Wednesday, September 7, 2022

Taking the Waters: A Morning at the Buckstaff Bathhouse in Hot Springs.

An experience guests a hundred years ago could enjoy is still available to you today, in the original building (and tubs!) where folks have been enjoying a soak in the pure thermal waters of Hot Springs National Park since 1912. The Buckstaff Bathhouse's offerings will leave you relaxed and ready for more adventure in the Spa City.

A visit to any of Hot Springs' spas connected to the springs that come bubbling up to the surface at 143 degrees Fahrenheit is a good call. After all, visitors have been seeking the cures to their ills in this valley for centuries. Native Americans considered this a peaceful ground, and folks of all ilk have been making the journey here ever since.

I've shared a lot of what a bathhouse can be like with my previous visit a few years back to the Fordyce Bathhouse, which is now the National Parks Visitor Center for Hot Springs National Park. But taking them in myself? Well... I have had the pleasure of bathing at the Arlington Hotel and Spa several times - where, once the services are done, I would retreat to my room, sipping more of the waters from the springs, lolling around under a ceiling fan and sleeping off the afternoon.

Until now, every visit to Hot Springs and chance to enjoy the Buckstaff has been a disappointment - not because of the facility, but because of the wait. Unlike the Arlington, the Springs Hotel, or the Quapaw (the other historic bathhouse in operation along the famed Bathhouse Row), the Buckstaff does not make appointments. Service is strictly walk-ins only, and if there are folks there before you, you must wait.

I found myself with a lovely not-quite-too-hot Saturday morning after a light breakfast of cactus palm and carne asada at Cafe Kahlo down Central Avenue, walking under the magnolias that line the historic district. I came to the Buckstaff in my street clothes, with only my camera along for my walk. I noticed there were just three people standing in front of the counter, and wondered if this would be the day.

It was. It took just a few minutes to make my way to the front of the line, where I asked the attendant to sign me up for the traditional with paraffin. For the grand price of $101, I was registered to experience the full array of service offered - that is, all but the needle shower, which was not available for the weekend due to recent work in the area. 

The Buckstaff separates its areas by gender. Men are taken back on the first floor, while women are escorted to the second floor by a female attendant in the original 1912 elevator that's still working after more than a century.

The property itself was originally created by the Buckstaff Bath House Company, which formed in 1911 to create a place where members of the general population could come to take the baths. They set to building it in the Roman Gothic style popular in the teens. Today, it's the only one of the original eight still offering traditional baths (the Quapaw's offerings are far more modern with its complete renovation). Most of the facilities within are original to the property, including steam closets, sitz baths, the needle showers, the marblework and tilework, and the tubs.

Now, while I know you are used to my photo-heavy essays, this time I was quite limited. For obvious reasons of privacy, cameras are not allowed beyond the dressing area. 

I was given three receipts - one for my bath, one for a massage, and one for a paraffin wax hand treatment - along with my overall receipt and a loofa mitt in a plastic bag. Within five minutes, an attendant had come down to retrieve me and another woman also waiting for the services. She apologized about any wait we may encounter - since services are offered both a la carte and in a package, the availability of facilities may fluctuate. Having that rare Saturday where I was not expected anywhere at a particular time, I was fine with this.

We were taken to the dressing room and each to a curtained stall, where we were directed to disrobe and place our possessions and clothing in a locker, taking only the key and our loofa with us. These old lockers are big enough for most carry items - if I'd been hauling my backpack, it would still have fit in the ample space. 

Once you disrobe and are ready, you call for an attendant, who directs you to stand with your back to the curtain. Your attendant comes with a large sheet folded in half lengthwise (I believe it is a king sized sheet, though as far as I know they may use different sizes for different individuals). They take the sheet and pass it around your front, wrap one side around your back and hand you a corner to hold, then repeat the process on the other side. This impromptu toga can be held together with your hands and under your armpits.

