There are some trips that are just tailor-made for the ladies…strolling through fall gardens, spending the night in a frilly Bed and Breakfast, wandering through a purse museum, and shopping, shopping and more shopping. Recently two friends and I set off on such a trip and we agreed it was a darn near perfect girlfriend getaway.
My friends Jo Anne Dukes and Caroline Carroll are both fantastic gardeners. These two swap seeds and cuttings of plants all year long, and, while I appreciate the fruits of their labor, I’m not as into digging in the dirt as they are. My husband jokes that I am probably the only past-president of the McComb, MS, Garden Club to have a brown thumb. My passion is arranging flowers, once somebody else has grown them, so when my gardening friends mentioned making a trip to P. Allen Smith’s farm, I had to be sure Allen was my kind of guy! One look at his website told me all I needed to know. While Moss Mountain Farm is 600 acres of pure gardening delight, it was the full access to his home, art studio, and barns (better known as Poultryville) that made me sure I didn’t want to miss this trip.
We set out on a Thursday morning before sunrise to make it to Moss Mountain Farm for the 11 a.m. tour. A quick stop at Misty’s in Leslie to stock up on their famous fried pies, chocolate rolls, and peanut brittle was a good move, as we arrived at the farm before the gates even opened. Located about 30 minutes outside of Little Rock, both the drive to the farm and the setting itself are spectacular. When we spotted two enormous towers of pumpkins and a pumpkin house, we turned into girls just giddy with excitement.
While the farm is Allen’s personal residence, it is open to the public during the fall and holiday seasons. Our tour included a walk through the main home, built in 2007, which is reminiscent of the plantation homes along the Mississippi River. Styled after 19th century Greek Revival architecture, the home is situated with a front porch overlooking a centuries-old oak tree. The terraced gardens in the back overlook the Arkansas River Valley.
The tour started in the front parlor where the walls are filled with Allen’s own paintings. Huge silver bowls and apothecary jars filled with gourds, apples, and tiny pumpkins were everywhere. While Jo Anne and Caroline settled in to hear the history of the farm and its “green” features, I couldn’t help but sneak around the corner to play with Duncan, an adorable Scottish Terrier who seemed to know he was the perfect complement to the setting.
Throughout the house, we pointed out things we each loved—McCarty pottery from Mississippi, my favorite; giant pumpkin paintings, Caroline’s favorite; marble busts in straw hats, Jo Anne’s favorite. We all agreed we loved the huge copper bathtub on the screened-in sleeping porch overlooking the Arkansas River—the perfect spot for enjoying a breeze and a nap!
Once we covered two of the home’s three stories, we set out for the one-acre organic vegetable garden. Set with huge farm tables for a garden-to-table wedding reception in just a few days, the garden’s 12-foot-wide path led us past blackberry bushes, pepper plants, squash, and tomatoes. Through a gate and beyond the rustic garden rows, the gravel trail led to a breathtaking 20,000-square-foot rose garden featuring a hand-forged wrought iron gate, an oval ring of live oak trees, Gothic garden houses, and the biggest purple salvia any of us had ever seen.
Leaving the rose garden and heading back up to the barn for lunch, we walked a rugged path past a pond that swans Fred and Wilma call home. The barn isn’t just any barn. It is a beautiful event center, where a spectacular lunch of roasted sweet potato and feta salad was served with grilled organic chicken. Dessert—a scrumptious buttermilk pecan pie—was straight out of the P. Allen Smith cookbook, Seasonal Recipes from the Garden. The tables were lined with burlap, pumpkins, and mums—the perfect fall setting. Jo Anne won a door prize, but I’m sure everyone at the luncheon felt like a winner!
After lunch, we were free to wander the terraced gardens behind the main house that run east and west along the river. The beds are full of interesting plants, but two octagonal structures filled with pumpkin tablescapes and dried topiary were my favorite terraced-garden secret.
Up a set of stairs and heading back toward the main house, we explored Allen’s personal art studio, a 350-square-foot dream of a room that doubles as a guest cottage. Just to the left of a fireplace stood an easel with a giant squash painting he had left unfinished. Opposite the art studio on the back lawn is a summer kitchen, with its own fireplace and stainless steel appliances. The space doubles as the set for the taping of many cooking segments for his television show, P.Allen Smith’s Garden Home. I recognized the orange dishes and yellow stoneware from videos I had seen of Allen making everything from homemade house cleaners to hushpuppies!
