Colored lights pulsate to the rhythm of the slow, haunting swing of a Billie Holiday tune, their hues reflecting off a chorus line of intricately sculpted marionettes. The silver-haired bartender — at his post under a movie marquee — is as likely to ask for your zodiac sign as your drink order. Just beyond this unearthly watering hole known as Malco Lounge, a magic show is taking place.
No, it’s not a “Twin Peaks” release. It’s Friday night in the heart of downtown Hot Springs, Arkansas.
In this town of around 39,000, the 143-degree clean water that lures gangsters, ballplayers and movie stars to its sultry pools gets all the credit. But just beyond the facades of the grand seaside palaces that line its famed Bathhouse Row, “Spa City” becomes delightfully eerie, offering quirks and layers of history with excitement.
Visitors to Hot Springs, a road trip 370 miles north of Baton Rouge, will find a social calendar filled with crazy hat events, a main drag that oozes boardwalk kitsch, and local businesses embracing the vintage quirkiness of this resort town.
A recent boom in tourism has brought new dining and entertainment options, as well as the revival of retro accommodations, including motor hostels like the pink-neon Dame Fortune Cottage Court run by Andie Roberts.
“There’s been a lot of attention to preservation lately,” Roberts said. “You have a lot of artists, a lot of creativity. It has that funkiness of some big cities, like Austin or Portland, but in a small town.
Singular spa days
Start as Hot Springs itself began – with a bath like no other.
A dozen women wrapped in white sheets are waiting in a small locker room. One by one, they are dragged back to the steamy, industrial caverns of the Buckstaff Bathhouse. Here, no aromatherapy candles, no ambient panpipes. Just the sound of water running over marble.
Buckstaff, which has operated continuously since 1912, offers some of the same historic “water cures” that health care seekers flocked to Hot Springs in the nation’s pre-penicillin days.
Over the next two hours, these linen-clad ladies will be soaked in private hot tubs, steamed in metal cabinets, needled by high-pressure showers, and filled with hot towels.
Buckstaff’s seven sister buildings along Bathhouse Row, all built over their own geothermal springs, now house everything from a boutique hotel with spring-fed tubs (Hotelhale.com) to the first craft brewery to open in a national park (Superiorbathhouse.com). There’s even a modern spa (Quapawbaths.com). Only two pure springs remain open to the public. See them natural behind the Maurice Bathhouse and on the Arlington Lawn.
To discover the fascinating history of the heyday of these steamy emporiums, head to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which now serves as the headquarters of the national park that grew up next to Hot Springs.
Between the golden age and the era of gangsters, hot water was considered medicine for everything from syphilis to poliomyelitis. And ranger-led tours of Fordyce juxtapose the building’s Art Nouveau opulence with mind-blowing tales of past hydrotherapies that put the “Ahhh!” in “spa”.
Beyond the public baths
Outside the marble walls, things get even crazier.
On a recent morning in June, the tree-lined Central Avenue – Hot Springs’ typical serene Main Street – became a water hazard zone. Ponchos are highly recommended. Mascara? A terrible miscalculation.
Soon, series of “stock baths”, i.e. decorated tubs on wheels, will be filled with water and run through by costumed teams. And everyone in town, it seems, lined up along the quarter-mile Running of the Tubs World Championship course to drench contestants, judges and hapless passers-by with super dunks. .
Big parties in Hot Springs tend to be “goofy,” according to tourism marketing manager Bill Solleder. “There must be something magical about the water,” he joked.
Other major annual events include the Güdrun Mountain Bike Festival, Spa-Con Celebration of All Comics, and the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade. The latter crams floats, walking krewes, the world’s largest potato on wheels and famous grand marshals like Kevin Bacon and Bo Derek into a short 98ft route for a crowd of around 30,000 every March 17 .
Event weekends aside, visitors to Hot Springs will find plenty of downtown life.
Linked to the Malco Lounge, beloved local illusionist Maxwell Blade performs regularly in a beautifully renovated historic auditorium. And nearby, the Campy Central Theater serves as the home base for the Mid-South Drag Revue as well as sporadic burlesque performances, pole dancing showcases and screenings of cult films.
Late at night, the plastic cup crowd migrates to the Starlite Club for black light dance parties. Craft cocktail fans could head to Maxine’s, named after the mink-loving madam of Spa City’s most notorious brothel. She ran her business on the top floor of the building.
And, of course, the oldest bar in Arkansas is a must.
In its more than a century of operation, the Ohio Club has gone through various stages of legality and served as home to vacationing gangsters like Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. These days, find live music, frozen martinis, and a neck and neck crowd on Friday and Saturday nights.
More mainstream attractions
For those who like their lace a little straighter, Hot Springs also offers less bizarre entertainment.
On a sunny Sunday afternoon, a clerk inside Bathhouse Soapery and Caldarium stirs a bath bomb in a giant jug of water, dissolving it into a hill of delicious pastel bubbles. All around, colorful piles of bar soap and other homemade miscellaneous items scent the bright, airy space.
A stroll down Central Avenue is a choose-your-own, eclectic experience. Shoppers are as likely to find a store like this as Madame Toussaud’s. Specialty confectioneries and chic boutiques sit alongside kitschy gift shops and Zoltar machines.
Further afield, the Oaklawn Racing Casino Resort just kicked off a $100 million makeover that includes a new luxury hotel, more games and an extended racing season. Nearby, the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens are positively transportable. Don’t miss the towering pine and glass Anthony Chapel or the nationally renowned Pine Wind Garden, where a winding path leads guests past scenic bridges and sparkling waterfalls.
And just past the edge of town is one of Hot Springs’ most unique experiences.
A dozen guests clad in sunscreen and sturdy shoes are crammed into the back of an old army transport truck, which slowly climbs the red hills of Ron Coleman Mining past massive machinery and rock pools. turquoise sewage. Here, pros work hard to harvest veins of crystalline quartz that formed here 300 million years ago thanks to the region’s unique geology.
Later, the group will dig through four acres of commercial mine tailings. “What you want to look for,” the tour guide confides, “is dirt that has the consistency of peanut butter.”
Whatever hidden gems customers find they can keep or sell, perhaps enough to fund the next vacation.
Do you have a favorite regional travel destination? Email Jessica Fender at firstname.lastname@example.org.