How to spend 48 hours in Northwest Arkansas, from Bentonville to Fayetteville
I was less than an hour into my first trip to Arkansas when I saw someone's bare bottom.
- This wasn't intentional, on her part or mine. I simply, inadvertently, mistakenly, opened an unlocked bathroom door at Ozark Natural Foods in Fayetteville.
- We both yelped and said "I'm sorry" a hundred times in a span of a second, and I shut the door and staggered around the store, wondering what else I was in for on this adventure.
What happened next: Everybody else I saw was fully clothed, for one.
- But beyond that, our two-day tour with dream team Axios Northwest Arkansas authors Alex Golden and Worth Sparkman revealed a region that exceeds all expectations and, in this case, initial hiccups.
Why it matters: Bouncing from city to city, an outsider quickly realizes that Northwest Arkansas has a secret.
- It whispers through the neon "You belong here" sign in Bentonville, and the croissant at Onyx Coffee Lab in Rogers, and the coffeecake at Homegrown in Springdale, and the photos on the walls at Maxine's Tap Room in Fayetteville.
- It's a quiet understanding that each place is its own identity, but that the sum is better than any one of them alone.
At least, that's my takeaway.
The big picture: I live in Charlotte, North Carolina, but I've traveled throughout the South and written about the region for years. So many small cities are adversaries, and not just Friday nights on the football field. They often feel threatened by businesses or amenities their neighbors have, or feel taller based on what they have that a rival town doesn't.
- Northwest Arkansas gets it: Together, we're better.
What we ate and drank
Xuma Kitchens, Fayetteville: Tacos and the spiciest spicy margarita I've ever swallowed, and one I'd certainly come back for.
Maxine's Tap Room, Fayetteville: Worth and Alex shared stories — some personal, many others passed down secondhand and at least partially true — of how former owner Maxine Miller held court at the bar from the time she opened it in 1950 until her death at 82 in 2006.
- Every Southern town I've been to has had a Maxine, and a Maxine's, but few are left. Cherish this place, Arkansas.
Onyx Coffee Lab, Rogers: The entrance here alone is worth the drive. Natural light sprays in from above and onto hanging plants near the kitchen, creating a spa-like frame.
- The bacon, egg and cheese on a croissant breakfast sandwich massaged my stomach.
The HUB bike lounge, Bentonville: One of the top social gathering developments of the past decade is the growth of spaces where you can lose an entire day — coffee first, then lunch, then a happy-hour beer.
- We came to the HUB for lunch, but I'd go back for any of the others.
The Tower Bar, Bentonville: Cocktails with a view? Don't mind if we do.
Conifer, Bentonville: "Sweet potatoes have no business being this good" is how Alex put it. Completely agree. Conifer is as big city as it gets.
HomeGrown, Springdale: Our waitress recommended menu items her child asks her to bring home each day. Is there any higher praise than that?
- Zoom out: Beyond the incredible breakfast, though, Springdale caught my attention as a hardworking town, reinventing itself like so many other small, hardworking towns throughout the South.
- And, like in those, I’m certain it's a town with a bunch of untold stories inside.
What we saw and did
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art: This holds a special place in the art world, in that whenever I tell my more artsy friends that I visited, they're jealous. I like making my friends jealous.
A few of my favorite pieces inside this world-renowned museum:
- "Minutes are Painful" from Mark Bradford, with fading text from the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights.
- "Sick Puppy" by Norman Rockwell, because I have two little boys and a dog.
- "The Family" from Charlotte native Romare Bearden, a master of quiet moments.
- And, of course, the "Infinity Mirrored Room — My Heart is Dancing into the Universe," which editor Fadel Allassan says is one of those things "you have to experience in the flesh to understand."
Downtown Rogers: On our walkabout here, after seeing the incredible "Playard" and the museum for the Red Ryder BB Gun, I said aloud, "I think if I were to move to any of these towns, I'd choose Rogers." I have two little boys, after all.
- Worth, a staunch Fayetteville guy, was aghast but understanding.
The Ledger, Bentonville: Put your key fobs down, every other coworking space in America. The Ledger is hard to beat.
- The bike ramps! The coffee stations and flower cart! The bathrooms! (Yes, they're nice enough to mention.)
- The only downside: I'm not sure I got any work done, I was so amazed by all that coworking.
Ran and walked: Both mornings we were in town, I ran on the greenway at the heart of Arkansas' campus. A most peaceful journey, if not for those damn hills.
The bottom line: Northwest Arkansas is a hard to define, harder to picture, and hardest to believe, for many people like me who live several states away. But it sure stores a lot of wonder, friendliness, food and drink, and other fine surprises.
- All you have to do is knock.
- And, please, remember to knock.
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