Hit the big time

It was just five days before the most powerful man in the world was coming to town. The best works of art were being frantically plucked from two public and five private collections across the city to adorn the rather plain walls of the Will Rogers suite on the 13th floor of the then Hotel Texas. The daughter of notable publisher Amon Carter, Ruth Carter Johnson, was tasked with gathering some of the world’s most prized works of art, strapping pieces by such artists as Van Gogh, Monet and Picasso into the front seat of her car underneath a seatbelt to transport to the hotel in Fort Worth, Texas.

On the morning of 22 November 1963, the First Lady of the United States, Jacqueline Kennedy, noticed the works of art and the catalogue which had been printed in their honour, having arrived fatigued the previous evening. “Isn’t that sweet Jack?” the First Lady reportedly said to her husband, President John F. Kennedy. “They’ve just stripped their whole museum of all their treasures to brighten up this dingy hotel suite”. In gratitude, the pair decided to phone the first person listed in the catalogue, Mrs J. Lee Johnson III who would receive the last ever phone call made by the President – within hours, he was shot in Dealey Plaza Dallas in the same spot where the city of Dallas had been founded in 1841.

Despite the inescapable association of Dallas with the events of that November day over 50 years ago, it is the warm-hearted and hospitable nature of the Fort Worth and Dallas locals which lives on – as does a highly impressive arts culture. You may associate Dallas with cowboy boots, Tex Mex food, the Depository building or even J.R Ewing from the TV series Dallas, but in the ninth largest city in the US, there’s a surprising amount to be uncovered by the discerning luxury traveller. The city, in particular downtown, has reinvented itself with a growth in urban development that has seen hotels, restaurants and infrastructure burgeon. Close by, Fort Worth, just a 35-minute drive by car, is the fastest-growing city in the United States.

Dallas/Fort Worth airport is the world’s fourth busiest airport and presents a gateway to another 50 US destinations. Qantas flies direct on a 15-hour flight, recently introducing its A380 on the route, the world’s longest – so there’s every opportunity for Australians to access these two cities and their contrasts. A concentration of wealth in Dallas and also Fort Worth sees some 20 Dallas-Fort Worth residents among the 400 richest Americans, according to the Forbes 400 list of The Richest People in America.

Accordingly, the stay and play options are suitably geared to wealthy travellers. Art galleries, cigar lounges, wine bars, star-rated restaurants, spa treatments, premium shopping and natural attractions are just some of the reasons to get a little lost in Dallas where they like to say, “Big Things Happen”. The city had become the financial hub of the south very early, at one time being the third largest producer of cotton in the world. Almost a country unto itself, Texas is the only US state that has ever been an independent country – The Republic of Texas existed from 1836 to 1846. 

There’s no attempt to hide the historic events of that fateful day on 22 November 1963 but nor has the city, to its credit, tried to sensationalise it. The John Fitzgerald Memorial in the West End Historic District in Downtown Dallas was erected in 1970 and designed by noted architect Philip Johnson. The cenotaph complied with Jackie Kennedy’s wishes for something stark yet simple.  It’s a moving and serene place to visit and at night, specially designed lighting provides the illusion that the structure is ‘floating’ above ground.

Within walking distance is Dealey Plaza. My local tour guide, Rebecca Koenigs from Discover Dallas says that many visitors often comment they feel the setting is so familiar – as the film footage of the shooting has been so engraved in our consciousness. The Book Depository building is where the alleged assassin Lee Harvey Oswald, using a rifle he purchased by mail order for $12.78 from Chicago, fired his fatal shots from the sixth floor. The excellent Sixth Floor Museum has a discrete entrance at the rear of the building. Allow at least two hours here among the 500 daily visitors for a fascinating look into JFK’s Presidency and a snapshot of 1960s America. In Fort Worth, another memorial stands outside the former Texan Hotel (now a Hilton Hotel) where the President spent his last evening surrounded by that prized local art collection.

The vision that the Kennedy’s had for a culturally-enriched America seems to have found its embodiment in The Dallas Arts District – the country’s largest urban arts district spanning 19 blocks. World-renowned museums offer a large range of free activities all within walking distance with such spaces as the Winspear Opera House, the Nasher Sculpture Centre with its tranquil sculpture garden and the Crow Collection of Asian Art. A new addition to the district is the Klyde Warren Park which connects the arts district to downtown with lawn games and an outdoor library.

The smell of leather, the sounds of country and western and the tastes of local Texan Shiner beer greet visitors at Wild Bill’s Western Store. Owner “Wild Bill” exudes the true Texan entrepreneurial spirit when he truthfully declares, “If you got the money honey, I got the time”. Bill has been making boots and hats since he was 11 years old and was responsible for providing custom-made hats and boots to the original cast of the TV series Dallas. Today, he welcomes stars such as Chuck Norris, Elton John and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Just be warned, you may not get out of here without pledging your allegiance to Bill and Texas – nor without noticing the “We don’t dial 911” slogan t-shirts and magnets with guns and a map of Texas.

Boots for Scootin’

Elegant building facades and frontages stand proud in the downtown district – where clothing retailer Neiman Marcus, founded in 1907, is still the best place in Dallas for upmarket and exclusive retail therapy. The other investment opportunity the Marcus family considered at the time, but ultimately rejected was the “unknown” soft drink Coca-Cola.  At NorthPark, a premium shopping outlet, you can also find Neiman Marcus along with Gucci, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Valentino, Cartier and Kate Spade. 

Dallas locals claim the Margarita cocktail, made from tequila, triple sec and lime or lemon juice, was invented in a bar on Greenville Street. The exact origins of the cocktail are disputed but today, any Dallas bar worth its salt serves a decent Margarita. A stylish version can be enjoyed at CBD Provisions Restaurant at the contemporary The Joule Hotel in Main Street. You can sip drinks and tapas as you overlook the hotel’s art exhibition site right across the road where art installations are regularly rotated. At the time of my visit, a giant eye by multimedia artist Tony Tasset was in direct view. Cigar and rum enthusiasts might wish to venture to The Havana Social Club Cigar and Rum Bar in Olive Street – with a selection of fine cigars and rums – and reportedly one of the best mojitos in Dallas.

You won’t need to drink on an empty stomach – because food is another Big thing that happens here. After taking in 360-degree views of the city and beyond from the GeO Deck of Reunion Tower, you can dine in the Cloud Nine café or the more upmarket Five Sixty, both by Wolfgang Puck and overlooking the entire city. For other star-rated Dallas restaurants, venture to The Mansion, Stampede 66 by Stephan Pyles for modern Texas cuisine; and also Barter, the 2014 winner of Tastemaster Awards Best New Restaurant.

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