Some say the waters here make the place special. Known as the town where America bathes, Hot Springs, Arkansas, offers more than its 4,000-year-old thermal waters to rejuvenate the soul and refresh the senses this time of year.
Taste the town's big tamale at a favorite local eatery. Feel the excitement as high-strung Thoroughbreds hoof it out around one of the best racetracks in the country. See the boyhood home of a former President. Smell the scent of spring as magnolias perfume the air with their blooming fragrance. And hear the stories of how this town came to be known as our national spa. Your senses will thank you.
Check in at the 1882 Majestic Hotel (from $65; call 501-623-5511 or 1-800-643-1504), whose history is just as steamy as the bathhouses down the street. "Bugs" Moran, Al Capone's rival, hung out here during the days of Prohibition while Capone stayed across the way at the Arlington Hotel. Never fear: Those riffraff rivals have long since departed, although their memories haunt the premises. Hotel personnel will be more than happy to tell you a few stories if you ask.
Mollies, a deli noted for its home cooking, offers entrées ranging from chopped liver to potato pancakes. Don't let the small digs fool you: Mollies is big on taste.
It should be illegal to leave this town without taking a dip in its healing waters. The Buckstaff Bathhouse, the only functioning bathhouse on historic bathhouse row, provides separate bathing rooms for men and women. Ask for the "Works" ($38), and you'll enjoy an invigorating thermal bath and full body massage. "Pretend you're a goddess," says the massage therapist. It's not hard to do, because that's the way you're treated. The experience lasts a couple of hours, so attendants require that guests check in no later than 2:45 p.m.
Afterward, go to the Brick House Grill for a barbecue shrimp dinner ($14.95). Then cap off your first evening at the Arlington Hotel's lobby bar, where a jazz combo entertains.
The French Market Café's delectable breakfast will add a little pep to your step while you're wandering around the city. It comes with two eggs, two pieces of bacon, toast, and hash browns for $2.50.
Spring is the best time of year for sightseeing. Board the Outdoor Adventure Tour bus (they'll even pick you up at your hotel) for a jaunt through Hot Springs National Park. The tour visits the thermal springs, where you'll witness steamy mists rising into the atmosphere. It also includes a scenic drive through mountain overlooks and visits to historic homes. Other tours include a stop at President Clinton's boyhood home as well as hiking and canoeing excursions.
For more outdoor escapades, Oaklawn racetrack offers high-stepping, heart-pounding excitement. Jockeys in rainbow-colored uniforms sit astride horses with names such as "Cigar" as they dash around the track in a quest to be the best. The season runs January 25 through April 13 (last year's races attracted more than 500,000 fans), but you can catch events year-round as Oaklawn offers simulcasts of horseraces from across the country. The racing rush might leave spectators a little famished, so the facility boasts restaurants with views of the action.
(After your first weekend visit, try to return to Oaklawn for this year's Arkansas Derby Race, scheduled for April 13. This race is considered a stepping-stone to the Kentucky Derby.)
Possibly even more heart-stopping (not literally) than the track is McClard's hot tamale spread. The famous dish comes complete with a bed of Fritos, an 8-inch tamale, beans, chopped beef with barbecue sauce, chopped onions, and, lastly, shredded cheese. "I was trying to kill a dishwasher that came in a little under the weather one time," jokes owner Joe McClard. "He came into the restaurant not feeling good, so I threw a bunch of stuff on a plate hoping he'd feel better. Well, he liked it, and the dish became a mainstay." For those who prefer to bow out of eating the great tamale, McClard's serves delicious barbecue. Bill and Hillary even stopped by on their wedding day for a healthy heaping of the same.
If you haven't already, visit the Arkansas Walk of Fame before leaving. Located next door to the visitors center, the walk honors Arkansans who've made important contributions to the state and abroad. Honorees include Gen. Douglas MacArthur and Dr. James Dobson, to name a couple. Looking at the names will make you wonder what's in that Hot Springs water after all.
For more information: Contact the Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box 6000, Hot Springs, AR 71902; (501) 321-2277, 1-800-543-2284, or www.hotsprings.org.
This article is from the March 2002 issue of Southern Living. Because prices, dates, and other specifics are subject to change, please check all information to make sure it's still current before making your travel plans.