Published: Jan/Feb 2004

Before You Go
For more information, contact:

• Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, www.hotsprings.org, 1-800-SPA-CITY (800-772-2489).

• Eureka Springs City Advertising and Promotion Commission, www.eurekasprings.org, 1-866-947-4387.

To plan your Arkansas’s springs trip, stop by your nearest AAA service office for maps, reservations, TripTiks and TourBook guide

Soak it up
Arkansas’s Springs are a balm for your mind and body.

By Barbara Gibbs Ostmann

Before your New Year’s resolutions to get fit and healthy start to crumble, give your resolutions–and yourself–a boost with a wellness getaway to one of Arkansas’s famed healing springs.

Visitors in the 1800s who flocked to Hot Springs and Eureka Springs put up with arduous transport to get to these hill towns and sometimes lived in muddy camps when they got there just to have a chance to take the waters.

Today, there’s no need to rough it. Both towns offer historic hotels, charming inns, top-notch restaurants and shopping, plus a variety of spas, baths and treatments.

The two towns are based on mineral springs that were known and revered by the American Indians long before white men found this resource. The springs were considered neutral ground where enemies would put down arms and soak in peace in the therapeutic waters.

Both towns are nestled amid mountains in areas so scenic that perhaps the views are part of the cure. Both experienced big boom times, followed by a lull or decline, and now have rebounded with renewed vigor and lots of renovation and restoration. And both offer a myriad of ways to relax, refresh, rejuvenate and renew you.

A National Park in town

Although Yellowstone became the country’s first national park in 1872, the local folks like to argue that Hot Springs was really the first. In 1832, Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation to protect the resource, the earliest site to receive federal protection. In 1921, it was renamed Hot Springs National Park, the 18th federal park in the nation.

First-time visitors may marvel that the heart of an urban area is also the centerpiece of a national park. The west slope of Hot Springs Mountain, where the springs are, is the backdrop for Bathhouse Row, the park’s signature attraction. Several bathhouses, built from 1911 to 1939, line Central Avenue, the city’s main thoroughfare.

Stroll down Bathhouse Row and spend at least an hour at the restored 1915 Fordyce Bathhouse, which is the park’s visitor center. See the 8,000-piece stained-glass ceiling and bronze fountain sculpture in the men’s bath hall, the wood-paneled gym, the treatment rooms and the elegant assembly rooms with billiard table, piano and stained-glass ceiling. The interpretive displays on the development of the springs as a tourist destination for medicinal bathing offer a revealing glimpse of yesteryear’s high society and what it would have been like to come take the waters during the city’s glory days as America’s foremost spa. Don’t miss the 17-minute film, “Valley of the Vapors.”

The park includes 5,500 acres, much of which is preserved in a natural state to protect the springs’ recharge area. There are 30 miles of hiking trails, all within a few minutes’ drive of downtown. The 216-foot Hot Springs Mountain Tower offers a bird’s-eye view of the area.

Of the 47 thermal springs, 45 have been capped, and their water–an average of 850,000 gallons a day–is pooled together and administered by the park service. At the open display spring north of Bathhouse Row, visitors view the steamy hot waters as they cascade down the mountainside.

The only operating bathhouse inside the park is the 1912 Buckstaff. Pick up a list of other bathing facilities at the visitor center and purchase a bottle to fill with spring water from any of the jug fountains around town.

A traditional bath

Although not in the park, the Arlington Hotel and the Majestic Hotel offer the traditional bath experience using spring water provided by the National Park Service.

At the Arlington, Jodee Siebert, my bather/packer, greeted me with her friendly Southern drawl and led me through the paces. First came a peaceful soak in a hot whirlpool mineral bath, then a quick sweat in the steam cabinet, a visit to the pack room with wraps and hot packs, a bracing needle shower, a leisurely cool down, all topped off with an invigorating massage.

My 70-something masseuse, Dorothy Mae Reynolds, might look tiny and somewhat frail, but don’t be fooled. "The Terminator," as some of her clients jokingly call her, has been a massage therapist for 46 years.

