Monthly Archives: October 2015

Hot Springs Will Warm Your Heart (& Melt Your Fingers)

Fordyce Bathhouse

Fordyce Bathhouse

As a kid, one of my favorite experiences was walking down Main Street U.S.A. at Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Here, an idealized version of small-town America literally beams in bright colors, architectural flair and turn-of-the-century detail. Between the intoxicating smells of fresh popped popcorn and waffle cones, the colorful awnings and antique lettering on the storefronts, and the invigorating tunes of a brass band, it’s hard not to feel a warm glow in your heart as you soak in a scene that once was, or at least what we once imagined it to be.

I felt a similar feeling return on a recent visit to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where the main street is real, and the storefronts are much more than a facade.


Once the home of healers, hit-men and high society, visitors to Hot Springs can still find vestiges of its glory days as THE American spa resort. While the town itself has a lovely lakeside setting, the main attractions are centered around the restored downtown area, where a string of stately edifices that technically belong to Hot Springs Natural Park, form an appropriately named section called Bathhouse Row. On the hillside behind the bathhouses is a tranquil promenade and hiking trails leading up to the top, where an observation tower (entrance fees about $7) will grant you post-card views of the town below. Behind that is a network of wooded trails that occasionally offer glimpses of the hilly landscape below.


Originally known only to the Native Americans, with the inevitable American expansion westward, European settlers were introduced to the natural hot springs that would eventually become the namesake of this settlement. Purported to have healing properties, it became a destination for the sick and desperate, not to mention charlatan ‘doctors’ hoping to cash in on the mystic rumors surrounding the springs.

As time unfolded and a wealthier clientele sought to emulate the European spa culture, luxury hotels and spas (a.k.a. bathhouses) were built, drawing not only more tourists but all the associated service businesses that cater to them. What remains is a snapshot of opulent architecture and what was at the time (think 1920’s and ’30’s) the cutting edge in health and fitness technology. That and a main street that looks right out of Disney.

The Bathhouses

Bath-Room With a View

Bath-Room With a View

Visitors can still enjoy these monuments to healing by exploring a few of the remaining buildings of Bathhouse Row. The main office is located in the lovely Fordyce Bathhouse, where you can watch a short film called Valley of the Vapors and investigate everything from the locker rooms,conservatory and massage parlors at the top –  all the way down to the baths and the furnace room in the basement. Here you’ll see exquisite stained glass ceilings, mosaic tile artistry and classic architectural flourishes that hearken back to a time when people really put pride into their work. You can also shake your head at the ‘primitive’ exercise machines and therapies that were once offered (and accepted here) along with descriptions of etiquette and fashion. For those really looking to immerse themselves (both literally and figuratively) in the experience, there are a few bathhouses that offer services similar to the ones enjoyed by debutantes and mobsters of days past. As for the healing properties – let’s just say there’s no guarantee.

Moving Outside

Strut Your Stuff on the Grand Promenade

Strut Your Stuff on the Grand Promenade

Once done with your interior explorations, heading up a few fights of stairs will bring you to the Grand Promenade – a wide walkway that once served as the fashion runway for visitors hoping to be seen and admired. Today it will take you along the rear of the historic buildings and bring you to a few of the remaining uncapped springs. Here you can dip your finger in the scalding water and see how long it takes for your skin to melt off, or just take your pictures and enjoy watching the steam rise up from the tranquil pools.

Those who aren’t short on time or breath can then hike their way uphill on well-marked paths, or follow the example of the rushed and out-of-shape, and take their car to the top for some great city views. The trail network here is well-maintained, though in honesty, they’re not the most scenic of trails – especially by national park standards. But if the weather is nice and you wish to let the third degree burns on your finger cool down, it’s not a bad way to pass an hour or so.

The Main Drag

The Main Street Charm of Central Avenue

The Main Street Charm of Central Avenue

Across the street from Bathhouse row is a line of souvenir shops, pubs, restaurants and tourist-related attractions (such as the poorly-reviewed Gangster Museum) that is worth taking some time to explore. There are no roller coasters or animatronic figures waiting in the streets beyond, but for pure ambiance it is a great place to visit a real life Main Street U.S.A. even if it’s actually called Central Avenue


As both a current and former resort destination, Hot Springs has a healthy amount of lodging options depending on your preferences and budget. There are some good eateries as well – even some surprisingly good pizza, which was no doubt an item in high demand back in the days of the Mafia’s presence.

