On a recent Sunday afternoon, more than 20 people filled the Jade Room in the Crow Collection of Asian Art in downtown Dallas. Many were shoeless and most shut their eyes, drawing the curtain on the displays of Qing Dynasty figurines.
At the front of the room, surrounded by a half-moon of cushions, John McKethan led the group in meditation. He encouraged the practitioners to focus on their breath and to clear their heads of spiritual pollution.
“Thoughts arrive from the Texas blue sky of our minds, like clouds,” said the Kadampa Buddhist teacher. “Watch the thought rise, look at it and allow it to dissipate and fall back into the clarity of the mind.”
The instructor congratulated us on our ability to concentrate amid such distractions as piped-in music (is that George Harrison singing My Sweet Lord?), the clickety-clack of heels and ringing cell phones. He told us to select a virtuous intention and focus on it. I trained all of my mental powers on how I was not paying a cent to quiet my mind.
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The Big D is a city of have-it-alls and not-so-muches. Based on its oil-slick surface, visitors might assume that they will need an AmEx Centurion Card and a personal hair sprayer to fully experience the Texas metropolis. But that ritzy image is as dated as Sue Ellen’s furs and frosted lips. The reality: free museums, free events, free peace of mind.
Before the New Year, Priceline revealed its 15 most affordable travel destinations for 2015. Dallas took the crown, outranking such unflashy cities as Salt Lake City and Minneapolis. The company based its findings on hotel prices, with Dallas’s daily room rate averaging $86.
The city’s affordability and value extend into other pockets of travel as well. Competition among airlines, especially at the expanding Dallas Love Field airport, has beaten down fares. In addition, many cultural centers (Crow Collection, Dallas Museum of Art) have gratis admission, and several attractions (Nasher Sculpture Center, Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden) reduce their fees at select times, such as the first Saturday of the month or all of August, when the devil controls the thermometer.
“You get more bang for your buck in Dallas,” said Sally Peavy, a tour guide at Southfork Ranch, of Dallas fame.
Bucks stretch like Silly String here because of the generosity of absurdly wealthy people. Take Klyde Warren: I spent a long Saturday afternoon at this Texas prince’s park, which opened in 2012. I asked a local about Klyde and learned that he’s the tweenage son of Kelcy Warren, an energy magnate worth billions.
The 5.2-acre park swings and shouts with activity. In the Reading & Games Courtyard, folks browsed an outdoor loaner library stacked with magazines, books and newspapers. At a nearby kiosk, sets of friends signed out board games and athletic equipment, such as bocce and badminton. The park also hosts architectural tours, workouts (yoga, tai chi, boot camp) and such cross-species events as “Balance and Harmony with DogFit Dallas” and “The Secret Life of Pigeons.”
I arrived in time for “Instrument Petting Zoo With School of Rock,” a free-form jam session that lets participants unleash their inner Animal without upsetting the neighbors. I stood beside a guy waiting for a skyline tour. After several minutes, we realized that our respective leaders were not going to show — the hidden cost of free activities.
Across the lawn, I heard a promising sound and followed the notes to a group of pied percussionists banging away on conga, bongo, djembe and timbale drums. At their feet, a duffel bag overflowed with maracas, bells, shakers and tambourines. Without breaking their beat, the musicians encouraged the audience members to grab an instrument and join in.
“I wish I had had this when I was growing up in Dallas,” said George Cortez, who created the drum circle two years ago as a way to rehearse and share music with others. “The adults can’t contain themselves. That just tickles me.”
For the remainder of the afternoon, the music followed me like distant thunder. I heard the rumble as I scanned the menus of nearby food trucks and crossed the street to the Dallas Museum of Art. At the information counter, I grabbed a free map of Public ArtWalk Dallas and headed back outside.
The 3.3-mile self-guided walk starts at the Nasher Sculpture Center, opposite the park. The route encompasses 30 pieces of art and architecture that transform the Arts District and downtown area into a cultural scavenger hunt. Some of the sights are easy to spot, such as I.M. Pei’s Fountain Place, a box-cutter-shaped skyscraper, and Pegasus, a neon red winged horse leaping over the Magnolia Hotel. Others, such as the First Baptist sanctuary (est. 1890), are more quiet and mousy, barely squeaking their presence.
At Philip Johnson’s Thanks-Giving Square, I came across a group of South Americans searching for a mall. I steered them toward ArtWalk stop No. 23, the oldest Neiman Marcus, built in 1914. I logged several more stops before suspending the tour at the Adolphus Hotel. No. 14 was my bed for the night.
