As America’s first resort destination, Hot Springs in Arkansas’ Diamond Lakes Region attracted the likes of Al Capone and Ronald Reagan to its European-style bathhouses in the 1920s and ’30s.
The naturally thermal waters didn’t have any medicinal powers, but soaking in the mineral waters and breathing fresh air made people feel better and they kept returning.
Today, the “Valley of the Vapors” offers visitors a window into the past with its Art Deco buildings and traditional bathhouses, plus plenty of outdoor fun.
At some 5,000 acres, Hot Springs National Park (nps.gov/hosp/index.htm) is the country’s second-smallest national park, making it easy to explore and see and touch its thermal pools, where the water reaches 143 degrees.
The park’s main attraction is the historic Bathhouse Row, consisting of eight European-style bathhouses built between 1892 and 1923. Most of the bathhouses have long since shuttered, but you can appreciate their grandeur on a stroll along the promenade. A traditional bath can also be experienced in the Buckstaff Bathhouse ($33; 509 Central Ave., 501-623-2308, buckstaffbaths.com).
At the Fordyce Bathhouse Museum (free admission; 369 Central Ave., 501-620-6715, nps.gov/hosp/planyourvisit/fordyce.htm), a former Renaissance Revival-style spa, take a guided tour of the baths, attire and accoutrements from the era when bathhouses were popular.
At the Mountain Tower Observation Deck (admission $8/adults, $7/seniors, $4.50/ages 5-11; 401 Hot Springs Mountain Dr., 501-881-4020, hotspringstower.com), learn about the city’s rich history and take in the panoramic views of the town buildings and the countryside.
The Superior Bathhouse Brewery (329 Central Ave., 501-624-2337, superiorbathhouse.com) is the country’s only brewery in a national park, serving beer made from 144-degree thermal water. Located in the former Superior Bathhouse, the brewery has a full-service restaurant serving American fare.
A short drive south from downtown brings you to Garvan Woodlands Gardens (admission $15/adults, $5/ages 4-12; 550 Arkridge Rd., 501-262-9300, garvangardens.org), spread across more than 200 acres at the University of Arkansas. Take a leisurely walk through various gardens and over picturesque bridges. Also find architectural delights such as the children’s treehouse and the six-story-tall Anthony Chapel, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls melded with massive wooden beams under a canopy of pines and oaks.
GOOD TO KNOW
Getting there: Fly from JFK/LGA to Little Rock’s national airport and drive about an hour southwest to Hot Springs.
Getting around: Bathhouse Row and the main street shops and restaurants are easily accessible by foot. Rent a car for outdoor activities.
Where to eat: At the popular DeLuca’s Pizzeria (831 Central Ave., 501-609-9002, delucashotsprings.com), Brooklyn native Anthony Valinoti serves authentic New York brick oven pizza. Inside the Hotel Hot Springs, Inside Track Grill (305 Malvern Ave., 501-623-6600, hotelhotsprings.org) serves traditional Southern cuisine alongside a craft beer list.
Where to stay: The historic Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa (239 Central Ave., 800-643-1502, arlingtonhotel.com) in downtown is known for its thermal water spa — which uses the hot spring water — and massage. For a romantic getaway, Lookout Point Inn (104 Lookout Circle, 501-525-6155, lookoutpointinn.com) has rooms with balconies and fireplaces, wine receptions and seasonal boat cruises on Lake Hamilton.