In title: An aerial view of Hot Springs’ Central Avenue includes The Arlington Hotel.
Above: The thermal spring waters in Hot Springs have attracted visitors for centuries. Arkansas Parks & Tourism photos
Below: Belle Arti Ristorante owner and chef Joe Gargano offers guests outstanding Italian cuisine. Joan Elliott photo
If tranquility tops your list with invigoration a close second, Hot Springs, Ark., may be the ticket. You’ll find everything from healing mineral baths and beautiful parks to horseracing and gaming . . . but all at a slower pace than during other seasons. Fewer people are on trails or area lakes. Attractions may have different hours; Garvan Woodland Gardens on Arkridge Road, for example, is closed during January, but reopens in February.
Once you’ve checked into a hotel, you’ll want to stroll down Central Avenue, the main thoroughfare and heart of the historical district. You’ll find yourself gazing at eight turn-of-the-century bathhouses in Bathhouse Row, quaint shops, restaurants and art galleries that line the street, creating a quaint European ambience. The Fordyce bathhouse now serves as the visitor center.
Then swerve off Central and onto the Grand Promenade, a half-mile brick walkway through a portion of the National Park that leads to hiking and biking trails. Even though it’s winter, you can still experience temperatures in the 50s and enjoy a brisk walk along the scenic trails.
A bit of
Hot Springs, also known as Spa City, got its name from the healing waters that percolate deep underground and bubble up into 47 springs around town. The water’s journey, which literally takes 4,000 years, begins when rainwater seeps into porous rocks and tiny crevasses, dissolves minerals and is superheated under ground. Pressure forces it to spurt up quickly at about 145 degrees.
Native Americans, who called the area “the valley of the vapors,” believed the waters had healing properties, as did many early visitors who came with prescriptions from their doctors and expectations of healing such conditions as arthritis and polio.
Today, most folks enjoy the waters for relaxation. More than 700,000 gallons are collected each day to be used in bathhouses and public fountains. Levi Hospital, which specializes in treating arthritis, continues to use the water in its treatment pools. Some residents and visitors fill their jugs with mineral water from public fountains.
This quaint area in the Ouachita Mountains was once a haven for gangsters who hailed from Chicago, Las Vegas and New York and considered Hot Springs “neutral territory.” They came for baths, illegal gambling and horseracing. Al Capone, who ruled the Chicago underworld in the 1920s, retained a suite at the Arlington Hotel.
Let’s get back to No. 1 on your priorities list–tranquility. What could be more relaxing than a day of pampering at one of the city’s bathhouses? The Quapaw and Buckstaff are the only two remaining operational bathhouses on Bathhouse Row but you can get a variety of treatments–hot packs, facials, full body wraps, hot mud soaks or even Watsu (stretching while floating in warm water)–there or in dozens of other salons and spas around town. Some offer individual baths, while others have open pools of mineral water where swimsuits are required.
I spent an afternoon being pampered at Quapaw Baths and Spa, a Spanish-Colonial bathhouse originally built in 1922. My luxurious bubbly mineral bath was followed by a therapeutic massage where tight spots were gently coaxed free with essential oils and well-trained hands. The Quapaw is not open on Tuesdays and may be closed the first two weeks of January for maintenance. Before visiting during that time, call (501) 609-9822 to check availability.
View majestic eagles
Head to Lake Ouachita State Park and you stand a good chance of seeing bald eagles spending their winters in the forests around the lake. In general, 80 to 120 eagles come each year for food because this is one of the cleanest lakes in the country, where wildlife is protected and shorelines are pristine, according to Susan Tigert, park interpreter. Lake Ouachita was built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for flood control and recreation. Board a barge and take an eagle tour. Binoculars are provided.
“I tell people to look for ‘golf balls’ in the pine trees on the shallow side of the lake,” Tigert said, “but we don’t get too close as it stresses the eagles.”
A day at the races
Speaking of stress, now that yours is under control, it’s time to head over to Oaklawn Jockey Club, one of the finest thoroughbred racetracks in the country. It’s been there since 1904 and has hosted many Triple Crown winners. Live racing runs from January through April on its mile-long oval track but simulcasting–off-track betting where you watch races elsewhere on large screens as they are actually occurring–is available year-round. In 2009, the facility expanded to include 900 gaming machines on the floor and eight table games.
Dining and lodging options
One of the most popular restaurants in Hot Springs is the AAA Three Diamond Belle Arti Ristorante on Central Avenue where chef and owner, Joe Gargano, puts his heart and soul into pleasing his customers with authentic Italian cuisine. You’ll experience extraordinary entrees and scrumptious desserts whose memories will linger long after your meal is over.
But Belle Arti is certainly not the only area favorite. Lots of folks line up at Central Park Fusion on Park Avenue, Café 1217 on Malvern, the Fountain Room Grill at the Arlington or McClard’s Bar-B-Q on Albert Pike.
Hot Springs offers a wide range of places to stay–from the AAA Three Diamond Embassy Suites’ presidential suites, to the Arlington Hotel or the 1890 Williams House Inn on Quapaw Avenue. There’s also a selection of chain hotel and motel rooms available.
Lose yourself for a weekend in Hot Springs and find your spirit’s center.
Joan Elliott is a contributor from the St. Louis, Mo., area.