Traveler
Traveler's USA Notebook

Your guide to travel news,  discoveries and  pleasuresYour guide to travel news,  discoveries and  pleasures

|HOME | PLACES | DEALS | THEATERTIPS |

 

 

 


Cool News About Hot Springs

Hot Springs is sexy. Unbelievably so. Put the blame on Nature: hot, hot water (143° F) bubbles to the surface and has made the town a therapeutic destination dating back to Native American days. Pure running spring water from taps in the streets is available free to anyone. And those big, bushy Ouchita Mountains loom over the town and protect the residents like a big Daddy. Then there's the sweet air.

In fact,  that mountain and all the geological legerdemain have left a great big thumbprint on the region. Hot Springs National Park, the nation’s oldest national park, was established in 1832; it cuts a swath through downtown.
Point a finger at lemony, lovely, frou-frou buildings that make you blink and wonder if you’ve wandered into the South of France, surprisingly au courant restaurants, or thick-with-sex historic vibes. Add Lakes Hamilton and Catherine and you have extra leisure options.

Hot Springs history is an intoxicating chiaroscuro of tales of the very kind (all those people – patients, nurses, massage therapists, and doctors who have been coming for years to dedicate themselves to healing arts) and the cruel, the louche, the lewd, and the swells of the demimonde. The impressive, massive Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center sits on top of a hill. Previously it was the Army/Navy Hospital and it saw much action during WWII.

Al Capone and his contemporaries regularly came down from Chicago to gamble and “take the cure” in the mineral waters  - these were the old days, before sulfa drugs.  The gangsters declared this a no-slaying zone. Rivals could frolic freely and openly here without worrying about getting rubbed out. Perhaps that explains the lingering peaceful vibe.

Illegal (but open) gambling, a racetrack and comforting waters made Hot Springs a national getaway Mecca when the once hugely popular passenger railroad came straight into town.  It even calls itself “America’s First Resort.” Now it’s the air age and Little Rock Airport (LIT) is an hour away, and no big planes can land in teeny Hot Springs Airport (HOT). In the 1960s, Hot Springs dropped off the list of first choice getaways. For visitors, this is mostly a blessing. Though hardly a secret, this town is a slightly under the radar these days. Fine. More for visitors and frankly more for the buck.

The rogues and the rich  (and God give us the wisdom to find the difference) and your Granny all loved to winter here. This is where President William Jefferson Clinton grew up and went to high school. How could he not be sexy? 

Convention centers ordinarily don't excite Traveler but the new Summit Arena and Hot Springs Convention Center is shiny and gorgeous and first-rate, with lots of cutting edge perks and 360,000 square feet for a great range of events. This facility makes the small city a magnet to meeting planners, a comfy home away from home for national and regional groups. The space is suitable for all kinds of meetings. But Traveler had a vision.  With so many crystal digs and shops, lovely restaurants, mineral baths and massage therapists around, we expect to see Hot Springs become a booming convention destination for planners looking for the right spot for medical, health, New Age, and businesses savvy enough to know that feeling good in a beautiful setting counts more these days then ever. A  6,000 seat arena is action central for concerts, sporting events and expos. There are plenty of hotel rooms, more spas in town than you could ever imagine, and loads of exotic things for  convention goers to do and see in their off hours.

Speaking of those hotel rooms

HOTELS

The Baymont Inn

The Baymont Inn is located on Lake Hamilton, and is particularly popular with those who like all sorts of diversions aquatic. Much is made of “excellent” and “great” but another desirable, elusive quality is pleasant. Here are the components of pleasant: Intelligent use of space, calm, attractiveness, comfort, ease of use (e.g. easily accessible electric outlet.).

