Friday, May 20, 2016

Warming up in Hot Springs

Hot Springs, Arkansas was once the go-to place for restoring health and vitality through
Hot Springs from Hot Springs Mountain
bathing in the healing waters of the many hot springs. While we didn’t partake of the baths, we did get a bit damp as we strolled along Bath House Row admiring the architecture. This city gets its name from the 47 natural springs of thermal water on the western slope of Hot Springs Mountain. These springs produce about a million gallons of 143 °F water each day. National Park Service scientists found, through radiocarbon dating, that the water coming to the surface today fell as rain some 4,400 years earlier. The water oozes very slowly down through the earth’s surface finally reaching superheated areas deep within the crust, then rushes to the surface to appear in the hot springs.

Years before the Anglos discovered this region, members of many Native American tribes gathered in the valley to enjoy the healing properties of the thermal springs. The hot spring
Fordyce Spring
water was celebrated in legends among several Native American tribes. However, in the mid-17th century a French priest explored the area and then claimed it for France. The area came into possession of the US through the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, although the land actually belonged to the Quapaw Indians. Four years later the first settler to modern Hot Springs made his appearance and was soon joined by John Perciful and Isaac Cates. In 1820, the Arkansas Territorial Legislature requested that the springs and adjoining mountains be set aside as a federal reservation; this request was granted twelve years later but not named Hot Springs National Park until 1921. Following federal protection in 1832, the city developed into a successful spa town and was incorporated in 1851.

Bathhouses and hotels underwent extensive renovation after the Civil War, heralding an
Top: One of the baseball signs
Bottom: Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo
increase in the year-round population to support the increasing tourist trade. By 1873 there were six bathhouses and 24 hotels and boardinghouses near the springs and with the completion of a narrow gauge railroad from Malvern to Hot Springs bringing even more visitors, business boomed. The first Arlington Hotel opened in 1875, a luxury hotel that attracted the wealthy and to some extent the criminal class that preyed off of them. Development in the area also attracted the sports industry. From 1894-1925 Hot Springs was known for baseball training camps with many Major League clubs using this area get the players in shape for the coming season. The Boston Red Sox, Brooklyn Dodgers, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Spiders, Detroit Tigers, New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates used Hot Springs as their home base. Celebrating this time in history are 26 markers throughout Hot Springs on the ‘Hot Springs Baseball Historic Trail’ identifying people and locations important to baseball. If you take this drive, you’ll also see one of the oldest attractions in Hot Springs, the Alligator Farm and Petting Zoo. I can remember going there as a child, but I don’t remember petting any gators.

Illegal gambling ran rampant for many years, making Hot Springs a national gambling mecca, ignored by a corrupt group of politicians and police. From 1927 to 1947 there were
Arlington Hotel
approximately ten major casinos and a number of smaller houses in operation, making this the largest venture of this sort in the United States at that time. However, this suddenly ended in 1946 when Marine Lt. Col. Sid McMath was elected prosecuting attorney and the crime bosses along with the elected officials they had bribed were prosecuted. Illegal gambling returned eight years later with the election of Governor Orval Faubus and wasn’t finally eliminated until 1967 when Governor Winthrop Rockefeller and Circuit Judge Henry M. Britt. Rockefeller came into office. Oaklawn Park, a thoroughbred horse racing track, was the only legal gambling area in Hot Springs.

The famous Bathhouse Row is still in operation with several of the bathhouses restored by
Top L to R: Stained glass ceiling, window,
women's stateroom
Bottom L to R: Electrical simulator, Gym, Statue
the National Park Service. Fordyce Bathhouse was restored in 1989 as the park's visitor center. It also has a self-guided tour that gives visitors a taste of what it was like to be pampered in these establishments. I was most impressed with the stained glass windows and the rooms available to women after their treatments. For some reason, men didn’t need such rooms, but they got to sunbathe naked on the roof; the women only had a small area of the roof garden that was always shaded and was walled off from the nude men. There were also separate facilities for massage, electro stimulation, and other alternative medicinal treatments. A full gymnasium was also available for patrons’ use. One of the prettiest parts of this bathhouse was the men’s entrance portion with its stained glass ceiling and lovely marble statue.

