HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Native Americans considered it sacred ground where warring tribes could gather peacefully.
Soldiers of Hernando DeSoto in 1541 thought it was the fabled Fountain of Youth.
Al Capone and other gangsters deemed it neutral territory where they could play without gunfights.
All I could think of was Lucille Ball.
In an episode of her “I Love Lucy” television series, the comedian stepped into a steam cabinet to sweat off pounds. What happened, of course, was hilarious.
In all my years, I had never been inside a steam cabinet. Steam rooms, sure. Saunas, yep. But those shiny metal steam cabinets with your head poking out of a tiny hole looked so intimidating. It took a trip to Hot Springs, Ark., for me to see why the devices became so popular.
REALLY ARE HOT SPRINGS
First off, Hot Springs itself is a pure delight. And there actually are hot springs. They spurt from the ground at 143 degrees at 47 hot springs.
“We have to cool it down so you can use it,” said ranger Nalissala Allen at Hot Springs National Park.
The mineral-laden water has long been used for bathing and drinking. The water was touted to cure everything from arthritis and asthma to skin disorders and syphilis.
Hotels and bathhouses — often no more than shacks — sprang up to serve the bathers. Those were replaced by ornate hotels and bathhouses, one right after the other on what became known as Bathhouse Row.
“This was the Golden Age of Bathing, and they spared no expense to create an exotic and luxurious experience,” Allen said.
Nicknamed “The American Spa,” Hot Springs drew visitors from around the globe. In 1890, horse races became an important pastime, and other activities were added to entertain all ages.
“But people began to worry, and in 1832 they petitioned the federal government to protect the springs. Hot Springs became the first federally protected area in the nation’s history,” Allen said. “That makes us 40 years older than Yellowstone. … We are the smallest park in the system.”
As the 20th century and modern medicine advanced, belief in the healing power of the hot waters faded. One by one, many bathhouses closed down, and hotels burned or were razed.
Now, Hot Springs National Park is enjoying a major resurgence. A National Historic Landmark District, Bathhouse Row contains the grandest collection of bathhouses of its kind in North America.
Only two, the Buckstaff – which has been in continuous operation since opening in 1912 – and the Quapaw Baths remain open today. The other six are in various stages of renovation and restoration, in preparation for leasing by the National Park Service to carefully approved businesses.
UNUSUAL HISTORIC BATHS
The historic bathhouse experience is quite interesting and not at all like contemporary spas with their dim lights, aromatic scents, hushed sounds and soft music. Hot Springs, of course, does boast top-notch contemporary spas. The Embassy Suites and Hotel, for example, features the lovely Spa Botanica, where you can be pampered with herbal body wraps, aromatherapy, hot stone massage and many other delights.
The historic Arlington Hotel with its beautiful architecture and lobby is a must see and its spa is a favorite spot for many. Enjoy a drink in the bar. Book the Al Capone Suite, if possible. It’s where the gangster actually stayed. He owned the corner suite on the fourth floor, all the better to see his gambling joint, the Southern Club, across the street and to watch for possible enemies.
“The suite has multiple exits – even in the closet – so Al Capone could be sure he could get out if he had to escape,” said Benny Baker, director of sales at the Arlington. “It’s said he could look out the window here and see his men outside. If one of them wore a white carnation in his suit lapel, it was a warning that there was danger.”
But those old bathhouse treatments are something else.
At the Buckstaff, men and women spas are on separate floors. My visit started when I undressed in a curtain-covered cubicle, was wrapped in a crisp white sheet like a toga and escorted to a thermal mineral bath. The well-lit rooms had an old-time hospital look, like something out of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest.” But bathers were obviously very happy to be there.
In a tiny private chamber, the big old-fashioned tub was equipped with something that looked like an outboard boat motor. It churned the water around very effectively while I sipped a plastic cup of warm mineral water. Before the advent of so many home Jacuzzis and hot tubs, this must have been the ultimate in relaxation.
Since there was no door on the tub room, spa attendant Latoya Pickney would announce “Knock, knock” before entering my room. After about 25 minutes in the whirling water, I received a “defoliation” treatment when Pickney knocked, entered and used a loofah to brush my arms, legs and back.
Next, was the “vapor” cabinet, also known as the steam cabinet. Once I sat in it, the whole idea made sense. While your body steams and sweats inside the metal box, your head can breathe the cooler outside air.
The contraption sure doesn’t look very fancy or comfy. It’s more like climbing into a front-loading clothes dryer. I sat down, Pickney lowered the metal top with holes cut out for my head, wrapped my neck in a towel and I sweated.
After about five minutes I had enough. “We don’t want to cook you,” Pickney agreed.
The sitz bath was next. I’d heard of them but never seen one. It’s sort of like a commode bowl filled with very warm water. You’re supposed to sit there about 10 minutes. “Good for back pain and hemorrhoids,” Pickney said. I don’t have either.
A couple of waterlogged magazines sat alongside the sitz bath, to pass the time I suppose. Somehow, it didn’t seem appropriate to see Alec Baldwin staring at me from the curly cover of a year-old Men’s Journal so I turned it over. Instead, I pondered the power of the old-fashioned bathhouse.
After that was the pack room, where I immediately fell asleep. An attendant wrapped my arms and legs with hot towels, covered my forehead with a cold towel and left me there about 20 minutes. Very nice.
A needle shower with columns of eight showerheads squirting lukewarm water all over the body was a forerunner of today’s specialty 360-degree showers that so many homeowners are now wanting. “They are the popular new thing in homes today, but our bathhouses had them long ago,” Pickney pointed out.
Then I was led to the “cooling room” to await the grand finale — a 25-minute Swedish massage. Masseuse Jennifer Ward did a great job of massaging stressed muscles. But I heard that another masseuse works her wonders along with singing old spirituals like “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” The whole Buckstaff spa process cost $64 and was a real bargain and a true pleasure.
Scientific research maintains that the water doesn’t cure a darn thing. But folks still come to Hot Springs to fill bottles with the hot water flowing from several public fountains. They also line up to visit the spas.
“It makes you feel better,” Pickney said as she guided me through the Buckstaff spa treatments. “When you leave here, you’ll feel better than when you came in.”
I’ll have to agree with her on that. Whatever “magical qualities” the Hot Springs water has or doesn’t have, the Buckstaff spa was an experience that I would gladly repeat.
For more information: Contact Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism at www.arkansas.com or Hot Springs National Park at www.hotsprings.org.