Visiting the bathhouses shouldn’t take more than an hour – maybe two if you like to read each and every placard and wish to peruse the gift shop. The promenade shouldn’t take all that long, and searing the flesh off your finger in the open pools will take even less time.

Caution: Hot Water. Finger-Dippers Beware

Caution: Hot Water. Finger-Dippers Beware

It’s only a few minute drive to the top of the hill. From there the trails can take as long or short as you’d like – as will a trip up to the top of the observation tower.

Parting Words

It must be said that the attractions of Hot Springs are decidedly marketed to tourists, and the town is therefore (with the exception of Bathhouse Row) a little less than authentic – even if it does retain its original bones. But in between all the kitsch is an atmosphere that seems to acknowledge that its days of glory have passed, but confidently insists that it’s still a great place to see. In that sense, I couldn’t agree more. It was worth the visit and the afternoon of my time that it consumed. As for the skin graft on my finger . . . I’m still undecided 🙂


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Ponza Revisted Part II – All About the H2O

The rocky shore and clear waters of Cala Frontone, Ponza

The rocky shore and clear waters of Cala Frontone, Ponza

I just recently considered the land-based sights and activities on the Italian island of Ponza in the article Ponza Revisited Part I – A Mixed Bag of Changes on Land. Now I’m set to complete the tour by providing a rundown of the amazing water-based options that the island offers.

Cala Frontone

Just as with the land-based activities, almost all options start at the port. The first and easiest day trip is to catch the ferry to Cala Frontone, located just past the village of Santa Maria on the eastern coast. The cove is a gentle curve of chalky cliffs dwindling down into inviting turquoise waters. The beach itself is entirely composed of pea-sized pebbles that will engulf any and all sandals and flip flops, and leave the soles of your feet exfoliated beyond all thought or desire. However, what it lacks in comfort it more than makes up for in ambiance; the natural amphitheater of light-colored stone is a gorgeous backdrop for sunbathing and people-watching irregardless of how raw your feet are. Whenever you have your fill, just hop on the next ferry back to port (provided you bought a round trip ticket, of course) and slip into some comfy socks.

Tour Operators

The port is also where you can catch a ride with one of the myriad tour agencies offering boat tours to various island locales, as well as the nearby islands of Palmarola and Zannone. These tours will usually include opportunities to take a dip at one of the many secluded beaches that dot the further reaches of the island, as well as a bite to eat. This is a great option if you want a hassle-free, half or full day excursion that will take you away from the crowds.

On Your Own

For those with a little more courage or a stronger independent streak, there are many port-side rental agencies that for a reasonable price  (in my case 60 Euro + gas) will let you hire a boat for a day of exploration. After signing a waiver renouncing the rights to your home, car and firstborn in the event that you do not return the boat, you’ll be given a full tank of gas and be on your way.

Find your own private cove on Ponza's north end

Find your own private cove on Ponza’s north end

The North End

Leaving the port you will first pass right by Cala Frontone, which as I’ve already mentioned, is a great place to spend a few hours in the sun. Though the rental agencies would not recommend it, if sea conditions are favorable, you can also strike out for the uninhabited island of Zannone for some exploration of its ruins and isolated location. After that you can head back around the small islet of Gavi at the northern end of the island to the scenic west side of the island.

Here in the northwest there are several tranquil coves where you can catch some rays, rest, or simply stare out at the majestic cliffs all around you. You’ll have to navigate past irregularly-shaped rocky outcroppings (and submerged boulders – beware!!) but if you take your time you might find that you have a lovely spot all to yourself. Either that or a leaky hull.

Le Forne

At the midway point along the western shoreline you’ll run into Le Forne and its twin coves of Cala Feola and Cala d’Acqua. Anchoring your boat offshore, you can either take in the stunning scenery by sea, or paddle over to the natural pools or a shore-side grotto bar for some refreshments. There’s a skirt of rock that will likely be covered by sunbathers, so if you’re looking for privacy, you’re better off staying on the northwest shore of the island or moving on to what was once the principal beach of the island, but is now off limits (on shore anyway), the gorgeous cove of Chiaia di Luna.

