Hot Springs, Arkansas, has always been a popular vacation destination for the more mature adult crowd, and I guess I have finally reached that generation that aches to hit the healing mineral waters of Hot Springs. Pun intended.
Once your kids grow up, there comes a time when it can be hard on them to meet all of the family obligations during the holidays. His family, her family, their family, the grandparents, and heaven forbid there have been a divorce somewhere in the family. A whole ‘nother set of obligations and houses to visit have to be added into the equation. At least that’s how it is where I am from.
I never want to be an “obligation” visit from my kids. I want them to “want” to spend time with me. If they are so busy trying to fit everyone in, it is not a joyous visit for anyone.
I will always offer to put our family gathering on the back burner, even though, I must secretly admit that I have cried a time or two when they took me up on it. Not their fault. Not my fault. Them not being stressed is important to me. I remember how it is at holiday time when you have kids and in-laws, out-laws and the like.
When Thanksgiving rolled around and one decided to take me up on the offer to “do Thanksgiving another day”, I am sure the other two were relieved to follow suit and enjoy a few hours of “non-travel” on their holiday off of work.
“I’ll show them.” I thought. I am not going to stay home and pout. I am going to enjoy my time off, too. After all, I do get to see them all of the time. What could one Thanksgiving hurt, right?
Now, getting my husband away from the TV set when it is college football season is no easy feat. I decided to leave his hiney at home, too. (This is sounding a little “mid-life-crisis-ey” as I write it, maybe it was, but I still enjoyed the heck out of it!)
I invited my cousin, Diane, to hit the road to Hot Springs with me. She is always up for a road trip, and just as interested in natural healing as I am. Just as old, too. Well, almost.
Diane and I hit the road on Wednesday around lunch-time, the day before Thanksgiving, for the 5 hour drive to Hot Springs.
The roads in Arkansas are possibly worse than those in Louisiana, something I never thought I would say about another state. The country roads were slow and winding, and beautiful, for the most part. We weren’t in a hurry, anyway.
We had made reservations at the Embassy Suites by Hilton, and were not disappointed. The check-in process was easy, the lobby was spectacular, and the room was large and clean. It was not within walking distance to the downtown area, but the short drive was a small trade off for the relaxing atmosphere we enjoyed.
I must admit, I kicked myself and went back and forth over whether we should have booked a room at the famous Arlington, with tubs that actually have the mineral waters as their water source. We visited the Arlington, and it was majestic, for sure. We enjoyed a coffee and sandwich there, and did a little shopping, but it was definitely an older property. I do believe we made the right decision, but am not sure which I would choose if I went back again. All-in-all, we were very happy at the Embassy Suites, and paid a very reasonable rate.
The next morning, after a fabulous Embassy Suites breakfast in the atrium, we headed into Hot Springs proper. It was dead. Nothing was open. The joke may have been on us, two grown women running away from Thanksgiving dishes!
We enjoyed a stroll around the National Park, bought some jugs in the park office, which we filled at the park’s filling station, and worked up a hunger!
We found a restaurant (Bohemia’s Continental Cuisine) with cars in the parking lot, a sign on the door that detailed their Thanksgiving dinner. It sounded delicious. The place didn’t look like much, but in the end, the food was good.
I had the fresh whole wheat pasta with vegetables and marinara, and Diane had the duck confit with white bean puree and asparagus. We had a nice Reisling.
Even though they were having a Thanksgiving dinner for $25 per person, we ordered off of the menu.
They were out of the white bean puree, she got mashed potatoes instead. The potatoes tasted like freezer burnt butter, but the duck was very good. She had the pear and gorgonzola salad on endive, which was awesome, and I had a warm spinach salad with artichoke hearts that was fantastic.
My pasta was fresh made with grilled tomatoes, asparagus, zucchini and yellow squash. It was awesome. They also had a sage bread that was out of this world.
All in all, the presentation was beautiful, the food was good. The presentation on her plate was beautiful, and the only complaint was the potatoes….we would visit there again, for sure, even if just for the sage bread!
We made our way back to the room for a nap (a nap, can you believe it! Thanksgiving day and we were getting to nap!!).
After freshening back up, we went downstairs and enjoyed a fabulous dinner in the hotel, then enjoyed another glass of wine as we listened to the piano player in the atrium. What a wonderful day!
Friday morning, we made reservations at both the Buckstaff Bathhouse and the Quapaw Baths & Spa. Yep. Two spas in one day. We are rotten, I know!
Our first stop was the Buckstaff. Now, I have always been very modest, and have never even been into a gym locker room where others were changing clothes, much less been in public in my undergarments or less, so walking around in a towel (and nothing else) should have came to a good bit of shock to me, but it didn’t. Well, actually, I was shocked at first that there were not robes, but modesty did not kick in and make me feel uncomfortable. If you are modest, too, the next paragraph or two may be a little shocking to the mind, and if I had read it somewhere ahead of time, I may have missed this awesome experience.
