Arkansas for the Modern Spa Enthusiast: A Tour of Arkansas Spas

I love to travel to new and different destinations, and can almost always find something and someplace to recommend in out of the way places. Part of this enthusiasm for different cultures, food, architecture, activities, is the result of my being raised in one of the most culturally diverse of areas of the United States — Berkeley and San Francisco, California.

Still, one of the areas of my own country I have not visited much is the South. I can’t identify any particular reason, other than the misguided idea, perhaps, that returning to the slow pace of the South wasn’t progressive.  Nothing had changed except its association with the Clinton presidency. Then, this year, Arkansas tourism guides called.

Come tour our spa region” they asked. “We think you’ll be surprised.”

Arkansas Spa Region” conjured up textbook memories of segregated bathhouses, medical quackery, and a bubbling spring or two “Road to Wellville” style.

Personally, I’m a spa resort fan, not much of a hot springs fan. Plus, my itinerary for Spring touring was already hectic – I’d just returned from South Africa, Canada, and Mexico — there just was no time for Arkansas.

My staff cajoled, pitched and argued in favor of Arkansas. “You’re not going to an old bathhouse” they said.  “Think of it as revisiting spa history. This is one of America’s earliest spa regions. There’s a value to that.”     I grumbled a bit more, but a few rainy mornings later, my team put me on a plane in San Francisco, enroute to Little Rock, Arkansas.  I was heading South, and what I’d discover when I arrived is that Arkansas is just as golden, clean, wonderful, and beautiful, as my own bay area.

Arkansas promised I’d be surprised, and I was.

The Tour

Little Rock, Arkansas | Cajuns Wharf

Dinner on my first evening in Little Rock was at the recently renovated Cajuns Wharf, one of the city’s best-known restaurants, housed in an expansive, 5000 square foot open warehouse setting, overlooking the Arkansas River.  The menu features fine wine, seafood and steaks.   I thought the wait staff at Cajuns Wharf was superb, the food fresh and well prepared, and the wine list impressive.  While not overwhelmed, I was certainly not disappointed.

Follow the Concrete

Eureka SpringsEureka Springs

The next morning, we traveled to two of America’s Historic Spa Districts – Eureka Springs and Hot Springs, Arkansas.

 

Eureka Springs is approximately 3 hours north of Little Rock, in the heart of the Ozark Mountains.   I was taken in by the long, winding drive to and through the soaring limestone Ozark Mountains, which were simply breathtaking even in this late-winter early-Spring season.

Even the best of guides can get turned around deep in the mountains and sure enough, we took a few ill-advised turns when trying to find our hotel.  A pleasant and accommodating local resident came to our rescue.   Seeing a van full of visitors, he pointed down to the paved roadway and said “See this?  We call it ‘the concrete.’   Follow the concrete North to the top of the hill, and that’s where your hotel is.

So, we followed the concrete to the Victorian-era village of Eureka Springs, nestled in the picturesque Ozark Mountain Valley.   The entire downtown Eureka Springs is on the National Register of Historic Places, and, in 2002, Eureka Springs was designated  one of the “Dozen Distinctive Destinations” by the National Trust for Historic Preservation.

When you arrive in Eureka Springs, there is a feeling you’ve come through a movie industry set for  the perfect forest, and just happened upon a Pleasantville, an improbably quaint town appearing in the middle of the woods — Brigadoon style

The Crescent Hotel and Spa, Eureka Springs

Crescent Hotel & SpaCrescent Hotel & Spa

While Eureka Springs takes it name from the curative properties of the region’s abundant spring waters, the city is also known for its bustling arts and music scene, beautiful Victorian architecture, winding mountainside streets and many blocks of  shops, boutiques, fine art galleries, craft emporiums, restaurants, theaters, two lakes, museums, a botanical garden, and a steam train.

 

We were lodging at the Crescent Hotel and Spa  built in 1866 and  dubbed the Grand Old Lady of the Ozarks.  The Crescent Hotel and Spa is a member of the Historic Hotels of America and Historic Hotels of Arkansas.