Buckstaff Bathhouse has been in continuous operation since 1912, and still provides baths for the public. The Quapaw, restored by the NPS in 2004, and leased to Quapaw Baths, has
Bathhouse Row
a modern spa with pools and hot tubs. The Lamar is now offices for park staff and the Bathhouse Row Emporium, the official store for the NPS. Superior Bathhouse Brewery and Distillery is in the Superior Bathhouse; they use the hot spring water in their beers and spirits. Also a part of the National Park, but at the top of Hot Springs Mountain is the Hot Springs Mountain Tower. This observation tower stands 216 feet (66 m) above the mountain top, and on clear days gives you a great view of Hot Springs and the mountains around it. All we saw during our foggy, misty trip were low hanging clouds.

Not far from Hot Springs is the Mid-America Science Museum a good place to visit, even if
Top L to R: Outside seating, Sand spinners
Bottom L to R: Land forms, Flying machine
it’s not chilly and rainy. This hands-on museum was in its early stages back in the 1980s when I first visited it and I’m glad to say that it has improved with age. In fact, it has just won the prestigious 2016 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the nation’s highest honor given to museums and libraries for service to the community. I think the Near-Normal Travelers touched every one of the 100+ hands-on exhibits and admired what we couldn’t handle. I loved Rowland Emett's 'things' (kinetic sculptures), particularly  The Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine. However, the big hit for us all was the box of rubber pellets that could be used to build land forms. Once the mountains and valleys were constructed, you could manipulate light to make it rain causing lakes, rivers, floods, and all sorts of topologically influenced weather events. There is also an outdoor area with a walkway through the grounds that can be accessed from the 32-feet high Bob Wheeler Science Sky-walk. We were delighted when the weather cooperated so that we could enjoy the outdoor facilities along with the indoor exhibits. 

Parking facility, sculpture and water feature
The Hot Springs area offers lots of things to do and see, as well as good places to stay and plenty to eat. For information about my rating system, see Reading the Reviews.

Where we stayed:
Three carrots
Country Inn & Suites by Carlson (4307 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71913, 501-525-
Top L to R: Bathroom 1, Bedroom 1
Bottom L to R: Bedroom 2, Shower in bathroom 2,
Bathroom 2
2225) is a good hotel that’s fairly close to downtown. It has comfy beds, lots of room, and plenty of everything. I really didn’t understand all of the bed covers in the drawers – does it get THAT cold here? Vince had a large room with walk in shower. Parking was free as was the internet. Although breakfast included in the room rate, it was poor; everything tasted like cardboard. The juice was good and the coffee was okay; Vince said the fresh fruit was probably fresh a day or two before. Service from the desk crew and the maids was good, although the morning desk clerk reeked of cigarette smoke.

What we did:
Four carrots
Hot Springs National Park (369 Central Avenue, Hot Springs, AR 71901) is a very nice place to go for a couple of days of laid-back touring, particularly if it is not racing season. 
NPS Visitor Center and Fordyce Bathhouse
The free self-guided tour of the Fordyce Bathhouse was good and well worth the time to read all of the information plaques. There is also a short movie that is entertaining, as well as informational; see this first to really understand what it took to keep these houses running. This area is fully accessible, but the hallways are old, so there are some tight areas. Across the street is a large parking garage that is free to the public. Other bathhouses weren’t open for touring.

Mid-America Science Museum (500 Mid-America Blvd, Hot Springs, AR 71913, 501-767-
Fountain on the nature walk at the museum
3461) is a wonderful science museum. There is an entrance fee, but parking is free. The setting is beautiful, particularly with the wildflowers in bloom. There are outside seating areas with tables near the stream.

What we ate:
Four carrots
The Bleu Monkey Grill (4263 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71913, 501-520-4800) was a delightful happenstance. It’s located next door to the Country Inn & Suites and if it were 
Left T to B: Menu, Calimari
Right T to B: Bread, Club sandwich, Chicken wraps
open for breakfast it would do even more business than it does for lunch or dinner – it’s that good. We wanted something light for our dinner so two of us ordered off of the appetizer menu. The first thing to appear, after out drinks was a plate of hot, fresh bread and a bowl of garlic-pesto oil; it was excellent! Vince had Calamari from the appetizer menu. It was a huge portion of hot, tender, crispy meat with a very nice sauce. He said that it was very good! Dave’s light meal was a Grilled Chicken and Avocado Club. While it wasn’t three layers, it was a jaw-stretcher, none the less. The ingredients were of good quality and taste excellent. The accompanying waffle sweet potato fries were also good. I had Chicken Lettuce Wraps from the appetizer menu. These could have fed at least two people. The lettuce was crispy; carrots, bean sprouts and cucumber were fresh. The tasty cold noodles went especially well with the two very sauces: one sweet the other spicy. The grilled chicken was tender and juicy. We had a great waitress, Stephanie, who checked with the chef about the ingredients in our meals and gave us time to make decisions. Prices were quite reasonable. The only negative was the noise from the bar – there was a party going on. I’d go back to the Bleu Monkey in a heartbeat.

