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Arkansas' historic spa cityArkansas' historic spa city

Hot Springs, ArkansasHot Springs, Arkansas

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.

  • At the center of Hot Springs, Arkansas, Bathhouse Row preserves eight historic bathhouse buildings and gardens along Central Avenue. The historic Fordyce Bathhouse, far right, serves as the park’s visitor center. The magnificent twin-towered Art Deco-style Arlington Hotel, built in 1924, rises in the background. Photo courtesy Arlington Hotel.
  • The racing season at Oaklawn Park runs from mid-January to mid-April. The casino is open year-round. In 2015, a pair of victories at Oaklawn put American Pharoah on the path to becoming American Horse of the Year and the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years. Photo courtesy Arlington Hotel.
  • First opened in 1902, the Arkansas Alligator Farm & Petting Zoo will get you up close and personal with alligators large and small. You can even hold and feed the little ones yourself. Photo courtesy Arkansas Alligator Farm & Petting Zoo.
  • From the dynamic architectural structures to majestic botanical landscapes, Garvan Woodland Gardens offers fantastic photo opportunities at every turn. Pictured here is the Joy Manning Scott Bridge of the Full Moon. Photo by Mike Goad.
  • Some of the fun old Victorian architecture on Central Avenue. Photo by Dee Ann.
  • This historic home is on Park Avenue. Photo by Jimmy Emerson.
  • Wildwood Bed & Breakfast Inn sits just 1/2 mile from Bathhouse Row. Furnished with beautiful antiques, it provides luxury and modern conveniences in a casual and comfortable atmosphere. Wake up to a delicious 3- to 4-course breakfast, followed by a tour of the home that details the history of the original family and the unique architectural features. Photo courtesy Wildwood Bed & Breakfast.
  • The Assembly/Music Room at the historic Fordyce Bathhouse. Its patterned tile floor, stained glass ceiling and Knabe grand piano exude opulence. Built as a testimonial to the healing waters to which Mr. Fordyce believed he owed his life, it represents the "Golden Age of Bathing" in America, the pinnacle of the American bathing industry's efforts to create spas rivaling those of Europe. Photo by Rennett Stowe.
  • The Fordyce Bathhouse operated from 1915–1962, when it closed due to declining business. It remained vacant until reopening as the park visitor center in 1989. From the lobby's marble and stained glass transoms, to the marble partitions of the bath halls, to the stained glass ceiling in the Men's Bath Hall (shown here), you’ll see why the Fordyce Bathhouse was considered to be the best. Photo by Dee Ann.
  • Inside the Fordyce Bathhouse, the third floor houses a massive ceramic-tiled Hubbard Currence therapeutic tub. The full body immersion whirlpool was installed in 1938. You can watch a 9-minute movie that shows the traditional bath routine. On the second floor, the Electro and Mechano Therapy Room contains questionable “scientific” devices. Photo by Ken Lund.
  • The Fordyce provided for the well-being of the whole patron–body, mind, and spirit. It offered a museum where prehistoric Indian relics were displayed, bowling lanes and a billiard room for recreation, a gymnasium (shown here) for exercise, a roof garden for clean air and sun, and a variety of assembly rooms and staterooms for conversation and reading. Photo by Ken Lund.
  • At the Buckstaff Bathhouse, men’s and women’s facilities are on separate floors and each have locking lockers. All supplies and linens are provided to cover yourself Roman-style between your bathing stations (swimsuits optional). Well-trained staff hand you a cup of water and guide you through the process. Soak in a giant whirlpool tub filled with 4,400-year-old water, then sit in a sitz bath, open your pores in a steam cabinet, needle shower, wrap, and cool-down. Top it off with a loofah mitt scrub and a massage (manicures, pedicures, and facials also offered) and you’re deliciously good for nothing. Photo courtesy Buckstaff Bathhouse.
  • From the Fordyce Bathhouse, take this access stairway up to the Grande Promenade. Photo by Dee Ann.
  • Situated a level above Bathhouse Row, the Grande Promenade, a well-groomed brick path, historically allowed bathers to add walking to their list of salubrious Hot Springs activities. The entire Bathhouse Row area is a National Historic Landmark District that contains the grandest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America, including many outstanding examples of Gilded Age architecture. Photo by Ken Lund.
  • Original to the 1924 structure, the Venetian Dining Room is the place to see and be seen at the Arlington Hotel. The Venetian Dining Room is famous for its Friday Night Seafood Feast and award-winning Sunday Brunch. You can enjoy the music of pianist Lucky Keeton during Sunday Brunch. Photo courtesy Arlington Hotel.

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.

Not just tourists, though—in 1886, Cap Anson brought his Chicago White Stockings to Hot Springs and invented the concept of spring training. Other Major League Baseball teams soon followed. Well over 100 Hall of Fame players trained here, including Babe Ruth, who once hit a 578-foot home run that landed in the Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo. Today, 26 markers on the Hot Springs Baseball Historic Trail identify key baseball-related people and locations. Ruth frequented the speakeasies and bath spas, and gambled at Oaklawn Park, the horse racing track that opened in 1904. Illegal gambling flourished until 1967, luring gangsters like Al Capone. The only remaining gambling venue is Oaklawn Park; its January through April race season remains popular.

The Anthony Chapel, dedicated in 2006, rises nearly six stories at Garvan Woodland Gardens along Lake Hamilton. Built of native wood and glass, with a 57-foot ceiling, the brilliantly designed structure complements the surrounding wooded landscape and offers views of the changing seasons with floor-to-ceiling glass walls and multiple skylights that encourage sunbeams to dance across the impressive flagstone floors. Photo by Robert Rutkay.

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.

African Americans were the main workforce for the bathhouses in Hot Springs National Park and the city of Hot Springs, Arkansas. Before integration in the 1960s, due to local laws, they could not be customers in those bathhouses. If they wanted a bath treatment, they had to go to an African American-owned bathhouse. Photo courtesy NPS.

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.

Tulip Point at Garvan Woodland Gardens. Photo by Terry White.

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Crista Worthy

Crista V. Worthy

Crista V. Worthy has been flying around the United States with her pilot-husband Fred and their children since 1995, and writing about fun places to fly since 2006. She has single-engine land and sea ratings. Her favorite places to explore are the backcountry strips of Idaho and Utah's red rock country. She currently lives in Idaho and serves as editor of The Flyline, the monthly publication of the Idaho Aviation Association. To suggest future destination articles, send an email to [email protected]
Topics: US Travel

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