Together, they add up to an enjoyable stay

The Baymont Is truly pleasant. The room is done in warm but understated colors — cream walls, tasteful prints of flowers and landscapes in faux antique gold frames, mahogany cabinet for TV, several well–positioned lamps. Request a room overlooking the lake. Room 417 affords a peaceful  view (see above) and is near the elevator, Marble-topped spacious sink areas are all very clean. There’s a balcony with two chairs and a table for relaxing while listening to the cicadas chirp at night. Beds are firm and very comfy. And the TV cable’s so good they’ve got both C-SPANS. Wonks beware: The desk in the room, while wired for free WIFI, is way too high for the chair. You’re not gonna be spending much time on your laptop here and the phone book’s not thick enough to make a difference. The staff is aces. 

Did we mention the free hot breakfast buffet? For nearby food, there’s Jose’s Mexican Grill and Cantina (501 525 9797), a short walk up the hill. If you don’t want to leave your room, you might crack open a phone book to get a delivery. The local pizzeria, Doc’s, has lots of pizzas, not too much pasta and no eggplant hero; but they do have a vegwich. Well you know what they say, ”Never play cards with a man named Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom’s. And never sleep with anyone crazier than you are.” Yee-hah! You’re going to find your fine dining somewhere else. For more info about the Baymont Inn, call (501)520-5522 or click here.

 
The Austin Hotel

Once affiliated with the Hilton chain, the Austin’s downtown location makes it just a short hop, skip and a jump from Bathhouse Row and what you might call restaurant row. For conventioneers, it’s definitely a convenient choice as it’s connected by walkway to the city’s absolutely beautiful convention center. It’s great to think that even during the busiest part of a convention, you can nip outside and within 10 minutes be stepping into a bath house or going up the road to Granny’s for pancakes.

And you’re near all sorts of interesting restaurants, including Belle Arti Ristorante and Brauhaus. For convenience the Austin has all other hotels beat. some of the views are magical We were in room 1408, on the tippy top floor. Great views (especially at dawn and dusk with the twinkling lights of downtown restaurants, see above) reveal what Hot Springs residents already know, this is a magical village. And the rooms are spacious.

But from the dreary lobby to the unappealing pool area to the uninspiring room décor, the Austin atmosphere, shall we say, sags. If you want convenience in getting a taste of Hot Springs and. If you’re not going to be in the room much –—the Austin might be a clever choice. We were told the Austin is for sale again (it opened 20 years ago as a Hilton). With its good bones and ideal location, it’s sure to be snapped up. For now, rather odd unwelcoming signs in the bathroom  may make you not wish to choose the Austin for your honeymoon suite just now. But if you’re meeting the other 6000 members of your moose or moosette lodge, you’ll be very happy here. One to know in the Austin is bellman Ryan. Shampoos and soap minimal. Chair and desk do not match and will hurt your back if you need to get on your laptop. Call 501.623.6600 or click here.

The Embassy Suites

There are hotels here with charm. Hotels with faded glory. Hotels with amenities. But step into the Embassy Suites hotel and it’s “can I be dreaming?” time. Stride into the modern, marble everywhere, all agleam, brightly lit lobby. It’s okay to smile. And just beyond the lobby is the atrium. Talk about your bridge to the 21st Century.

The Embassy Suites also is connected to the Convention Center. And the rooms are fine. Our digs, Suite 810, offered marvelous views, microwave, two televisions, fridge, wet bar, a couple of desks. Sofas chairs, roomy bathroom with lovely Neutrogena bath amenities. The 24-hour laundry room is a godsend. The only thing we could find wrong was that the ironing board cover was a bit lumpy.  That was the only pea under the mattress  that made us realize we were not in heaven. On the other hand the iron was superb. It was a Hamilton Beach something or other.

Traveler was happy with the extraordinary complimentary breakfast smorgasbord. It has all the usual nonsense and more, Lots and lots of fresh fruit as well. Okay we really liked the made to order pancakes and omelets. The hotel's  restaurant, Bistro 400, though overloaded with various configurations of meat has lots of vegetables to offer. You just have to make a request. The prices are reasonable  and the  Portobello mushroom is very good.  For more info, call 501.624.9200 or click here.