COMING UP FLOWERS
At the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, where the high season of blooming was still some time away when I visited, a volunteer at the visitors desk suggested following the Paseo de Flores path that parallels White Rock Lake and leads to a stream of water that rushes over boulders and collects in a pool. She recommended the view from the bottom, looking up, a more dramatic vantage point.
I took a map, which provided the names and locations of the attractions, but it read more like a phone book than a field guide. I needed a knowledgeable escort who could tell me about the peeling bark of the crape myrtle and correct me when I imagined roasting ornamental kale for dinner.
Guides drive trams through the upper portion of the 66-acre garden and offer a running commentary of the arboretum, which opened in 1984. Rick Williams, our guide and a certified master gardener, invited me to sit beside him in the front car, where I had a clear view of the husky squirrels playing chicken in the road. We started the tour at the All America Selections trial garden, a testing plot for new varieties of seeds. The viola sisters, Sorbet Coconut Swirl and Sorbet Ruby Gold Babyface, vogued at passersby. Farther up, we passed a Yaupon holly that was pruned like cumulus clouds and a grove of grafted pecan trees strong enough to survive the sticky alkaline soil. At Toad Corners, a child sat on one of the four bronze sculptures squirting water. A sign warned guests to not mount the giant amphibians, but Rick admitted that enforcing the rule was impossible, especially during the habanero-hot months.
We turned around at the entrance to the Rory Meyers Children’s Adventure Garden, a floral learning center that opened in 2013. On the return, we slowed at the Lay Family Garden, a 2.2-acre swatch of perennials, woody plants and a koi pond. Through tall shrubs, I eyed a waterfall cascading over a grotto, a Paradise Found in northeastern Texas.
“Do you have any free samples?” I asked a security guard inside the headquarters of a multibillion-dollar global company north of Dallas.
It seemed like a perfectly reasonable request, considering the name on the front door: Mary Kay. Unfortunately, he didn’t, but as a consolation prize, he invited me inside the ground-level museum, a showcase of cosmetics spanning more than a half-century.
In 1963, the Texas entrepreneur started selling makeup in a small storefront in Dallas with only $5,000 to support her dream. Mary Kay Ash debuted the Beauty by Mary Kay collection with four skin-care products and a foundation.
The museum is basically a shrine to the cosmetics queen, who died on Thanksgiving Day in 2001. Leadership awards and newspaper and magazine clippings touting her accomplishments paper the walls. Several tall cases display her gowns, many decorated with a supernova explosion of sparkles.
I exited the museum through the Independent National Sales Directors Hall of Honor, a portrait gallery of the ladies who occupy the top of the pink pyramid. These women, I learned, earned millions off Citrus Flirt lipstick, Beach Blonde eye color and age-fighting moisturizer. The Philosophy of Mary Kay taught me that I can go far on perseverance, dedication and strong eyebrows.
At nearby NorthPark Center, one of the most affluent shopping centers in the country, I went on an art-finding mission. Developer Raymond Nasher unveiled the retail center in 1965. He filled the space with high-end stores as well as artworks from his personal stash. The most esteemed museums in the nation coveted his collection, and yet here were 10 Andy Warhol silk-screen prints near the mall’s restrooms and a bronze Jim Dine sculpture outside Victoria’s Secret.
The art adventure began in the parking lot. Through my car windshield, I could view Barbara Pepper’s “Dallas Land Canal (Dallas Hillside),” a series of steel triangles bursting through the grassy median. Inside the mall, I cut through Neiman’s and gazed at a pair of abstract paintings by Charlotte Smith in the men’s department and a floaty white sculpture by Hans Van de Bovenkam at the Sisley makeup counter. After checking out Jacopo Foggini’s resin light sculpture, I squeezed some Kiehl’s lotion onto my hands and headed to the main section of the mall.
At the concierge desk, an employee printed out a copy of the five-page, 34-piece art tour. While other visitors shopped for Louis Vuitton wallets and Tod’s moccasins, I watched Jonathan Borofsky’s motorized Five Hammering Men hack away at an invisible nail and inspected the crayon-and-glitter construction of Frank Stella’s Washington Island Gadwall.
The front desk attendant and I bonded over bad TV.
I was staying at the Southfork Hotel, which offers a Dallas-theme package, and had spent most of the night watching reruns of the legendary show. I had to admit, I was bored. After learning the identity of J.R.’s shooter (twice), the thrill was gone.
