After a pre-Fat Tuesday warmup of parades and Carnival revelry, I joined a few friends on Lundi Gras to take the party on the road. Almost 1,500 miles later, we had put three historic hotels and a similar number of unique museums behind us.
While I don’t recommend day-tripping northward in near-blizzard conditions, all of our stops make worthwhile driving destinations for New Orleanians. And each had its own quirky charms for those of us who like the places we visit to echo our home town in terms of energy, creativity and entertainment value.
So here, for those planning getaways, are a trio each of museums and hotels to program into Google Maps the next time you get the itch for a road trip.
Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art
Bentonville, Arkansas, 661 miles from New Orleans (via Shreveport)
It’s hard to say whether the art or the architecture is more captivating at this mid-country gem built by Walmart heiress Alice Walton. Eight independent pavilions linked by glass atria wind through a landscape of waterways and hills, designed by architect Moshe Safdie and nestled in a ravine downstream from Crystal Springs. Exterior views last week encompassed snow and ice, in stark contrast to interior galleries filled with American art, arranged chronologically from Colonial to contemporary. Give yourself a day to wander in and out, and don’t miss the museum shop, one of the best of the genre. Coming in summer 2015 to the landscape: Frank Lloyd Wright’s 1954 Bachman Wilson House, being moved from its floodprone New Jersey location to a site on Crystal Bridges’ 120-acre grounds. Meanwhile, the special exhibit Van Gogh to Rothko, which opened last weekend and runs through June 1, features masterpieces by the title artists as well as Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, Andy Warhol and Salvador Dali.
Bonus: Bentonville is Walton worship country, with odes aplenty to Walmart founder Sam Walton. Head to the original Walton Five and Dime on the Bentonville downtown square for a gift shop ripped from the ‘50s and a museum that chronicles Sam’s rise to fame and fortune – including his office, preserved just as it was the day he died in 1992.
Delta Blues Museum
Clarksdale, Ms., 337 miles from New Orleans
When Clarksdale public library director Sid Graves started putting together blues memorabilia at the Myrtle Hall branch library in 1979, he’d take the exhibits home at night for security. The collection moved to the main library in 1981, but didn’t hit it big until nine years later, when ZZ Top guitarist Billy Gibbons took an interest. Gibbons made some “Muddywood” guitars from wooden boards taken from the cabin where Muddy Waters grew up, and sent them around the world to assist fundraising. The museum got new digs at the old Clarksdale railroad depot in 1999. The latest addition contains the original Muddy Waters cabin, moved here and restored. The airy museum interior is devoted to artifacts from an array of Mississippi blues musicians, from wall posters and paintings to cases containing stage costumes, guitars and more. The big event around here is the annual Juke Joint Festival, being held this year April 9-12. But live blues music can be sampled somewhere in Clarksdale virtually any night of the year.
Bonus: Don’t miss the Cat Head store in Clarksdale for blues memorabilia and one-of-a-kind finds. And Yazoo Pass has the best coffee in town.
B.B. King Museum and Delta Interpretive Center
Indianola, Ms., 278 miles from New Orleans
This state-of-the art museum dedicated to the life and music of blues great B.B. King opened in 2008. But it offers far more than a mere homage to one man: Through multi-media displays, videos, dioramas and interactive audio stations, the viewer learns about Mississippi Delta life in all of its stark reality. Life here was hard and unforgiving, and pushed many into the Great Migration to Chicago and beyond. There’s as much here to learn about black history, both pre- and post-Civil Rights, as music, and the journey is vastly worthwhile.
Bonus: Try the fried catfish and fried green tomatoes at the Blue Biscuit across the street. Hearing that we were from New Orleans, the owner sent us on our way with a box of her own special beignets – coated not only in the requisite powdered sugar, but also caramel and nuts.
The Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa
Hot Springs, Ak, 454 miles from New Orleans
You could argue that the Arlington is as much museum as hotel. The current hotel (which replaced previous structures dating to 1875) opened with the first of what would be many gala dinners on New Year’s Eve 1924. Al Capone stayed there, as did a host of well-heeled clients who came to the city’s Bathhouse Row to bathe in the natural hot springs touted for their medicinal properties. At the Arlington, one can still plunge into the thermal water spa ritual, which involves a 15-minute soak in a private tub, a hot towel wrap and a 20-minute massage ($70 for “the works”). The surroundings are straight out of a past era, with white-tile floors and aged copper faucets that surely are original. Although all of us were wary of the aging whirlpool motors plugged into the wall above each tub, the process was soothing and relaxing, and the attendants polished in spa procedures.
Bonus: As unlikely as it sounds, Rolando’s Ecuadorean restaurant across the street from the Arlington offers authentic and flavorful South American cuisine.
21C Museum Hotel
This four-hotel chain that started in Louisville, Kentucky, bills itself as a triumvirate of art, hospitality and cuisine. Judging by the 21C in Bentonville, it succeeds on all fronts. The contemporary American art changes quarterly and threads through the hotel, open 24/7 for perusal. During our stay, standouts included an art cart installation piece in the lobby that housed live pigeons and a coffee table filled with blowing sand. The Hive restaurant’s chef Matthew McClure was just named a 2015 James Beard Award semifinalist in the Best Chef South category, and with good reason: The unaffected but succulent menu ranges from pimento cheese with bacon jam to yellow corn grits with mascarpone to a 25-minute egg served atop tasso and black rice. There’s a friendly vibe here, evident in everything from smiling workers to the flock of waist-high green penguins that are moved around in whimsical ways. Want one to “dine” with you? No problem.
Shack Up Inn
The Shack Up Inn lives up to the name, if you put the emphasis on the first word. With a motto of “The Ritz We Ain’t,” what you see is exactly what you get. Accommodations are in sharecropper shacks that have been moved onsite and given appropriate names (Biscuit is located next to Gravy). You get indoor plumbing and heat and air with the corrugated tin roofs, cypress walls and mismatched vintage furnishings. On a desk in our Sky Shack two-bedroom “penthouse” suite was a Reader’s Digest – from 1964. Evidently, such authenticity is a lure: When we checked in, the manager was on a call from someone in London seeking a reservation.
Bonus: Rust is the restaurant here, housed in an old gin mill with enough geegaws on the walls to furnish a country flea market or two. The restaurant moved from downtown to these new/old digs last summer, and the down-home ambiance belies the decidedly upscale cuisine. Catfish comes sautéed on a bed of spinach risotto and specials get a beer (in this beer-only restaurant) pairing, with labels like Lazy Magnolia Southern Pecan pilsner.