The Arlington 

Beautiful, grand, and imposing on the outside, the unforgettable Arlington is one of a kind, the hotel equivalent of the house on the hill. If you haven’t stayed here, you haven’t fully known Hot Springs from the inside. There’s the marvelous, girly, over-the-top lobby, where you might want a drink and a sandwich but aren’t always allowed to get one. The Arlington’s grown slightly shabby (bring those antiseptic wipes, Mr. Monk!) with years and memories and tradition. But the Arl’s where the wedding parties, power breakfasts, and late night rendezvous still happen.

Rooms and layouts vary. They can be grand and old world or quirky and eccentric. Get a room as high as you can, with awesome, healing views of the mountain. The views are so beautiful here you could even lie in bed all day, and just watch the light change.

You may have a long, crazy, maze-like, multi-storied and stairwayed, ten minute walk to the AstroTurf-surrounded whirlpool and the swimming pool, but it’s worth the trip, for you can look down at flying birds and rooftops and windows and the town from this high up. And shucks, it’s fun to steam in the whirlpool, chatting with the ladies and gentlemen up late or at dawn, just as they must have done all those years ago. For more information, call 501.623.7771 or click here

 
The Majestic

The charming, old world Majestic hotel is sure to rub you the right way. Scaling itself down to 100 or so rooms, the Majestic now positions itself as a boutique hotel. A smaller, calmer, homier sister to the nearby Arlington, the Maj boasts an old-fashioned soda shop, gracious restaurant service, and some of the best baths and massages anywhere in the world. About the Majestic massage. For more information, call 501.623.5511 or click here

Rub Me Tender

Hot Springs is massage Central. The massage is part of the Hot Springs history and mystique. Arguably the centerpiece of downtown is Bathhouse Row. As the name implies, this is a street of magnificent structures dedicated to the art, science, craft and veneration of that ancient, wonderful experience, the bath and massage. The Fordyce has been turned into a National Park museum and the Buckstaff currently is the only actually operating bathhouse on the street.
It is unthinkable to come to Hot Springs and not get rubbed. Traveler’s investigative reporters are on the job — especially when there are massages to be had. These are their stories.

The Buckstaff

        The Buckstaff is one of those smart-looking historic bathhouses you lunge at the minute you see it, placed along Central Avenue when you first drive or walk into Hot Springs. Striped awnings and an awfully pleasant space, with an impressive array of grooming products and big, thick, soft, fluffy, must-have thirsty towels even the strictest stoic would yearn to take home. It’s not a hotel. It specializes in baths and massages. The bath was rather special. The massage itself was pleasant. 509 Central Avenue 501.623.2308; click here.

The Majestic

If you get only one massage in a town famed for its healing hands, the Majestic is by far the very best. If it’s your lucky day, you might be able to book yourself in for massage therapy with the extremely popular GG or Tova, who can hold their own with the best massage therapists in the world. 501.623.5511

Velda Rose

Red bathtubs and a certain kind of quiet cosseting make The Velda Rose’s Rose Garden Spa and Salon a standout in Hot Springs. It’s sort of a chic thing, a chick thing, a flair with customers, a gentle attention to giving you individual service that makes the Velda Rose wildly popular with locals and especially women. When you’re in need of a pick-me-up, the Velda Rose’s prettiness and its sweet staff makes it more of a pampering place than some others, which carry a whiff of a sort of masculine, ‘hurry — you’re in a production line’ feeling. (The grim basement in the Arlington Hotel where the Arlington’s massages happen is certainly historic, but then, so’s the Tower of London.) No. Run to the Rose. 

A bath is a bath is a bath, after all, but being allowed to linger in a lovely old-fashioned red tub and feeling giggly and really cared for makes all the difference. There’s a new owner, Leia S. Cha. Not so long ago she visited Hot Springs, fell in love with the hotel, and bought it. Nice job, Ms. Cha, but look out. We love it, too.

