Which Hot Springs Bath House is Right For You?
If you are planning a trip to Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, you simply cannot miss having a dip in the protected and healing thermal mineral waters for which the park is named after. However, if you are like me, you might be a bit confused as to which experience you'd like have since there isn't much info out there on the web.
This guide will help you understand and decipher the differences between the two operating bathhouses on Bathhouse Row (Quapaw and Buckstaff) so you can decide which one is best for you! I've also listed some pros and cons to help you make a more educated decision.
A Little History
Hot Springs has a very special place in our history. American Indians came here for thousands of years to quarry novaculite for their tools and weapons as well as to soak in the mineral rich waters. The area was known to be a 'safe zone' where all tribes could enjoy the area in peace, without fighting or war.
When white men discovered the waters, a bustling town popped up around it, along with contemporary state of the art Bathhouses you can still see today. Physicians came from around the country to treat patients in these bathhouses. At one time, bathhouses were more successful than hospitals in treating diseases, pains, and ailments.
Only two bathhouses now remain in operation on Bathhouse Row: The Buckstaff and Quapaw.
The Buckstaff Experience
If you'd like to be transported back in time and experience the Hot Springs from the early 1900's, look no further than this bath house. Buckstaff is the only bathhouse that has been in full operation since the time it opened and offers the traditional bathing experience. I suggest doing the Traditional Bath Experience, however they do offer other services such as hand treatments, manicures and facials. There are no reservations at this bathhouse, so it's first come, first served.
WHAT TO EXPECT:
When you first arrive, men are taken into a locker room on the first floor and women will be taken up an old fashioned elevator and into a waiting area where your bath attendant will meet you (not a co-ed experience, so Murray and I met up again after our treatments). From there you will be taken to your locker to undress completely. Your bath attendant will bring a towel and wrap you up in it and then lead you to the open room with all the stations. You will then begin your treatment in the Whirlpool Hot Tub.
Each tub is behind a curtain so you have privacy as you disrobe and enter the bath. The tub is the original cast iron tub filled with the thermal waters and a thermostat so you can monitor the temperature. Mine was set at 103 degrees. The bath attendant will start the whirlpool which is incredibly powerful. I had to position myself to the side of the tub just to not feel 'violated' by it. lol. After 20 minutes, the attendant comes in with a loofa and rubs down your body in order to increase circulation.
Then you will be taken to the Hot Pack station. Here you will lie on a table and the attendant will place very hot towels on your back, shoulders, stomach and legs. You then get an icy towel on your forehead which helps you feel comfortable. This was my favorite part. I think I actually feel asleep with the warmth!
Next you will be taken to a sitz bath which is essentially a small tub that you sit your bum into but keep your legs and upper body out of. This is for added heat to the lower back and hip areas. You can control the temperature here and you soak for about 10 minutes.
Next you will be taken to the vapor cabinets which is a metal box you sit in while steam is pumped in. Beginners keep their heads out of the steam box, while more advanced customers will put their heads in. After about 5 minutes of sweating from the steam you are taken to the needle shower to rinse off.
The needle shower is a stand-up shower with shower streams surrounding you about 270 degrees. The idea is to promote increased circulation and to rinse off your sweat before you cool down. From the description, I anticipated that this would be a lot more intense, but it was actually quite gentle.
From here you are moved into a cooling room to cool off for 10-20 minutes. Once your core temperature is reduced, you are able to return to your locker and get changed.
It was pretty cool to step back in time and experience a historical service focused on promoting health and relieving pain. We spent the day before learning about the tradition at the Fordyce Bathhouse Visitor Center and I was actually pleasantly surprised by how authentic the Buckstaff bath experience was.
On the men's side, there were hardly any customers, so it was incredibly quiet and relaxing for Murray.
The many stations you go to help fluctuate your core temperature for ultimate circulation and healing. I came in with a pain in my neck and shoulder and left feeling incredibly loose and limber. It was a similar sensation to doing Bikram Yoga without the stretching. It was very different and unique and I'm so glad I did it!
If you are a bit germy or self-conscious, this house may be a difficult experience for you. The tubs and machinery are very old (they are the original ones) so there is a lot of rust, stains and mineral build up from the thermal waters over the last century. Although, the staff does go to great efforts to keep everything clean and sanitary, it is good to know ahead of time to understand you will not be sitting in bright white sparkling tubs.
The practice here is to be completely nude with a towel wrapped around you as you move from station to station. Because everything happens in one big room, it can be crowded and might be uncomfortable for the modest or shy folk. The bath attendant will definitely see you fully naked several times throughout your treatment, so if this is an issue for you, I'd suggest you skip this experience.
The atmosphere here is more functional than a typical 'spa' relaxation experience which makes sense because in the tradition, bath houses were for used for medicinal purposes, not relaxation. Expect a loud environment with many women chatting and loud machines. I did still happen to fall asleep for a bit with the intense heat despite the noise. But if you are looking for a typical spa experience, I'd recommend the Quapaw instead.
The Quapaw Experience
The Quapaw is on the complete opposite side of the spa spectrum from the Buckstaff. Here you can expect a much more modern day spa experience. The only way to enjoy the thermal waters is to book a private bath (reservation required), book time in the Thermal Steam Cave (reservation required), or soak in the 4 Thermal Mineral Pools (no reservation required),
The private baths can be incorporated with many other modern day spa services from massage, facials, couples services and body wraps. The experience is very much like the modern day massage experience.
The Thermal Steam Cave is very cool as it is located right where the spring comes into the building (in the basement) and completely heated by the hot spring. The room is built like a cave with rocks from floor to ceiling and two wood benches to soak up the steam on. Its a very cool experience and I highly recommend it!
The public thermal pools are a great and affordable way (only $20/person) to experience the water. Each pool has a different temperature and its recommended to move from hot to cold as much as possible. It was very similar to the hot springs experience we had in Budapest and other European style pools.
WHAT TO EXPECT FOR THE THERMAL POOLS:
You must wear a swimsuit in the pools and bring rubber flip flops. If you don't have flip flops, you can purchase some for $3. Lockers and towels are available for your convenience. Before you enter the pools, you must take a shower with soap to wipe off all makeup, deodorant, lotion, etc so you can be as pure as you can be.
The pools are incredibly clean, relaxing and rejuvenating. There is some noise from the waterfalls and people talking, but it quickly fades away as you sit in each pool for about 20 minutes. There is also a little cafe if you get hungry or need a smoothie.
Everything is quite new and clean with only minor staining from the mineral water.
This is definitely not the authentic experience which is a con if you are like us and like to try everything. The building was recently remodeled so much of the original layout and design of the bathhouse is now history.
Besides the thermal water, it feels like any other spa in any hotel.
If you are looking to be a bit more adventurous and want a historical experience, definitely get a Buckstaff Traditional Bath. If you got enough history at the Visitor center and just want to enjoy the healing water, opt for the Quapaw. If you are like us and want both, then make sure you get both experiences.
We hope this blog can help you decide how you want to experience the waters of Hot Springs!