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Sunday, May 19, 2024

There Must Be Something in the Water

On a recent fall trip to Hot Springs, Ark., I met several people who either moved there to reinvent themselves, or were locals who found the diversity of this Ouachita mountain region in southwest Arkansas too appealing to stay in the same life.

The healing mineral waters that bubble to the surface at 143 degrees certainly can be intoxicating. Native Americans and early settlers recognized the value of this natural phenomenon in the area they called The Valley of the Vapors. In 1832, Congress granted federal protection to the springs and forest and by 1921, the area was named Hot Springs National Park. Famed gangsters from the 1930s, including Al Capone and Lucky Luciano, also sought refuge here for the medicinal waters and rampant illegal gambling of the day.

Although there have been several incarnations of bathhouses around the 47 naturally occurring springs, Bathhouse Row was completed in 1923 and ushered in the luxury spa. Opulent touches, such as marbled walls and stained glass ceilings still are visible today. While eight bathhouses originally greeted visitors from around the world, their decline began in the early 70s, and by 1974 Bathhouse Row was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today only two bathhouses still are in operation — the Quapaw and Buckstaff. The Fordyce has been renovated into a museum and is the Park’s visitor center, and the Ozark Bathhouse is home to the Museum of Contemporary Art.

Come On In, The Water is Fine
My first encounter with the mysterious healing waters came from the spa at the Arlington Hotel where I stayed. This grand old hotel sits in the center of downtown and is just steps away from the park. I was offered a historic spa treatment, which includes a whirlpool mineral bath, hot and cold wet wraps, a dry sauna, steam bath, and full-body Swedish massage. A personal attendant took me through each procedure in a clinical, circa 1924, atmosphere. It was old-school in the best way.

The Arlington has housed many celebrities, but none more frequently than Al Capone. His favorite room, 442, gave him access to the entire floor, and is available for overnight accommodations. A sweeping veranda encircles the view of downtown, while the recently renovated lobby is a hot spot for live jazz and dancing on the weekends.

The spa treatment at the Quapaw Baths and Spas rotated me between four public thermal pools that ranged from 80-105 degrees. A couple of Russian tour groups from Chicago also were bathing, which definitely added to the old world European flair. If you don’t like a crowd, private mineral baths are also available. I finished my day with a revitalizing body polish and facial, starting to understand the allure.

Water, Water, Everywhere
This part of Arkansas is referred to as the Diamond Lakes region, and sparkle it does. Five man-made lakes are the playgrounds for water-enthusiasts and naturalists alike. A pre-dinner pontoon ride on Lake Hamilton from Lookout Point Lakeside Inn was hosted by inn proprieters Ray and Kristie Rosset. Their transformation from finance executive and minister/chef gave them the perfect set of skills to run this friendly, modern-day bed and breakfast. The terraced gardens led to an earthen labyrinth and a set of hammocks. I couldn’t resist lying back to watch the sun set over the lake.

Unlike Lake Hamilton and its multi-million dollar luxurious lake front homes, Lake Ouachita is mostly undeveloped and a nature lover’s haven. It is Arkansas’ largest lake at 40,000 acres and 975 miles of shoreline, and has been named one of the cleanest lakes in America. This old river rat couldn’t resist a slow journey around the lake with captain Bill Cattaneo of DreamChaser Houseboat Rentals. Once a nine-to-five businessman, Cattaneo, too, could feel the water pulling him into a life surrounded by serenity and gorgeous scenery.

Back on Dry Land
If water is not your thing, don’t despair. Hot Springs offers plenty of land-locked gems, including my favorite public garden, Garvan Woodland Gardens. The land was donated by lumber and brick baroness Verna Garvan and is part of the University of Arkansas School of Architecture. With more than 16 separate gardens and vistas on more than 200 acres, something is in bloom year-round. A favorite wedding destination, the Anthony Chapel soars 57 feet with floor to ceiling windows, exuding the feel that it was “grown” into place.

Back in downtown Hot Springs, there are plenty of unique shopping opportunities, not the least of which is Tillman’s Antiques. Charming owner Davis Tillman spent 25 years in the theatre, but moved back to Hot Springs to take over the family business. His collection of estate jewelry and fine antiques are considered some of the best in the south. The call to Hot Springs just keeps getting louder.

For the horse-race enthusiast, Oaklawn is home to the Arkansas Derby and runs live meets from Jan. 13 – Apr. 14. Simulcasting and para-mutual electronic gaming keep this a year-round entertainment facility.

Whatever your reason to visit, the medicinal thermal waters may heal your body, but the tranquil setting of Hot Springs will likely heal your soul.

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