WHERE TO EAT

            Hot Springs has loads of restaurants catering  to a variety of tastes. There is the usual cast of fast foods and national brands (e.g., Applebee’s, IHOP, Sonic. The Dixie Café) And these can be thought of as predictable or reliable depending on your mood or need. And there are the local dependables, such as La Hacienda (Mexican) or the landmark McClard’s Bar-B-Q ,  hometown  fave of President Clinton. (According to Southern Living Magazine, going to  McClard’s ranks among  the "40 Things Every Southerner Ought To Do.") Search through all of these and you’ll find a number of surprising and delightful spots. Here is a brief taste.

Belle Arti Ristorante

An official class act, this white tablecloth restaurant –oops- ristorante has a nice turn of the (20th) century vibe with its high chandeliers, highlighted art hanging on the wood-paneled walls and generally clubby atmosphere. A live piano (accompanied by a live piano player) is tinkling in the corner. The prevailing mood is grace. The staff is skilled.  Authentic Italian dishes are prepared knowledgably. Try the insalata tricolore, manicotti al forno, penne bandiera or Gnocchi alla Genovese. If we had any carp it would be the chef's light touch with garlic. Call 501.624.7474

The Brau Haus

Sometimes Traveler must have those jolly German staples —red cabbage, potato salad and sauerkraut. The genuinely cellar-based Brau Haus serves these pungent delicacies. Add mushrooms sautéed in garlic and butter and apple strudel with vanilla sauce and you have all the basic food groups. We have it on good authority that many beers, from an assortment of beer-brewing nations are available. 801 Central Ave. (501) 624-7866 or click hehttp://hotsprings.net/brauhaus/brauhaus.htmlre

Fros-T-Treat Old Fashioned Malt Shop

The name says it all but that never stopped us before. This darling drive-in stand has been dishing out calories and treats forever and ever or so it seems. Established in the early ‘50s, it is a charming, fixture for locals and lucky visitors. It is located a few blocks from the Greyhound Station. The stand’s exterior is baby blue.  The logo’s yellow letters are painted against a streaming garland of roses. Under the service window is a fleecy cloud leading to a rainbow on which are the words “Place your order here.” What could be friendlier? 

You can get all sorts of great items you dare not tell your doctor about. Amidst the snacks for the carnivore community we found Vege Burger, Vege Cheeseburger - Vege Mushroom Swiss Burger and we went yum. And then there’s the dairy side of the equation. Oh the flavors. Oh the colors. * Malts - shakes - sodas - punches – frosteds and floats are available in the following flavors: strawberry, pineapple, cherry, butterscotch, chocolate     vanilla, banana, blueberry, peanut butter, caramel. Also trippingly for the tongue are hot fudge or butter pecan - shakes or malts. And if you want to have a well-fueled day in the Hot Springs environs, Fros-T-Treat will pack a picnic lunch for you. (They supply the fixings for kiddy tea parties.) And, remember, when you order your fountain Coke, Dr. Pepper, Sprite, Root Beer or Diet Coke, cherry and/or vanilla can be added. 501-623-7643, 1020 East Grand Ave

J's Italian Villa

This popular restaurant combines two solid virtues — expertly prepared Italian food and views of Lake Hamilton. Satisfying dishes include the penne broccoli with raisins, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and, of course, penne and broccoli; eggplant parmigiana and fettuccini Alfredo. Start with a house salad or mozzarella caprese. The staff is attentive and charming.  J's Italian Villa is located at 4332 Central Avenue. Call 501.525.1121


Granny's Kitchen

Granny must have been in the Air Force or maybe a veteran because the restaurant walls are papered with all sorts of WW II and aviation pictures, posters and memorabilia. This is  a wonderful and charming breakfast stop. As you walk in, be prepared to answer the question How do you like your eggs? Traveler’s answer: As part of your pancake batter. The pancakes were delish. 362 Central Avenue 501.6246183

THINGS TO DO

Garvan Woodland Gardens

Located on a  210-acre wonder peninsula, jutting out into  Lake Hamilton, the Garvan Woodland Gardens is a wonder. Its winding trails, Asian-inspired design and thousands of plants delight the eye and cheer the spirit. There are 160 different azalea varieties, roses (many antique varieties), camellias, cinnamon fern, oakleaf hydrangea, dogwood, daffodils, Asian maples, pansies, tulips, and more.