The Crescent Hotel has an aura of quiet grandeur, partly helped by its location on top of Crescent Mountain, the highest point in the county, and more recently, by the dedication and perseverance of Marty and Elise Roenigk, who purchased the hotel in 1997 and commenced restoration in 1998.

The Crescent Hotel will appeal to history buffs who love a story.  The hotel has seen its share of eccentric owners, visitors, and claims even a few resident ghosts.

The Crescent Hotel is rich in Victorian era charm, with the expected rich wood paneling and molding, vintage lighting fixtures, wall stenciling, wainscoting and mosaic tile accents, and even an oversized skeleton room key.

Unexpected was the spaciousness of my Jacuzzi Suite.  It easily accommodated the king sized bed and comfortable furniture in a sitting area. Victorian furniture may be pretty to look it, but it isn’t accommodating, and the Crescent doesn’t fall victim to style over comfort.

New Moon Spa and Salon and New Moon Health Spa

The Crescent Hotel offers two spa experiences – an onsite day spa and salon, and, across the street, the health-focused New Moon Health Spa.

Crescent Hotel & Spa

The bone structure of the Crescent is from more than a century ago – expansive, sturdy, traditional and historical.  The day spa is another matter — fresh and new.    This onsite day spa is the New Moon Spa and Salon which  occupies the garden level at the hotel, reached by descending a large, old wooden staircase.

When I arrived at the New Moon Spa and Salon, I actually did a comic double-take.  As soon as I entered, there was the surreal feeling I was still at the last two stops I made – my own San Francisco and Chicago’s urban and trendy Miracle Mile.

This spa was no overdressed Victorian ladies’ lounge with Victorian settees or curio cabinets.   I was standing in a sleek, modern lobby of an upscale metropolitan day spa – seemingly plunked into a Victorian hotel in Arkansas.

As I waited to meet the spa director Nicole Post, I took in the retail wall lined with Aveda skin care products (welcome news to me, an Aveda user), sleek beech wood floors, light and airy fixtures, and a decidedly Zen-like foyer.   There is no feeling of being stuck in a basement or other inhospitable space.

After being offered a cup of tea, I was escorted into the “Chill Room”, designed as a quiet space for relaxation or reading for all guests, spa and hotel alike.  There, I met with both Post and Sun Bingaman, Manager of the recently opened New Moon Health Spa, located across the street from the hotel.

Some of the influence for the clean and unfettered environment comes not just from Aveda’s principles, but from Post’s and Bingaman’s own backgrounds.  Post is originally from Minnesota, and worked in San Francisco as an ad executive before coming to Eureka Springs to operate her own day spa.  Bingaman is originally from Pennsylvania, where she spent 25 years in horticulture design and estate maintenance.

Post has a clear vision and goal to make wellness more than an easy catch-phrase of the day.   She strives to assist her clients in having more than just a “nice day at the spa” but more importantly, a positive outlook on life.

Bingaman volunteered one reason she is enthused about the integration of New Moon Health Spa is that it takes spa services at the Crescent to a that next level of wellness — offering classes, workshops, and medi-spa services.

Both Post and Bingaman gave credit to owners Marty and Elise Roenigk for being firm supporters of and sharing a spa vision for the Crescent which means more than just transforming an underutilized space into a revenue generator.  Instead, the spas are treated as an integral part of the hotel’s hospitality to and care of its guests and the community.

New Moon Spa and Salon Treatments

Post recommended and I enjoyed a 30-minute Vichy Shower from Dasha Mensik, designed to stimulating and flush my lymphatic system, and a treatment Post feels is one of their most therapeutic. Overhead jets of alternating warm and cool water cascaded over me, which felt terrific. (30 min, $60).  Also available as a “water therapy” is the Hydrotone Tub — 83 jets of air and water the body (30 min, $60).

After my Vichy Shower, I had an hour-long Rosemary Mint Body Wrap.  To start, I was dry exfoliated to prepare my skin for the lotion, enveloped in blankets, and then treated to a scalp and foot massage, which left me relaxed, and neither overly warm or cool.  Too frequently, wraps leave me cold or hot or both, and I find them uncomfortable. Not so here, where my comfort level was assessed and treated (1 hour, $85).

