A horse-drawn carriage clickity clacks through downtown spiriting cuddled-up couples past rows of magnolia trees and quaint buildings, over streets where the heat of the thermal waters escapes like puffs of smoke from Al Capone’s cigar.
Hot Springs is undoubtedly romantic, but pull back the covers on this sleepy tourist town, and you’ll discover it’s sexy, too. It’s as charming as the girl next door but boasts a long and, at times, sordid past. Dubbed America’s First Resort, Hot Springs boomed as an elegant spa town, welcoming presidents, Hollywood starlets, and major league ball players like Babe Ruth. But it was also a haven for organized crime, rampant with illegal gambling, bootlegging and prostitution. While Hot Springs has since cleaned up, betting, bathing and boozing are still on the menu along with a host of new attractions that are great for couples looking for some out-of-the-box fun.
One of the hottest things a couple can do (quite literally) is enjoy a soak in the thermal waters that put Hot Springs on the map so long ago. Quapaw Baths & Spa, located on Bathhouse Row in Hot Springs National Park, features four thermal pools ranging in temperature from 95 to 104 degrees. (For a more intimate experience, consider booking a private couples bath). Follow up your soak with a session in the steam cave, a small, man-built cave that is heated naturally from a 143 degree spring. The spa also offers couples massages.
The baths feel best after a long day of sightseeing and/or hiking. The park is home to 26 miles of trails that meander through the mountains. Several are accessible right from downtown, leading you and your loved one into wooded seclusion within minutes for breathtaking vistas. The trails are well marked and maps are available online and at the Hot Springs National Park Visitors Center in the Fordyce Bathhouse.
It’s also nice to simply stroll Bathhouse Row and the Grand Promenade which runs behind it. The architecture is beautiful and there are placards along the way where you can read about the history of “taking the waters.”
You don’t have to walk a bunch to discover the local history and scenery… You can ride in style in a horse-drawn carriage. Hot Springs Carriage Company parks its horses right in front of the Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa on Friday and Saturday evenings from 5-11 p.m. through the winter months. (Blankets are provided.) And, weather permitting, they always operate on Valentine’s Day, regardless of the day of the week.
The carriages are available on a first come, first served basis and cost $30 for two people and $5 for each additional person. Customers can choose between two routes: A quiet, romantic ride around Whittington Park or a historic tour, which takes customers down Central Avenue, past Bathhouse Row, and around the old railroad depot.
“The difference between a romantic ride and a historic tour is the driver will turn around and shut up,” said owner Bobby Stokes with a laugh.
The company also offers a “Restaurant Package” at various locations in and around downtown, which provides you and your date with a round-trip ride from your hotel or other accommodations to one of the area restaurants. Cost is $75 for two people.
Stokes has witnessed quite a few marriage proposals since he purchased the carriage company in 2001. His fleet, which includes a horse-drawn limousine, is also available for weddings.
Tucked away in cozy lounges, historic buildings, and repurposed warehouses throughout downtown are numerous restaurants, bars and live music venues that give a nod to Hot Springs’ playful past.
“We have a past that is very sexy but our town also has so many little hidden things to find as a couple,” said local performer Angie Ezekiel. “There’s a lot of fun here but you have to know where to look.”
Housed in an early 19th century building decorated with historic photos, Grateful Head Pizza and Beer Garden features a downstairs “Gin Joint” where Ezekiel performs under the stage name Sylvia Stems, a sultry songstress who’s big curls and vintage gowns pay homage to Hot Springs’ heyday.
“We had a lot of Hollywood talent here, so she’s a lounge singer in that style, with lots of glamour and a little bit of playfulness,” Ezekiel said.
She also performs each year in one of Hot Springs’ sexiest events, the Spa City Sweethearts Burlesque Review, held each February around Valentine’s Day. Arkansas’ first and largest burlesque review, the adults-only show features performances by Hot Springs’ burlesque troupe, The Foul Play Cabaret, along with a variety of other seductive and entertaining acts. Foul Play Cabaret also performs several times a year at Maxine’s Live, a former brothel turned bar and live music venue that features a variety of artistic styles. Named for the madam that used to run the joint, you can toss back a cold one and think about all the sex that happened in the space around you.
Other seductive hideaways worth checking out include The Steinhaus Keller, an authentic German restaurant and biergarten located in the “grotto” of Spencer’s Corner; and Rolando’s Restaurante & Speakeasy, a Cuban and Latin American restaurant with an upstairs lounge that features a 1920s/1930s theme and a “throw back” drink menu.
Hot Springs boasts an eclectic culinary scene that includes some swanky newer additions that are great for a romantic date night – especially when oysters are on the menu! Raw oysters have long been touted as an aphrodisiac with 18th-century playboy Giacomo Casanova writing about their salty seductiveness in his diaries.
One of the area’s newest restaurants, 501 Prime, features a dedicated oyster bar with a custom shucking table, a crushed ice shellfish display and a white quartz countertop where customers can sit and watch as the oysters are shucked. It’s a focal point of the downstairs dining room, which has a cozy, romantic vibe with reclaimed wood throughout and little nooks that give diners privacy.
In addition to raw oysters, they serve grilled oysters and their version of an Oyster Rockefeller. (Cooked over a wood-fire grill, the grilled oysters are topped with a combination of cheeses and herbs, and drizzled with garlic butter.) The menu is rounded out with USDA Prime steaks and fresh seafood options. Be sure to also check out the Bourbon Bar upstairs which has a more casual vibe and a full bar with a huge whiskey selection and 12 beers on tap.
A romantic get-away calls for extra special accommodations and Hot Springs has you covered with historic hotels, quaint bed-and-breakfasts, and cozy cottages, many of which are located in and around downtown. For a change of scenery, take a look at Lookout Point Lakeside Inn on Lake Hamilton. Geared towards couples, this boutique hotel has won numerous TripAdvisor Travelers’ Choice Awards and was ranked the #6 Top Hotel for Romance in the U.S. Each guest room is beautifully decorated and features views of the lake and the inn’s gardens. Resort amenities include water sports, a restaurant, and a bar, and a freshly prepared breakfast is included in your stay. They have a variety of romance packages with roses, chocolates, and French sparkling wine for your room, couples massages and/or admission to Garvan Woodland Gardens, a beautiful and expansive botanical garden. With long paths and footbridges that wind through gardens bursting with color, the Gardens seemed to have been designed with romantic strolls in mind.
Whatever you do during your romantic get-away, it’s perhaps most important that you slow it down. Whether you enjoy a long soak in our thermal waters or long walks through our forests and parks, take your time to truly appreciate the natural wonder of Hot Springs and the person by your side. Romance, after all, is not meant to be rushed.
Leslie Fisher is a media professional with a passion for travel and adventure. She has Covered Hot Springs and the surrounding areas for over a decade and enjoys being a tourist in her hometown.