There are meadows, pools and stone bridge. All kinds of events take place on various of the grounds, including the pavilion amphitheater, and great lawn. Weddings will see a boost with the addition of the recently opened Anthony Chapel. The Jennings + McKee designed 57' tall wood, glass and stone building  has floor-to-ceiling windows that provide beautiful views of Lake Hamilton and the surrounding wooded landscape.

Think of the Garvan Gardens as the lovechild of a very definite, very certain and very rich lady, Verna Cook Garvan, A remarkable woman, Mrs. Garvan became the CEO of her family’s business, Malvern Brick and Tile Company in 1934, after the death of her father.  The land on which the garden sits  was purchased in the 1920s. In 1956, she began to create the garden.

Apparently, she also had some thoughts about building a house there. She worked on this garden for 40 years and chose everything from where each path went to which tree would be cut down to what type of plants would grow and where.

Upon her death in 1993, control of the garden was transferred to the University of Arkansas School of Architecture, in keeping with a trust document she signed in 1987

So think of Verna Garvan as you stroll past waterfalls, springs and cascading streams, Think of her as you meander about the Garden of the Pine Wind. Pause there  to savor the  Full Moon Bridge, a 20’ high  self-supporting masonry arch. Think of her at Japanese Maple Hill, Three Sisters of Amity Daffodil Hill and  the ellipse where you can sit in peace and enjoy the seasonal displays of color.

Garvan Woodland Gardens is  open 7 days a week. April 1 - October 31 from 9am to 6pm and November 1 - 21 and January 2 - March 31 from 10am to 5pm. Admission is $7 for adults, $6 for seniors (55 and older), and $3 for children 6-12 and ages 5 and under are free.

Hot Springs National Park

Remember the park?. Not only does the park have great thermal waters. It has 26 miles of hiking trails with various degrees of challenge, campgrounds  and the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. This observation tower is 1256 feet above sea level. On a clear day (and there are lots of those) you can look at 140 miles of the Natural State. Call 501.624.2701 or click here.

 Hot Springs Crystals

Arkansans fondly note that they sell rocks and water to Yankees. The water of course is that pure Mountain Valley spring water,. The rocks, also, are not just any old rocks They are the purest crystals in the USA, Crystal encounters are only one-part shopping forays. Going to a crystal showroom also is like going to an art gallery where exquisite one-of-a-kind pieces are on display. Moreover several of the crystal emporia have actual working quarries in the back. If you’d like (and you pay the fee) you can play miner.  Armed with a dig tool and bucket, you can  explore a designated  area and see what you can find. Here are a few rock resources
Wegner Phantom Crystal Mines
82 Wegner Ranch Rd.
Mt. Ida AR  870.867.2309
 
Jim Coleman Crystal Mines and Rock Shop
5837 North Highway 7
Jessieville, Arkansas  501.984.5328
 
Wright's Rock Shop
36312 Albert Pike, Hwy 270 501.767.4800

Arkansas Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo

The cashier handed us a bag of bread to feed the animals.
“We’re here for the gators,” we explained, “not the petting zoo.” He agreed the bread was not for us. Civilians feeding the alligators is not an especially good idea.

This place has been the home of snapping jaws since 1902.  It boasts an alligator population of over 200 alligators. They range in size from 12 inches to 12 feet long — and they are not partial to jokes about luggage. The petting zoo is home to deer, pygmy goats, llamas, ostriches and lambs. Other animals on site are  monkeys, mountain lions, giant. turtles, wild turkey and wild duck and geese. For more info call 501.623.6172 or click here.