Additional services include massage (they offer a “dry massage” performed while you are fully clothed, for the shy or body conscious), sauna, facials, body scrubs and wraps, chiropractic and acupuncture services by a visiting chiropractor, spa packages, manicures, pedicures, waxing, cosmetic services, and full hair salon services.   The New Moon Spa and Salon welcomes day guests who are not staying in the hotel — always a nice touch for the local community — particularly one in small or remote area.

New Moon Health Spa

Early the next morning, we went across the street to the recently opened New Moon Health Spa.   The staff’s pride and excitement was palpable.    Managed by Sun Bingaman under the direction of Nicole Post, the New Moon Health Spa was created to embrace their core belief in a holistic approach to good health and good living. A variety of alternative lifestyles therapies are offered, including yoga, Chinese medicine, and, a three-day weight loss jump start program.

One service I found potentially fascinating is the QXCI-SCIO biofeedback system which is used by hospitals all over the world to detect viruses, deficiencies, weaknesses, allergies, abnormalities, and food sensitivities, by scanning the body at 9,000+ frequencies (Assessment session, $30 min, $50).

Another was the InfraRed Sauna, which raises body temperatures from the inside out.  Benefits include detoxification, improved skin tone and elasticity, blood circulation, cardiovascular conditions, and pain relief (30 min, $30).

After a morning in the Health Spa, we left the city and traveled again through the beautiful Ozarks, for our last two stops.

While I enjoyed every stop we made, and every one I met, I was particularly taken with the next destination.

Mountain Harbor Resort and Turtle Cove Spa

The newest “it” spot, a small gem of a restaurant, an undiscovered hotel or a new spa — when you come across one of these you have a sense of excitement, an eagerness to share the find with your friends and family, but also the urge to keep it secret, for yourself. I am going to overcome that urge and share with all of you my newest gem — a lakeside resort spa which I predict, a year from now, won’t need any introduction from me.

Sitting on the shores of Lake Ouachita, Mount Ida, Arkansas, 23 miles west of Hot Springs, Arkansas is the Mountain Harbor Resort and Turtle Cove Spa, family owned since 1955.

Mountain Harbor Resort’s property has plentiful natural beauty with endless lake views, and the smell of fresh clean natural air abounds (the air and the water at Harbor in the Ouachita National Forest has been given the highest rating for purity by the EPA).

I met owner and Spa Director Debi Barnes and her husband, owner Bill, Barnes at the Lodge Restaurant.

Bill has spent his entire life raised on this property and his pride of ownership has translated well, with congenial and interested staff and employees, and a depth of care and concern for his property and the surrounding communities that simply doesn’t result from a corporate owner.

Over lunch, Bill shared a story of a nearby fire, which, due to the remoteness of the area, firefighters couldn’t respond to quickly.    On the spot, Bill “I will not let this happen to us, or my neighbors, again.”

 Barnes and his employees trained as volunteer firefighters, purchased fire tucks, and maintain the Mountain Harbor Volunteer Fire Department on site.

This pride further manifests itself on the grounds of property and in the custom built lodgings, cottages, and other buildings, meticulously maintained by six on site employees.

The Mountain Harbor Resort boasts an incredible variety of accommodations to suit everyone from the solo traveler, small and large families, to corporate event and conference planners. Every contingency has been well planned and prepared for.

Bill and Debi Barnes describe their lodgings as ‘cottages’, and because this was an Arkansas lake resort, I admit I expected a quaint Jean Shepherd inspired vacation cabin or summer camp environment.

What I was ushered into, however, far exceeded my expectations.  To say I was impressed is an understatement. I called my staff to report “I’ve found our next conference location.”

Each cottage has been personally outfitted by Debi and her staff, who pick out rustic but elegant and comfortable furnishings from neighboring Texas furniture makers.

My ‘cottage’ had 17 foot ceilings with a new native stone fireplace. Off the entry way was the dining room and kitchen area, with new and top of the line appliances. The Arkansas knotty pine floor was easy on the eye and feet. The upstairs loft bedroom had a queen size bed with a shower and tub bathroom. On the lower level, an ADA approved bathroom and a master bedroom with a king sized bed and large screen television housed in an armoire. On my bed, scatted rose petals, a luxury branded robe, and dipped chocolates (from $219 off season).

