By Joe David Rice
Let’s face it: Not many of us will be traveling to Paris, France, for Christmas. The holiday lighting along the Avenue des Champs-Elysées is simply stunning, I’m told, and the view from the spectacularly illuminated Eiffel Tower is nothing short of amazing. But it’s 4,650 long and expensive miles from The Natural State to the City of Light.
My suggestion is to consider a trip to Paris, Arkansas, over the holidays. For one thing, this fine Logan County community is close by (the farthest Arkansas town from Paris is Huffman, located 277 miles away in the state’s extreme northeastern corner). And Paris, to use an Arkansas phrase, really “puts on the dog” for the Christmas season. Not only do the downtown merchants go all out with festive displays, but the Courthouse Square sparkles with over 100,000 lights. Free horse and buggy rides are offered on Saturdays (December 1, 8, 15 and 22) from 4 through 7 p.m., and Santa himself will be on the north side of the square every evening in December from 3 to 7 p.m. And, of course, Paris is home to Arkansas’ only Eiffel Tower, which stands in a park on the west side of the downtown square. Holiday lighting for this 25-foot-tall replica, coated with the exact same paint used on the original tower in France, will be unveiled on November 24.
Fact is, Paris is but one of many Arkansas locales celebrating the season. Pine Bluff will host its 22nd Annual Enchanted Land of Lights and Legends beginning on November 20 and running until the end of the year. This drive-through treat, recognized as among the longest in the state at 1.2 miles, can be experienced nightly from 6 to 9 p.m. at the Jefferson County Regional Park (north of downtown via US 65B). Conway’s Illuminate gala – featuring a 54-foot-tall Christmas tree, carriage rides, a mini train ride for kids and a Ferris wheel – takes place within the city’s historic center in Rogers Plaza.
For well over two decades now, civic leaders in Blytheville have produced Lights in the Delta, the largest Christmas lighting extravaganza in the mid-South. It is indeed a significant undertaking, with more than 6 million lights, approximately 50 major motion displays, a live nativity (on selected nights) and a variety of associated events, including live entertainment and hayrides. Stretching along a paved 1.5-mile route within the former Eaker Air Force Base, this remarkable spectacle can be reached by driving a few miles northwest of Blytheville on Arkansas 151. For complete details, check out www.lightsofthedelta.com.
Northwest Arkansas has several outstanding Christmas destinations, and Eureka Springs is always a favorite. The downtown shops and businesses will be attractively lit, and property surrounding the historic Crescent Hotel will be converted to a Christmas grove with several dozen decorated trees. On the east side of town, the grounds of the Christ of the Ozarks will include a drive-through collection of nativity displays and more than 300 Christmas trees in a holiday forest (donation requested).
Another suggested stop in northwest Arkansas is the square in the heart of Fayetteville. With nearly half a million lights illuminating the courthouse, trees and sidewalks from 5 p.m. to 1 a.m., it’s truly a fantastic winter wonderland. Fresh hot chocolate, holiday music, and nightly pony rides make it an experience to remember.
A definite must-see in Little Rock is the State Capitol Building. The structure, which is more than 100 years old, is outlined with thousands of sparkling lights, making it a popular photo opp. Inside, visitors will enjoy a majestic tree under the rotunda, and those on the outside will appreciate the state’s official tree, the George Jernigan Eastern Red Cedar, located on the front lawn and nicely decorated. The stately Capital Hotel, with its splendid Christmas tree extending into the atrium, is another highly recommended attraction.
Many of AY’s readers already recognize that Arkansas has one of the best state park systems in the entire country. What you may not realize is that many of these special places provide some truly exceptional opportunities over the holidays. For instance, Pinnacle Mountain State Park in the central region of the state offers Holiday Hayrides on December 8 and 29. With warm campfires, hot chocolate, marshmallows and storytelling, it’s easily worth the cost ($8 for children; $15 for adults). And for those with an appreciation for music, consider Pinnacle’s Caroling in the Forest, an outdoor singalong beginning at 7 p.m. on December 15 at the Kingfisher Trailhead. Down in L.A. (Lower Arkansas), the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources near Smackover has its Holiday Light Extravaganza, a chance to experience its Old Field Park under 300,000-plus twinkling lights. Beginning on December 17, Queen Wilhelmina State Park, on Arkansas’s western border north of Mena, will celebrate a full week with its Christmas in the Park program.
Historic Washington State Park, conveniently located some 10 miles off Interstate 30 in southwest Arkansas, will host its 32nd annual Christmas and Candlelight celebration on December 8. Enjoy a unique holiday experience with the restored homes outfitted in historical period decorations of pine cones, grapevines, magnolia and evergreens. Daylight tours run from 1 to 5 p.m. with candlelight tours beginning at 5 p.m. (when the thousands of luminaries will be lit). Admission is $10 for adults and $6 for children (ages 6 – 12). Williams Tavern will offer a Christmas buffet from 11 a.m. through 8 p.m.
Many of Arkansas’ other state parks have scheduled special open houses for the Christmas season and some, like Jacksonport, offer workshops on such topics as Victorian holiday ornaments and stockings. For complete details, spend some time at “Events” section at arkansasstateparks.com.
Among the most renowned locations in Arkansas for holiday festivities is Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre treasure near Hot Springs. Its 16th annual Holiday Lights event – spread over an 18-acre tract – will kick off on Saturday, November 17, and run through New Year’s Eve (closed on Thanksgiving and Christmas). The attractions are seemingly endless: illuminated topiaries, light-wrapped trees, the Ice Dandelion, a pond blooming with light and on and on and on. Admission is $15 for adults, $5 for children ages 4 to 12, and free for toddlers. Garvan Woodland Gardens will open at 3:p.m. during the holidays, but be warned that Friday and Saturday nights are typically very crowded. A good idea is to purchase your tickets in advance (garvangardens.org or 501-262-9300).
I’ll close with my personal favorite: Caroling in the Caverns. It’s not cheap ($25 per person), and it’s not particularly easy to get to (near Mountain View in north central Arkansas), but this may be the most moving Christmas experience in the state. Maybe even in the whole South. The unrivaled combination of the voices and instruments of talented musicians and the acoustics of the great Cathedral Room at Blanchard Springs Caverns makes for an unforgettable memory. Performances are scheduled for November 23, 24, 25 and 30 and December 1, 2, 3, 7, 8, 9, 14, 15 and 16, but seats are limited. Advance tickets are required and may be purchased through the Mountain View Chamber of Commerce (yourplaceinthemountains.com or 870-269-8068).
Best wishes to you and yours for the very happiest of holidays!