My attendant was Shadow. She had me follow her into the main room of the women's spa. Before me was a series of beds, which at this time had just one occupant, a woman laying draped in her sheet, covered in towels from throat to toe, with another towel around her head. To my left was a small sitting area and stalls where I could see the angles of the sitz baths. To my right were long stalls where the tubs were kept.

Shadow walked me down the row to one of her bathing stalls. On entry, I noticed the gigantic, oversized tub had what appeared to be a small outboard motor with an exhaust pipe at its end. A gauge in a plastic bag was on the other side of the faucet, with a cord that ran up to its other end, where the temperature could be read. A footstool stood beside the tub, and Shadow made sure there were fresh towels on the stool and the floor both.

She instructed me to turn my back to her, and quickly unwrapped me and allowed me to enter the tub on my own. She asked if the water was a suitable temperature, and released the drain a bit before adding more hot water. Because of my height (I'm 5'9"), I could not fully immerse, but she made sure I had a towel folded under my head for comfort. She also brought in two small cups (2 ounce) of warm water from the springs to keep myself hydrated with while I enjoyed the bath.

Because my experience at the Arlington included an attendant that scrubbed the bejesus out of me with a loofa, I assumed that'd be a similar case here. Instead, Shadow turned on the motor and let me know she'd come check on me in ten to 15 minutes. 

A good soak in a bath is wonderful. This one was also rather powerful, as the added superjet from the agitation motor was extraordinarily strong, enough to begin the defoliation process across my skin. I was thankful I'd already showered once that morning and was relatively clean for the experience (I really suggest showering before you go!) and here was a jet strong enough to show impression on the skin around my knees as it "blew" into the tub. The loofa provided is for you to scrub yourself, but I found myself quite sufficiently pleased with the pressure of water around me, hot enough to bead sweat onto my brow, strong enough that, when I shifted to focus attention on the other knee, jetted that water strongly enough to go right up my batukis. Geez!

The warm water to sip is essential to the experience. Because you are mostly immersed in the water, you don't realize how much you begin to sweat. By the time Shadow came to check on me, I was into my second cup. The heat and swirling waters was pure bliss.

This is a point where I should probably mention, you do not have to take the waters in the nude. A bathing suit is perfectly acceptable. I did not feel the need to wear one, and most of the women my age who were there while I was were also only clothed in the provided sheets. There were a few young ladies - older teenagers, from what I could tell - who did wear bikinis in for the experience.

Shadow came after a bit more than 20 minutes and turned off the motor. She set the stool so it was handy for me to step out onto, then allowed me to exit the tub on my own, offering assistance if I needed it. She then wrapped me again in my original sheet.

We stepped out of the tub stall and into the main area, where Shadow handed me another small cup with ice and water in it. She directed me to sip slowly to help bring my body back down to a normal temperature. We walked over to the second of the beds in the middle of the room - a vinyl cushioned bed about six and a half feet long, flat and facing the windows that only looked out onto the sky. I was directed to lay on my back and rest.

While she attended another client, I breathed deep and felt the sensation of cooling in the main room. I would estimate the temperature within was around 80 degrees - warmer than your average room, but also warm enough to keep the near-nude women within comfortable. By this point there was one woman my age in the sitz bath, wrapped in her sheet, and the tub stalls were beginning to fill.

Shadow came back to me, and directed me to sit up. She placed an extremely hot, wet towel pack on the vinyl bed, and had me lay back upon it. She then placed a rolled towel under my knees and covered the area below my legs with another hot pack, and had me stretch my legs across it. I was asked to pull my legs in together, and was tucked in with my sheet, before she proceeded to place two more of the hot packs over me, from head to toe, making sure the end went well over the soles of my feet. Shadow then took a towel doused in cold water and wrapped it around my head, leaving my face clear. She placed a small cup of ice on my chest and directed me to suck on a piece of ice when I felt the need, to keep me from getting too hot.