The employee and I agreed: Dynasty was far superior; Fantasy Island was disturbing. Yet minutes later, as I drove through the Southfork Ranch gates, I grew increasingly excited about seeing the home where the Ewing clan loved and hated and threw barbecue parties.
A tractor-pulled tram transports guests to the estate, which a guide called the “second most-famous White House in America.” Sally, who wore a gray sweatshirt dominated by J.R’s face, explained to our group of three that the house was originally part of a quarter-horse farm built in 1970 by Joe Duncan. Hollywood came a-knocking in 1978, after a previous filming location fell through.
When J.R. received the “Whodunit?” bullet in 1980, grief-stricken fans flocked to Southfork. They left flowers and cards, swam in the pool and took photos of the sleeping Duncans. The family, exhausted by the attention, left Southfork forever in 1984.
Rex Maughen, who runs Forever Living Products (aloe is his oil), currently owns the property, along with the companion hotel. He remodeled the inside of the Ewing Mansion to reflect the spirit of the characters. So Lucy’s room is bedecked in a girly motif of yellow roses and bluebonnets, and Bobby’s Western crash pad is dressed in patriotic colors, moose antlers and a headboard branded with the ranch’s logo.
After the house tour, Sally encouraged us to stroll around the nonworking ranch, where American paint horses and Texas longhorns still roam. She directed us to Elena’s Cottage, a setting in the Dallas reboot; Jock’s 1978 Lincoln Continental, which is parked inside a clothing boutique; and a faux cemetery with three headstones. She quoted the epitaph over J.R.’s grave: “The only deal he ever lost.”
In the small museum, surrounded by TV history, I started to warm to the show. “Fan” was pushing it, but let’s just say I was an admirer. And to demonstrate my newfound respect, I enthusiastically accepted the free souvenir magnet from the hotel that, without question, was part of the Dallas deal I had won.
Going to Dallas
Getting there: American flies nonstop from Miami to Dallas-Fort Worth; American and Spirit fly nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas-Fort Worth; Southwest flies nonstop from Fort Lauderdale to Dallas Love Field, a trip of about three hours and 15 minutes. Roundtrip fares start around $106 from Fort Lauderdale, $184 from Miami. A number of airlines fly there from either South Florida airport with a connecting flight and longer trip times.
WHERE TO STAY
The Adolphus, 1321 Commerce St.; 214-742-8200; www.hoteladolphus.com. A grand historic hotel opened by St. Louis beer magnate Adolphus Busch in 1912. Popular for its afternoon tea and Old World decor. Rates from $189 a night.
Southfork Hotel, 1600 N. Central Expressway, Plano; 972-578-8555; www.southforkhotel.com. The hotel features “Dallas” photos and memorabilia and reruns on TV. Rooms start at $92; the package (from $114) includes breakfast, tour tickets to Southfork Ranch, shuttle and gift.
WHERE TO EAT
EatZi’s, 3403 Oak Lawn Ave.; 214-526-1515; eatzis.com. Every night at 9, the gourmet market (several locations) offers a buy-one-get-one-free deal on select meals. Sample dishes: grilled salmon dinner for $14, chicken fajita dinner for $10, dragon sushi rolls for $12.
Kalachandji’s Restaurant and Palace, 5430 Gurley Ave.; 214-821-1048; www.kalachandjis.com. Vegetarian buffet serves dishes based on ancient Vedic literature. Hot buffet with salad bar: $11 “donation” for lunch, $14 dinner.
El Ranchito, 610 W. Jefferson Blvd.; 214-946-4238; elranchito-dallas.com. Restaurant specializes in Tex-Mex and Comida Norteño food. Mariachi bands perform daily. From $8.
WHAT TO DO
Crow Collection of Asian Art, 2010 Flora St.; 214-979-6430; www.crowcollection.org. Free museum is open Tuesday-Sunday. Many tours and activities, such as meditation .
Klyde Warren Park, 2012 Woodall Rodgers Fwy.; 214-716-4500; www.klydewarrenpark.org. Downtown park offers dining, plus free cultural and sporty activities. Check the online calender for events. Open daily.
Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, 8525 Garland Rd.; 214-515-6515; www.dallasarboretum.org. Check the Web site for special discounted days (regular admission $15); for discounted $8 parking (regular $15), book online.
Mary Kay Museum, 16251 Dallas Pkwy., Addison; 972-687-5720; www.marykaymuseum.com. Learn about the life of the cosmetics queen at the free museum. Open weekdays.