Alternative therapies

The traditional bathhouse experience should not be missed, but other treatments are available.

For the adventurous and open minded, there’s Ish`Na, an American Indian spa and salon where Kerie Dunn, a registered Cherokee, and her husband, Walker Dunn, Chief White Eagle of the Neches Cherokee, practice the traditional tribal healing arts.

“We’re guided by the medicine ways,” said Kerie Dunn. “Much of what we do is ceremonial; it’s a spirituality.”

Their healing center includes a restaurant, gift shop, gallery and education center.

Yoga is another way to get in touch with yourself. Certified instructor Karen Smith offers yoga retreats at Peace Valley Retreat Center in nearby Caddo Gap several times a year. She plans to open a yoga center in the Hot Springs historic district early this year.

Combining nature and massage

About 25 miles west of Hot Springs, Mountain Harbor Resort boasts Turtle Cove Spa, which offers a luxurious spa experience in a beautiful setting on Lake Ouachita, the state’s largest lake.

First, I relaxed during a soothing facial ably administered by Cindy Neaves, then Sherrie Eden introduced me to hot-stone massage, which was followed by a salt scrub, steam aromatherapy treatment and Vichy shower in the state-of-the-art Thermal M machine. After your choice of treatments, you can head outside to fish, boat, swim or hike. During warm weather, you can have a wilderness massage outdoors in a secluded, airy gazebo.

“Everyone comes to a spa for different reasons,” said Debi Barnes, co-owner with her husband, Bill Barnes, of the resort. “If people have a goal, we’ll help them with it, but most people just want to relax.”

Eureka! I’ve found it

Known as both Little Switzerland and America’s Victorian Village, Eureka Springs lives up to both descriptions. Gingerbread houses are perched on steep hillsides and there are no square corners at any of the intersections in the historic part of town. A scenic drive along the winding Historic Loop passes renovated homes, several of the town’s namesake springs, and a bevy of shops, galleries, restaurants, hotels and spas. The entire downtown area is on the National Register of Historic Places, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation named Eureka Springs a Distinctive Destination in 2001.

The spa experience

Where to begin your spa experience in a town that is brimming with options? The 1886 Crescent Hotel and Spa is perhaps the best known. The hotel, which has been a cancer hospital and female college during its various lives, was bought in 1997 by Elise and Martin Roenigk, the same year they bought the nearby 1905 Basin Park Hotel, in the heart of the Spring Street business district. The Crescent is a registered National Trust Landmark and a National Trust Historic Hotel.

At the Crescent’s New Moon Spa, masseuse Sara Bough gave me a Swedish massage with aromatherapy and a moisturizing facial with eye pads. A new bridal salon is scheduled to open this spring, offering hair and nail care and plenty of pampering for the bridal party.

At the Basin Park Hotel, the Serenity Day Spa offers Swedish, deep-tissue, aromatherapy and hot stone massages, manicures, pedicures and special nail treatments for girls ages 2 to 12.

For a traditional bathhouse experience, don’t miss the historic Palace Hotel and Bathhouse. Sitting in the antique, wood-barrel steam cabinet with eucalyptus-scented steam billowing around me, I viewed brilliant fall foliage in front of me with the Christ of the Ozarks statue towering above it all.

Far Eastern sensibilities

At Suchness Spa in the historic New Orleans Hotel on Spring Street, Catherina Bernstein has created an oasis of Far Eastern mood, music and massage. Bernstein and her two associates, Tyler Krier and Sandra Drake Smith, performed a combination of Swedish massage and Thai stretches plus an energy ritual involving crown and root chakra (head and foot work). The two therapists worked in tandem, all accented by gentle gongs on a "singing bowl." It was an intense, almost spiritual experience. Don’t miss it.

Whether or not the spring water is actually therapeutic, taking the time to slow down and relax is. So brush off those resolutions and start afresh with a wellness weekend at one of Arkansas’s rejuvenating springs.

Barbara Gibbs Ostmann is a contributor from Gerald, Mo.


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