There I lay for quite some time. The towels began just about as hot as I could stand, and kept their warmth for a very long time. I felt the pores on my skin open and sweat bubble to the surface. My shoulder and thigh muscles relaxed and I felt as if I'd melted into the bed. There were other women around me - placed on the beds, wrapped and draped with towels. I heard instructions given for how to proceed to other guests, but my mind was free to wander about and I let it. 

I don't know how long I was there, but by the time Shadow returned I had gone through most of my ice and felt like I was made of pliant rubber. She removed the towels and hot packs over me, and helped me to sit up, watching to make sure I didn't experience any undue dizziness. Then it was off to the sitz bath.

If you've never encountered this sort of bath, it was a way to treat pain in the hips and lower back, and to treat hemorrhoid's, back in the day. It is, basically, a small tub for your butt. In this case, the tubs were angled marble with a drain at the bottom of the basin. Shadow took fresh towels and lined the bottom and back of the tub. She then directed me to stand with my back to her. She took the sheet from me, I turned around and lowered myself into the tub with my knees over the edge, and she handed me the towel to wrap around my torso. This provided me with the modesty to keep my bits and bobs from general view. The sheet was already quite soaked from the wet towels and, likely, ,my own sweat.

I must admit, I wasn't really certain what the sitz bath would do for my general health beyond heating up my posterior, but I was fine with perching there for ten minutes while the heat soaked into my hips. 

The next step was the steam closet, something I was quite looking forward to. This is the contraption you see in the cartoons where a fat man would go in, be covered to his neck in the box, and then come out much skinnier. I don't think it really works like that, but the contraption is exactly like what you see in those toons. Shadow held my sheet up and rolled it around me as I came out of the sitz bath, then held it as I turned and sat on the bench in the steam closet close by. She took the sheet, closed the front doors and the top flap (minding my hair), and placed the sheet around my neck. She told me if I felt uncomfortable at all to call for her to come be released.

New spa customers are advised not to take the steam closet for more than two minutes. I have spent more time than is safely advised in cedar saunas over the course of my lifetime, and love steam rooms. This, though, was something else. The literature posted said five minutes should be the maximum but, since there was no one waiting for the closet, Shadow let me have more time. With the increased heat and the pressure built from the steam developing in the closed closet, I felt as if water was pouring from my pores. The heat from the element behind me was luxuriously hot. Having my head free meant I did not feel that sense of suffocation once can get in an extremely high-humidity area, but just before my time was done I did allow myself to face-down inhale steam. I don't think my head has been that clear in ages.

But I could not live in the steam, and Shadow came and fetched me around the ten minute mark. She helped me one more time into the now dripping-wet sheet and lead me to a chair at the edge of the room to wait for an opportunity to switch over. This is normally the part where you would step into a needle shower for two minutes to rinse before completing your visit or heading to another part of the spa - but, as I mentioned before, the shower was not in operation. Instead, once I gained admittance to the private room where the shower was located, Shadow had me step out of the wet sheet and wrapped me in a fresh, clean dry sheet, and set me up for my massage.

That's when I met Robin, who came to fetch me for my massage. She took me to the other side of the floor, where a massage table was tucked into a private room.  Robin had me turn my back, and took my sheet. She held it high while directing me to lay face-up on the massage table. She then tucked in the sheet around me and proceeding to obtain lotion for my massage.

She began with the back of my neck before moving to my ears and face, rubbing and stroking. She used pressure but seemed to know when to pull back. She worked down from the top of my chest down my left side and back up my right, uncovering just the focus area at each time - one arm, one leg, one foot, etc. Then she took the sheet again and asked me to roll on my belly. After covering me again, she began with the back of each leg, then covered both and uncovered my back, where she worked from neck to hip with agility and more pressure.

After the 20 minute massage, Robin brought me back to the dressing room. I took a moment out for a restroom visit, then clothed myself and gathered my belongings. I left the key in the locker as directed.

