Water, Water, Water

DSCN5968Although water is the main attraction, there is so much more at Hot Springs National Park.  Mountain hiking trails, gentle walking paths, an observation tower with views of forever, scenic drives, a campground, and a brewery are just a few examples of activities in the park.  Stephen and I are here for a weekend visit to celebrate our 28th wedding anniversary.  Knowing we cannot participate in everything the park has to offer, we choose a sampling of activities.  First order of business:  a traditional bathing experience at Buckstaff Bathhouse.  Bathed, buffed, and beautified, we explore Bathhouse Row.

Bathhouse Row is the heart of Hot Springs National Park.  Eight bathhouses line the street of downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas, each with a unique look and style.  Beginning at the south end of Central Avenue, Lamar Bathhouse is the location of the national park gift shop where various spa items such as bath salts, oils, mani/pedi sets, and fluffy towels and robes are sold alongside books, stuffed animals, souvenir magnets, and a plethora of national park knickknacks.  We collect our Hot Springs National Park cancellation stamp and purchase a thick white hand towel embroidered with the Hot Springs National Park logo.  Next to Lamar is Buckstaff Bathhouse where we received our early morning pampering.  Ozark Bathhouse is currently closed, but will reopen as an art museum; a great excuse for us to return.  Quapaw is an operating bathhouse offering more modern services such as hot stone treatments and revitalizing body polishes.  Another excuse to return to Hot Springs!  Next to Quapaw is Fordyce Bathhouse.  Fordyce is the national park’s museum. After watching the short film that explains the history of Hot Springs as well as the science of the springs, we follow the self-guided tour route and explore all three floors of the museum passing through both the men’s and women’s bathing areas, the basement where mechanical exhibits demonstrate how the springs are pumped from the mountain into the bathhouses, and ending at the Hubbard tub, a large, elaborate tub once used for specialty treatments such as physical therapy. It is fun to notice that our bathing experience this morning is so similar to the bathing experience of guests fifty years ago.  DSCN5972After touring Fordyce, we pass by Maurice and Hale Bathhouses which are both currently closed.  Superior Bathhouse is the last bathhouse on Bathhouse Row.  Superior is currently operating as a Brewery with a tasting room; and, since it is lunchtime, perfect timing for a break.  Stephen and I are not normally beer drinkers; but…since we did wear togas this morning…when in Rome…I order a beer.  Well, actually a mead.  Stephen orders a root beer that is brewed in-house and we share a hummus plate with pita chips and bread.  Sitting at the counter facing the street, we enjoy lunch while watching people stroll up and down Bathhouse Row.

Bathhouse Row is nestled at the base of Hot Springs Mountain where rain falls and pores and cracks in the rock take the rainwater deep into the Earth.  As the water goes deeper and deeper, it heats at about 4 degrees Fahrenheit every 300 feet.  As this heated water passes rocks below the earth’s surface, it dissolves the minerals from the rocks.  Eventually what goes down comes back up.  Four thousand years after rain falls from the sky, the water comes back to the surface, hot and full of the minerals it has collected from the rocks.  Forty-seven natural hot springs dot the lower west side of Hot Springs Mountain.  A network of hiking trails passes by many of these capped and protected springs.  Stephen and I drive scenic Hot Springs Mountain Drive to Hot Springs Mountain Tower.  DSCN5963For a fee we ride an elevator 216 feet to an observation deck where we admire the views of the Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern edge of the Ouachita Mountains.  One level below the observation deck, we explore a small museum explaining the history of Hot Springs, Arkansas including some famous and notorious residents and guests.  Apparently, Al Capone was a frequent visitor.  And we all know which president hails from Arkansas.  (hint:  he enjoys hamburgers and jazz, he did not inhale, and he did not have sex with ML).

Before returning to the Arlington Hotel, Stephen and I fill our five-gallon water container, water bottles, and backpack bladders from one of several fountains scattered throughout Hot Springs.  The park collects 700,000 gallons of water each day for use in the public drinking fountains and bathhouses.  Fortunately, this water is for all to enjoy and is free to everyone.  And lots of people take advantage of this wonderful amenity of the park.  People gather around the fountains and wait their turn to fill their containers.  Milk jugs, orange juice cartons, even peanut butter jars can be used as delicious, cool, natural, mineral-filled spring water receptacles.  A refreshing way to recycle!


Bath Time

DSCN5979 After primitive camping for three nights during a four-day paddling trip down the Buffalo National River, it’s time to take a bath.  Of eight bathhouses on historic Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park, two are active bathhouses:  Quapaw and Buckstaff.  Quapaw offers modern spa treatments such as hot stone, facials, Swedish and Deep Tissue massages, as well as the traditional mineral bath. Buckstaff has been in continuous operation since 1912 and still offers a bathing experience in the historical therapeutic style.  Stephen and I choose the traditional bathing package at the Buckstaff.

