Hot Springs, Arkansas: A spa town with a difference
Article & Photography By Johanna Read, TravelEater.net
I was so looking forward to this trip. Who wouldn’t want to go to a town so famed for its relaxing thermal mineral waters that it is named Hot Springs? But I was surprised by how much more Hot Springs has to offer.
Both the town and the national park are named Hot Springs. One side of the town’s main street is in fact inside the park. Like in most national parks, you can hike, mountain bike and enjoy forested trails and wonderful views. Unusually, you can tour historic buildings and get a massage too.
The earliest bathers soaked up the soothing waters under the sky. By the mid 1800s, bathhouses became the preferred location. Soon Hot Springs’ bathhouses were grand edifices rivaling those of European spas. Today you can visit many of these restored buildings along Bathhouse Row, and even “take the waters” in two of them.
Many claim the water from the 47 different hot springs is healing. Until just a few decades ago, physicians would recommend their patients come to treat ailments from rheumatism to syphilis. It became so popular that the government eventually provided a clinic with a free bathhouse, so that people of any income could follow their doctor’s advice.
As medical science evolved, the popularity of the baths waned. Today there’s no scientific evidence of health benefits from the springs. But I can vouch that lazily soaking in a pool of hot water (where phones are not allowed) is an excellent treatment for our hurried modern way of life.
The spring water is also delicious to drink. Filling stations line the edges of the national park welcoming you to fill a jug with Hot Springs’ perfectly neutral pH7 water, all for free. Unlike most water from thermal springs, there is no iron or sulphur. The water comes out of the ground at about 62°C and doesn’t need treatment to make it safe to drink. Many believe that drinking the water is good for you too.
The Quapaw Baths & Spa feature four mineral pools at varying temperatures. At Quapaw, you can add on massages, body treatments and facials, plus visit the steam cave. The cave feels like a combination of sauna and steambath. I sat on a cedar bench in the man-made cave, designed to gather the heat coming off the underground springs below. While I didn’t see clouds of steam, I very quickly felt the moist therapeutic heat. I ended my 20-minute session relaxed and well-glistened (a lady glistens, not sweats, in the South).
Lots to do
After soaking up the waters, drive just out of town to the Garvan Woodland Gardens. I strolled through ever-changing gardens featuring waterfalls and hundreds of thousands of tulips and daffodils. Kids (and kids-at-heart) delight in the exploration cave, crawdad hole and maze. Architecture fans marvel at the glass walls and angles of the 6-story Anthony Chapel, designed by Maurice Jennings and Fay Jones. I was enchanted by Garvan’s resident peacock. He loves to show off his full plumage whenever anyone points a camera at him. You’ll need a keener eye to spot Garvan’s other 70 bird species.
The Hot Springs area is full of attractions for a week of family fun. Watch thoroughbred racing at Oaklawn Park, ride a riverboat, go mini golfing and regular golfing, play laser tag, zipline, kayak, spend a day at the waterslides and the immense roller coasters at Magic Springs amusement park, visit the wax museum, and even an alligator farm. Tour the Gangster Museum to learn all about infamous mobsters like Al Capone and Lucky Luciano who used Hot Springs as a retreat.
Shoppers love the independent shops on Central Avenue selling art, antiques, vintage candy, uniquely flavoured popcorn and housewares. Pop into The Savory Pantry for artisanal chocolates, bitters, sauces and jams, and (my favourite) Lambrecht’s southern pecan toffee.
Food and drink
If you want to stay in a town for any length of time, you want there to be great food. Hot Springs does not disappoint.
More than a month after my visit, I’m still craving the pizza from DeLuca’s Pizzeria. Chef/owner Anthony Valinoti brought top pizza techniques from his native Brooklyn. He uses the best ingredients from Hot Springs, including the mineral water, for his classic and creative pies. His pizzas alone are enough of a reason to visit Hot Springs!
Craft-beer fans love Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery. In one of the old buildings on Bathhouse Row, they make beer on site using the national park’s spring water. They serve fantastic non-alcoholic root beer too, as well as lunch and dinner highlighting seasonal locally-grown products.
Famous for being Bill Clinton’s favourite barbeque joint, McClard’s Bar-B-Q serves 7000 pounds of hickory-smoked beef, pork and chicken weekly, all smothered in their secret sauce. This place is so popular they won’t even reserve a table for the Clintons (though they do get invited into the kitchen to eat there).
I learned the secret to eating southern pancakes at The Pancake Shop. The pancakes fill an entire dinner plate. To ensure my lap wasn’t covered in syrup, I followed the server’s instructions to cut a hole in the centre of the stack before filling it with butter and warm syrup. Delicious!
There’s live music every night at the Ohio Club, right on Central Avenue. This historic club dates to 1905 and is the only original club still open. During Prohibition, it was called the Ohio Cigar Store; if you knew the right password, you were allowed into the drinking and gambling area hidden behind the false wall. I spent a Wednesday night listening to The Hump Day Blues Band. If past bands were as good, it is no wonder that the Ohio Club was frequented by celebrities like Tony Bennett, Sammy Davis Jr, Babe Ruth, Al Jolson and Mae West.
Where to stay
History-buffs favour The Arlington, a “grand old hotel”. The hotel has views of the national park and Bathhouse Row, and famous guests like Al Capone (who had his own suite, complete with secret escape route) and home-town son Bill Clinton in the presidential suite. The restaurants serve classic dishes and the lobby bar innovative cocktails.
If you prefer more modern decor, choose The Hotel Hot Springs & Spa. Attached to the convention centre, this 14-story hotel was completely renovated in 2016. Its rooms are spacious and come with extras like a microwave and large mini-fridge. Breakfast with delicious biscuits and honey is included in rates.
Lookout Point Lakeside Inn is a boutique option just outside of town, on Lake Hamilton. With views of the lake, the Ouachita Mountains, and garden waterfalls, you’ll be sure to relax at this B&B.
Johanna Read is a Vancouver-based freelance writer and photographer specializing in travel and food. Follow Johanna on Instagram @TravelEaterJohanna and on Twitter @TravelEater. All her travel writing is at www.TravelEater.net.