Hot Springs Eternal

Tired of theme parks? This Arkansas resort has horse racing, healing waters, and lots of old-fashioned charm.

April 1986By Comments

Folks head to the Arkansas resort of Hot Springs this time of year for many reasons. Some come to marvel at dogwoods blossoming in the picturesque Ouachita Mountains. Others follow in the footsteps of Indian tribes who for hundreds of years were drawn to the healing waters that gave the town its name. Odds are two to one, though, that the vast majority come to Hot Springs for the fifth season, that time between February and April when the Oaklawn Jockey Club hosts the finest assemblage of thoroughbred racehorses this side of Churchill Downs.

“C’mon, c’mon, we’re gonna be late!” hollered the red-faced man who gave me a light punch on the shoulder as he huffed and puffed past. Three hundred yards from the gates of Oaklawn, with the post time less than a minute away, I sprinted behind him and made it inside just in time to see the horses move to the starting gate. At the nearest window, I plunked down a ten on number six to win and proceeded to watch both ten and six fade in the stretch.

It’s heady stuff, playing the ponies in a setting rife with pomp and tradition. Long before lesser tracks started springing up along every highway port of entry across the Texas line, Hot Springs was known not only as a haven for horse racing but also as a wide-open gambling town—a playground of the Chicago Mafia and a mecca for people seeking all things hotsy-totsy. For Texans, going to Hot Springs was a rite of passage, as steeped in the ways of forbidden vices as a trip to Acuña, Bossier City, Juárez, or New Orleans. But Hot Springs’ days as a wild town ended in 1964, when a statewide referendum shut down casino gambling once and for all, taking much of the city’s glamour with it. The bathhouses had already lost a lot of their appeal because cures had been discovered for polio, gout, and other ailments the waters were thought to heal. Although the eight palatial buildings of Bathhouse Row, the centerpiece of Hot Springs National Park, are still standing, only one operates as a bath. And many downtown retail businesses and hotels moved south toward Lake Hamilton when a mall opened nearby a few years ago.

The untrained eye may dismiss Hot Springs. After all, time and trends have passed her by. But closer inspection reveals a place with a charm of its own. What remains is an unlikely family resort in the hills, replete with roadside attractions, rock shops galore, and a trained-animal exhibit. Well-preserved yet tawdry two- and three-story Victorian storefronts line one side of Central Avenue, and directly across the street are the grand water temples in the national park. The best part is that all of this is less than two hours beyond the state line by car—Hot Springs is practically a suburb of Texarkana. Air Midwest flies direct to the city (twice daily from Dallas’ Love Field, about $130 round trip), and American, Southwest, and Delta connect major Texas cities to Little Rock, 52 miles away (limo service available).

If you arrive during any of the 62 days of the Oaklawn meeting, you’ll glean from places like the Arlington Hotel’s Tack Room and the Surf ‘N’ Turf that horses rule the town. Pulling in more than a million visitors annually, Oaklawn is Arkansas’ biggest tourist attraction. The intensity of ten football weekends, combined with the chance of striking it rich, is packed into every day of the meet (no racing on Sundays). By the time the final week rolls around with the Racing Festival of the South (April 12-19), which climaxes this year with the fiftieth running of the $500,000 Arkansas Derby, it is as if Mardi Gras moved north and 1964 never happened.

