You can’t throw a rock — or quartz — in Hot Springs, Ark., without hitting something unusual. That’s what makes this city worth visiting again and again.
By Stacey Bowers / Photography by Ashlee Nobel
[dropcap]It’s[/dropcap] best to go with the flow in the unorthodox town known for bathtub races, gangsters, the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day parade — happening this month! — and magical, cure-all waters. It’s a city we love not because it has everything we’re looking for, but because it has everything we’ve never thought to look for.
There are so many ways to stay in Hot Springs, you’ll likely regret skipping out on an overnight experience. Spa City promises rest, relaxation and rejuvenation, which you’ll find in hotels with spa services, like the historical Arlington, located on Bathhouse Row. The Arlington offers luxury rooms within walking distance of many main attractions, and the bartenders in its racetrack-themed bar mix a mean Bloody Mary. If you’re more into lakeside living, you’ll fall in love with Lookout Point Lakeside Inn on the banks of Lake Hamilton. This bed and breakfast’s cozy rooms, hospitable owners, serene gardens and unmatched view are why it has a loyal fan club. If you want to take R&R to the highest level, head to the nearby town of Mount Ida, and reinvent yourself with a stay at Turtle Cove Spa. Mix and match yoga classes, massages, salon services, hiking and more to shake the doldrums and put pep in your step.
Whether or not you bask in hotel spa services, Bathhouse Row and its functioning bathhouses are essential to an authentic Spa City experience. After a rinse in the legendary healing waters, indulge in the unique shopping found across the street.
Kitschy souvenir shops mingle with boutiques, restaurants, museums and murals. Continue the clean theme by stocking up on made-from-scratch bath products at Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium, and tour the exhibits at Mountain Valley Spring Water bottling company. Discover the city’s notorious past at the Gangster Museum of America. Don’t call it a day without stopping by a few of the ubiquitous galleries, where art by local favorites, like Linda Palmer and Carole Katchen, and national and international acquisitions fill the walls. Two must-see galleries are the Museum of Contemporary Art, located in the renovated Ozark bathhouse, and Crystal Springs Gallery, where art and earth alloy in the form of sparkling minerals and fascinating fossils.
The diverse restaurants, like Rolando’s, The Pancake Shop and Angel’s, make Hot Springs’ gastronomy obsession obvious. You’ll also find widely-successful dessert shops — skipping out on a cupcake from Fat Bottomed Girl’s Cupcake Shop is reproachable — and culinary stores — homegrown The Savory Pantry will let you try the tasty wares before you buy — that pepper Bathhouse Row; but flavor is evenly distributed through the city. Head outside downtown for local favorites like healthy, homemade lunch at Café 1217; state-famous Mexican cuisine at Taco Mama; fine Italian fare at Jahna’s Italian Restaurant; Bill Clinton’s beloved barbecue at McClard’s Bar-B-Q; and primo steaks at KJ’s Grill.
Betting at Oaklawn Park is without a doubt the most popular one, and, with the Rebel Stakes set for March 16, this is peak live-racing season; but the city’s oldest attraction is Arkansas Alligator Farm, tucked just around the corner from Bathhouse Row. This petting-zoo-meets-wildlife safari may sound like child’s play, but the big kids at AY had just about more fun than they could literally handle; the alligators we held put up a good fight, but in the end we prevailed. Common sense and farm rules prevented us from getting our hands on the other exotics, including cougars, wolves, South American water fowl, wild turkeys and foxes, but our time in the goat pen made up for that.
One pilgrimage every Arkansan should take in March is to Garvan Woodland Gardens. The 210 acres of footpaths and foliage are spectacular any time of year but are exceptionally breathtaking this month when the tulips and daffodils are in bloom. The Gardens are a quiet place for reverie or reflection — the perfect place to seal a healing experience in Hot Springs.
For more information about Hot Springs, log onto hotsprings.org.