Diane and I were each met by a female attendant who would stay with us throughout our Buckstaff experience, and I did not see Diane again until we exited about 2 hours later, even though the facility was full of other women there for “taking the waters”.
The Buckstaff has been a landmark on Hot Springs’ Bathhouse Row since 1912, and is the only traditional bathhouse still operating. No chemicals, no additives in the water, just pure, mineral-rich water from Hot Springs. The place is old, but clean and efficient. During my visit, I was thinking about all of the hundreds of thousands of people who had experienced these very treatments, in this very spot.
I have been to quite a few spas in my life, they are one of life’s joys for me, and I do not feel bad for the occasional indulgence. It makes me feel better, and that is better for all of us. The buckstaff was like nothing I had ever experienced. Not in a bad way, just different. Way different.
My assistant, Bertha, was a very kind and gentle woman who had been working at the Buckstaff for nearly 20 years. Her mother had worked there before her. She was a relatively large woman, and made me feel safe and comfortable from the moment we met.
Bertha escorted me first into a changing area, and advised me to wrap in a towel, then come out, and she would wrap me in a white sheet, which would be my cover for the rest of the visit. This was not Bertha’s first sheet wrap, that’s for sure. She had the thing over me, around me, and tucked in and folded in all the right places before I even understood what was going on. This thing was not going to come off as I was walking through the common areas! I placed my belongings in my locker, and followed Bertha to the bath area.
Now, I don’t know what I was expecting, but I almost got up and left at this point. I’m glad I didn’t, but for the first couple of seconds, it was shocking.
There was an old bathtub sitting in the small, maybe 6’ x 6’ room. It had to be original from 1912. It was the porcelain type, and had the amount of wear and tear that you would expect from a century-old, used all day every day, bathtub. The faucets had to have been original, too. I have not seen that style of plumbing since my great-grandfather’s house as a young child.
The metal pipes stuck out from the wall with an old style turn knob, but where the faucet should have been was a cut off piece of old water hose just sticking out of the wall. The floor tile was cold and damp, I was not the first bath in this tub that day, nor would I be the last. It was creepy for about a minute, until I decided to quit being so uptight and enjoy the experience.
Bertha started the water, plugged the tub with a rag (yep) and told me to get into the tub, and she stepped outside the door to let me get undressed. I asked, “am I supposed to take the towel off and everything?” Bertha smiled and nodded to the affirmative, so I did. This may be hard to understand for some, but I was glad that Bertha was a big older woman, because I am, too, and I did not feel judged at all.
Bertha knocked and reentered the room, and placed her hand in the loofa mitt that I had been given at check in. I was sitting back in the tub, arms strategically hiding my lady parts, as Bertha instructed me to lean forward so that she could scrub my back. I do not believe that I have ever felt as pampered as I did at that moment. I felt as if I was a little girl and my Mama was bathing me after a fun day of playing outside in the dirt.
Bertha exfoliated my back, then my arms and calves, then she stood and handed my the mitt, which was mine to keep after the experience, and instructed me to finish scrubbing my legs, if I’d like, and then let her know when I was out and wrapped in my towel, and she would return to re-tie my sheet. I did, and she did. Bertha pulled the plug from the tub and started the water to drain, and would return to clean it for the next person while I was in the sitz bath.
The sitz bath was probably the most awkward of all of the services, It was a small basin of water in the ground, and you sat your hiney down in it, and your feet and the rest of your body stayed out. It was located in a tiny stall with a curtain. It is not easy to even get in that position at my age, and I considered skipping it altogether, but somehow managed to sit with my butt below floor level and soak. I am still not sure who invented this portion of the spa, or why, but I did it for the allotted time, and it was even more awkward trying to get up. I think (I know) Bertha even laughed at me a little. By the time I finagled myself out of the position, Bertha had been called away for a second, there I stood, naked as a j-bird, (what does that even mean, anyway?) Bertha saw my predicament and rushed over in a flash, holding my sheet out the full length of her arms to make sure nobody could see. All we could both do was laugh at that point. Did I mention that before, and again after this experience, that I am/was very modest?
Anyway, the next session was a wooden board sitting over an open floor area, with a wooden swinging-type door. You sit on the board, which is open underneath to the actual flowing hot springs water, and the steam rises to give you a semi-sauna-like experience. Honestly, you just sit there, on that board, looking out over the center of the main walking area, hoping no one is staring back at you. It did not feel particularly steamy, since any heat that may have been rising from the water quickly escaped the open spaces above and below the swinging door. Nevertheless, I sat there about 15 minutes, until Bertha came back to fetch me once again.
