Arkansas hot springs

There is really a "little rock" in Little Rock, Arkansas. La Petite Roche, the little rock that gave the town its name, is set in the waters of the Arkansas River along the downtown waterfront. At nightfall, a light show illuminates the three bridges that converge above, setting them—and the river and rock below—awash in constantly-changing, eye-popping color.

Little Rock’s little rock isn’t the only revelation. The capital and the surrounding area offer more surprises: hot springs made for soaking, quirky museums, mob history and thoroughbred racing are just a few of the exciting discoveries awaiting visitors to the region.

Little Rock may be best known as home of the Clinton Presidential Center dedicated to the 42nd president, but it's also the site of one of just three museums around the world solely devoted to the handbag. (The others are in Amsterdam and Seoul.) At the Esse Purse Museum, almost 300 handbags are displayed representing a century of purses—and their contents. A nationally historic event in the city’s history occurred at Central High School in 1957, when nine African-American students wanted to go to the formerly all-white Central High School. That effort became the country’s first major test of public school desegregation. A Visitor Center offers the details, but because it’s still a public high school, the only way to see inside is on a free guided tour.

Rosemont Inn

For a night's rest, the Rosemont Inn & Cottages are just far enough from the River Market District for solitude, but these restored 19th- and 20th-century homes are convenient to restaurants and shops. All rooms have oversized Jacuzzi tubs and include a lavish farm-to-table breakfast. The largest accommodation, the Barkley Cottage, offers plenty of space at more than 1,200 sq. ft with separate living and dining areas; one of its two bedrooms opens onto a private enclosed garden.

Little Rock has its boulder, and an hour down the road, the city of Hot Springs has its own namesake. Hot Springs National Park encompasses 5,500 acres and is the oldest park in the National Park System. The town grew around the mineral springs, with the Park at the city’s north end. The 47 thermal springs (with an average temperature of 143 degrees Fahrenheit) spawned historic Bathhouse Row, a downtown section along Central Avenue where eight buildings constructed between 1892 and 1923 are part of the area’s National Historic Landmark District.

Decades ago, thousands flocked to Bathhouse Row to reap the benefits of the supposedly healing waters. Now, visitors are pampered at two (Buckstaff and Quapaw) of the original turn-of-the-century bathhouses still open. Some of the area’s springs have taps and are called "jug fountains," beckoning those with a water jug (you can buy them downtown) to take home the free-flowing waters.

From the 1920s to the 1940s, the mineral springs weren't the only lure of Hot Springs. Illegal gambling and bootlegging thrived here as mobsters like Al Capone held court. You can take a selfie with his likeness in front of the city's oldest bar, the Ohio Club, established in 1905.

Williams House InnSpending the night in "Spa City" means tubs aplenty at most accommodation, such as the 1890 Williams House Inn, near downtown. The jetted tubs are complete with bath salts and a candle. Innkeeper Lynda Burpo surprises guests with bedtime snacks of homemade cookies and brownies on the sideboard downstairs and chocolates on the bedroom pillows. The main house was the first home in Hot Springs to receive electricity, and the sumptuous breakfast is served in the dining room aglow with some of the original light fixtures.

The inn is  just a mile from Oaklawn, a thoroughbred horse racetrack operating since 1904, which hosts hopefuls for the Triple Crown. Racing season runs from mid-January through mid-April.

Lookout Point LakesideA slower paced attraction is Lake Hamilton in the Ouachita Mountains, just a 15-minute drive from Hot Springs. The Arts-and-Crafts style Lookout Point Lakeside Inn offers thirteen rooms with whirlpool tubs, fireplaces, and private terraces or decks. Innkeeper Kristie Rosset says guests enjoy the complimentary canoe they can borrow to traverse the lake.

Every afternoon, the innkeepers host a reception with wine or tea and a tasty dessert and appetizer. Wednesdays are particularly special since chocolate is the star, both at breakfast (perhaps French toast with Ghirardelli white and dark chocolate or chocolate gravy and biscuits) and at the afternoon reception (chocolate covered strawberries or Godiva Chocolate Liqueur could be on the menu).

Mountain Thyme B&BIn Jessieville, another getaway about 30 minutes north of Hot Springs, the Mountain Thyme Bed & Breakfast sits on nine wooded acres just outside the Ouachita National Forest. The wraparound porch invites guests to linger over a book, play a board game, sketch with the inn’s art supplies, or (from April through October) gaze at the hummingbirds that frequent the property.

"We have eight hummingbird feeders all around the house," says innkeeper Rhonda Hicks.

Inside, there's another surprise—bath toys in the in-room tubs. Rubber ducks, boats and wind-up toys make for a Hot Springs bathing experience like no other!

B&Bs listed in this article:

Rosemont Inn & Cottages - Little Rock, AR

1890 Williams House Inn - Hot Springs, AR

Lookout Point Lakeside Inn - Hot Springs, AR

Mountain Thyme B&B - Jessieville, AR