Ambitious Art, Classy Digs
This is not your father’s Walmart. Bentonville, Arkansas is a evolving as a mecca of art and recreation, where Americana meets contemporary-chic luxury.
Aerial view of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, designed by Safdie Architects; photography by Timothy Hursley. Courtesy of Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Bentonville, Arkansas.
On a recent visit, my family stayed at The 21c Bentonville, one of a chain of three “museum hotels” that have sprung up in small cities like Louisville and Cincinnati. In the reception area and surrounding rooms, hotel curators install visiting exhibitions of contemporary art, with a show centering on rituals planned for the coming months. The Cuban art on display during our visit included a giant chandelier made of glass stalactites and old wigs. My kids loved it.
At check-in, the clerk smiled at our boys. “You’ll be needing a penguin,” she murmured. Ten minutes later, as we were settling into our room, a knock at the door heralded the arrival of a 4-foot tall green plastic penguin. The kids squealed with delight. He stayed in our room for our whole visit, and we spied several of his siblings around the place, one perched on the roof wearing a muffler, another standing guard in the elevator.
Our fresh, modern room, spacious but not grand, had cushy beds and addictively fragranced Malin & Goetz toiletries. On our first morning there, we lived the dream and surprised the kids with room service: pancakes, eggs and sausage, fresh fruit. It felt so good to loll around in our pj’s, munching on toast and watching cartoons with the penguin. It was worth the splurge (and a splurge it was).
Later, we got lunch at Crepes Paulette, a food truck set up by a nearby park. They fill savory pancakes with the likes of ham, cheese, and spinach. Sweet ones like the Elvis ooze with bananas, bacon, Reese’s peanut butter chips, and chocolate ganache. (This alone might have been worth the drive.)
Exploring the Museum
Full and happy, we strolled through a magical sculpture garden to Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Founded by Alice Walton, Sam Walton’s (of Walmart fame) youngest daughter, Crystal Bridges is the largest museum of its kind to open in the American heartland in decades. It’s architecturally ambitious, a sinuous construction of concrete and glass perched over a wandering creek and pond. And the collection is astounding, filled with iconic works spanning U.S. history from the Colonial period to the near present. (In fact, Walton currently has curators scouring the country for undiscovered contemporary masters.) Wandering through the museum was like meeting celebrities from all eras in person. Imagine running into Chaplin, Hepburn, Poitier, Streep, and Beyonce, all at the same party. But in this case it was Sargent, Hartley, Warhol, Nevelson, and Baldessari, to name a few.
At the front desk, we picked up kids’ gallery guides, and my kids were off, searching for specimens. These games are great for keeping kids engaged, but if your kids are avid hunters, the pace can be brutal, and the interaction with art minimal. They did love the Lichtensteins, though, and recognized Warhol’s Dolly Parton from their participation in Books from Birth. When they finished, it was a relief to collapse in the family area, where we happily snipped snowflakes out of coffee filters.
Perversely, kids tend to cherish the experiences we don’t plan. Our older son found his happy place in Bentonville at the soda fountain in the original Walton 5 & 10, where he flipped through vintage comics as he sipped his chocolate malted. For my younger one, it was his spin on the skating rink by the hotel, where friendly locals took him under their wings. This rink becomes a spray park in the warmer months. In fact, there’s a lot to do here outdoors. In addition to exploring the region’s forests and mountains, you can take a bike ride on the wooded trails that encircle Crystal Bridges. As of this spring, you can borrow cruisers from the 21c, or rent from one of the local shops.
And then, you can return to your room, where a penguin and fragrant showers await you and your crew.
21c Museum Hotel Bentonville. Rooms start at $139 for a double queen. The hotel offers adjoining rooms, rollaway beds, and free cribs. They take pets, for a fee. Checkout is at 11, but when we asked the front desk for a couple of extra hours, they cheerfully acquiesced.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Admission is free. Open every day except Tuesday. Special tours and family events occur frequently, so check their calendar. If you visit in the spring, plan to explore the stunning grounds and trails. There’s a beautiful gift shop, too.
• The Pressroom, a short walk from the 21c, had excellent coffee, granola, and breakfast sandwiches.
• The Hive, in the 21c, does a fine traditional breakfast in its handsome space or will send it to your room.
Lunch and Snacks
• Eleven, in the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, serves salads, sandwiches, and simple kids’ fare. All of us loved our meal in this airy room filled with light reflected off the waterway below the glass-enclosed space.
• Crepes Paulette dishes out something for everyone, even the pickiest kids, from a food truck near the 21c en route to the museum.
• Walton’s 5 & 10 serves astoundingly inexpensive ice cream (it is a Walmart, after all), shakes, and sodas in a retro setting.
• Thai Kitchen, a short walk or drive from the town square, was peaceful, affordable, and quite good.
• Our kids enjoyed the lively scene at Tusk and Trotter, on the square near the hotel, though it’s more of a grownup place.