Awed by the natural mountainous beauty surrounding Hot Springs, Ark., President Andrew Jackson in 1932 designated the area as the first piece of land to be protected for future generations, essentially establishing America’s first National Park. The natural thermal spring waters that flowed into the bathhouses here were long believed to have healing properties, which is why presidents, outlaws, athletes and other celebrities visited the spa city.
Today, you can still immerse yourself in the hot mineral waters along historic bathhouse row, adjacent to Hot Springs National Park, while also visiting the downtown business district, which is being restored and revitalized. Oaklawn Park remains one of the most popular horse racing tracks in the nation, and luxury resorts and marinas now blend into the pine-shrouded shorelines of the lakes comprising the area: Lake Ouachita, Lake Hamilton and Lake Catherine.
The Tri-Lakes Region, as it is known, attracts some 23 million recreational visitors a year to its nearly 50,000 surface acres of water and is enjoyed not only by boating and fishing enthusiasts but also by those thoroughly content to spend hours simply viewing the myriad of private homes, condominiums, resorts and restaurants covering much of the shoreline.
Envisioned as a source of hydro-electric energy as far back as 1924, a comprehensive flood control project and environmental stewardship plan resulted in development of the lakes, which continue to provide ever-evolving recreational opportunities including watersports, camping, hiking and hunting. Renner Dam (1924), Carpenter Dam (1932) and Blakely Mountain Dam (1953) were fostered in part by the Army Corps of Engineers and Arkansas Power & Light (now Entergy), utilizing the flow of the Ouachita River as the natural resource provider.
For those of you itching to go right now, the second annual Hot Springs Fishing Challenge is running from May 1 to July 31 and Rockin’ The River on the Ouachita River is scheduled for June 15. More details on each event are available on the Hot Springs Chamber of Commerce website (www.hotspringschamber.com).
WHERE TO DOCK
Hot Springs Marina is the oldest marina on Lake Hamilton, offering sales, rentals, and maintnenace and repairs. Covered slip rentals and dry storage are available year round, and its ships store offers a complete line of marine needs, right down to doggie life jackets (www.hotspringsmarina.net).
Kahuna Bay/Salty Dog Boat & Jet Ski Rental offers three locations on Lake Hamilton and rents ”everything,‘ including pontoons, personal watercraft and water tubes. A full-service gas station and convenience store round out the services (www.kahunabay.com).
Pay-per-use boat ramps on Lake Hamilton are located at Sunnybrook Landing in Entergy Park by Carpenter Dam, at Andrew Hulsey Fish Hatchery off Arkansas Highway 290, at Hill Wheatley Park off Majestic Lodge Road and at Gideon’s Ramp on Treasure Isle Road.
Brady Mountain Resort & Marina on Lake Ouachita offers amenities from comfy accommodations to complete marina services, located on 175 acres of lakeside scenery. Choose from a variety of rustic cabins and enjoy great dining and entertainment on-site. Boating, swimming, watersports, diving, horseback riding and more are all part of the experience (www.bradymtn.com).
For Lake Catherine, the Arkansas State Parks Commission operates a marina with rental services (www.arkansasstateparks.com).
WHAT TO DO
There’s so much to do in the area that no list of onshore activities will be all-inclusive. Visiting historic bathhouse row and the downtown shopping area is a must. The Mountain Tower in the national forest overlooks 140 miles of Quachita Mountain scenery, and Garvan Woodland Gardens offers floral vistas that should not be missed.
For the gaming enthusiast, Oaklawn Park Racing (January-April) and Gaming is available. Magic Springs Water & Theme Park will be a hit with the kids, as will the Arkansas Alligator Farm & Petting Zoo. The Gangster Museum of America and the Hot Springs Baseball Trail round out the possibilities. Oh, and don’t forget the Tussaud Wax Museum and the championship golf courses listed on the Natural State Golf Trail. You get the idea.
The Hot Springs Chamber has a great website providing links to all the attractions (www.hotspringschamber.com), as well as a calendar of ”coming attractions.‘
WHERE TO EAT
J&S Italian Villa overlooks Lake Hamilton, with lake access, and catching a sunset is spectacular! The extensive menu includes pasta, steaks, fowl and fish entrees. Voted ”Best Italian Restaurant‘ for the past seven years (www.jandsitalianvilla.com).
Fisherman’s Wharf Restaurant & Oyster Bar is a lakeside eatery specializing in (what else?) seafood, while also serving aged-to-perfection steaks and hand-shucked oysters year round (www.fishermanswharfhs.com).
Central Park Fusion Cuisine bases its dishes on classical French culinary techniques with standout seafood and steaks (www.centralparkfusion.com).
McClards’s Bar-B-Q is eat-in or take-out, nothing fancy, but always mentioned in food roundup articles on Hot Springs (www.mcclards.com).
Belle Arti Italian Restaurant is in the bathhouse row area and features authentic Italian cuisine with live piano music (www.belleartigroup.com).
Salsa’s Grill offers authentic Mexican cuisine and nightly music. Though a little on the loud side, it has great guacamole and margaritas (www.salsasmexicancantina.net). Go figure.
Luna Bella opened just a couple of years ago and offers a romantic atmosphere with pasta, seafood and steaks, plus a fabulous Sunday Brunch (www.lunabellahotsprings.com).
WHERE TO STAY
For the ultimate “back-in-time” stay, what better than the historic Arlington Resort Hotel & Spa with downtown, bathhouse row and a national park right outside your door? Great dining choices, twin cascading outdoor pools, private beauty and facial salons, thermal baths and a championship golf course are all available (www.arlingtonhotel.com).
Lookout Point Lakeside Inn on Lake Hamilton is one of the newest and finest B&Bs in the area, named ”Best of the Best‘ by Southern Living in 2010 and a member of Select Registry, Distinguished Inns of North America. Expect to be pampered while residing in one of 10 individually styled suites, with gourmet breakfast served every morning along with fresh-baked ”surprises‘ in the afternoon. Canoe the bay, catch a nap in a hammock, or simply enjoy the views and the beautifully tended gardens (www.lookoutpointinn.com).
The Hamilton House Estate Bed & Breakfast operated for years as one of the finest restaurants on the lake but recently ”changed course‘ to now offer five suites in a private and secluded area with spectacular vistas. This National Historic bed and breakfast is accessed via a gated entrance to the three-acre peninsula bordering Lake Hamilton, creating the perfect intimate getaway (www.hamiltonhouseestate.com).