If this were not wonderful enough, the clincher was the wrap around porch with a hot tub which could easily fit 6 or more. My trip to Arkansas had been rather long and arduous, and came on the heels of an international trip. Before I fell into bed, I turned on the jets, got in the hot tub while the outside March temperature was only 28 degrees, and stared at vibrant stars in the unpolluted, dark night sky. I thought “How did my staff know how much I needed to come to Arkansas?”

Planning the Turtle Cove Spa

After lunch, we took a short drive away from the main lodge to the more secluded building which houses the resort’s Turtle Cove Spa. The spa building is thoughtfully placed a distance away from the noisier and more active buildings on the sprawling compound.

If Mountain Harbor Resort is a labor of love and loyalty for Bill Barnes, second generation owner of the property, then the Turtle Cove Spa, is the result of the remarkable Debi Barnes.

Her singular dedication to bringing health and wellness vacations to the Ouachita region will go a long way to reminding the world that Arkansas was and is a venerable Spa Destination, and has successfully bridged the gap from a historic to progressive spa destination.

When I heard that fellow spa and travel journalists had demurred to an invitation to visit and tour the Arkansas spa region, and the Turtle Cove Spa property, I thought it simply impolite. After my visit, I realized they were also woefully misinformed and out of touch.

What Debi Barnes has created in the mountains of the Ouachita National Forest holds up against many spas found in major metropolitan areas and resort destinations.

So clear was her vision for Turtle Cove Spa, from the beginning of planning and construction she sought the advice and mentoring of the best in the business — Erica Miller, Sheila Cluff, and others well known to international spa enthusiasts and professionals alike. Debi Barnes now sits on the Marketing Committee of the International spa memberships(ISPA). This level of dedication to the industry benefits every guest.

Spa Treatments at Turtle Cove Spa

A serene pathway leads to the tranquil entry to the Spa. The spa’s decor is a soft woodsy green.

I was greeted warmly by the front desk and taken to a tranquility room, where I was given a medical history questionnaire so that the aesthetician could properly advise and treat me, as well as keep a record for future visits.

After changing in the dressing room, I enjoyed a gentlemen’s facial (50 min, $80) that concluded with an upper body and scalp massage. The aesthetician asked the requisite questions and informed me, happily for me, that my favorite Aveda skin regime and my faithful wearing of a hat and sunscreen was having a positive effect, because my skin was that of a much younger individual. With that, I decided she was quite possibly my favorite aesthetician.

The full service menu of services offers massage (couples, pre-natal, Swedish, Thai, Shiatsu, hot stone and deep tissue massage as well as cranial sacral and reflexology foot and hand massage); Skin care for men and women features customized facials for your skin type and skin condition and intensive anti-aging facial therapies; Body Therapy includes Dead Sea Salt body polish, Moor mud treatment, Vichy shower, steam capsule, milk and honey or algae wraps and self-tanning treatments; Special Spa Therapies include holistic healing, such as crystal energy and raindrop technique; Nail, Hand and Foot therapy includes luxury manicures and pedicures for men and women, as well as paraffin wax and Microdermabrasion treatments; Body Waxing is available to remove unwanted hair from bikini area, eyebrows, legs, back, chest, underarms, chin, face; Mineral based make up and cosmetic products, application and lessons are also available.

No gimmicks, fads, or wastes of time, money and space are in evidence. This is a spa with a true mission, and Debi is a strong believer on empowering and getting education for herself, her staff, and especially fellow women entrepreneurs.

In 2004, she created the Women in Balance Weekend, a two and a half day Fall season retreat featuring health and fitness experts and other professionals. This yearly event has evolved into a can’t-miss retreat for women and spa retreat enthusiast and boasts highly sought-after speakers.

After leaving the interior of the spa, we outside first to an outdoor pavilion which is a popular spot for couples’ massage, but, it is much more than that.

The Erica Miller Wilderness Pavilion

Erica Miller was a true pioneer in the spa industry – an internationally known spa and esthetic educator, director, teacher and spa manager.  Miller created the “Erica Miller Spa Management, Esthetics and Directors School” in British Columbia, Canada.  The school and its programs are based on Miller’s 30 years experience in North America, Europe, and the Orient for spa therapies and esthetics.

