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Soaks, sips and smoked swine around Hot Springs Nat’l Park

Let’s start with that kink in your neck; you may have one after driving this many twisted miles into the Ozarks. Lucky for you, the heart of Hot Springs, AR is Bathhouse Row, where you can still soak in a tub and “take the cure.”

Hot Springs grew up around the 143-degree water and the people who poached there. In the early 1900s, you could go to a doctor and get a prescription–not for pills, but for a week of thermal baths.

Monumental bathhouses sprouted along Central Ave., some basic, some swanky. All that steam gave rise to the name “Valley of the Vapors,” which is also the name of an independent music festival held every March.

Today, the eight bathhouses remaining are part of Hot Springs National Park. That means you’ll see official park rangers walking around downtown, looking like they could take on a bear or a latte at any given moment.

Buckstaff Baths and Quapaw Baths are still active as public bathhouses. Buckstaff, with its crisp blue awnings and white columns, offers a traditional, people’s bathhouse experience. It’s been operating continuously since 1912. Quapaw Baths is the spa with more modern amenities. Under the distinctive mosaic tiled dome, you’ll find a swimming pool and a rock-walled steam cave.

The Spanish style Ozark Bathhouse serves as the Ozark Cultural Center, featuring the work of the artist-in-residence. Do stop at the Fordyce Bathhouse, the park visitor center and museum. This is a gem worth touring, on your own or with a guide.

In 1915, the Fordyce was the grandest bathhouse in town. It was restored in 1989 down to every detail–the marble fountains, patterned tile floors, stained glass, fish-riding cherubs, weird health devices of yore.

The ladies’ side of the bathhouse had a “Cooling Room,” where gals would lounge and drink the spring water after treatments.

Seems nice, ladies, until you see the men’s side of the bathhouse. Quite a step up in swank, what with the stained glass skylight depicting “Neptune’s Daughter” above the DeSoto Fountain. But the Fordyce wasn’t just fancy, it was forward thinking.

Cutting edge tech of the day included the Hubbard tub, built with a monorail above it so disabled patients could be easily immersed in the water. Torturous-looking needle showers, steam cabinets and weird quacky-looking gadgets promised to cure what ailed ya.

There was even a treatment called the “Scotch Douche.” Apparently, this “special shower” involved varying the temperature of water being applied to the spine and nowhere more invasive than that.

My vote for best modern-day use of hot springs water goes to beer. Every pint at Superior Bathhouse Brewery is brewed with it. This beautifully restored bathhouse is the first brewery in a U.S. national park, and the first to put #HotSpringsOnTap.

As for food, Arkansas is a barbecue lover’s state. According to “Eater,” this region borrows from Texas and Memphis styles, then slathers it with a red, tomato-based sauce. McClard’s Bar-B-Q Restaurant is the legendary spot in Hot Springs for old school ‘que. It started the way many barbecue joints did–grilling on the side of the road for travelers. They’ve been keeping the smoker hot at 505 Albert Pike since 1928. Yum. Earned its spot in the Arkansas Food Hall of Fame.

For breakfast, follow your nose to Will’s Cinnamon Shop at 1001 Central Ave. because it is hard to spot from the street. Top your hot and gooey, straight-from-the-oven cinnamon rolls with your choice of frostings. Definitely take some to go, because they still taste great the next day after spending the night in a cooler. Wish I’d gotten more.

Next stop on our Ozarks odyssey–Little Rock, where the Clinton Presidential Library parked its double wide trailer. Kidding, lots of great architecture and more still to come on our Arkansas road trip! And be sure to sign up to get the next blog in your mailbox.

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