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Uptown Small Town

Bentonville surprises visitors with its own brand of hip hospitality.

Remember in grade school how you’d always hoped to score an invitation to the birthday party of the richest kid in class? They always had the professional clowns and the tiered cake brought in by caterers.

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Above: The Colonial to Early 19th-century Art Gallery at Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Timothy Hursley/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Below: The dining bridge at Crystal Bridges at dusk. Dero Sanford/Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

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The same reasoning applies to Bentonville, Ark., today. Some of the richest people in America have turned this pint-size burg in northwest Arkansas into a big city party.

Even before Wal-Mart heiress Alice Walton threw millions into her paradigm-shattering Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville had a surprisingly cosmopolitan vibe. America’s vendors, vying for a spot on Wal-Mart shelves, often set up small branch offices in the area. I even spotted a DreamWorks (yes, that DreamWorks) satellite adjacent to the downtown square.

Here are six reasons to accept Bentonville’s alluring invitation to visit for a memorable weekend getaway.

1. It’s mecca for art lovers. Crystal Bridges is the first major American art museum to open in the United States in 40 years. Its 120 wooded acres, supplied by the aforementioned Walton, the youngest of Sam Walton’s children, has already attracted more than 2 million visitors and staged a massive contemporary retrospective that made tsunami-size waves in the American art scene. And that’s just in the last four years; the Moshe Safdie-designed masterpiece has only been open since November 2011.

But that’s not even the best part.

General admission to Crystal Bridges is free. Compare that to the Metropolitan Museum of Art that’s $25 just to sniff the rarified air. Take a family of five to the Louvre and You'll spend $85.

But for those who don’t know a Monet from a paint-by-number painting, Crystal Bridges stages innovative events and exhibitions that everyone can enjoy, such as Family Game Night or Night Owl tours. That’s barred owls, one of many species that make their home on the museum’s native Ozark forest grounds, which are a lovely must-see part of the museum experience. Indeed, more than 3.5 miles of trails wind through the museum’s campus.

2. Visitors can mosey over to the town square. Bentonville still has its small-town charm, which includes an old-fashioned town square. In 1950, Sam Walton opened his original Walton’s Five and Dime on the square. In fact, it’s now a museum that also is free to the public. The town square also has an old-fashioned soda fountain, a farmer’s market in the summer, an ice skating rink in the winter, and crickets crooning at night.

3. Like Sundance, Bentonville has a film festival. The new, ambitious film festival has just one year under its belt, but it’s attracted a board of advisors that includes Natalie Portman, Samuel L. Jackson, and Geena Davis, who co-founded the festival that discovers and promotes films by women and minorities. Bentonville has yet to build a movie theater, but savvy organizers outfitted churches, meeting rooms, and the downtown square for the inaugural festival last May.

4. Mother Nature likes to show off here. there's a reason the International Mountain Bicycling Association decided to hold its 2016 World Summit in Bentonville. The area has world-class mountain biking trails and all the outdoor beauty that inspired Oklahoma-born Sam Walton to move here with his wife, Helen. Fish, hunt, or hike in a mild year-round climate.

5. Stay at a museum. The provocative 21c Museum Hotel Bentonville is part contemporary art museum, part boutique hotel. Located within walking distance of Crystal Bridges, this 104-room hotel pulses with contemporary art and style; in the fitness center, “Fat Bat” – a hilarious transformation of the Batman character by artist Virginie Barré – flies over workout machines. And you can’t help but notice a flock of four-foot recycled petroleum penguins that are colored green and can be moved around the property by guests and staff.

Founded by Steve Wilson and Laura Lee Brown, another heiress (her family’s Brown-Forman Corporation owns alcohol such as Jack Daniel’s and Southern Comfort), 21c was started to bring Brown and Wilson’s extensive contemporary art collection out from behind a velvet rope. Like any good art museum, the exhibitions change regularly.

Twice a week, 21c’s Museum Manager Dayton Castleman offers a riveting tour that’s as much history lesson as reminder to view life through different eyes. His tour and contagious passion reignited in me an appreciation for art and how it changes history. Yet despite the upscale art and chic ambiance, hotel rates are quite reasonable.

6. New restaurants keep sprouting up. Every few months, a new culinary delight shows up on Bentonville’s quaint brick sidewalks. Ramo d’Olivio, an upscale organic olive and vinegar boutique, offers 25-year-old balsamic vinegar from Modena, Italy, and a wine bar in back.

The old lumberyard is now a craft beer dispensary. Check out the gourmet tea shop and fresh seafood market with live lobsters. Do not miss Brussels & Belly, an eponymous dish of smoked pork belly, Brussels sprouts, hazelnuts, and apple butter by Chef Matthew McClure, a James Beard finalist, who practices his own brand of art at The Hive in the 21c Museum Hotel.

Bentonville, a small town with the cosmopolitan vibe, will surprise and beguile you. Prepare to fall in love.

Pam Grout is a contributor from Lawrence, Kan.

January/February 2016 Issue

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BEFORE YOU GO

To visit Bentonville, first stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks® and TourBook® guides.


For more details, contact Visit Bentonville at
(800) 410-2535


Order free information about Arkansas through the Free Travel Information Card found online.


 


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