Experience a spa as our ancestors did.
By Hope S. Philbrick
Before this trip, I would not have been able to tell you the last time a woman who was much bigger and older than me scrubbed me while I sat in a bathtub. Maybe I was five years old?
Now I can say it happened in 2014.
If you’ve been to a modern-day spa, then you know what to expect of the current spa experience: The more luxurious the spa, the more likely it offers guests a relaxation lounge area with access to a pool, hot tub, steam room and/or sauna to use before and/or after your treatment. But the treatment itself boils down to you left alone in a dimly-lit room to strip down to your level of comfort (get naked or wear underwear, it’s up to you), slip between sheets on some padded table and lie there while a therapist enters the room and then rubs you down for whatever length of time you reserved, all while ensuring you’re discreetly hidden by a sheet or towel.
Back in the 1830s and through the 1940s, that was not the way spa-ing was done. Back then, a specifically-timed, temperature-controlled, expertly-attended hot thermal bath was the centerpiece of the Hot Springs’ spa experience. The city’s thermal waters and fresh mountain air were thought to cure a wide range of ailments, from syphilis to paralysis. (Thankfully, folks did know enough to scrub the bathtubs between uses.)
That tradition of bathing continues in Hot Springs today, though the aim is more holistic than medical.
The historic spa maintains its old-timey vibe. Men enter on the right, women on the left. Inside the thick-tiled sanctuary, you’re assigned a locker, handed towels to cover up, and instructed to strip down in a private changing closet. Once ready, you stroll over to a lounge area that resembles a grandma’s sun room to await your attendant.
My attendant, who was friendly yet approached the task with solemn seriousness, escorted me into a curtained-off area with a bathtub full of water. “Get in,” she said. I shyly hesitated wondering if she was planning to step outside the curtain first. She reached for my towel and I realized that my inhibition was standing in the way of progress. She’s seen a lot of nakedness, I told myself as I complied and stepped into the tub.
“Is the temperature alright?” she asked as I submerged.
The water was comfortably hot. She handed me two cups of hot water and told me to drink them—the idea is, as it was historically, to drink hot water whilst soaking in hot water to raise the body temperature.
She then flipped on an appliance that was dangling in the bathtub and left me to soak in swirling water. That appliance created the whirlpool effect, but sitting in a tub with something plugged into an outlet was disconcerting to say the least. I consoled myself with the knowledge they’ve been doing it this way for a long time.
She checked on me a couple of times, which was nice in case I’d passed out from overheating. After 20 minutes, she came in, soaped up a washcloth, and washed me like a baby (though she ignored the body parts that most obviously might be in need of washing, presumably to respect my privacy). She then told me to stand up, wrapped me in a towel, and escorted me through a series of additional experiences: a hot towel wrap, a sauna and then a shower.
She was straight-faced and professional throughout, which made the moments when I stood naked in front of her less embarrassing. With her job, she’s probably numb to nakedness. She alone saw me naked: I was shielded by sheets and towels from all other spa patrons and staffers.
Once thoroughly drenched, red-faced from heat and undeniably clean, I was wrapped in a sheet and escorted to another waiting area. There I was met by a massage therapist and led to the sort of dimly-lit room with which I’m more accustomed. He stepped out while I slid between the sheets and returned to massage my muscles into oblivion for 20 minutes. It was one of the best massages I’ve ever had, a testament to the therapist’s skill and also to the benefit of taking a hot bath beforehand to pre-relax muscles.
The traditional Hot Springs’ spa experience has some awkward moments if you’re shy about your own body, and it won’t cure disease, but there’s no denying that it’s effective: You will leave refreshed and very, very relaxed.
Hot Springs Is Spa History…
Hot Springs, Arkansas, has been a spa mecca since its natural hot springs were discovered. Health seekers have long been drinking the water and taking baths in it.
Established in 1832, the Hot Springs Reservation (now Hot Springs National Park) preserves 47 natural hot springs and several grand bathhouse buildings dating from 1911 to 1939 along one side of Central Avenue. It’s easy to imagine how the area was enjoyed throughout history, from the Native Americans who might have lounged in open springs to the bawdy heyday of Bathhouse Row.
But you need not simply imagine how it was back in the day. You can experience traditional treatments first-hand.
According to the National Park Service, since the 1830s the city of Hot Springs has channeled much of its energy into becoming a national health resort. Some of the bathhouses have closed—Hot Springs saw demand for medicinal baths peak in 1946—but you can still discover the traditional spa experience at five operating bathhouses. We tried two. Click to read about our experience at The Austin.
The Arlington Spa Bathhouse & Salon was recently selected as one of the top 50 spas in the world by Spas of America Magazine.
The Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa
239 Central Ave.
Hot Springs, AR 71901
The Arlington Thermal Bathhouse & Spa is located on the 3rd floor of the hotel.
The Arlington Salon is located on the lower level of the hotel, one floor below the lobby.
The bathhouse is open every day of the year except December 25.
A range of treatments is available including facials and body wraps. A thermal mineral bath is currently priced at $28; “the works” (bath + 20-minute massage) is $62. A 90-minute massage is $125. Call for details about these and additional services.
– Photos © HSP Media LLC
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