Oaklawn Park

Thoroughbred Racing takes place here and has since 1905. The season runs 8 February -15April:. Some of the top mounts have made their way around the oval. In 2005 the track received the Eclipse Award of Merit and Afleet Alex scored an eight-length win in Oakawn’s Arkansas Derby and won the Mountain Valley Stakes. To learn more, call 501.623.4411 or click here.

  
Magic Springs & Crystal Falls

 The answer is none.
The question is how many other national parks contain an amusement park.  Magic Springs offers 25 rides, water play and an amphitheater that draws headlining acts (e.g. Kenny Rogers, Shirley Caesar, Foreigner, The Temptations and  the Bellamy Brothers). Its new brag for 2006 is the  X-Coaster. “Thrill seekers will scream,” the park explains, “as the coaster shoots riders 150 feet in the air, flips them upside down and then sends everyone on a 360-degree corkscrew roll at more than 65 miles an hour.”  Who says we don’t know how to have fun? The park is open from April through October. For particulars of schedule or more info, call 501.318.5370 or click here.

Art Galleries

There is a cluster of welcoming art galleries in the downtown area. The works are in all media. Artists represented are local, national and International. On the first Friday of each month they sponsor a “Gallery Walk” The event gives the public —tourists and locals— a chance to attend opening receptions, partake of refreshments, listen to live music, schmooze with some artists and  take a peek at new and interesting works. The first Gallery Walk was in 1989. For a list of Hot Springs galleries and links to their web sites, click here.

 
Pirates Cove Miniature Golf

A hearty but guttural arrrrrrr to one and all. This mini golf chain, which has locations in over 20 cities, has dropped anchor in Hot Springs. You can play “Captain's Course,” “Blackbeard's Challenge,” or”36-Hole Adventure.” The season runs between Feb. and Thanksgiving. For more information, call 501.525.9311 or click here.

 
Mountain Valley Headquarters

Located at the end of bathhouse Row, this Classical Revival style building, built in  1910, is the former and current home of Mountain Valley water. The building was  restored in 1987 with a re-dedication ceremony in 1988. Additional  restorations  took place in 2004.  And yes, there are tours. You can see the   historic spring site and bottling facility as well as the company’s collection of its various bottles and memorabilia. The center is open daily and the tours take place on Tuesdays. Call 501.624.1635  or click here.

 
Hot Springs Documentary Film Festival

Launched by the town’s arts community in 1992, this noncompetitive celebration of the documentary film has grown  in scope and stature. Now run by the Hot Springs Documentary Film Institute, the festival takes place this year in  October at the festival’s own Malco Theater. For more information, Phone: 501.321.4747 or click here

 


          

If you don’t feel like having a car (your own or rental) and don’t want to pay the on the average $10 a day parking fee hotels charge, you’ll want to know about taxis. Here is the list of taxicab companies you’ll find in the phone book.                    Hot springs taxi 501.624.9494·                    Resort cab 624-5656
·                    Service cab- 624-5656
·                    Yellow cab 623-1616
·                    Checker cab.623-2525
Traveler  first called Yellow Cab because it sounded so classic, but the fare quoted by the dispatcher sounded too pricey for the distance being covered. Traveler then phoned Checker Cab and the voice at the other end asked, ”didn’t you just call here?”
“I did,” Traveler guiltily responded. (Oh the shame of it all! Busted in flagrante price-shopping.) 
The voice explained that, although the yellow pages listed all these different cabs, they’re all owned by one company which we later learned was owned by one man who also owned the Hot Springs Shuttle. Perhaps this explained the higher prices than you might find in many other places. In a community with many poor people who do not have cars to get tot work, your average hotel housekeeper will often have to pay 13.50 more than two hours salary just to get a taxi to work. As there are many parts of Hot Springs where public transp will not or does not go. So far, we are told, there are no plans to expand the bus service so the working poor will continue to suffer. Therefore when you stay in Hot Springs, be sure to leave your room cleaner a nice tip every day on your bathroom sink or bedside table.