The next room reminded me of a solarium of the movies of yesteryear. It was a huge room, tiled floor to ceiling with ceramic tile, with about a dozen or more massage-type tables lined up on each side of the doorway. Some had other women and their attendants, some women were wrapped burrito-style in wet towels and sheets and were napping quietly. Bertha wrapped wet towels all over my body, my head, extremities, torso, etc., then wrapped my sheet over that and tucked me in. She told me to close my eyes and rest, and that she would be back to get me in a little while.
The room was heavy with moisture and steam, but quiet and peaceful, too. I am pretty sure that I did fall asleep in what seemed like the half hour or so that I was in the resting room. Bertha unwrapped my towels, wrapped me back up in my sheet, and led me back to the locker room. She bid me farewell, and let me know that my massage therapist would be coming for me soon, but that our time together was now complete.
I honestly wanted to give her a hug. Heck, I may have….I am a hugger…but just as quick as she had picked me up earlier, she was off to help the next guest.
A massage therapist called out my name within just a couple of minutes, and led me into a small back hallway with tiny rooms with only shower curtains for doors. The rooms seemed to be about 6’ x 8’, barely enough room for a massage table and for the therapist to make her way around it. The therapist instructed me to lay on the table (no sheets) and to cover with my sheet, and that she would be right back. She pulled the curtain closed and left the room. The room was loud with echos, and was set up similar to a department store dressing room, and apparently there were therapists and guest in most of the other rooms, as it was quite loud, and not really a “relaxing” atmosphere. Within a minute or so, I was laying on the table, and the therapist returned to the room, and gave me a quick once-over. The massage was professional and she did an awesome job manipulating my now waterlogged tissues, and limbering up my muscles and joints. The massage was over before I could fall asleep again, and the therapist instructed me to wrap back into my towel, and that she would meet me with a glass of water in the locker room. I did. She did.
By the time I got back into the locker room, Diane was there, and we both got dressed pretty quickly, as more guests were being escorted in, and the room was getting a little crowded.
The receptionist met us at the exit, asked about our services, and gave us tip envelopes for each of our staffers, and instructed us to put them in the numbered bins for Bertha and the other ladies.
The Buckstaff was by far our favorite experience during our trip to Hot Springs, even though we also went to a more spa-like facility, Quapaw Baths and Spa, and had another massage, and another mineral bath.
The Quapaw facility was serene and calm, fancy even, and co-ed. We were given spa robes, and ushered into a windowed waiting area that was furnished with wicker furniture with bright yellow cushions, and offered water and magazines, as we sat in the waiting area with a few couples.
It was a little awkward, being in a robe in front of men, but I am sure they didn’t notice the difference, and that was only my modesty showing through.
Diane’s therapist retrieved her first, then mine shortly after, led me down a short hall to a well lit, sterile feeling, treatment room. I was having a facial with my massage, and it was the standard “we are going to try to sell you stuff” experience. I had purchased the Plum Experience, their featured special, but they were out of the Plum stuff. I had a standard facial, then a standard massage, then my therapist lead me to a quiet, darkened area that was surrounded by doors. Apparently each of the doors housed a large soaking tub. The rooms were nice, and they offered bath products and privacy. The attendant started the water and told me that she would knock when my 30 minutes were up, and she left. I soaked in the bathtub, and was out and back in my robe before she knocked on the door. It was a nice place, and I would go back, but it did not compare to the Buckstaff for the authentic experience. (Which is not for everyone. If you are looking for a standard spa experience, I do recommend the Quapaw.)
Diane and I finished off our trip with a nice Italian dinner, and a stroll downtown. We had cupcakes at Big Ass Cupcakes, and I even got a henna tattoo at a funky little shop on the strip. (We actually ran into my friend Carlene, aka Margot House, an artist that I did a couple of projects with before she passed away. It was fun to see her, and she was definitely in her element! Rest in Peace, my friend.)
All-in-all, our trip to Hot Springs is to-date, one of the most memorable trips that I have taken, and I look forward to visiting there again!
Awesome article ,I have always wondered about bathhouses, thanks for sharing.
Thank you. Try them, if you ever get the chance. You won’t be disappointed.
I grew up near here, yet have never partook of the bath house experience. I’ll have to do it next time I’m home. Nice article.
You will love it, and be kicking yourself for not going sooner! I sense a new tradition for visits home!
Sounds like a great trip all in all! Thank you for sharing your experience. I always love hearing about great spas. I sure will be putting Buckkstaff-baths on my next girls trip!
Thank you. It really was a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
You described the bath experience in such detail I felt like I was there. I’ve always wanted to try one of these!
Thank you. It was truly wonderful!
That sounds like a really fun trip! Very detailed!
Thank you, it was a lot of fun!
You’re so thorough in describing this trip. Love it! Love the Bathhouse!
Thank you, it was fabulous! I am taking the family back this summer!
I loved reading your bathhouse experience. We are planning a girls trip in early March to visit Buchstaff. I hope to get Bertha!
You will love it! Make sure to update me on your trip!