She was also Debi Barne’s mentor, and ultimately, friend.

When Debi was contemplating creating a spa on the grounds of Mountain Harbor, she first joined a and then decided to open her member guide and called an influential member with a stellar reputation.  She started at the top.   She laughed at her bravery.  “I was this wet behind the ears lady from Arkansas and did not think it was odd to call a legend in the spa business.”

Miller, to her credit and as evidence of why she was such a respected pioneer, was happy to give a new member sound advice, and invited Debi to stay in touch and come to her as she needed help.  That initial call was helpful, but was followed by months of silence between the two women.

A Setback

Debi called Miller again, months later, to apologize or not staying in touch, and, tell her that her interest remained high, however, Bill had been diagnosed with cancer and the spa was on hold.

Miller confided to Debi that she, too, had been diagnosed with cancer.  Miller said “I do not know what that means for me, but if you are okay with it, I would love to work with you.”  Miller felt it was her responsibility to the spa community, women entrepreneurs and for a special reason, especially for Debi and a select few others, to impart as much of her wealth of industry history and information as she could.

A Mentor Helps

Miller, as her own health failed her, helped Debi create Turtle Cove Spa, first by phone, then by letters, email and personal visits.   Miller personally visited Mountain Harbor Resort and trained Debi and her staff, and, incredibly, when Debi was deciding on equipment purchases, Miller called manufacturers and providers to insist that Barnes be given “preferred status” as a personal favor.

While Bill Barnes fortunately regained his health, Miller died in 2003.

As I stood with Debi in the Erica Miller Wilderness Pavilion, listening to the story, Debi was visibly moved by the memory of her mentor and friend, and simply spread her hands around the space she created.  It’s a beautiful place, inspired by a beautiful person.

The Erica Miller Pavilion is used for couples massage, an outdoor fitness platform, yoga, meditation, and reflection.

The Turtle Cove Spa Grounds

As we left the Erica Miller Pavilion we continued on a nature hike tour of the grounds surrounding Turtle Cove Spa.

Imagine practicing Yoga on an outside platform, and to your right are National park protected trees and to your left, the deep blue water of Lake Ouachita.

Or, picture an invigorating nature walk guided by staff and actually breathe pure, clean air.  The EPA rates the air and water over Lake Ouachita as the cleanest in the United States.

The Ouachita Mountains are considered a mystical location by the Native America Tribes and today geologists say that Arkansas and Brazil have the best quality quartz in the world.  Montgomery County proudly boasts the largest quartz crystal ever mined — currently on display at the Smithsonian Institute.

Debi presented me with a large, lovely and remarkable piece of crystal mined from the nearby mine as a reminder of our visit. It resonates with beauty and energy and reminds me of Bill, Debi, and my tour, every time I hold it. Not surprisingly, Debi taps into this valuable resource on her spa menu with Crystal Energy Work.

Family Getaways

Mountain Harbor Resort and Turtle Cove Spa offers an ideal location from which to take advantage of a truly impressive array of outdoor activities, which will entertain every member of the family. Sports enthusiasts, spa enthusiasts, nature enthusiasts, and water enthusiasts will all be accommodated. I’d easily describe this as one of the best family spa and lake vacation destinations in the United States.  A family simply can’t be bored, here.

Lake Ouachita is rated by the EPA as one of the cleanest lakes in the nation. With 49,000 surface acres, over 1000 miles of wilderness shoreline and over 200 islands, Arkansas’ largest lake is host to a variety of outdoor  activities, and Mountain Harbor is ideally situated to enjoy them.

A sampling of the activities available to the family staying at Mountain Harbor Resort and Turtle Cove Spa include boating; Water Skiing, Jet Skiing and Tubing; Diving and Dive Certification; Underwater Spear Fishing; Fishing; Island Adventures – more than 200 spots to choose from; swimming in the clean lake, swimming pools, or old fashioned swimming holes fed by underground springs; Kayaking and Canoeing; Eagle Tours (winter season only); Star Gazing; Horseback Riding; Tennis; Horseshoes, Volleyball, Half Court Basketball; Golf, Crystal Digging, and Diamond Hunting.

