Northwest Arkansas: A hot travel destination

It was a thrill to see Bentonville on the Travel & Leisure magazine list of Hottest Travel Destinations of 2012.

Bentonville was right there alongside Sri Lanka, Toronto, Abu Dhabi and Hamburg (the one in Germany, not the one in Ashley County).

“Until now, Bentonville has been famous for one thing: It’s the home of big-box retailer Walmart,” Stephen Wallis wrote for Travel & Leisure. “But Alice Walton, youngest heir to the empire, is using a large share of her wealth — estimated by Forbes at $21 billion — to transform the region into a world-class cultural destination.”

Wallis called the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art “an audacious gamble that a large-scale arts institution can thrive in the Ozarks.”

As I wrote in the previous Southern Fried blog post, it’s a gamble that seems to be paying off based on attendance for the museum’s first five months of operation.

“To hedge her if-you-build-it-they-will-come bet, Walton hired architect Moshe Safdie to design the museum, set on 120 wooded acres just outside town,” Wallis wrote. “He created a series of gently curving pavilions hovering dramatically around and over ponds fed by natural springs.

“Walton also approached 21c Museum Hotels — which put Louisville, Ky., on the art-world map — about opening a property in town. Designed by Deborah Berke, it’s due next January.

“Her biggest investment may be the collection itself, bought at often eyebrow-raising prices and covering the full sweep of American art, from colonial portraitists Gilbert Stuart and John Singleton Copley to 19th-century masters Winslow Homer and Thomas Eakins, with a splash of contemporary art (Andy Warhol; Roxy Paine; Jenny Holzer) thrown in.

“The museum is already being touted by some as a countrified Guggenheim Bilbao — and Walton herself as a latter-day Morgan or Frick, digging deep into her pockets and dreaming big. This may be enough to attract culture seeekers from around the country, if not the world.”

I have only one quibble with Travel & Leisure’s assessment: It should have been northwest Arkansas, not just Bentonville, listed as being among the world’s hottest travel destinations.

I have no doubt that the people who come to visit Crystal Bridges will venture down to Rogers, Springdale, Fayetteville and even places such as Tontitown to eat and shop.

I say that after having recently spent a delightful couple of days in Fayetteville.

I stayed for the first time at the Dickson Street Inn, a two-building complex that has been remodeled into a 10-room inn. The main house, an 1894 Victorian, has eight of the rooms. An adjacent building houses the other two rooms.

Go to the online reviews at www.TripAdvisor.com and you’ll find sometimes brutal assessments of hotels, motels and bed and breakfast inns across the country. Reviews of the Dickson Street Inn are almost all positive.

Here’s an example: “Dickson Street Inn far exceeded my expectations during a recent trip to Fayetteville. The historic home converted to a B&B may look like a traditional inn from the outside, but it is so much more. The rooms are well appointed with comfortable beds and updated bathrooms.”

Here’s another: “My friend and I were early for a matinee performance at Walton Arts Center so decided to go for a short walk. We came upon this place and decided to stop in to check it out. Was I ever glad we did. We visit Fayetteville frequently and have stayed at various places. Unfortunately, after staying here for a weekend getaway with a group of friends, I will never be happy staying anyplace else, and certain weekends (i.e. football, parents, graduation, etc.) are booked solid far in advance. Everything was perfect.”

My two-night stay was just as advertised. After hearing Ernie Dumas interview former U.S. Sen. Dale Bumpers at an event on the Fayetteville square, several hours were spent late on a Friday afternoon at one of my top places in Arkansas to browse, the Dickson Street Bookshop.

Located at the corner of Dickson and School for more than three decades, the used bookstore is a classic.

Here’s how the Fayetteville Flyer described it a few years ago: “With an estimated 100,000 used books lining the tall floor-to-ceiling shelves (and sometimes in tall stacks in available corners), the Dickson Street Bookshop is one of the best independent used bookstores in the country. Visitors to the area are amazed at the incredible selection of used and out-of-print books and the unique maze-like layout, the dim lighting and the dusty smell that has become a staple of Dickson Street. … The Dickson Street Bookshop buys used books for cash or for store credit, and all transactions are done with paper and pen instead of computers and cash registers.

“There is no membership program. No Starbucks inside. Just a whole lot of books, and a lot of loyal customers, some of whom have been frequenting the store for its entire existence.

“In addition to the estimated 100,000 books kept inside the store, an additional 50,000 books are kept in storage, just waiting for their time on the shelves of the bookshop. The store sells an estimated 800-900 books a week and has somehow managed to stay open on Dickson Street during a time when dozens of retail establishments have come and gone in what has become more a restaurant and bar entertainment district than a downtown shopping area.”

I purchased a copy of John Gould Fletcher’s history of the state, “Arkansas,” for only $27.50. Published in 1947, the book was in excellent condition. I considered it a steal.

Fletcher, the famed poet and essayist who earned a Pulitzer Prize in poetry, drowned himself in a pond at his west Little Rock estate during a bout with depression just three years after publication of the book.

Writing for the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture, historian Ben Johnson of Southern Arkansas University says “Arkansas” served for many years as the “most readable and accessible history of the state but attracted little attention elsewhere.”

I took the John Gould Fletcher book to the wooden deck that the Dickson Street Inn shares with the Dickson Street Pub and read several chapters while enjoying the glorious spring weather.

I had visited Crystal Bridges the previous day.

I had spent the previous evening with friends on the deck of Herman’s Ribhouse, which has changed very little since it opened in 1964. It became a favorite haunt back when I was a newspaper sportswriter. Ask me my top spots for hash browns, and I’ll tell you Herman’s and the Waffle House.

The next morning began with a leisurely breakfast at the Dickson Street Inn while reading the weekend Wall Street Journal. A brisk walk to the Fayetteville square followed so I could visit the Fayetteville Farmers’ Market, founded in 1974 and ranked among the top such markets in the country.

The remainder of the morning was spent at the annual meeting of the Arkansas Historical Association, and the afternoon was spent at Baum Stadium watching the No. 3 and No. 11 college baseball teams in the country square off.

Perfection.

Throughout my visit, I thought that Crystal Bridges might just be the draw that will open the floodgates, allowing visitors from across the country and around the world to enjoy all this part of the state has to offer.

For example, I hope a number of them will drive over to spend a night or two in Eureka Springs, which I’ve always considered a far more authentic, relaxing place to spend leisure time than the choked roadways of Branson.

While trying not to stereotype anyone, I do suspect that Eureka Springs will hold more appeal than Branson for the types of tourists who spend money to fly across the country to see art museums.

Or how about combining art museum visits with fly-fishing on the White River?

There have been dozens of published reviews of Crystal Bridges already, and most have been positive.

Writing in The New York Times, Roberta Smith called it “a big, serious, confident, new institution with more than 50,000 square feet of gallery space and a collection worth hundreds of millions of dollars in a region almost devoid of art museums. Much more than just a demonstration of what money can buy or an attempt to burnish a rich family’s name, Crystal Bridges is poised to make a genuine cultural contribution, and possibly to become a place of pilgrimage for art lovers from around the world.”

Let’s hope those world travelers take the time to also enjoy the charms of Fayetteville, Eureka Springs and other parts of northwest Arkansas.

Post to Twitter