By Heather Baker
We have heard several times lately from friends that if you haven’t been to Bentonville in a while, you probably should check it out. So, the Baker clan hit the road and set out for what would end up being one of the most incredible “long weekends” we have had in a long time — exploring new places here in Arkansas.
First, I must say that it was one of the easiest and most convenient trips that our family has ever planned. We didn’t have to worry about blocking off a huge section of our time (which is priceless for us Bakers); it was simply a three-day trip bookended with a short drive from our home outside of Little Rock to the northwest corner of the state.
When we arrived in Bentonville, check-in for the weekend was at the 21c Museum Hotel in Bentonville, a dual hybrid of art and lodging. Many visitors of the region and beyond flock to the facility every day to see the unique exhibits, but we were fortunate to have the opportunity to stay in the hotel portion of the building. It was immaculate in every way.
21c is actually modeled after the award-winning flagship hotel in Louisville, Ky., which is a really neat place for the state to have. Our room was stunning, spacious and trendy, and actually included a blacklight wand for guests to see just how neat and clean it really is, beyond just what our eyes can see. If I check into a hotel that invites me to check its cleanliness, I know that I am staying somewhere truly special.
And somewhere with a sense for comedy, apparently. There are giant penguins that also inhabit 21c which are moved around secretly and randomly. You might call it, “Penguin on a shelf,” except they are huge and won’t fit on shelves. Someone kept moving a penguin in front of the door to my hotel room. Probably just looking to borrow some sugar.
But the penguins aren’t the only greeting cards when visiting 21c. Outside the entrance sit two eye-catching attractions. The first is what they call Orange Tree that has a pole for a trunk and dozens of basketball hoop branches with actual basketballs scattered underneath. Second is the Making Change art piece which is a Fleetwood Cadillac limousine that is covered in thousands of coins.
The inside of the museum is filled with art, most of which were unlike anything I had ever seen and all physical pieces of art, like sculpture, are displayed rather than wall hangings. The words that immediately came to mind were things like eclectic, abstract and unique.
Not to be outdone by the art and the penguins is The Hive, an on-site restaurant and bar helmed by the decorated executive chef, Matthew McClure. We were lucky enough (my husband and I, that is) to make The Hive’s happy hour where we partook in a delicious bourbon cocktail. The bartender was even kind enough to give us some pointers on making drinks at home that may not taste as good as his but could get us pretty close.
Bentonville is also home to the Scott Family Amazeum, a place to discover the connections between science, technology, engineering, art, math and the world around us. The Amazeum contains 50,000 square feet of hands-on learning fun that my whole family could not get enough of. There’s a 35-foot climbable tree canopy, a Nickelodeon Playlab, Hershey’s Lab, 3M Tinkering Hub and an art studio. They say that it’s all about messy, creative and interactive fun which is right up our alley, believe it or not. Surprising no one, the Baker clan built a custom Jeep from wooden block pieces. I am proud to say that our creation was flawless and driveable.
We then strolled around the Bentonville square, checking out the local shopping and the 8th Street Market that I had heard so much about. It features The Holler which is a true community gathering place where people can eat, drink, work and play. We played a life-sized shuffleboard game between our eats and drinks — no work for us this weekend.
Sadly, we traveled to town just a little too early. The Momentary, a brand new contemporary art space that the entire state has long-awaited, is opening up off of 8th Street on Feb. 22. We will certainly be back to visit it.
Speaking of the Walton family’s fingerprints, it wouldn’t be a trip to Bentonville without something Walmart related. We took a short walk to Main Street where the Walmart Museum and the original Walton’s 5 & 10 are located. It was so much fun and incredibly cool because the store still features the original floors and ceiling, now more than 50 years old. The tour guide also showed us the ladder that the Walton kids would go up and down to stock the showroom. Its gift shop features plenty of nostalgic toys, gifts and candy that sent me even farther down memory lane. I couldn’t resist buying a Holly Hobbie doll, and my son snagged a Red Ryder BB gun.
Then we headed over to somewhere new for the city, Climb Bentonville.
After signing a few waivers we went over and got our harnesses and our shoes and went out for a quick climbing lesson. After a few minutes of learning what to do and what not to do, we were ready for the first wall. My husband, Joel, monkeyed his way up, making it look easy. Confident and ready to show off, I buckled up and took my turn, but quickly realized the kid’s walls were better for me. One themed after the video game Tetris suited my fancy. This adventure definitely requires endurance.
Between all of these activities, our appetite was more than worked up. We took a quick trip back to the hotel to freshen up and set off to try the highly-anticipated The Preacher’s Son, a restaurant within an old refurbished church. I’d share what each of us ordered individually, but it wouldn’t matter. We treated the table like one big plate — a bite of this, a dab of that. Among us, we consumed the bouillabaisse, a seafood dish with shrimp and mussels in a tomato saffron broth; braised pork shank; smoked fried chicken and gluten-free cornbread. Everything was a-ma-zing, and I still encounter cravings for just another bite of that cornbread. Oh, and it’s not everyday that it is not frowned upon to have a drink in a church. Spiritual spirits, one might say.
At some point, we found a little time to sleep, but not for long. Our adventurous spirit was flowing.
We took a short drive across town to Thaden Field which is an all-encompassing aviation exhibit, airport and more that is a tribute to Bentonville’s own Louise Thaden. She shattered glass ceilings from the skies in the 1920s as an airplane pilot and was the first woman to win a National Air Race and the first to win a Bendix Trophy. Visitors can also sit down and grab a bite to eat or indulge in a drink while watching planes take off, just like Gary Allan. Typically, a trip to the airport is not fun, but this one was well worth the trip.
As was our journey over to one of Bentonville’s most famous attractions, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Back again was that appetite, so we had a delicious brunch at the on-site restaurant, Eleven and then we were off on another artistic adventure.
We first had our chance at the Infinity Mirrored Room which was indescribable. The mirrors and the lights make the room feel like it goes on forever and made me feel like I was in another dimension. Another standout during our experience there was the Portraits of Courage exhibit which is a collection of veterans portraits painted by George W. Bush. The paintings are meant to honor the sacrifice and courage of our military veterans since 9/11 and it was incredibly moving.
The beautiful thing about art, and this is especially true at Crystal Bridges, is that it is what the creator imagines and the beholder feels when witnessing it. Art is very personal. And there is something at Crystal Bridges for everyone, whether you like sculptures, mirrors or traditional paintings.
Then we experienced something like I’ve never seen before in the state of Arkansas at Crystal Bridges’ North Forest Trail of Lights. Not knowing what to expect coming in, this activity was probably our favorite of all.
Each encounter along the trail was magnificent as we walked through the Ozark woods. The first impression is hard to miss — a monster deer that stands stories tall. As we continued to walk along, we were met by light displays in all directions, and they all move to the beats of music that is playing in the background. At one point, I turned around and looked back on a display that looked completely different than the one I thought I had just walked through. You can go in time and time again and get a unique experience every time.
If you have not been through the North Forest Trail of Lights yet, I suggest you make plans to do so immediately. The exhibit runs through Feb. 16.
Bentonville is definitely the place to go in Arkansas for an overnight trip or multiple days. It is perfect for a weekend getaway or weeklong excursion. With a state like ours, it is so much more convenient to take your vacation right here at home. Consider that the “Heather Baker stamp of approval.”