Hot Springs: BBQ, Bathhouses and Gardens

Day 79, Staying at Home

Wednesday, June 10, 2020; Hot Springs, Arkansas

(I recently decamped to Santa Fe for a few months, where I’m still in quarantine. Before I start writing about this new adventure I’m finishing up posts about my weeks in Arkansas.)

The great thing about being in Arkansas during a pandemic is there is much to explore out of doors. It is no wonder the state nickname is The Natural State. This is despite what Starbucks would have you believe, as it has erroneously put “The Wonder State” on its Been There series mug.

Hot Springs probably is my favorite place in Arkansas. I have fond memories of living here when I was 6 and 7 years old, but also because the resort town has much to offer. Water sports are huge, as three lakes surround the town. Nestled downtown is a National Park amid shops, hotels and attractions. In non-pandemic times, I would take in the waters, as they say, at Bathhouse Row. Great driving roads (meaning lots of twisties) surround the town, and along with nearby Hot Springs Village it is a favorite area for retirees.

Those twisties have sent Eloise and me to her convertible MINI Cooper for a day trip to Hot Springs from Fort Smith today. Our primary goal is McClards BBQ, a hole-in-the-wall institution. Bill and Hillary Clinton stopped here on their wedding day, and members of the band Aerosmith have talked their way into the kitchen. Willard Scott even named it the best barbecue in America. I myself have been known to take long detours on road trips to circle through Hot Springs for a meal at McClards.

Perhaps the first time I ate at McClards was in the late 1950s. We lived in Little Rock at the time (and again a decade later) and our grandparents had a little fishing cabin near Daisy, Ark. Hot Springs was about an hour from each, so we all met up at McClards for the handoff of the grandchildren after visits — and for a great meal.

I love the ribs and the non-traditional tamales, but the best is the coleslaw. We brought along an ice chest just to ensure we could take a quart home.

When confirming that McClards would be open today, I read some bad news. Just last month the owners sold their 92-year-old restaurant. We found that the menu and the food haven’t changed a bit yet. I have my fingers crossed for the future.

This is the first time we have dined inside since the pandemic. We deliberately got here early and still had to wait in line a few minutes for one of the eight booths open under the new spacing guidelines. Knowing it was a risk, we ate quickly (and later I can report that we survived). I won’t risk indoor dining anywhere else.

Next is Bathhouse Row – not for the spa, but for sketching. In the 19th Century, the 47 natural hot springs drew people from across the country to “take in” the restorative waters here. The original tents gave way to wooden buildings and then a series of eclectic buildings in neoclassical, renaissance-revival, Spanish and Italianate architecture.

Only two bathhouses still offer baths, the Buckstaff and the Quapaw, but all eight buildings are restored. The Fordyce Bathhouse is the visitor center for the National Park Service. It is closed for the pandemic, but park rangers are on the porch to answer questions.

Behind the bathhouses is a grand promenade of gardens, walkways and hiking trails that lead up Hot Springs Mountain. You also can drive up for beautiful views and a climb up the lookout tower. We’ve done that before so passed on it today. Eloise walked the busy tourist street to see what familiar shops still are open. I settled on my sketch stool (the replacement, as my original is still in my luggage on the Amsterdam) and spent an hour trying to get the perspective right.

I would add watercolor later.

Our outdoor adventure continued at Garvan Woodland Gardens, a gift from Verna Cook Garvan to the University of Arkansas. In addition to being one of the first female CEOs of a major southern manufacturing business, she oversaw the development of the previously clear-cut 210 acres with more than four miles of lake shoreline.

It actually is a combination of many different botanical gardens with what must be miles of paths and trails. The last time I visited we hired a golf cart and driver for Mom’s convenience, and I had forgotten how extensive the gardens are when on foot. Today we didn’t get to explore it all as closing time loomed, but great weather and few other visitors made it worth our while. We wandered through my favorite — the Garden of the Pine Wind, a noted Asian garden, to the Sunrise Bridge, and stopped to admire a peacock strolling by.

I can’t go back to Hot Springs without seeing at least one of the lakes, so our final stop is at Fisherman’s Wharf on Lake Hamilton. In the early 1960s we lived about a block from the lake in a mostly undeveloped neighborhood. Today, of course, the whole area is developed.

The restaurant sits right on the lakeshore, but I didn’t see any local fish on the menu. The attraction is the large covered outdoor dining deck more than the grilled and fried fish. It’s a great finish to a day in Hot Springs.