Story and photos by Sharon King Hoge
Northwest Arkansas certainly wasn't on my bucket list. I did want to see the acclaimed new Crystal Bridges Museum established by Walmart heiress Alice Walton in the company's hometown Bentonville. But I postponed a visit, kind of dreading the trip to wherever-it-was. Imagine my pleasure when instead of "nowhere" I found a region wealthy in entertainment and fun.
Major carriers fly to Bentonville Airport, but I opted for a more economical flight to Kansas City where I rented a car and drove three hours south. Everyone had advised me to stay at the 21c Museum Hotel and I no sooner walked in than I realized it is an experience in itself. The lobby -- and for that matter the hallways, rooms, landings, all the public spaces -- are fitted out with exhibits of contemporary art. A lunging Wonder Womanesque statue saluted as I entered the reception area liberally decorated with artworks. Also greeting me were a batch of four-foot tall green plastic penguin statues which are hotel mascots. Scattered around the premises, they point out doorways, stare at the artworks, and amuse the guests who are allowed to move them around at will. The receptionist chuckled that one day he came upon four of the penguins lying on the ground surrounded by empty wine bottles.
Another penguin welcomed me to my very comfortable room with a sectional couch curled around a handy marble table, facing a full screen TV, a handy console for storage, a plush king size bed. A violet night-light illuminated the bathroom equipped with a spacious marble shower, Malin + Goetz bath products, a terrycloth robe. A night-stand drawer concealed the room safe and an iron and sturdy umbrella were available in the closet.
I was a half hour too late for 21c's free guided tour of the "Pop Stars" collection on display, but since it was near dusk, I headed out to the James Turrell Skyscape installation in the park surrounding Crystal Bridges. Seated within its sloping walls with the ceiling's round hole open to the heavens, I watched the sky evolve through a series of colors generated by the contrast lights inside.
Back at the 21c friendly groups were gathered in the storefront Hive Restaurant and Bar. I sipped a Warm and Classy bourbon with mulled wine, Benedictine, and honey as I watched the open flame grill cooking up pimento cheese Hive Burgers and confit chicken legs.
The next morning I walked two blocks over to Bentonville's charming town square which is fronted on one side by the Walmart Museum and soda fountain. After passing through a store selling classic candies and souvenirs, I studied the exhibits which illustrate the evolution of the world's largest retailer. There was Helen Walton's wedding dress, Sam Walton's beloved red pickup truck, photos of the couple's original 5&10 which stood on this very spot. One comical exhibit displays items returned to the store by dissatisfied customers: a thermometer that didn't tell time, a fishing rod that failed to catch fish!!! Exiting through the soda fountain, visitors can watch I Love Lucy, Leave It to Beaver and other vintage shows on a wall mounted TV and order treats at 1950's prices: a one dollar one-scoop ice cream cone, a four dollar MoonPie Palooza.
By the time I finished my three-dollar milk shake it was 11 am, time for Crystal Bridges to open. A woodsy quarter-mile walk from town the eight sprawling Moshe Saftie designed pavilions display a collection of iconic American art. "Rosie the Riveter" is there, along with a Gilbert Stuart portrait of George Washington, a bust of handsome Alexander Hamilton, Asher Durand's revered "Kindred Spirits." Eight trails winding through the 120 acre site pass outdoor works of art. Compliments of Walmart, visits are free.
From Crystal Bridges I drove along winding wooded Route 62 for an hour to the charming resort town of Eureka Springs. Lined with adorable Victorian cottages painted vivid colors, the town's streets twist uphill to the classic Crescent Hotel. Created of limestone in 1886, its rooms with balconies overlook spectacular views out over the Ozarks. Restored 20 years ago by wealthy benefactors who rescued it from prior incarnations as a girls school and a cancer hospital, it has become a Historic Hotel of America with spa facilities and nightly ghost tours leading guests past rooms said to be inhabited by apparitions and spirits. Only a dozen of the city's original 62 therapeutic springs have been restored, mainly for viewing, but down the hill the Palace Hotel Bath House Spa rents out suites with a spa providing massages, herbal baths, and sessions in vintage individual wooden steam cabinets. With 600 artists and artisans in residence, Eureka offers a plethora of shops selling art work and artifacts in appealing boutiques.
These are just a few of the area's attractions. Also worthy stops are the soaring wood and glass Thorncrown Chapel, the 100 rescued lions and tigers at Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge, Zoo, the Pea Ridge Battlefield which sealed Missouri's status in the Union, the nostalgic Daisy Airgun Museum, and charming history museums in Rogers and Springdale. Within an hour's drive is Fayetteville with the University Arkansas wrapped another charming town square, the Walton Arts Center, and the Tudor style home which Hillary Rodham once admired in passing, inspiring her teaching colleague Bill Clinton to purchase it as a surprise back up to his marriage proposal. Their wedding was held in its bay window.
Incidentally, poultry happens to be the leading agriculture industry of Northwest Arkansas. What better time to visit than the Year of the Rooster.
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