Fly to Hot Springs, Arkansas, for a genuine old-world spa experience in a quaint and quirky Victorian town with a unique baseball history. Plus, you can go hiking, fishing, boating, and golfing; check out the old mansions and antique shops; wager at the horse races; and enjoy the night life.
The city is named for the 47 natural thermal springs on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain that deliver about a million gallons of 143-degree Fahrenheit water each day, rain or shine. The water that flows today fell as rain 4,400 years ago and then slowly percolated deep into the earth’s crust. This superheated water then rushes rapidly to the surface. Native Americans revered these waters for centuries and in 1832 they were designated a federal reserve (now a national park). The spa town of Hot Springs sprang up, elaborate bathhouses were built, and the parade of tourists began.
About that Alligator Farm and Zoo: Built in 1902, it still houses about 200 alligators, along with cougars, bobcats, ring-tailed lemurs, and more. Feed the animals in the petting zoo or watch as keepers feed the ‘gators. At the southern edge of Hot Springs, Lake Hamilton is the place for boating, fishing, or a cruise on the Belle of Hot Springs riverboat. Grab lunch at Gilligan’s and then explore Garvan Woodland Gardens, a 210-acre peninsula jutting into the lake. Beautiful bridges, waterfalls, lush landscaping, the Anthony Chapel, and an ever-changing kaleidoscope of flowers make this a must-see. In town, walk just a block off the main drag to see antique Victorian homes, a few of which remind me of the old Addams Family TV show house. Sleep in the elegant pink Wildwood 1884 Bed and Breakfast Inn and wake up to a sumptuous three- to four-course gourmet breakfast.
At the center of town is Hot Springs National Park. Bathhouse Row preserves the eight historic bathhouse buildings and gardens along Central Avenue. The Fordyce Bathhouse serves as the park’s visitor center. Built in 1915, the Fordyce was the last word in elegance. Start your self-guided tour via the antique elevator or pink marble staircase and prepare to be shocked when you see how bathing was then—sometimes literally shocking. The Buckstaff and Quapaw bathhouses are the only remaining operational bathhouses within the park, but only the Buckstaff offers the complete traditional bathing experience (without the shocks—see captions for details). It’ll relax you just north of a complete coma.
Shake it off via a short walk to the Grande Promenade, a half-mile brick walkway that overlooks Bathhouse Row. Hikers can tackle the 26-mile network of hiking trails that originate from the Grande Promenade. The Peak Trail goes up to the Mountain Tower, where you’ll find a picnic area, water, restrooms, and panoramic views.
Night life? You bet—just a few of the venues for live music and food are Low Key Arts, Maxine's, The Ohio Club, The Big Chill, and the Arlington Hotel. The Arlington is an Art Deco treasure—don’t miss the murals, Venetian dining room, and original bathhouse elevator, lined with beveled glass and shining brass and still manually operated. Arlington guests enjoy country club privileges and championship golf at the Hot Springs Country Club.
Special events dot the calendar including a free Hot Springs Jazz Festival in September, downtown Bathtub Races in spring, Big Barbecue Cookoff in spring and fall, World's Shortest St. Patrick's Day Parade every March 17, and the outdoor skating rink November to January.
Before you depart, fill a jug or two with hot spring water at one of the park’s “jug fountains.” That’s Hot Springs for you, a unique collection of old-time baths, a century-old reptile park, and rock and antique shops. Art galleries, kitschy mom-and-pop stores, and museums have replaced the casinos and brothels, but those magic thermal springs still beckon those who can’t help but get themselves into hot water.
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