Lodging in Hot Springs runs the gamut from sleek state-of-the-art hotels on the lake (the Holiday Inn, the Sheraton, the Sun Bay, and the South Shores) to affordable, comfortable, funky little motels with a gimmick (Hot Springs is the motor court capital of the Deep South), like the Tower on Park Avenue, where guests get a free tour of the historical home next door. But the downtown resorts that reek with memories of bygone days are the essence of Hot Springs. The two most distinctive places to stay are the Arlington, a twin-towered landmark at the end of Bathhouse Row, and the Majestic, a block away. Each is a full-service resort with its own bathhouse, restaurants, lounges, shops, and bars. The Arlington (Central and Fountain Avenues, 800-643-1502; double rooms $45 and up) is the grandest, with neatly appointed rooms (request 442, Al Capone’s favorite), a two-level pool, and concessions to changing tastes, such as a spring-fed hot tub and a stunning rococo-kitsch lobby obviously inspired by Zsa Zsa Gabor’s boudoir. Pink walls, flowery plastic-covered furniture, and tropical murals vaguely reminiscent of Rousseau set the tone. The lobby is one of the best people-watching sites (outside the track) by day and by night, when it becomes a nightclub with a combo. Sprawling over three separate buildings and eras, the Majestic (Park and Central Avenues, 800-643-1504; double rooms $35 and up) lacks the monolithic elegance of the Arlington but radiates a friendlier, comfier feeling. Moreover, the Majestic has a soda fountain in its sundry shop, home of the best malts and shakes for miles around. For homey comfort, the Williams House Bed and Breakfast Inn (420 Quapaw, 501-624-4275) is an appealing alternative. Its six antique-studded rooms ($49-$69) are within walking distance of downtown.

Once you’re settled, the best way to get into the swing of things is to buy a copy of the Daily Racing Form ($1.75), the Little Rock and Hot Springs daily papers, and perhaps one of several tout sheets and study the day’s racing lineup. Stroll down to the newsstand at 220 Central, between the Arlington and the Majestic, which is only two doors away from the Pancake Shop. Peruse the charts while enjoying a special of chopped Ozark ham in scrambled eggs with toast ($2.65) and a large glass of fresh-squeezed orange juice (95 cents). After breakfast join the other equine students in the Arlington or Majestic lobbies boning up for the test later in the day, take a morning bath to clear up any lingering maladies or hangovers, or walk down Central to the Hill Wheatley Plaza and watch the faithful fill their jugs with mineral water from one of several fountains.

But it’s advisable to leave by noon for Oaklawn, about three miles south on Central from downtown, so you can find a parking spot and a good seat before post time (1:30 Monday-Friday, 1 on Saturday). On the way to the grandstand, you get caught up in a carnival atmosphere as tipsters call out their touts of the day, each in his own distinctive way. I was most impressed by the Turfmaster, who had plastered a hand-lettered “Welcome Back, Good Luck” sign to the roof of his car after hitting the previous day’s daily double. Once inside the gates (the entrance fee to the track is $1), you can purchase a reserved seat at the main-floor ticket window ($2.25 Monday-Friday and $3.75 on Saturday). Finding a place to sit, especially on Saturdays, can be dicey; crowds regularly exceed 40,000. Seats in the Pub Lounge, for instance, may cost $5 between 12:30 and 4:30.

Movers and shakers assemble either in the private Oaklawn Club on the north end of the upper deck or in boxes, carrying on with friends and family as if this were a Sunday social. These folks are the ones you see at the $50-minimum betting windows. The open area in front of the stands is for the streetwise who want to see the action up close. An equal number of fans prefer controlled comfort, avoiding sunlight by staying inside and watching the video monitors. Serious sportsmen who want to check the horses for any last-minute signs of nervousness, sluggishness, or injury congregate around the paddock, where the horses are saddled up before the race. No matter where you are, though, there’s a betting window nearby. The ticket machines that compute your winnings are easily worth the two bucks just to watch how they work.

From the time the red-jacketed trumpet player calls the horses to the track, there is never a dull moment. The horses pass the stands, and vociferous railbirds spew out a constant stream of comments like “C’mon, Day, ya gonna hold ‘im back on this one?” within earshot of the jockey in question. It’s certainly a looser bunch than you encounter at most athletic events. Getting tanked at the races is tolerated, nonsmoking sections are unheard of, and stadium fare such as hot dogs, hamburgers, nachos, surprisingly fresh popcorn, beer, and even Bloody Marys are readily available. The unexpected offerings of aspirin and La Corona cigars make even the lowliest $2 show bettor feel like a big shot. Although I generally avoid eating oysters at places where horses or cows are on display, I broke down and had half a dozen at the track Oyster Bar for a reasonable $3.25. Early arrivals can dine more substantially at the Post Parade Room buffet, where $7 buys standard steamable items, including roast round of beef and “quish,” as the reservationist described the egg and cheese entrée.

