L ong dear to the hearts of Memphians for its soothing thermal waters and its pounding horse-racing excitement, Hot Springs, Arkansas, is just over three hours away, 60 miles southwest of Little Rock, nestled in the foothills of the Ouachita Mountains.
In fact, the eight different buildings that stretch along “Bathhouse Row” along Central Avenue downtown have the distinction of being the central attraction of Hot Springs National Park, which in turn is distinguished by being the nation’s smallest such park. Built mostly in the early twentieth century, the eclectic bathhouses — all now meticulously restored to their original glory — led one critic in the 1930s to suggest that these Hot Springs architectural gems were collectively representative of the Cecil B. DeMille style!
And while horse racing has declined in popularity in recent decades, Oaklawn Park racetrack still ranks as one of the nation’s top ten horse racing venues. And if, like me, you’ve been lucky enough to jostle with the huge crowds who attend the Hot Springs racing season’s grand-finale event, the Arkansas Derby (held on the second or third Saturday of every April), you’ll realize that this race previewing the country’s top 3-year-olds on the eve of the Kentucky Derby in May is still one of the state’s top annual events.
W hen I was there this past spring for a rollicking racing weekend, we stayed at the historic Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa, right at the north end of Bathhouse Row downtown. While more modern lodgings can be had all around Hot Springs, the Arlington is “party central” during the Oaklawn racing season. Since 1875, the Arlington has been hosting presidents, business dignitaries, movie stars, and — given Hot Springs’ steamy past during the Prohibition Era — more than its share of gangsters. (Where else would you find the Gangster Museum of America, except in Hot Springs?)
Over this past Derby weekend, people young and old swarmed the Arlington lobby at all hours, drinking mid-morning Bloody Marys, exchanging racing tips, and dancing to live bands well into the night. Jitneys and taxis lined up outside to take people to the racetrack, and the casual dress code of the crowd seems to be mostly denim, in all its forms — a far cry from the formality of the Kentucky Derby or England’s Ascot — but it seems eminently suited to Arkansas.
Inside the Arlington’s old-fashioned spa, with its traditional and therapeutic-looking white tiles and deep, white porcelain baths, the decor is more Saratoga or Baden-Baden than the fancy luxurious spas we’re often used to seeing today. But the wonderfully fresh hot water is piped directly from the springs into the hotel, and stepping into the tub is like stepping back in time. The Arlington spa experience is one not to be missed by any first-time visitor. I would say the experienced, no-nonsense spa workers can be said to “relax,” rather than “pamper,” their guests.
T he main thoroughfare in town, Central Avenue, is a pleasant, tree-lined street in the shadow of Hot Springs Mountain, with a variety of shops and restaurants and the aforementioned eight bathhouses dating to the turn of the last century. Because of what was thought to be the magical, curative powers of this vapor valley’s steaming underground springs, temples to health were built in Renaissance, Spanish Colonial, and Classical Revival styles, all of which would have felt comfortably situated on a movie set.
As a result of its famous springs, this special place for well over half a century was known as America’s Spa City. But sadly, beginning in the 1960s, times and tastes began to change — as hot water became readily available in every home — and bathhouses fell into decline, as antibiotics replaced the presumed healing powers of hot springs. Today, however, Bathhouse Row is on the upswing. The Quapaw Bathhouse (dating to 1922) has been revamped into a gleaming modern-day spa, and the Fordyce (1915) is a visitor center, while the Ozark Bathhouse (1922) serves as a cultural center and art gallery for the Hot Springs National Park.
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery (dating to 1916) has been repurposed, and in 2013 reopened as an upscale brew pub which has been receiving great press both regionally and nationally. Our little group of Memphis friends and racetrack regulars — including Jimmy and Denise Hinson, Bill and Eileen Adams, Harriet McGeorge Thompson, Gloria White and husband Ed Rainey, and Judith Harrison — dined there together on my first night in town. Harriet, who I will call handicapper “extraordinaire,” had won large at the races that day and generously treated the table to a selection of tasty hors d’oeuvres.
After dinner some of us stopped across the street at The Ohio Club, a century-old bar and grill, established in 1905 and said to be the oldest such establishment in Arkansas. During the Prohibition Era it even changed its name temporarily to the more innocent sounding Ohio Cigar Store, featuring false walls which could be used to hide the contents of the bar, should the need arise. (Shades of New York’s 21 Club, the famous former speakeasy with its disappearing bar and secret wine cellar.)
Oaklawn Park itself is an art-deco racetrack dating back to 1904, and my husband and I were lucky enough to fall heir on Derby Saturday to a box belonging to a prominent Memphian, located right smack on the finish line. The boxes are handsome — painted blue and green — and it is a very pretty track. There is food and drink of all kinds, and daffodil wreaths, a springtime tradition, are for sale for charity.
On Sunday, Judy Harrison and I passed up breakfast at The Pancake Shop, a local legend since 1940, with its long lines out the door, in favor of a bit of shopping. We went across the road to Tillman’s Antiques, where we had a great conversation with its elegant owner, Davis Tillman, a man-about-town who was a mine of information and who has a number of friends in Memphis; he was part of the leadership team of Memphis in May for much of the 1980s.
O ne of the region’s foremost antique dealers, Tillman raved in particular about the fall season in Hot Springs, and had high praise for the colorful foliage at the Garvan Woodland Gardens, the botanical garden of the University of Arkansas, a magnificent wooded wonderland located on a peninsula jutting out into lovely Lake Hamilton, about six miles south of the Arlington. Tillman also told us all about the city’s half-dozen small art galleries, explaining how Hot Springs has long been a special place for artists and performers. While best known for its racetrack and bathhouses, the Hot Springs area has become very popular over the past several decades as a retirement destination. Perhaps the best-known development is Hot Springs Village, established in 1970 and now home to nearly 13,000 residents. Just 15 miles north of downtown, the Village is the largest gated community in America and seems an ideal retirement spot or the perfect place to rent or own a vacation home. Popular for its natural beauty and nine golf courses, Hot Springs Village includes a 27-hole complex, a 13-court tennis center, 30 miles of hiking trails, 11 lakes, three beaches, and more than 200 clubs and organizations.
The Village stretches across 26,000 acres in the Ouachita Mountains, a perfect place to get back to nature and enjoy the outdoor life. It is open to the public, and Sharon Bowen, marketing coordinator, suggests stopping by the visitor center off Highway 7 for a one-day pass, or calling 866-984-9963 to check out the community. For more information, visit hotspringsvillagearkansas.com.
Needless to say, we had a fine spring in Hot Springs this year, and look forward to returning. The 2015 racing season at Oaklawn Park opens Friday, January 9th, and closes with the Arkansas Derby on Saturday, April 15th. A day at the races is a memorable experience that everyone should enjoy at least once, if not more often.
Writing last year in Preservation magazine, author Chris Warren characterized Hot Springs as a quirky little city that “has long had a conflicted soul, part of it devoted to healing and rejuvenation and the other part to sin and indulgence.” Sounds like the perfect mix to me!