Bluebirds of Happiness | Terra Studios | Crystal Bridges

It's been a little over two years since we last visited Northwest Arkansas, and a lot has changed. Bentonville has grown and so too has Griffin, as you can see in the photo sliders above comparing May 2017 and September 2019.

Here's ten takeaways from a quick visit that had a lot of highlights:

10: Oark General Store

It takes a little bit longer to drive through the Ozark National Forest instead of taking Interstates 40 and 49, but it's worth it for the scenic views and the chance to stop at the Oark General Store. It's said to be the oldest continuing business of its kind in the state, and they make a mean burger.

9: Terra Studios

This whimsical artistic community full of trolls, dragons and the popular Bluebirds of Happiness will always be special to us since its labyrinth is where I proposed to Katie back in 2014. It's always fun to visit again, and it was especially cool to watch Griffin running around joyously through the winding, stone-walled maze where his parents got engaged.

8: An Airbnb in the heart of Bentonville

We debated hotel vs. Airbnb and waited until the last minute to make a decision, but we lucked out in getting this comfortable "bike bungalow" that had plenty of space, was nice but relatively toddler-proof and put us just a two-minute drive from the downtown square and Crystal Bridges.

7: A town built for bicycling

The Airbnb isn't technically on a bike trail, but it's a short ride from one along streets that aren't busy and are clearly marked to remind motorists to share the road. I was a little nervous about bringing my bicycle on such a long trip as I've only strapped it to my car for in-town rides previously. But I'm glad I did, because riding from the house to the nearby trails -- which take you through the forested grounds of Crystal Bridges, north to Lake Bella Vista and south to downtown and beyond -- were a real highlight of the trip. Here are a couple videos of trail rides along the museum grounds.

6: Magical murals

I've quickly become a fan of muralist Jason Jones after he painted two colorful, creative pieces along Little Rock's Main Street. I was especially interested to see his well-known Bentonville octopus mural, but I was also pleasantly surprised to see his work in downtown Fayetteville and also featured prominently in the Amazeum.

5: Crystal Bridges

This jewel of Northwest Arkansas never disappoints, has something for everyone and, as an added bonus, is completely free. I'm no aficionado of fine art, but it's kind of amazing that you can take a short stroll through the woods, walk in the front door and enjoy sculptures, paintings, interactive pieces, the museum's own unique and beautiful architecture and more. Its collection -- which even includes a Frank Lloyd Wright home that was taken apart piece by piece and then reconstructed here -- rivals that of museums in some of the biggest cities in the world.

4: An amazing Amazeum

Things you can do here include: getting behind the wheel of a Wal-Mart big rig, faux shopping at a full-service supermarket packed with pretend foods, pushing and pulling hand pumps to manipulate a conveyer belt of plush packages up one floor and back down again, climbing through the intricate caverns of a tree house-like structure, painting windows, playing with water currents in a special wet-zone, making silly faces on a camera tied to a video wall, building paths for balls to bounce down a wall and much, much more. Griffin didn't want to leave.

3: Orb

This orb, Buckyball by Leo Villareal, is technically part of Crystal Bridges, but I'm listing it separately because it's a real highlight on its own and it's best enjoyed at night when the museum is usually closed. That's OK, though, because it's situated at the very front of the complex and even after museum hours, it's easy to get there, sit in one of the comfortable wooden loungers and stare up at the orb's mesmerizing, ever-changing colors.

2: Patio dining

We ate lots of good food, but two highlights were Table Mesa and Tavola Trattoria on Bentonville's downtown square. Each had a few tables of outdoor dining, which were great to soak in the atmosphere from the square and also a good place to hold court with a toddler who is occasionally rambunctious, even (especially?) in fine-ish dining situations. In both cases, we weren't at risk of offending other patrons because we were the only ones outside -- likely aided in part by a local ordinance prohibiting alcohol outdoors.

So, we had to bypass drinks, but the food was worth the visits alone. At Table Mesa, I enjoyed a chicken-bacon-and-avocado wrap with a side of tortilla soup, though the highlight was actually the appetizer -- a basket of tortilla chips with freshly made salsa and guacamole. At Tavola Trattoria, we happened upon a Sunday night special where you get a family-style meal of salad, garlic bread and spaghetti for $25. The food was delicious and plentiful (we had enough left over for dinner the next night too) and Griffin enjoyed having a massive plate of spaghetti set out right in front of him.

1: Dickson Street booking

We ventured south to Fayetteville one night to check out Dickson Street and, especially, Dickson Street Books. It's an impressive store spread across numerous rooms with books stacked on floor-to-ceiling shelves. They have something for everyone, including Griffin, who picked out a Star Wars book. It's actually for kids a lot older than him, but telling him that convinced him above all else that it was the only thing he wanted. | © 2019