For a change of pace, the Dawn at Oaklawn program ($5 for adults, $4 for children) features informal discussions with track personnel (secretary Doug Reed answered questions from the fifty or so guests—of this year’s thoroughbreds, he gave the edge to eastern stables—and explained how he handicapped races) and, from 7:30 to 9 on Saturdays, breakfast in the Post Parade Room. Whether you breakfast or not, the area in front of the stands is open to the public every morning of the meet for an almost bucolic behind-the-scenes glimpse of racing. The horses go through their paces without the noise and chatter of a crowd to distract them, and the stands are clean and spotless, the betting windows shuttered and silent.

I had lost less than I had budgeted for betting the first day, a moral victory at least. Had I hit the daily double I would have booked a table at the Vapors (315 Park Avenue, 623-3303), the last of the old casino supper clubs, where Barbara Eden of I Dream of Jeannie fame, comedians Allen and Rossi , and the Four Freshmen are closing out the season. Instead I chose the therapeutic relief at the baths. The benefits of the Hot Springs waters were enough to motivate Congress to declare the springs a federal reservation in 1832. In 1921 the area became a national park, and the Interior Department capped the springs and channeled the waters into bathhouses. The eight buildings of Bathhouse Row are architectural marvels, magnificent and distinct. Though most are presently empty, the National Parks Service is considering leasing five of them for uses including an art museum, a fat farm, and a chiropractic clinic. The grandest of all, the Fordyce, which has a stained glass skylight and an indoor fountain, is being converted into a visitors center.

You can still take the waters at several hotels: the Arlington (623-7771), the DeSoto (201 Central, 623-3322), the Downtowner Motor Inn (135 Central 624-5521), and the Majestic (623-5511), my favorite because of its longer evening hours and clean facilities. The Buckstaff (623-2308), the last operating bath on the Row, with its pleasant front porch and sunning chairs, is the best for atmosphere. The odorless, tasteless mineral waters are no longer advertised as curative, but the full bath and massage treatment certainly takes the edge off a less than perfect day. If you’re looking for modern gadgets, forget it. With the exception of the coed, communal, suits-on approach of the Hot Springs Health Spa (500 Reserve, 321-9664), whirlpools and Swedish massage are about as close to California as things get. The baths generally operate between 7 and 11:30 in the morning and between 1:30 and 3:30 in the afternoons, cutting back to just morning hours on Saturdays and usually closing on Sundays. Bath, whirlpool, and massage run from $14.75 at the DeSoto to $21.25 at the Arlington.

After you check in at a spa, sign waivers, and lock up your valuables, you’re ushered to a dressing room, wrapped in a white sheet, and led to a private tub compartment, where you’re given a cup of hot springwater to drink, scrubbed down, then left to soak for about twenty minutes in 100-degree water. From there, an attendant takes you to a steam cabinet for a couple of minutes of sweating. Then he lays you out on a cot, places hot packs on sore joints, and wraps you up like a mummy in another sheet. Next, you’re led into a warm spritz shower, toweled off, and escorted to the cooking room, where you’re wrapped one more time and left to lie in state before getting a massage. Some massages can be brutal—one masseuse at the Majestic sardonically refers to her clients as victims. Others can be quite innovative. A masseur at the Buckstaff can pound out the drum solo to “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” without missing a beat.

