One of the unique activities in Hot Springs is to experience a traditional bathing ritual, as was prescribed for the healing of various ailments, in the not too distant past. The waters from the hot springs surrounding the city provide about 700,000 gallons of water a day for use in the public drinking fountains and bathhouses.
Of the eight bathhouses that currently occupy Bathhouse Row off Central Avenue in downtown Hot Springs, only two are functional. The Buckstaff Bathhouse has been in continuous operation since 1912 and provides a traditional experience. The Quapaw has been reopened as a day spa with pools offering the springs water as well as a steam cave. The other six have been redesigned to serve varied purposes, as mentioned in my first post.
The water from the thermal springs flow out at about 143 F and the bathhouses cool the water to about 100 F for customer use. Although the water was traditionally considered to be pure and devoid of any microscopic life, NASA research has proven otherwise. Despite this, visitors are able to safely drink the water from public drinking fountains. The water is colorless, odorless and tasteless.
Our initial research led Missy JJ and I to believe the Quapaw would be a good place to try the bathing experience. However, more digging showed that the bathing would be offered in a pool setting as well as a steam cave experience. Individuals and couples could reserve pools as well as several spa features like facials, manicures etc. Patrons had to bring their own swimsuit and flipflops. The biggest drawback for us was that all patrons had to be 14 years or older to experience any of their services. Which was huge, considering Sonny JJ isn’t quite 14 yet.
Moving on to the Buckstaff website, we discovered they allow children 10 and older. No reservations were needed except for special services like pedi-manis and facials. Unlike the Quapaw, males and females were separated at the front desk. Males had their bathing experience on the first floor and the women were whisked away to the second floor. The Traditional bathing experience included a tub bath followed by hot packs, a steam cabinet and a sitz tub before a needle shower. This would be followed by a Swedish massage before calling it a day. It all sounded very relaxing and so the family decided to do this first, right off the bat.
After a standard breakfast at the hotel, we made our way to Bathhouse Row. Central Avenue was active with lots of vehicles, bikers and foot traffic. We found free parking at the Exchange Street parking lot, located right across the street from Buckstaff Bathhouse. There was hardly anyone in the lobby as we entered. The receptionist told us we could start right then but might be held up at the massage area for about half an hour or more, especially for us women. Alternatively, he asked us to return around 1245 for the 130 pm post lunch session, but we decided to proceed as planned. We chose the traditional bathing package ($82 per person) with the paraffin treatment for hands, called the Deluxe package which was on sale for $88 pp (regular $95 pp).
We were each provided with a Loofah mitt and then split into two groups, the boys entered their changing rooms on the first floor. Missy JJ and I were taken up to the second floor in an ostentatious elevator by a staff member. There we were led to a room with about a dozen small locker/ changing stalls. We were asked to divest of all clothes and put them away in the locker. Once ready, the attendant covered us in a Roman style toga and asked us to wait in the little seating area. I took the opportunity to use the restrooms which appeared old style but were efficient and clean.
Cellphones are not allowed beyond this area, understandably. An older bathing attendant then came to fetch Missy JJ and in a few minutes a middle aged lady beckoned me with her fingers from the other end of the room. It wasnt quite the welcome I had envisioned but I went along with it. I was quite nervous with anticipation!!
I was first led past a row of stalls to one with a large tub. The attendant filled the tub with hot water then asked me to step into it to soak. (A small step stool makes it easy to get in and out of the tub). She placed a small board against my neck and that helped to prop me up. The water was hot at 100 F and then the turbine was started creating a whirpool effect. The equipment is old style so the turbine and the thermometer stuck out of the water at the foot of the tub.
I do have to mention that while the Buckstaff provides togas and towels, one has to be comfortable getting in and out of tubs and baths naked and in view of the attendant, transiently, though it may be. The staff, of course, is very experienced and make it very easy to become comfortable with this.
The attendant first scrubbed my legs and back using the Loofah mitt before leaving me alone to enjoy my whirlpool time. After about 15 mins, we headed to the next station where she positioned hot packs over my neck and upper back and across my lower body with a cold pack over my forehead. The contrast of the hot and cold packs evoked a very soothing sensation. Luckily, no one else shared the room with me so could relax for about ten minutes before she got me. Moving on, it was time to sit in the small stainless steel vapor cabinet for 5 minutes. I was sweatier than sweaty, with the steam rising around me, but it felt so relaxing and gave me time to let my mind wander.
All too soon, she was at the door helping me secure my toga before leading me to the sitz bath. The temperature in the bath could be adjusted and I played around until it was at a comfortable zone. After about ten minutes here, it was time to head to the needle shower. In the olden days, the thin shower heads would force water at such a high pressure that the water would feel like needles hitting the skin. The one I experienced had a post at all four corners with two showerheads on each post. While it was pleasant, it didn’t quite have the needle shower experience.
Dried and bundled back into my toga, the attendant took me back to the main hallway where she handed me off to another staff member, a licensed massage therapist. Now during the entire time I was with her, my bath attendant handed me small cups of cold water that I happily consumed, Heat can deplete water from the body and I was glad to keep replenishing. Plus the cooler water temperature felt soothing against the heat of the experience.
The massage therapist then led me to a dimly lit room and gave a massage for about 15 to 20 mins. We conversed a bit during the time but not much. I felt the massage was a bit too gentle for me, and not as invigorating as I expected.
Once done, I was led back to my original changing stall where I changed and retrieved my possessions. Back in the lobby, I was introduced to another staff member who had liquid paraffin ready and waiting, mint or lavender, she asked, I went with lavender. I was asked to dip my hand, one by one, in the wax, upto my wrist, five times, then the hand was covered with plastic wrapper and a mitt and rested for ten to twelve minutes. Eventually, the wrappers were pulled away to reveal soft hands.
What I liked about the experience was the authenticity. True, the equipment used was old style, not fancy as in a spa resort, but very functional. I liked the fact that men and women were separated as it made it easier to get in and out of clothes. On the day we were there, it was not crowded and thus made for a more personal and relaxing experience. I also liked the fact that Sonny JJ could join in this outing. Plus the prices on the packages were very reasonable I felt, given so many spas charge exorbitant amounts for less authentic experiences.
What I felt could have been better was the interaction between attendants and visitors. My attendant could have come up to where I was seated and introduced herself, instead of beckoning me from the other end of the room. All four of us felt that the staff could have preceded each new step with a short and simple explanation of what was to come. It would have made the whole process smoother and a more meaningful one. And next time around, I would skip the paraffin wax treatment entirely.
In retrospect, our family was happy to try the traditional bathing, bathhouse style. Although not mindblowing, it was a unique experience and definitely worth a visit while in Hot Springs, Arkansas.