Jahna’s Restaurant (1803 Airport Rd, Hot Springs, AR 71913, 501-767-0200) doesn’t look like much from the outside, but it’s a rather upscale Italian restaurant. And although it’s
Top L to R: Bread, Menu, Chicken Normandy, Tiramisu
Bottom L to R: Spaghetti, Lasagna, Merlot
upscale, I did see people in cut-off shorts and tank tops with children in tow who were just as graciously greeted and served as people dressed much more formally. Dave and Vince started with glasses of house merlot that they said were quite good; I had an excellent Roscato. Our waiter brought some wonderfully warm bread and olive tamponade that was lovely. Vince couldn’t find exactly what he wanted on the menu, so asked if he could get Spaghetti with Italian Sausage; the chef was happy to prepare that for him. Vince said that the sauce was good, as was the sausage. Dave had Meat Lasagna that he liked; he would have liked more ricotta. I had Chicken Normandy that made me want to lick the plate. The flavors of apples, cider and cream mingled nicely with the chicken and the aroma was heavenly. We all shared the Tiramisu that was well prepared with just the right amount of coffee and cake. Prices for dinner were about $15 per person without wine or dessert. My only complaint was that our waiter was much too soft-spoken for the acoustics.
Three and one-half carrots
English Muffin Country Kitchen (4832 South Central Avenue, Hot Springs, AR 71913, 
Top L to R: Menu, Scrambled eggs, grits and bacon
Bottom L to R: Fried eggs, bacon and fruit;
Omelet and grits
501-525-2710) is not downtown, as some apps would lead you to believe, but out on Lake Hamilton. We wished we’d found this homey restaurant sooner – it would have solved our hunting for breakfast issues.  All of us had bacon and some sort of eggs, but we each had a different English Muffin and they were all good. The coffee was fresh, hot, and free-flowing. Vince wanted a bowl of fruit; the waitress said that she had just sliced it this morning or she would advise against it. And she was right: the fruit was fresh and sweet. I, of course, chose the cranberry English Muffin; it was hot enough to melt the butter and had sweet pieces of cranberry that you could actually taste. Dave didn’t say much, he just kept eating. Prices were good and the staff was friendly. We’d go back, again, any time.
Three carrots
Fisherman’s Wharf (5101 Central Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71913, 501-525-7437) is a good place to go for lunch or dinner. The handicapped parking is on the lower level so you don’t 
Top L to R: Menu, Grouper
Bottom L to R: Shrimp bites, Clams
have to use the stairs, but that’s not apparent from the upper lot. Dave had the Grouper; it was well prepared with excellent potatoes and average fried okra on the side. Vince and I ordered from the appetizer menu, which was not the best choice. He had the clam strips and I had coconut shrimp bites; both were obviously pre-packaged and had little taste. Vince also had the gumbo with its abundance of shrimp, chicken and sausage in a rich, creamy broth; he liked this dish a lot. I had the clam chowder; it had lots of clams and the potatoes tasted almost sweet. This made up for the tasteless coconut shrimp. We all had the house wine that was good. Prices were moderate and our waitress was nice, if a bit slow.
Two and one-half carrots
Café 1217 (1217 Malvern Ave, Hot Springs, AR 71901, 501-318-1094) may be an award 
Top L to R: Greek salad, Dave and menu
Bottom L to R: Cheese sandwich, Caesar salad
winner, but I wasn’t particularly impressed.  There is no table service even after you order from the counter, so once you find a place to sit you must watch the counter to see when your food comes up. There is an extensive menu on chalk boards, but it’s hard to read; a to-go menu is available. I had the squash soup; it had a bit of a bite, as well as lots of veggies in it. Unfortunately, the Caesar salad was swimming in dressing. Dave had a Poblano Pimento Cheese sandwich on polenta bread with a side salad; he said that the sandwich was good, but that the salad was only passable. Vince also had the squash soup; he really liked it. He also enjoyed his Greek salad that was full of olives and feta cheese. Prices seem a bit high for the service and the offerings. This is not a place to go for folks who have vision difficulties, need a few minutes to read a menu, or have issues carrying plates of food.

Older part of the original 'Hot Springs Reservation'
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