After such a relaxed afternoon, there are numerous options for dancing the night away. Cocktail pianists and big bands regularly perform in many of the hotel lounges. My heart, however, belongs to the Barney Illinois Bar (218 Central), the kind of place that shows the kids what a real beer joint was like. Barney’s is dominated by a long bar flanked by tables and chairs and a jukebox with Freddie Fender and Fats Domino. Yellowing front pages of the Columbus Citizen that chronicle wars, assassinations, and other significant events hang above the ornate, dark-stained wooden bar back. Collectible beer cans and bottles occupy almost every inch of shelving. There’s even a living, breathing Barney, who keeps conversations going at the bar, serves up cheap brew, and pitches his homemade hot dogs if you give him the chance.

Hot Springs harbors its fair share of diversions for kids too. Central Avenue is a boardwalk without sand or sea, where antique shops, art auctions, and second-hand stores proliferate. On Central you can board a tour bus or an amphibious White Duck tour boat, buy a horseshoe pinkie ring at one of the many souvenir shops for that proper sportsman attitude, or consult a palm reader. In the former location of the swanky Southern Club is the Josephine Tussaud Wax Museum (250 Central, 623-5836), a true sign of big-time tourism. The wax likenesses are divided into seven different thematic areas, including a religious section with a portrayal of the Last Supper. Down the street, soon to open in its new location, is the IQ Zoo (422 Central, 623-7572), home base for barnyard animals performing as elevator operators, roller skaters, basketball players, and disco dancers.

While you’re nearby, saunter over to the Hungarian Restaurant (408A Central, 624-9500) for homemade cheese and apple strudels, the best snack on the avenue. The no-frills establishment also serves three kinds of goulash that are filling and sort of exotic. The cook, Vera Belic Marinkov, who also waits tables, took time out to practice her English with me as she attempted to explain why the restaurant is Hungarian even though she’s Yugoslavian. I still haven’t figured it out.

Another concentration oth me as she attempted to explain why the restaurant is Hungarian even though she’s Yugoslavian. I still haven’t figured it out.

Another concentration of silly diversions begins on Whittington Avenue, a shady residential parkway. Tiny Town (374 Whittington) is a series of toy-size mechanized re-creations, including a farm, a wild West town, Mount Rushmore, a Niagara Falls. Next door is the House of Crystal shop and souvenir mall, one of the better establishments from which to purchase rocks, quartz “diamonds,” and other native knickknacks. Across the street, Dryden Potteries displays the “tallest vase” and regularly schedules pottery-making demonstrations. At the end of the street, adjacent to the Fine Arts Center, is the “educationally operated” Arkansas Alligator Farm (847 Whittington, 623-6172; $2 for adults, $1 for children), with gators, monkeys, ostriches, deer, goats, sheep, and a stuffed merman creature taken from the tents of P. T. Barnum.

On Sundays, when the track is closed, and on those occasions when the losses at the betting window are severe, it is time to start appreciating Hot Springs National Park, home of numerous pursuits. The display of the springs along the Row between the old Hale and Maurice baths gives you a good idea of what the waters looked like before development. Stick your hand in to experience 140-plus-degree water and feel the slippery, luminescent blue-green algae that thrive in the springs. Check out the history of the springs and the informative twelve-minute slide show at the visitors center (Reserve and Central, 624-3383). In warmer months there are regularly scheduled tours of the Fordyce baths, and organized walks to the nearby quarries where Indians mined the highly valued novaculite rock for tools and arrowheads are planned. Eighteen miles of hiking trails on Hot Springs and West mountains are accessible from Central Avenue. The Hot Springs Mountain Tower, 216 feet above the mountain’s summit, affords a pleasing view of the city and the surrounding mountains (623-6035; $2.25 for adults, $1.75 for children under twelve), though I preferred the views from the top of West Mountain, easily reached by car or by foot. My favorite no-cover-charge activity was a walk along the Grand Promenade, a wide red-brick pedestrian thoroughfare paralleling Bathhouse Row, slightly higher up the slope. Signs along the way explain native plant life and points of interest. Such tranquillity only a few yards from the hubbub downtown was so soothing and meditative that when I stopped in a shady spot I nodded off to sleep, thinking I had been transported to another time. If I didn’t know better, I’d think Hot Springs had finally gotten me to slow down.

Related Content