You'll have to arrive by boat if you want to see Ponza's most scenic beach, Chiaia di Luna

You’ll have to arrive by boat if you want to see Ponza’s most scenic beach, Chiaia di Luna

Chiaia di Luna

This majestic crescent of vertical cliffs notched out of the island’s profile is arguably the most scenic spot on Ponza. Sadly, a few years back a tourist was killed when they were struck by falling rocks. Since then, the beach has been closed to sunbathers (though there is an effort to make needed renovations and reopen) leaving the only option for visiting this amazing setting being a trip by boat. I recommend that you drop anchor here for at least an hour to rest, take pictures and take a dip in the gentle turquoise water.

The South Side

Once you’re done in Chiaia di Luna, you can either (time, weather and rental agency permitting) shoot across to the uninhabited yet beautiful nearby island of Palmarola, or make your way around Punto Faro – where a quaint lighthouse stands perched on a rocky outcropping that I discovered as being inaccessible by land (see Ponza Revisted Part I for an in-depth recounting of my ill-fated lighthouse quest). Rounding the corner, you’ll make your way through a series of faraglioni (stacks of rock that protrude from the water) and have access to the Grotta di Pilato which boasts ancient Roman ruins and is located underneath the boxy mausoleums of the cemetery above. When you’re finished taking in the interesting scenery here, it’s time to round the jetty and pull back into port.

The Summary

Island living by its very nature, revolves around the sea. Not surprisingly, on Ponza, tourism does too. Anyone looking for beaches, fun in the water, and some independent exploration will find the hydro-centric nature of the island’s activities a welcome diversion from traditional landlubber itineraries. And if you don’t like water, there’s always the Sahara Desert about a thousand miles to the south. Give my regards to the camels while you’re there.

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Ponza Revisited Part I – A Mixed Bag of Changes on Land

The charming port of Ponza

The charming port of Ponza

With so many places left on earth that I’ve yet to see once, I normally chafe at the idea of returning to somewhere that I’ve already been. The idea of visiting the same place multiple times would normally leave me cringing at the thought of missed opportunities. But when it comes to the Italian island of Ponza, which I’ve visited not twice, not three times, but a personal record four times, all such reluctance goes out the window. In fact, it was no burden at all.

If you’d like to read my earlier post about the island of Ponza, click here.

Before re-visiting the island in July 2015, it had been a good eight years since I had last seen these lovely and familiar shores. Back then, I had not yet begun my Trip Accomplice travel blog, nor did I see the need to document my experience there so extensively. This time around I was armed with determination and an idea of what story I wished to tell. The following – divided into two parts covering activities by land and sea – is the result of those endeavors. Here’s my take on the developments on land.

The Port

Get lost in the back streets of the port.

Get lost in the back streets of the port.

If there could be considered a signature scene on the island, it would likely go to the historic port that greets visitors arriving via ferry or aliscafo (hydrofoil). In the interim between my visits, the island has gone to great lengths to improve and expand the appearance and infrastructure of this gateway. Basically a tiered crescent of shops, bars and restaurants, the port has been somewhat gentrified, with upscale boutiques and trendy eateries that belie the simple lifestyle of the year-round residents.

The increase and amelioration of the port area has resulted in greater traffic than ever before. In fact, the entrance to the ancient tunnel built by the Romans now features a traffic light – something once unheard of in this remote outpost. This increase in visitors is not without its benefits. Businesses catering to tourists seemed to be thriving, with many small hotels and pensions dotting the village above the harbor. Increased revenues are not doubt a factor in the renovations along the waterfront which now extend nearly all the way to the tunnel and boast a paved piazza, playground and pedestrian-friendly sidewalks. For day-trippers, the port is now more charming than ever, and for those who stick around to dine al fresco in the many outdoor cafĂ©s, the scene is among the most captivating I’ve ever seen.

Le Forne and the North End

Sun and scenery await at Le Forne

Sun and scenery await at Le Forne

Located midway along the curved spine of the island is an area called Le Forne. Essentially a pair of coves carved out of the soft rock, this is a popular destination for those looking for a little time in the sun. At Cala Feola, one can take a dip in the natural pools, ancient stone pools filled with seawater, or the turquoise cove itself. Sunbathers will be draped all over the broad skirt of rock located at the shore, and a pair of sandals and/or aqua shoes wouldn’t be a bad idea if you wish to walk around or grab a beer in the literal hole-in-the-wall bar set off to one side.

