The Ozark Mountains in Arkansas are awash in natural beauty, boasting waterfalls, karst formations, limestone caves, springs, and deciduous forests galore. Added to the Ozark allure is a stretch of road — about 63 kilometres — that links Bentonville to Eureka Springs, in the northwestern corner of the state. About an hour's drive from one town to the other, this sophisticated stretch of country road is full of world-class surprises.
Bentonville: Of Entrepreneurs and Art
With a population of about 44,000, Bentonville is on the map as the hometown of Sam Walton and headquarters of Walmart, the world's largest retailer. In the town square, the Walmart Museum shows the history of the big-box giant and its founder, Walton. An eclectic museum that pays tribute to the life and success of Walton, it includes memorabilia and even a Medal of Honor awarded to Walton — one of his proudest moments. His office was relocated within the museum, and was reassembled the exact way it looked when he died.
However, the town's crowning glory is the world-class Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Founded by Alice Walton, daughter of Sam, and designed by Moshe Safdie, the complex is simply the best of the best focusing on American art, there is nothing quite like this museum other than the Smithsonian museums in Washington, D.C. The fact that Crystal Bridges sits in Arkansas, and that admittance is free to everyone, is what is remarkable.
The museum has a permanent collection of American art masterworks from the colonial era to modern day, and augments this with touring collections from other national art institutions. Cherished masterpieces include Charles Willson Peale's and Gilbert Stuart's portraits of George Washington; Asher Brown Durand's Kindred Spirits; and Norman Rockwell's Rosie the Riveter.
A gem many don't know about is the Museum of Native American History. The museum covers human history from the Ice Age through to about the early 1900s. Wonderfully curated, numerous artifacts, paintings, photographs, and a massive Indian-arrow head collection belie such a compact museum. Kids love to hear the wooly mammoth with its chest-thumping growl when they enter through the front door.
The best hotel in town is the 21c Museum Hotel. Defined as artsy comfort, this hotel is full of art at every corner. Lime-green penguins show up at the strangest times. Sometimes outside your room, other times while you are dining. You also have the freedom to place the penguins throughout the hotel — whatever moves you. Rooms are extremely comfortable and spacious, and the hotel is centrally located to major Bentonville attractions.
Eureka Springs: Quirky Victorian Elegance
With a population of just over 2,000, this town has a plethora of Victorian B&Bs to choose from so as to enjoy the many festivities and celebrations in Eureka Springs. (In fact, it has the largest collection of Victorian architecture in the region and has earned accolades from the National Trust for Historic Preservation). Gingerbread decorations have been lovingly restored with historically accurate pastel colours. It makes for a very funky, yet colourful town, one where the unofficial motto is "where misfits fit."
Eureka Spring's Historic Downtown District is alive with boutiques, antiques, art galleries, restaurants, musicians and artists of all sorts. The town is extremely tolerant, so expect to bump into New Agers, religious fundamentalists, motorcyclists, hipsters, honeymooners, and Millennials. Amble around town and you may find Humpty Dumpty sitting on a wall, the gnome, and a wooden First Nations figure guarding a door entrance. Then head to Mud Street Cafe for its quirky decor and young hipster vibe. They have great sandwiches and bakery goods.
Eureka is also home to the Great Passion Play. From May through October, people book tickets at the 4,100-seat ampitheatre to watch 170 actors and dozens of animals bring the Bible alive. It is often referred to as America's No. 1 Attended Outdoor Drama. A 20-metre statue called, Christ of the Ozarks, stands in the distance, beyond the stage. While the statue is symbolically relevant, the sculpture itself is rather rudimentary in form and detail, with a rather unfinished and blockish appearance. Nevertheless, it has been a roadside attraction since 1966.
South of Eureka Springs is where the big cats live. As the premiere big cat facility in the country, The Turpentine Creek Wildlife Refuge "provides lifetime refuge for abandoned, abused, and neglected 'Big Cats' with emphasis on tigers, lions, leopards, and cougars." They also provide refuge for all mutants that result from mixed-breeding. But it's not only about big cats, as there are black bears and a grizzly on the premises. The staff is professional and dedicated to their mission of providing homes for abandoned animals and are more than happy to answer all your questions. If inclined, you can even sleep in a tent overnight to the roars and bellowing grunts of lions. Reservations required.
If looking for more than a tented safari for the night, consider the 1886 Crescent Hotel & Spa. With all the charm of yesteryear, the hotel is filled with antiquities of a bygone era. (It's also considered haunted). With updated amenities, comforts, and free Wi-Fi, it's a perfect getaway for luxury and history rolled up in one package. And there is a bonus. From the back porch, you have a wonderful view of Christ of the Ozarks.
The Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport (XNA) is 13.5 kilometres from Bentonville, Ark. American Airlines, Delta, and United Airlines fly from hubs such as Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas/Fort Worth, Houston, and Los Angeles.
The Clinton National Airport (LIT) in Little Rock is about a three-hour drive to Bentonville, with more frequent flights on all the major carriers.