From what our guide said, Allen’s real passion is chickens, however, so we knew we had to make the long walk down to Poultryville. Allen founded a charity, the Heritage Poultry Conservancy, to preserve rare strains of birds and encourage youth education, stewardship, and solid breeding practices. On the way to Poultryville, we passed South African Dorper sheep grazing and a cottage that was created by Allen in just 150 days for $150,000 during a filmed garden home challenge. Allen’s brother and sister-in-law live in the home with their family and are active on the farm. There is also a barn for swans and goats—another favorite of mine.
We were glad we wore comfortable shoes on this trip, as there was a lot of ground to cover, but we wouldn’t have missed one thing at the farm and decided we had to visit again in the spring when more than 280,000 daffodils are in bloom. After shopping for autographed cookbooks and other garden treasures in the gift shop, we said goodbye to Allen’s sister-in-law Joyce, who had been so good to us as we arranged our visit. We hated to go, but the farm closes to the public at 3 p.m. so Allen and others can actually live there!
We made our way back to Little Rock to the bed and breakfast where Caroline had made reservations for us to spend the night. The Empress of Little Rock’s magnificent (and massive) Victorian architecture has been recognized as the most important existing example of Gothic Queen Anne style regionally and as the best example of ornate Victorian Architecture in Arkansas by the National Register of Historic Places. Made exclusively of Arkansas materials, the home has served as a college and nursing home, and stood vacant after the Depression. Today’s owners Bob and Sharon have created a multi-award winning AAA Four Diamond treasure.
It was the first time Jo Anne and Caroline had stayed at a B&B, so we explored each guest room, excited to find our own. The two of them shared the octagonal Washburn-Welch room named for Presbyterian ministers who are said to have preached the first sermon west of the Mississippi. They were especially taken with the room’s antique twin beds and claw foot tub. I was spoiled and had my own room, The Petit Jean, named for a young French girl who, legend says, stowed away as a cabin boy in the 1700’s to be with her love as he sailed for the new world. Arriving in Arkansas, the girl became ill and her identity was revealed. The room’s ornately carved bed was done up in blues and whites—a nod to the nautical romance of the story. My favorite features in the room were the sitting area and in-room marble sink.
After exploring the inn and even finding a secret room in the attic where the men used to hide away to play cards, we headed downtown to check out One Eleven, a new restaurant and bar at the Capital Hotel. We were surprised to find a quartet from the Arkansas Symphony entertaining in the lobby of the hotel, so we grabbed a seat to enjoy the music. Our waitress was kind enough to share the recipe for Mulled White Wine Sangria—a delicious concoction of fresh Golden Delicious apples, fresh Bartlett pears, and Clementine segments macerated with Quady Orange Muscat, Strub Spätlese Riesling and a homemade mulling spice blend. As we talked through the recipe and where we might find these ingredients in the Twin Lakes Area, she mentioned she was a native of Mountain Home! Small world, indeed.
We made our way back for dinner at South on Main, a cool venue for musical and literary performances with southern cuisine. My hot chicken liver salad with blue cheese and bacon was to die for! Jo Anne had fried green tomatoes and Caroline ordered Charred Romaine with Israeli Couscous, Shitake & Grilled Onions. Everyone raved about what they had, but we all saved room for sweets, which were described as “Jar,” “Cookies,” or “Doughnuts.” The jar, layered parfaits of chocolate, looked great, but Jo Anne and Caroline preferred the chocolate chip cookies with ice cream filling, and I went for the doughnuts, which were deep-fried lemon lusciousness served with confectioner’s sugar like beignets.
Satisfied, we headed back to The Empress, just a couple of blocks away, where our beds were turned down and Amaretto and chocolates were left for us. We didn’t stay up long, however, as we were exhausted from the day’s fun, and we couldn’t wait for breakfast!
The next morning at 8:30, in the beautiful dining room, we were joined by a couple from Alabama on their way to see their daughter in Fayetteville, and a man from California who was in town to visit friends. As is customary at B&B’s, we enjoyed sharing stories of our lives and our travels and played the “do you know” game as we enjoyed coffee together. The first course was served in beautiful china bowls and was a scrumptious fresh fig soup, made from figs off trees on the grounds. The main course was a cheese strata, sausage, and butternut squash quiche, and fresh fruit—all delicious!
