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 (are those Choos?) and ringing cell phones (hey, you in the back, put it on vibrate). 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.
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 extends into other pockets of travel as well. Competition among airlines, especially at the expanding Dallas Love Field airport, has beaten down fares. In January, American Airlines offered flights for $117 round trip; Virgin America subtracted a Jackson and won my heart with its $97 fare. 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 over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway (Rodgers = former mayor). 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. For a brief moment, the drumming fell silent, only to be replaced by the cymballike chatter of museum-goers. At the information counter, I grabbed a free map of Public ArtWalk Dallas and headed back outside, releasing the pause button on the urban soundtrack.
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.
At the Dallas Arboretum and Botanical Garden, Rick Williams didn’t spritz his observations with the sweet scent of rose petals and lavender. He came straight out with it.
“This is one of the most non-pretty times of the year,” the guide told me. He repeated the comment two more times during our late-January tour.
In all fairness, the garden’s winter face wasn’t completely devoid of color. Beds of pansies and ornamental kale added a purple blush to its cheeks. Camellias as pink as ballet slippers perked up the wan landscape. Japanese maples reached for the sky like branch coral in a dry ocean.
The arboretum staff compensates for the muted hues with a special $5 admission through Feb. 27, a savings of $10. The high season occurs from late February to mid-April, when 500,000 tulip, daffodils and hyacinth bulbs wake from their sleep and spring to life. However, weeks before the big bloom, I could see the green tips poking out of the ground like tiny icebergs.
The 66-acre garden is easy to cover by foot, especially when the weather is in the 70s and you have a full tank of Vitamin D. At the visitors desk, a volunteer 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 property and offer a running commentary of the arboretum, which opened in 1984. Rick, 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 and is currently undergoing maintenance. On the return, Rick slowed at the Lay Family Garden, a 2.2-acre swatch of perennials, woody plants and a koi pond. The garden is closed for a redesign but will return for the Dallas Blooms floral festival this month. 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 boxy set featured matronly packaging and SMS spelling. Super Nite Cream — so millennial of Mary Kay.
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. Videos reveal moments from the company’s annual seminar, a combination pep rally and beauty pageant, with a dash of cultlike hagiography.
Her quotes appear throughout the museum, and I reacted to them with a mixture of amusement and consternation. I embraced many of the items on her “we love” list, including singing out loud, laughter, high heels and determination, but nearly popped a vein when I read, “No woman need ever look 40!” (Was the exclamation point really necessary?)
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.
NorthPark Center, one of the most affluent shopping centers in the country, attracts more of a Tory Burch woman than a Mary Kay gal. But I wasn’t there to femme-watch, or even shop; I was on an art-finding mission.
Developer Raymond Nasher (a familiar name, by now) unveiled the retail center in a 97-acre cotton field 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.
“If you walk this mall from Neiman’s to Nordstrom,” said a Neiman Marcus salesman, “you will see lots of art.”
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.” Halfway through the list, I grabbed a coffee at Corner Bakery (don’t judge; the company is based in Dallas) and experienced the subversive sensation of viewing priceless art while holding a potentially damaging liquid.
I strayed from my purpose, to be honest. On my quest to find Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure,” I ventured into Macy’s for “directions” — and ended up staying awhile.
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 (1978-91, 2012-14). 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. The Duncans allowed the cast to use their residence for costume changes, but only during the sweltering summer months. The “Dallas” site (actually, the city of Parker) appears in exterior shots; the interiors were shot three states away, in Culver City, Calif.
When J.R. received the “Whodunit?” bullet in 1980, grief-stricken fans flocked to Southfork to express their concern and offer their support. 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.
The one exception to no-indoor-shooting took place in 2013, a year after actor Larry Hagman’s death. Sally took us upstairs to see how the former bedroom hallway had been transformed into the seedy Hotel Colon in Mexico. Miss Ellie’s room was now the scene of the crime. A bloodstain on the wood floor and chalk outline marked the spot of J.R.’s murder.
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.
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1321 Commerce St., Dallas
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 $143 a night.
1600 N. Central Expressway, Plano
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.
3403 Oak Lawn Ave., Dallas
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., Dallas
Vegetarian buffet serves dishes based on ancient Vedic literature. Hot buffet with salad bar: $11 “donation” for lunch, $14 dinner.
610 W. Jefferson Blvd., Dallas
Restaurant specializes in Tex-Mex and Comida Norteño food.Mariachi bands perform daily. From $8.
Crow Collection of Asian Art
2010 Flora St., Dallas
Free museum is open Tuesday-Thursday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Friday-Saturday, 10 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday, noon-6 p.m. Many tours and activities, such as meditation (Sundays at 2 p.m.).
Klyde Warren Park
2012 Woodall Rodgers Fwy., Dallas
Downtown park offers dining, plus free cultural and sporty activities. Check the online calender for events. Open daily 6 a.m.-11 p.m.
Dallas Arboretum and
8525 Garland Rd., Dallas
Open daily 9 a.m.-5 p.m. $5 through Feb. 27 (normal fee is $15). For discounted $8 parking, book online. Check the Web site for other special discounted days.
Mary Kay Museum
16251 Dallas Pkwy., Addison
Learn about the life of the cosmetics queen at the free museum. Open 9 a.m.-4 p.m. weekdays.