- The Washington Times - Friday, August 19, 2005

HOT SPRINGS, Ark. — Take off your clothes and lift up your arms. Put your head back and your feet here. Sit down. Stand up. Lie here. Roll over. And finally — drink this.

I not only willingly submitted to all this, but waited 20 minutes, paid $50 and actually enjoyed it.

This routine was all part of the “bathing package” at the Buckstaff, a traditional bathhouse in Hot Springs. I knew going in that this was not going to be a trendy spa experience — no New Age music, seaweed wraps or aromatherapy. That was OK. I had come here to explore the town’s history as a health resort, and if that meant sitting in an old-fashioned galvanized tub where the water bubbles like a pot of spaghetti, followed by a spell in a hot metal box that encases every part of your body but your head — I was ready.

I was not alone in my quest. The line to get into the Buckstaff was out the door; the wait for a massage was 40 minutes.

This spa, built in 1912, is the only one on historic Bathhouse Row — a National Historic Landmark District and part of Hot Springs National Park — still in operation. However, the tradition of taking the waters in Hot Springs predates the bathhouses by centuries.

Indians called this area the Valley of Vapors or the Valley of Peace; they gathered here because it was a neutral site. Spanish explorer Hernando de Soto camped here with his expedition in 1541.

By 1832, so many people were seeking cures from the mineral water flowing from the hillside that Congress established the Hot Springs Reservation to protect it. Eventually, Hot Springs was nicknamed the “American Spa,” and in 1921, the national park was created.

Exercise paths were built, too. You can still stroll the lushly landscaped Grand Promenade overlooking Bathhouse Row on Central Avenue.

The bathhouses, built between 1911 and 1939, served wealthy health-seekers as well as veterans and the indigent, whose access to the waters was mandated by the federal government.

The mineral springs’ appeal as a medical treatment faded in the 1950s with scientific advances, including the elimination of polio. With the exception of the Buckstaff, the bathhouses closed in 1983.

Their picturesque exteriors have been preserved, however. A stroll along Bathhouse Row to see the buildings — ranging in style from Spanish mission to neoclassical, with tiles, columns and statues — still evokes their former grandeur.

The Fordyce, another old bathhouse down the street from the Buckstaff, has been converted into a visitors center for the national park and contains historical exhibits. You’ll see electric shock devices for muscle therapy; the chiropody room, which uses an old-fashioned name for podiatry; the gymnasium and music room; and a grand stone court where guests waited on marble benches around a fountain.

The room where I awaited my immersion at the Buckstaff was far less elegant. I generally prefer authenticity over fuss, but as I waited for my name to be called, I have to admit that the spartan ambience became a bit intimidating — a hard wooden chair, bare feet on white industrial tiles, a white sheet wrapped like a toga around my naked body by a businesslike matron.

Waiting with me were a bride-to-be and her mom, two young mothers on a rare day away from their children, and a pair of twentysomething sisters. All of us were from out of state — New York, Missouri and Texas — and all were first-timers. After a half-hour, the bride-to-be begged her mother to leave, but mom said everything would be fine. I chose to believe her.

At last I was escorted to an individual whirlpool tub for a soak in bubbling mineral water, cooled to 100 degrees from the 143-degree temperature at which it emerges from the ground. My bath attendant handed me a cup of hot water.

“What do I do with this?” I asked in a small voice, feeling like Alice in the rabbit hole.

“You drink it, honey,” she said cheerfully, adding, “if you want to,” after seeing my slightly terrified expression.

I did drink it, and two more, while she efficiently loofahed my arms and legs. This was starting to feel good. Then I took a sitz bath, where you sit in a basin, followed by a spell in the steam cabinet, a saunalike metal box famously featured in an “I Love Lucy” episode. Next, hot packs on my back, a cold “needle” shower, and finally an excellent massage.

That was it. I walked out into the sunlight and realized that as I had been sent from tub to tub, to shower to table, my mind had emptied. I couldn’t bring my normally obsessive brain to think of a single worry.

I ran into some of the others from the waiting room as I left; they already were making plans to come back. It had been unpretentious and unglamorous — but it also had been fun. As cliched as it sounds, I felt happy and refreshed.

Along Central Avenue, visitors still can drink and fill jugs from fountains where the magic water flows. These days, no one claims it will cure you, but I took a sip anyway.

Buckstaff Bathhouse, 509 Central Ave., Hot Springs, Ark.; visit www.buckstaffbaths.com or call 501/623-2308. Open 7 to 11:45 a.m. and 1:30 to 3 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. Sunday. (Closed Saturday afternoon and Sunday from Dec. 1 through Feb. 28.) A $47 package includes bath, massage and other water treatments. Manicures, pedicures and facials also available.

Hot Springs National Park. Visitors center with historical exhibits at the Fordyce Bathhouse in the 300 block of Central Avenue-Bathhouse Row; www.nps.gov/hosp or 501/624-2701.

OTHER ATTRACTIONS

Oaklawn Park, 2705 Central Ave.; www.oaklawn.com or 800/625-5296. Horse racing Jan. 20 through April 15.

Belle of Hot Springs riverboat cruises, 5200 Central Ave.; www.belleriverboat.com or 501/525-4438.

Garvan Woodland Gardens, 550 Arkridge Road; www.garvangardens.org or 800/366-4664. Open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily April through October; from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. November through March. (Closed Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s Day and the first two weeks of January.)

Ouachita National Forest; www.aokforests.com or 501/321-5202. Camping, hiking, fall foliage.

Contemporary hotel-spas include the Arlington Resort, 239 Central Ave., www.arlingtonhotel.com or 501/623-7771, and the Majestic, 101 Park Ave., www.themajestichotel.com or 501/623-5511.

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