The resort’s website tell us “It’s finder’s keepers at the Crater of Diamonds State Park in Murfreesboro, just an hour drive from Turtle Cove Spa. The only public diamond mine in the world, Crater of Diamonds offers you a one-of-a-kind adventure and the opportunity to hunt for real diamonds and to keep any you find. You’ll search over a 37-acre plowed field, the eroded surface of an ancient, gem-bearing volcanic pipe. Since diamonds were first discovered on the site in 1906 over 75,000 diamonds have been unearthed.”

The park staff provides free identification and certification of diamonds and interpreters present programs about diamonds, the geology of the gem-bearing diamond pipe, the park’s history, and its diversity of plant and animal species. Nearby Diamond Springs Water Playground, a 14,700-square-foot mining-themed aquatic playground, features a 4,166-square-foot wading pool with spray geysers, sprayers, water jets, animated waterspouts, cascades, two water slides and waterfall hideaways along with a spacious deck and pool furniture.†

For additional photographs and information regarding Turtle Cove Spa at Mountain Harbor Resort, don’t miss our

Hot Springs

I ended my tour of Arkansas where its spa region first began.

Hot Springs is considered the birthplace of spa destinations in America, and yet, it has become progressive, or at least popular enough, to be named one of Forbes Magazine’s Telecommuting Heaven Cities.

Prior to the advent of more modern medical practices in the 1940s, this federally protected reservation (the nation’s oldest federal preserve, predating Yellowstone by some 40 years) offered “the spa water cure” in rich and curative 147° thermal spring waters.

The architecturally-significant and history-rich Bathhouse Row remains a major attraction for those who seek out the “old time experience”.   Bathhouse Row is certainly worth visiting, albeit more for the novelty and history than for a progressive spa treatment.   Fortunately, renovations, upgrades, and improvements are in progress to protect this important resource, and with newer and more full service spas (Turtle Cove Spa) in the immediate vicinity, the modern spa enthusiast can enjoy the best of both worlds.

Additional attractions include Hot Springs National Park, live and simulcast thoroughbred racing, Magic Springs/Crystal Falls theme and water parks, the 210-acre Garvan Woodland Gardens, a renowned arts community, and the Mid America Science Museum,  music, magic, religious and trained animal shows, lake tours and more.    Shopping opportunities, including antiques, abound in the Spa City.

Lodging in and near the “Spa City” run the gamut from the historic Buckstaff Bathhouse on Bathhouse Row to the modern facilities at nearby Mountain Harbor Resort. †

Outdoor activities in the Hot Springs area include golf, horseback riding, and mining for quartz crystals, as well as fishing and water sports that center around area lakes Hamilton, Catherine, Ouachita and DeGray.

Those activities combine with private lakeside resorts, rental houseboats and other accommodations, including those at three state parks nearby, to create numerous vacation options.

Additional recreational opportunities are afforded in the nearby Ouachita National Forest.

I arrived in Hot Springs in time for the world’s shortest St. Patrick’s Day Parade (as certified by the Guinness Book of Records).  On a one-block area of downtown Hot Springs, the entire town  turned out to celebrate its own quirkiness. Television cameras filmed marching bands, children, adults, and red hat ladies all strolling down the street, waiting in good humor for the master of ceremonies – George Wendt of “Cheers” Fame.  With chants of “Norm! Norm!”, the master of ceremonies arrived in an open car for the one block drive — obligatory beer in hand.

In keeping with the parade’s claim to fame, one corner later, he was finished, and so was I.

I returned to California with a new appreciation for the beautiful, hospitable, and historic state of Arkansas, and its important role in providing both a look back to our nation’s spa history,  as well as progressive spa and wellness resorts for a new generation of visitors. Make sure you’re one of them.  You will not be disappointed.

Kevin McClain
Director
Spa Index Media, LLC

First published:  June 15, 2005 (San Francisco, CA)

Thanks to our State and Federal Resources:

Arkansas.Com: Arkansas, The Natural State

‡National Archives and Records Administration (NARA)

HotSprings.Org

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June 15, 2005 |

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