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A 100-Year-Old Spa: Why You Should Visit Arkansas Hot Springs

In addition to beautiful hiking trails and views, Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas also has historic thermal mineral water baths. Travel Leisure.

Photo: Shutterstock

When are you planning a trip to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, you expect to see great scenery, learn a bit about history as Al Capone is known to have spent a significant amount of time in the area. What visitors don't expect, however, is to sweat naked in a hundred-year-old metal box.

Hot Springs is not your typical national park. The story began in 1832 - 40 years before the national park system even existed - when President Andrew Jackson set aside 2 hectares to create the country's first national park. It was a beautiful area, with dense forests, wildlife and panoramic views of the Ouachita Mountains. Hot Springs wasn't just picturesque; It was believed that thermal mineral waters gushing out of the ground had healing properties.

A park built on well-being

By the time Hot Springs entered the newly created National Park System in 1921, the hydrotherapy movement was in full swing and a small city of luxurious hotels and baths had sprung up among the trees. Major League Baseball's spring training was held at Hot Springs so players like Babe Ruth could treat injuries in the water. Gangsters like Al Capone also regularly came to treat syphilis in prescribed mineral bath rituals. Illicit horse racing, gambling, and brothels flourished in Hot Springs, so organized crime figures, including Capone, felt at home. In the end, many of them visited the city so often that they agreed to make a truce while in the area.

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Despite the apparent flourishing of capitalism in Hot Springs, the government nevertheless firmly held the view that the thermal mineral waters were in the public domain. Institutions such as the Naval Hospital and the Free State Bath were set up so that everyone could access the baths, regardless of their ability to pay.

A brick-paved walkway was built over Bathhouse Row called Grand Promenadeso that patients can continue their treatment while being in nature and in the fresh air. As further evidence of the government's commitment to health and wellness, the Oertel Graded Exercise System for Heart Health was developed with a series of exercises that became progressively more strenuous as patients recovered. The park was great and it served its purpose.

Hot Springs National Park today

Tamara Gane arrived at Hot Springs on a cold afternoon. In the city center, on Arlington Lawn, puffs of steam rose like tiny clouds from a thermal spring flowing into a small stone pool. The water bubbles up from the ground at a scalding temperature of 60C, but by the time it hits the pool, it's cool enough to touch. In the thermal springs that the traveler visited in other parts of the country, the water smells of sulfur, but here it is not so - it is clean, transparent, odorless, drinkable. People travel from all over to fill bottles and jugs from the historic fountains on Bathhouse Row, which cool the water to safe drinking temperatures. She didn't have a bottle with her, so she put her hands under the tap to take a sip. “It was very tasty,” Tamara stated.

The historic hot springs look like they are frozen in time, and the buildings date back to the late 1800s.

В Gangster Museum of America she found out that you can still rent Al Capone's favorite room - room 406 - in a huge spa hotel Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa in the Spanish Revival style or listen to live jazz music in his favorite bar Ohio Club. Perhaps most importantly, you can walk along the Grand Promenade, walk the Ertel Trail, and visit the eight bathhouses on Bathhouse Row built between 1892 and 1923.

She started with a group tour of Fordyce Bathhouse with National Park Ranger Kane West. The building has been completely renovated and serves as a visitor center for the park. Stained-glass ceilings, marble walls, bronze statues, and elaborate carvings testified to how sumptuous some of these bathhouses were, but West immediately noticed that despite the luxurious setting, people flocked to Hot Springs for medically prescribed treatments. To demonstrate this, he walked us through the devices used for the treatments, in stark contrast to the bath's elaborate decor.

He explained that the row of large silver boxes were not torture chambers, but rather steam cabinets, which were, in fact, early versions of saunas. People sat in them to steam their bodies while their heads protruded from a hole at the top. There were also large porcelain tubs and shallow sitz baths that looked a bit like modern bidets. There was even a strength-building gym and a needle shower that used multiple jets of water to stimulate the internal organs.

After the tour, Tamara went to the brewery superior bath house, which, according to its website, is the only one in the world that brews beer from thermal mineral water. “The beer was exquisite,” she said.

healing waters

She stopped at Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort, and although she was seduced by the luxurious modern spa, she wanted to take part in a traditional bath. After visiting the Fordyce bath, she became curious about what it was like for women to use this equipment a hundred years ago, so she made an appointment at Bath Buckstaffwhich has been operating since 1912.

“Even though I was told it was okay to wear a bathing suit, I decided to forego it in order to get as close to the original experience as possible. When I finished undressing, a woman came up and wrapped me in a sheet. Then I was introduced to my attendant Latoya, whose voice was so soothing and warm that all the fears that I had when a stranger saw me naked evaporated, ”said Tamara.

Latoya led her to an old-fashioned porcelain tub filled with whirlpool thermal mineral water. The tub, she says, has been there since the bathhouse was built in the early 1900s. “She held my sheet and carefully helped me into the water. Normally, she said, at this point, she would wipe my hands and back with a loofah, but now they do not do this due to the pandemic. When Latoya drew the curtain and left me alone, I closed my eyes and let the tension in my body slip into the water. As a person whose mind is rarely calm, at that moment I did not think about anything but bubbles and heat, ”Tamara describes the procedure.

When Latoya returned, she wrapped Tamara in the sheet again and led her to the bench. She placed a hot towel over her face and another over her shoulders.

“The towels were as warm and relaxing as Latoya herself, and I was so comfortable under their weight that I caught myself thinking that she would forget to take me to the next bath. Alas, she is a professional who does not forget her charges, and after a few minutes she took me to the far end of the room. Here I slowed down. We were heading for a big silver box,” says Tamara.

The steam box did not look attractive to the traveler.

“While the tub was round and welcoming, it had sharp corners and grinning metal. Latoya sensed my hesitation and said I didn't have to sit inside, but she thought I'd like it. She was right. The steam entered my pores and the hole at the top allowed me to tilt my head in and out, which kept me from feeling uncomfortable. After that, I spoke to another bather in the lobby, who told me that she would like all saunas to have this feature,” Tamara said.

After the steam room, Latoya took her to a sitz bath. It was not made of porcelain. It seemed like a miniature version of a steam cabinet. “At that moment, I was no longer afraid of the shiny square devices, so I sat inside, exposing my head and upper body, and the lower body was in hot water,” the traveler said.

Usually this part of the experience ends with a needle shower similar to the one she saw in the Fordyce bath, but Latoya told her that it was not used that day. Tamara wasn't disappointed as it meant she could go straight to the cornerstone of her bath experience: a 20 minute massage.

She said goodbye to Latoya and was introduced to Lena, her masseuse.

“I love massage, but as much as I was looking forward to it, I was a little doubtful that she could work out the entire body in 20 minutes. Lena, however, was able to work my anterior and posterior muscles, ending with a tapping technique similar to a sharp blow to the body in karate,” Tamara said.

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She left the Buckstaff Bathhouse feeling both relaxed and invigorated.
“That in itself was a kind of healing. Now I understand why people have been coming here for more than a century,” the woman concluded.

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