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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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 🙂