This is the end of the traditional package, but I had opted for the paraffin treatment as well. After a wait of just a few minutes, an attendant directed me to put aside what I was carrying (the loofa in its bag and my camera) in one chair and stand in front of what appeared to be three octagonal Crock-Pots. These heated vessels contained paraffin wax in different scents. The options were lavender, peach, and the one I chose - a blend of eucalyptus, rosemary and mint. I was directed to dip each hand five times into the hot wax. It felt to be around 110 degrees - hot enough you wouldn't want to rest in it for long, and to keep the wax liquid, but cool enough to be safe. After I dipped each hand completely into and out of the wax five times, the attendant slipped a plastic bag over my hand that went halfway up my forearm. She then placed what looked like a thumbless oven mitt over my entire hand. Once both hands were done, I was asked to take my seat and relax.

I'm not sure what the hot wax does in particular - it isn't meant to take off hair, but perhaps it helps in the defoliation process. It was comforting, though, and felt like a treat.

The attendant came back about ten minutes later. For each hand, she removed the mitt, then gently and quickly rubbed all the way from mid-arm to fingertips over the plastic bag, which caused the wax to come off my hands and slip off without a mess.

My treatment completed, I took the opportunity to sit at the vanity in the dressing area and use the provided blow dryer to dry my hair. I did lament not bringing along a brush, but was able to get it dry and a light lip gloss on before being taken back down to the lobby by the attendant and allowed to go my way.

I arrived that morning around 9:15 a.m. and left around 12:15 p.m.  The Buckstaff does say you should expect your treatment to take at least an hour and a half. Because I was in no rush and voiced that to my attendants, I believe I was allowed a little extra time for many of the treatments. I did not go in as a writer or sponsored guest, just a member of the population wanting to take the waters.

Some things to know when you go:

Because you don't take anything but your loofa and your locker key into the spa itself, providing gratuities to the attendants isn't obvious. Shadow had a CashApp QR code posted on the wall, and I was able to walk in and link after I got dressed. You can also leave a cash tip for any attendant by inserting it in one of the provided small envelopes and mark it with their name. You can also leave an overall gratuity at the lobby counter in the provided box.

While it's not stated you must do so, I recommend showering before you go to the bathhouse. Yes, you can take a regular bath in the tubs but I found it far more relaxing to just vegetate and enjoy the experience. It also means you have less street gunk of whatever sort on your skin to dirty the water with.

If it's of importance to you, take your hairbrush, cosmetics and such with you so that after you have enjoyed the experience, you can get yourself prettied up before you leave. There is a restroom where you can take off make-up and wash your face before you begin your treatment.

Don't eat a heavy meal before you go.

Do consider your own medical situation before you go. If you have certain conditions that worsen with the heat, the baths may not be for you.

Consider taking the baths and then retreating to your accommodations for a little while. Though you're not doing a lot of physical activity while you're there, your body is experiencing some extremes, and having a bit of a nap and a cold beverage afterwards is a marvelous idea. I'd also suggest pickles if you tend to get dehydrated easily.

And... the experience is not limited to adults. Children as young as 12 can take the waters, if attended with a parent or guardian. The young ladies who were visiting when I was were marvelously behaved and dressed in bikinis, and were both raving about the fun they had when getting dressed.

Will I visit the Buckstaff again? You bet your sweet bippy. The entire adventure left me rested and clear-headed, and alleviated aches in my hips that had persisted for weeks. I cannot attest that it was the waters alone that, for a while, cured me of my ills. But I did walk easier afterwards and felt a calmness throughout my being. Bet you'll enjoy it, too.

If you'd like more information, check out the Buckstaff Bathhouse page. And if you'd like to learn more about Hot Springs Bathhouse Row, see what I discovered at the nearby Fordyce Bathhouse.

Now to schedule a visit to the Quapaw, so I can compare on my next visit!

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