." Not Branson, another 100 miles up the road. "That's for city-folk," says Wilson. "Here the music's authentic." And it's free�every weekend night throughout the summer and many weeknights as well. Folks just gather in and around the town square to pick and strum and to have an old fashioned country good time. On a good night the music lasts till midnight. No tickets, no credit cards, and, not very many chairs. (It's a good idea to pack your own.)
The Ozark Folk Center offers people to step back even further, to see mountain culture as it was prior to World War II. In fact, the majority of the exhibits depict turn-of-the-century life. At first glance, the center seems like many other living history villages. A woman demonstrates spinning, a man works at the forge....
But there's a difference. In most cases the woman who's making a quilt learned her stitching skills from her mother, or grandmother, who lived in a cabin o'er in the next holler. The tales she tells weren't learned from a book; they were lived. They have heartfelt resonance that's in perfect keeping with the mountain twang. Most of the people who staff the Center's Craft Village are getting on in years; it's an other reason to visit as soon as you can.
A very different small town hugs the Missouri border. Eureka Springs got it's name from the euphoric exclamation of the early settlers who, finding waters that they thought could cure everything from diabetes to dropsy, screamed, "Eureka! We found it!" That was in 1879 and the resulting rush of people built wonderful Victorian homes along the rims of the hollers, making today's town a Little Switzerland with San Francisco flair.
The town already gets a million visitors a year. Some come for the Great Passion Play and Holy Land Tour, others to visit shops filled with art and antiques, and others simply to wander the streets and, quite literally, smell the flowers.
Everyone likes Eureka Springs; even the ghosts refuse to leave, eerily staking out residence in the old Crescent Hotel. Those who like their lodgings old-time but ghost-free should try the Crescent Cottage Inn, a delightful B&B with Victorian charm.
For more information: www.arkansas.com
Charles Frazier may be the best thing that has happened to Asheville, North Carolina since George Vanderbilt. Vanderbilt, the youngest grandson of Cornelius, the great railroad magnate, brought the town its first bout of fame when he chose it for his summer home in 1895. His Biltmore Estate, a mansion in the style of a French chateau, is now Asheville's main tourist attraction.
That is, until now. Frazier's acclaimed book, COLD MOUNTAIN, which takes place in the hills surrounding Asheville, has now turned tourists' attention back to where it rightfully belongs�the mountains. Of course the film was actually filmed in Romania's Carpathian Mountains, but that, say the filmmakers, is only a detail. After all, Transylvania County, only a few miles from Asheville, was named after Transylvania, Hungary, which is now part of Romania.
The physically fit and extremely determined can hike the steep 10-mile trail to the summit of the Cold Mountain while others can absorb the atmosphere by taking gentler walks through Pisgah National Forest�or even by driving along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Asheville was well-known and widely-visited before COLD MOUNTAIN came out, but as a result of the publicity the city is expecting a crowded summer. Many B&Bs are offering "Cold Mountain packages" which generally include maps and box lunches for day trips into the hills. Make reservations early.
For more information: www.exploreasheville.com
The economy is on the upswing and violence is on the downswing�at least, that was the story last fall. Then came the November elections, when the extremists in both Ireland and Northern Ireland showed renewed signs of intransigence. Yet so far the promise of "ballots rather than bullets" seems to be holding and, as long as it does, Northern Ireland is, as the song proclaims, "a little bit 'o Heaven," and a mostly undiscovered bit at that.
Northern Ireland combines the allure of off-the-beaten track travel with paved roads, safe-to-drink water and easily-understood English. Well, make that almost easily-understood English. The famed Irish lilt is in full force in the northern counties and�along with the mist, greenery and Bailey's cream, adds to the area's leprechaun charm.
We'll have more travel details in a few months assuming the political situation remains stable. Meanwhile, as you begin penciling in travel plans for summer, keep Northern Ireland in mind.
For more information: www.geographia.com/northern-ireland