The Buckstaff does not accept reservations so Stephen and I get up early and DSCN5971arrive when the bathhouse opens at 8 am.  We are separated and Stephen is taken to the men’s section and I am whisked up an antique elevator to the women’s area on the second floor.  I am escorted to a dressing (undressing?) room and told to strip to bucknackedness and place my clothes in a private locker.  My personal attendant, Carolyn, who has been a bathing attendant for 37 years, wraps me toga-style in a large sheet and we go to a small room with a large bathtub.  Carolyn helps me into the tub and gives me a cup of mineral water to drink during a private, twenty-minute soak in a warm (100 degrees), whirlpool bath of natural mineral water pumped from the hot springs in the mountain behind Bathhouse Row.  I lie back on a padded incline and try not to fall asleep and drown as the tub really is quite large.  Carolyn returns and scrubs my arms, legs, back, and feet (tickles!) with a loofa mitt that I get to take home as a souvenir.  I step out of the tub and she again wraps me in the sheet.  From the tub bath I go to a vapor cabinet, a metal box of steam.  Carolyn closes the top and I feel like Lucille Ball in an I Love Lucy episode as I sit with only my head exposed, steam rising around my ears, watching women of various ages and sizes, dressed in togas, coming and going.  From the vapor cabinet, I am escorted to the hot pack table.  I lie on my back, with my head on a pillow, covered with a sheet.  My legs and feet are wrapped in very hot towels and a hot towel is placed over my eyes.  I lay here for quite a while, listening to the sounds of the activities of the bathhouse.  Eventually, Carolyn removes the hot towels that have become cool towels and takes me to a room with a circular metal contraption, the needle shower.  DSCN5974I am apprehensive as she unwraps my toga and instructs me to stand in the middle of the upright tube-like structure.  Carolyn leaves me and very warm water suddenly shoots from all directions.  This is actually quite wonderful and I twist and turn, making sure every inch of me receives the benefit of  the therapeutic, healing water.  The spray stops, Carolyn returns, and I am once again wrapped in a toga.  From the needle shower, I go to a resting room where I say goodbye to Carolyn and wait peacefully and patiently for the last step:  a 20-minute full body massage.  After a short wait, I am escorted to a private massage room where my already relaxed muscles are blissfully kneaded into a limp, loose, and lifeless state.

Feeling like a rag doll, I manage to retrieve my clothes, get dressed, and find Stephen resting on the veranda enjoying an ice tea.  I join him and we contemplate going back to the hotel for a nap.  Although our bodies are relaxed and our muscles are saying, “nap! nap!”; our brains know it is only 10:30 in the morning and are saying, “explore! explore!”.  The brains win (they are always so smart!) and we slowly walk away from the Buckstaff Bathhouse to explore Hot Springs National Park and the rest of Bathhouse Row.

The Arlington Hotel

DSCN5977Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas has many attractions.  But I am mostly looking forward to the main attraction:  pampering.  After completing a three-day float trip on the Buffalo National River, Stephen and I are planning two nights in Hot Springs, indulging in a spa treatment, restaurants, and an historic hotel with rooms that have four walls and comfortable beds.  The Arlington is not a national park lodge but it is a grand old hotel located at the north end of Bathhouse Row.  DSCN5967The Arlington Hotel originally opened in 1875, but burned in 1923.  It was rebuilt across the street and reopened in 1924.  The large rooms are all updated with modern amenities such as air-conditioning and private baths with showers.  However, the AC is either “on” or “off”; there is no temperature control.  The windows do open and this April weekend is gorgeous.  Located on the fifth floor, our room overlooks Arlington Park and Bathhouse Row.

DSCN5969The Arlington has a beautiful, three-tiered pool area located on the seventh floor and nestled into the side of a mountain.  The hot tub, on the top tier, calls our names and we quickly change into swimsuits.  Relaxing in the hot tub, with gorgeous views of the gentle Zig Zag Mountains on the eastern edge of the Ouachita Mountains, Stephen and I rest and recuperate from three days of paddling.  As the sun descends into the green hills and the air begins its evening chill, we relax our tired muscles and enjoy the sounds of a city in the midst of a national park.  After we are sufficiently soothed, we wrap ourselves in the provided towels and go to our room to change.

The bar at the Arlington is an active social scene set right in the middle of the lobby.  A dance band plays on a small stage and couples move and groove on the dance floor as well as the perimeter of the lobby.  Stephen and I find a table on the platform area right in the middle of the action and order an Arlington Martini in honor of our visit.  Not typically martini drinkers, we are delighted with the hotel namesake adult beverage:  a concoction of acai berry, lemon, and vodka, with sugar on the rim of the glass.  We sit back and sip our shared libation and enjoy an evening of good music and people watching.DSCN5981

On Saturday, we enjoy breakfast in the Arlington’s dining room.  This morning the Venetian Dining Room is serving a buffet breakfast for about $10 a person.  The basic breakfast items are all represented.  Scrambled eggs, bacon, sausage, and breakfast potatoes compete with hot and cold cereals, yogurts, and granola.  Stephen finds room on his plate for a little of everything and I choose a small portion of scrambled eggs and one piece of bacon.  Our attentive and talkative waiter notices my almost empty plate and only puts one buffet on our bill.  We linger at breakfast enjoying the ambience of the dining room and learning the history of the hotel and its connection to Al Capone from our waiter and the hostess.  With full bellies, and sufficiently caffeinated, we begin our day in Hot Springs.