HAPPY WANDERER: Hot Springs, Arkansas


HILLS NEWSPAPERS  June 5, 2009

I TOOK A BATH recently and had the government to thank. If Congress hadn’t PICT0008stepped in to protect Hot Springs, Ark., in 1832, I would have been left high and dry on a recent visit. Instead, I had one of the most enjoyable spa vacations in my 50 odd years on this planet.

Let me say first that California has nothing on Arkansas when it comes to bathing rituals. Before there was even an inkling of a Golden State, the Golden Age of Bathing was alive and well in Hot Springs. Folks with every imaginable ailment took the train to Hot Springs for the 4,000-year-old waters of 47 thermal springs bubbling up from the ground. Eight booming bathhouses each touted special treatments with the healing waters as the centerpiece. There was The Maurice, an elegant bathhouse done in Spanish and Italian Renaissance Revival; The Hale, a mission style spa with a signature red roof; and The Superior — “the everyman’s option” — a more affordable choice “in the day.”

Long since closed, the rub is these bathhouses are for lease today. If you’ve PICT0004ever thought of having your own spa, this may be the ticket. Hot Springs National Park has been restoring these three historic properties, which are right downtown on Bathhouse Row, and they’re ready to rent. Contact the superintendent for information at 501-623-2824. Now that I’ve done my public service, let me tell you a little about the town. On an afternoon when the sky was almost apocalyptic, I ducked into a diner called Bubbalou’s, across from Bathhouse Row. Two young guys were sitting at the counter sipping beer and watching the rain pelt the sidewalk outside. I wanted a glass of wine, which I’d seen advertised in the window next to a selection of milk shakes, dogs and burgers (an odd combination, but I wasn’t complaining).In talking to these guys, I came to find out they were from Northern PICT0014California and had just come from Buckstaff Bathhouse. They were raving about the treatment, which included an hour of exquisite tub time, a private attendant who scrubbed their backs and a Swedish massage — all for $55.

The Buckstaff has been offering that treatment since it opened in 1912. And although a lot of famous folks have soaked here, this is not the bathhouse Al Capone used to frequent. It’s on government property, after all, and he wouldn’t have taken that risk. The notorious gangster took his baths down the street at the Arlington Hotel, a grand palace that is still hosting guests today. The hotel buys thermal water from the National Park and pipes it into several of its rooms, its bathhouse and the drinking fountain in the lobby.

As for the assertion that the water is some kind of elixir, Uncle Sam makes no claims as to its healthful properties. But they lab test it often, and it’s PICT0002perfectly fine for drinking.

Meanwhile, Hot Springs National Park is living up to its federal mandate. It’s the only National Park in the country with free thermal drinking water, dispensed around town from six hot water fountains, 24/7. Folks use it for everything from ice cubes to coffee and they swear it’s the best beverage ever when chilled.

Hot Springs is Arkansas’s most popular resort town, with highly acclaimed spa properties such as the Mountain Harbor Resort and Lodge on Lake Ouachita (upscale cabins and one of the top-ranked spas in the nation). Dining is what you’d expect in a spa town, with eclectic offerings from celebrated chefs such as Paul Uher, owner of Chef Paul’s. And Arkansas is getting new acclaim as the home of the largest and most contemporary presidential library in the country — The William J. Clinton Presidential Library and Museum in nearby Little Rock. For more information, log on to www.arkansas.com.

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