We drove down from Missouri on a beautiful spring afternoon. From Little Rock, you can take I-30 to US 70, which pleasantly winds through the moderately hilly pine-covered countryside. The city of Hot Springs is centered around the narrow gap between Hot Springs and West Mountains and spills out to the north and south. That narrow band of city actually splits the National Park, giving it the shape of a long, thin 'C' opening to the south. Due to a premature exit, we actually circled all the way around through the eastern portion of the park on Highway 7, and approached central Hot Springs from the north.This was one of America’s first resort towns. It began as a site for pilgrims in search of better health, despite its exceedingly remote location in the western wilderness of the early 19th century. Before the railroad, just the trip from Little Rock was 10 hours. When the steel rails improved its accessibility, bathhouses sprang up like mushrooms along the edge of Hot Springs Mountain, and the town enjoyed a wild-west-like reputation.Little is left of that period. The Hot Springs of today largely dates from the first half of the 20th century, the second generation of buildings constructed by a new ethos: to make this central Arkansas town the equivalent of the European resort spas of Baden-Baden and its like. An incongruity, perhaps, but the feeling is that they nearly succeeded. At least in downtown Hot Springs. Along Central Avenue and Bathhouse Row, you can see the landmarks of that era. The bathhouses themselves, the Arlington Hotel, the Majestic: these places point back to an era of opulence and extravagance. The racetrack (Oaklawn) came in 1904 but came back to life in 1934, another peg in constructing a spa lifestyle around the springs themselves: nightlife, golfing, horseback riding and racing. In their post-WWII heyday, the bathhouses gave 1,000,000 baths per year. But by the 1970s, when the therapeutic effects of bathing were less evident—and as other resort options burgeoned around the country—most bathhouses had closed.The central part of Hot Springs really reminded me of Florida’s older resort towns. The architecture dates from the same period, built when the town was one of the first places the nation came purely for relaxation: sort of a pre-Las Vegas or Atlantic City. The northern part of the city is clearly poorer, which also reminded me of the contrast between the strip in Atlantic City and the neighborhoods behind it.Much of the new development is south. Oaklawn race track is on Central Avenue, 3 miles past the bathhouses, and the major hotel and restaurant chains have built even further south, near the exit off of 270. That’s where we spent the night, at the Hampton Inn. This area feels just like any other similar cluster of development off any other freeway in America.
That’s certainly not true for the city itself. And although Hot Springs’ construction shows its age, that could work to its advantage. The bathhouses, at least externally, are still in great shape, and walking down Central Avenue in front of and then behind them (along the Grand Promenade) is a wonderful trip. The Arlington and Majestic Hotels certainly appear to be solid and attractive enough for a comeback (although reviews on their current state is mixed). With interest in spas on the rise, there’s no reason Hot Springs can’t return. Although only one bathhouse currently operates (the Buckstaff, at the southern end of the Row), another is scheduled to open soon. Central Avenue is already a pleasant mix of interesting shops and typical tourist stuff, and the area appears to have a number of good restaurants. My wife and I both thought we might come back for a getaway sans children. When we do, we’ll look to stay downtown.