It was hard to pull away from our new friends and The Empress, but we had plenty more fun planned for the day. After checking out, we headed back down South Main and made a stop at Esse Purse Museum, one of just three dedicated purse museums in the world. Amsterdam and Seoul couldn’t have anything on Little Rock’s museum, which is as much about women as it is a century of handbags. We all agreed that a look at what women carried inside their purses in each decade was as interesting as the more than 270 handbags we saw. Decade by decade, the museum told the story of women through the bags they carried and the things they tucked inside. Esse, which grew out of a traveling exhibit selected from owner Anita Davis’s extensive collection of handbags, is housed in a historic building in the hip SoMa neighborhood.
We loved the history and the stories of the decades featured, and told stories of our own memories the purses conjured. As Esse says, “a woman’s purse is the container of her essence, the sacred, private space that holds her identity, her valuables, her memories, her dreams, her mystery.”
Each of us had a favorite decade—Jo Anne’s were the beaded bags of the 1920’s, mine, the clutches popular in the 1930’s, and Caroline’s, the jeweled evening bags in a special exhibit. We spent the most time checking out the skins—exotic alligator, crocodile, ostrich, snake, shark, and calf. The travel exhibit brought back memories of trips we all enjoyed through the years and elicited squeals of “I had one of those!” from us and from other women who were also enjoying the small museum. The gift shop is worth a visit to Esse if you are looking for unique gifts or quirky one-of-a-kind pieces—scarves, jewelry, books, and of course, purses.
From Esse, we headed downtown toward the river and all the shops in the River Market area before spending some time at Heifer International’s headquarters where Caroline bought a beautiful fair trade shawl and hammered silver bracelet. Docents let us wander the exhibits that tell the story of Dan West’s vision for the 70-year old nonprofit. West’s vision of donating livestock to small-scale farmers throughout the world, so that impoverished nations can be transformed, is told beautifully in lobby exhibits at the Little Rock headquarters. The stories of Heifer’s work in more than 30 countries around the world is impressive, and all of us were happy to have the organization’s holiday gift catalog so that we could consider a Heifer gift this Christmas.
The Clinton Presidential Center was our final stop to view an art exhibit by Dale Chihuly, who is renowned for his architectural glass installations in cities, gardens, and museums around the world. The exhibit featured an enormous fountain installation called Red Reeds, a giant room-sized exhibit titled Mille Fiori, a series of sea forms and a giant tower of glass in the Sky Lobby. The color of the glass and its fluid forms were stunningly beautiful. Just seeing the Chihuly peices was a treat, but it’s always fun to visit the permanent exhibits at the Clinton Center, like the Cabinet Room, the full-scale Oval Office, and the exhibits that highlight life in the Clinton White House and their personal mementos and keepsakes.
Lunch in Forty Two, the on-site restaurant named for Clinton’s spot as the forty-second President, was the perfect end to our visit. Even a cheeseburger (The Big Kahuna) in Forty Two is a real treat topped with grilled pineapple, black forest ham, and melted pepper jack cheese. We all shared sweet potato fries with a spicy strawberry jam and marveled over the 5-Spice Salmon Salad with pickled grapes, curried peanuts, and baby arugula that Caroline was smart enough to order.
We couldn’t leave Little Rock without making one last stop at Tipton & Hurst, the granddaddy of all florists in Little Rock. They were stocked full of fall gifts and décor, and were getting the Christmas trees primped for their holiday open house. The florist, founded in 1886, is known for its award-winning team of floral designers and resources that includes premier suppliers from around the world. We left with silver pumpkins, twig cornucopia, and delicious Arkansas-made What’s Cookin’ dip mixes sure to make our holiday get-togethers meet even P. Allen Smith’s standards!
Sometimes getaways close to home are just as special as those to exotic locations far from home, especially when made with good girlfriends. This trip was one of those, thanks to the grandeur of Moss Mountain Farm and the hospitality of The Empress of Little Rock, coupled with great museums and fantastic food found in Arkansas’s capital city, Little Rock. M! December 2014/January 2015