The north end of the island is still relatively tourist-free, if you don’t count all the rental cars and scooters that clog up the one and only primary road on this end of the island. While there are no real tourist attractions to speak of, it does offer visitors a glimpse at the rather agrarian roots of the island’s inhabitants as well as some fantastic views. I wouldn’t say a trip to the northern end is a must-see, but if you’ve got a few hours (and a few thousand calories) to burn, it’s a nice place for an authentic look at island living.

You Shall Not Pass

The (currently) unreachable lighthouse - but not for lack of trying.

The (currently) unreachable lighthouse – but not for lack of trying.

On this, my fourth visit to the island, I had set the goal of both walking its entire length (approximately 5.5 miles in length) and finding my way to the lighthouse that is perched on a promontory at the southernmost tip. I was able to cross off the former (even if my calves and glutes still haven’t forgiven me) but was alas thwarted in my repeated attempts at the latter.

My first attempt involved my following a back-road above the gorgeous cove of Chiaia di Luna, which due to the threat of rock slides was closed at the time of my visit (it is currently permanently closed at the time of writing, but efforts are being made to reopen it along with the ancient tunnel that leads there). I made it midway up Monte della Guardia – the highest point on the island and the backdrop for the port – when a local directed me to take a certain side road then make a right. All this did was lead me back to the port and (exasperated sigh) back to sea level.

Undeterred, I got directions from a shop owner whose face and tone indicated that only a weirdo would want to go all the way to the lighthouse. I followed his proposed route and stumbled across another improvement – illustrated signs noting historical and archaeological points of interest along with background information. As interesting as it was, it’s hard to get excited about the location of an ancient necropolis when you’re struggling to breathe after climbing an unending chain of sun-baked staircases. I had nearly made it three-quarters up the mountain when I was told by a man troweling cement that yes, there is a road that would take me there, but as they say in New England, “You can’t get there from here.” Demoralized, I glumly accepted that I’d have to go down again, only to make my way up.

On my third attempt I completely ignored the quaint houses and gardens that rose in elevation with my every step and kept my head down until I was almost at the top. I stopped a young kid playing in the street who in turn called for his grandmother. She instructed me to keep on going until a fork in the road, where at last there was a glazed tile sign indicating the way to the lighthouse. With my hopes buoyed and a stretch of semi-level ground in front of me, I felt a stirring of triumph in my chest. Unfortunately, such feelings were short-lived as I turned a corner only to come face to face with a sign prohibiting passage on a very long and sketchy-looking staircase leading along the edge of a steep cliff toward the distant lighthouse. The reason given was the same as Chiaia di Luna and a few other places on the island – the danger of falling rocks, mostly due to age and disrepair.

After all the effort and energy I had expended to get there, it felt like one of those falling rocks came down on my spirit. And as I trudged my way back downhill through a warren of whitewashed lanes, I couldn’t help but notice that despite the improvements to the tourist infrastructure, many parts of the island were quite literally falling apart. Nowhere was this more noticeable than in the region called I Conti, where the hereditary plots of terraced hillside – once well-cultivated and in full bloom – were more often than not, now overgrown and wilting from neglect or the limitations of older residents who have not been replaced by a younger generation. It made me sad to think of how that generation will –  for many families – be the last, and the legacy of the hearty, self-sufficient year-round islanders is something passing tourists will likely never know. I was also really tired and sweaty, so maybe I was just feeling sorry for myself.

The Recap

This visit to Ponza was a mixed bag for me. I lamented the paradigm shift from the island known by self-contained older residents, to the emerging tourist destination it seems destined to become. At the same time, the areas that received the necessary upkeep and attention appeared to be coming into their own, and I feel glad that so many new visitors get to experience the wonder of this island gem for the first time. Whether this turns out to be good, bad or a little of both remains to be seen – which would only be, I suppose, on an unprecedented fifth visit. Well, there are certainly worse things in life.

Categories: Anecdotes, Destinations | Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

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