Labor Day Weekend in Hot Springs

Hello from Hot Springs! It’s the last long weekend of Summer 2014 and we decided to make the most of it with a little getaway to someplace we’ve never been — Hot Springs, Arkansas!

Hot Springs is a National Park that contains plenty of water, hiking trails, and some hot and steamy natural springs. Throngs of Americans flooded this area in the 1920’s in search of relaxation and the natural elixer found in the city’s many bathhouses. With the rise of antibiotic treatments, the public bathing business has taken a dive, leaving the city of Hot Springs itself with the vibe of a historic era — gone, but not forgotten.
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We hit the road on Saturday around 9 am and rolled into town around 3:30 PM. Our first stop was Garvan Woodland Gardens — home of St. Anthony’s Chapel and miles of hiking trails. We spent a few hours winding around the path, checking out the lake along with many streams and waterfalls.

Next, we went to dinner at the Bleu Monkey Grille, a casual restaurant right next door to our hotel. We both ordered fresh pasta and ate more than enough.

After a good night’s sleep at Country Inn and Suites (a hotwire deal) we headed downtown to check out the city. We went on a Duck Tour, which was a good way to get a lay of the land, but I don’t think either of us really shared in the guide’s humor. Regardless, ducks are a fun way to tour most anywhere — we saw the sights in town and enjoyed a tour around Lake Hamilton.
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Next, we did a little more hiking along the Grand Promenade — a paved walkway where well-to-do folks used to strut along like peacocks –showing off their fine fashions before or after indulging in the baths. Today, it’s still a nice nature path — filled with a variety of people in hiking gear. We stuck our hands in the HOT water — the streams steam like pots of boiling water. Stand close enough to the spring and you’ll get the same sensation you would get standing in a sauna. Perhaps it’s the power of suggestion, but I felt like my hands were extra soft after dunking them in the springs.

We at lunch at the Copper Penny Pub — an Irish bar with live music and hearty food. After lunch, we headed towards bathhouse row — a line of historic bathhouses, some of which are still in operation today. The first building hosted the National Park visitor center. In here, we both drank a cup of the spring water. The water is tasteless, but it contains large amounts of minerals including calcium and fluoride. Outside the bathouse, we noticed people filling bottles and jugs in the public spring taps. One man in particular, had a dozen 10 gallon jugs. Nice guy — he warned me that the water was hot. Hot? Really? Where are we right now?
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Anyway! The next bathhouse we toured had been converted into an art gallery. Local artists mostly focused on the city’s history. The building retained its original layout and materials, so it made for a very fancy antique bathroom feel.

Next, we entered Buckstaff Bathhouse- the only bathhouse that sustained continuous operation since 1912. I decided to give the public bathing scene a try. Joe Jackson opted to wait for me on the porch. Really, I had no idea what I was getting myself into. I’ve been to lots of spas in several different states, but this particular place prides itself in maintaing a historic bathing experience. Upon entering the spa, I put all my clothes in a locker and one of the attendants wrapped me up in a sheet toga style and led me to a waiting area to sit down. I felt like I had jumped in a time machine and ended up in a 1950’s hospital. Looking arond, most everything was white and there was no air conditioning. The air was humid and dozen’s of female staff scurried around with towels, guiding other sheet clad women from bathtubs to cooling tables.

The public bathing process has several stages. First, a 20 minute bath in a claw foot tub. After getting into the tub, the bath attendant covers you in a towel and then scrubs you down with a loofah. Pretty sure no one has given me a bath in really really long time — so this was very weird. And not what I expected given my other experiences in all the other spas in all the other states! The bath tubs have a metal motor that looks like it belongs in an antique store. The motor agitates the water and somehow, my towel got tangled up in it and the attendant had to come and help me get it out. Ahem — did I really pay for this bizarre experience? Yes, yes I did. Moving on. After 20 minutes, the bath is over and out you go to the cooling table. My legs were both packed with hot towels and I got an ice towel for my head. Next, you sit in a sitz bath — which is sort of like sitting in a sink. The water is hotter and it is supposed to help with lower back problems. Then, you go into a steam chamber, which is a metal box, filled with steam with a hole for your head to stick out. Finally a needles shower and a massage round out the whole experience. It’s a fun experience in that it’s historic, and relaxing, and other-worldly — people don’t do this anymore, except for the die-hards at Buckstaff who refuse to let their tradition die its potentially deserved death.

Next, we toured Fordyce Bathhouse which is the most ornate bathhouse. This building has been preserved to function as a museum focused on the heyday of bathhouses and public bathing. At the height of the bathhouse craze, Hot Springs gave nearly a million baths a year. Most bathhouses went of of business in the early 80’s. As an aside, all the bathing equipment pictured above is similar to everything I encountered at Buckstaff.
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After some snacks, we drove up a mountain to take in some scenic views. We rode up the mountain tower which had 2 observation decks. The top deck offered and open-air view and the lower deck was enclosed with a 360 timeline of the city’s history. For only 6 dollars a person, it was a steal of a deal for over an hour of fun.
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We ate supper and Perkin’s and we’re headed home tomorrow morning. Hot Spring has been a good experience — kind of like a little time capsule in the middle of Arkansas!

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