Editor’s note: “When in Hot Springs…” is a 5-part series that will run every Thursday in May. It was originally one single article I wrote for a group of friends after visiting Hot Springs, Arkansas, several years ago. We still laugh about some of the things from that trip, and I hope you enjoy the story, as well.
Several weeks ago, I was talking with my friend Cindy about my then-upcoming trip to Arkansas for some time with friends and a colleague’s wedding in Hot Springs. She asked if I would have time to do one of the traditional bathhouses in Hot Springs, with a glint in her eye like there was more behind that particular question. (Knowing Cindy, I probably wasn’t too far off base with that assumption.) I didn’t think that much about it at the time and simply responded that I wasn’t sure what we would have time for, but the idea sounded interesting.
Fast forward to our trip, and my friends and I are making our way from Little Rock to Hot Springs on Saturday morning for the wedding later that afternoon. Andrew is telling me a about his trip to the bathhouse in high school, including details like the whirlpool tub and the multi-head shower. It all sounded interesting, but before this trip, I really didn’t know that much about this “bathhouse” idea, even though it seemed to be a rather big part of Hot Spring’s history.
In the late 1800s and first half of the 20th century, Americans flocked to Hot Springs and the European-style bathhouses that had sprung up around the city. It was believed that the mineral-rich hot spring water healed many common ailments of the day. President Roosevelt was a big believer in the water and the bathhouses as he searched for ways to deal with his polio. We all know how well that worked out for him.
We arrive in Hot Springs a little before lunch, drive through town a bit and stop at a restored old bathhouse now serving a visitor’s center. Virginia and I stumble on a building tour while Andrew parks the car, and we get a look at what an original bathhouse looked like—individual tubs, steam rooms, parlors—all very romantic from an era long forgotten by most of the country.
On our way out, Virginia hands me a brochure from Buckstaff Baths, the only continuously-operating bathhouse on Bathhouse Row, sitting two doors down from where we were. It’s been around for almost one hundred years, and from my (very) limited research on the Internet before leaving Little Rock, I found that the price for their “all-inclusive” package was slightly cheaper than the other options in town. (Hindsight: when planning your own bathhouse experience, you may not want to make a decision based exclusively on price. Go for the Chick-fil-a, not the Taco Bell.)
I’m still not convinced that this is how I want to spend my afternoon or my cash, and I certainly wasn’t fully aware of what exactly I would be getting myself into. We head to lunch as I mentally weigh the pros and cons: Price vs. experience. Time in town vs. visiting the lake with my friends. I would later recognize another scenario that I could not contemplate before making the decision: modesty intact vs. writing a killer review of the whole process afterward. But I digress…
Come back next Thursday for Part 2.