After staying at the historic Arlington in Hot Springs, Arkansas last spring I had a brainstorm. Flattering online photos aside, the Arlington was a dump – beautiful outside, run down inside.
Which got me to thinking, why drag all the way down to Arkansas when the newly remodeled Elms in Excelsior Springs is but a hop, skip and jump away?
It’s closer; they’ve spent a ton of dough fixing the place up – unlike the Arlington – and it has the same, now bogus mineral water rep that bankrupted the former owners of both hotels after the American Medical Association released research studies in 1932 negating the healing and health effects of mineral water.
In other words, these are effectively snake oil resorts. Harking back to a time when people believed the simple things in life; like that water was really, really good for you.
So after I got back from Hot Springs, I tried and I tried to book a room at The Elms just to see. To compare.. However, being a last minute guy, several of my efforts were met with failure because – I was told – The Elms was sold out for weddings.
That’s right, turns out The Elms is a wedding mill.
“Two weeks ago we had two weddings on Thursday, two on Friday, two on Saturday and one on Sunday,” said the woman taking reservations at the hotel’s restaurant.
No wonder I couldn’t get in.
I finally broke through this past Saturday and was able to snag a room with a kingsize bed ($184) and reserve a pair of spa treatments ($200 and change) for Sunday afternoon.
So I went for it.
Unfortunately, even though The Elms is close to KC and in far better shape than The Arlington, it’s lacking in other ways that make the claptrap Arkansas hotel appealing.
The biggest being, there’s nothing whatsoever to do in Excelsior Springs…besides get married or eat at Applebee’s or Arby’s apparently.
The town’s historic downtown – Hall of Waters aside – is a rundown, half-or-more vacant – shadow of its past self. It’s pretty sad actually.
Hot Springs may be more than a little weatherbeaten and long in the tooth, but its downtown is World Class by comparison.
Until you start to peel back the layers of its onion.
I mean, it’s nice having a 42 inch plasma screen in your room, but by cheaping out and not opting to provide a high def picture, it actually looks worse than the standard definition tube TVs of yesteryear.
Who wants to watch a fuzzy, blurry football game on state of the art flat screen TV in a hotel bar or lounge, let alone your room. A really sucky picture on a state of the art television makes absolutely no sense to me.
That most of the fireplaces outside of the one in the lobby don’t work is disconcerting too. And while the hotel’s restaurant and cafe prices are quite reasonable, the food is mostly forgettable, and how can you make a nonfat latte when you’re out of skim?
The room decor – according to my wife – who has impeccable taste:
“Clean and classic, a little cookie cutter, but nice,” she says. “But our room with a king bed is really small and the windows are really, really dirty. I can’t enjoy the view with all the dust, spider webs and dirt. The bed is pretty comfortable – I think it’s memory foam – but it takes up more than half of the room. Actually, it feels like it takes up three quarters of the room.”
The bathrooms are small, modern and nice, except that “the blinds are really, really dusty,” she says. “There’s a thick layer of dust on them.”
Another thing that was off putting was the twin wedding receptions jammed into The Elms small lobby and going on when we checked in. It’s hard to feel like you’re at a resort while navigating a hotel full of strangers trying to get hitched and/or hammered.
“It’s loud and you feel like you’re an intruder, especially if there’s more than one. I couldn’t even tell it was the main lobby when we walked in. I felt like we walked into a private reception or something..”
“It just feels like this hotel got plunked down in the middle of a low to moderate end neighborhood. And for what you would pay for a suite here, you could go to a really nice hotel in Kansas City where they would have all the amenities that they have here – a pool and workout room – and be in the middle of a city where there are fun things to do – and for a lot less money.”
Which brings us to the Elms spa…
Unlike Hot Springs, nobody here even seems to want to pretend anymore that the water is good for you. I didn’t see a single sign or bottle of local water on display or for sale – whereas in Hot Springs Mountain Valley was everywhere – including in every hotel room. A quick Google search revealed that small bottles of Excelsior Springs Minreral Water are sold at the Hall of Fountains downtown.
The spa is nicely appointed in the hotel’s basement. Too bad it’s so small and half the stuff there – including the “dry sauna” and “wet sauna” – didn’t work.
On top of that a pair of unhappy young women had driven up Sunday from Wichita, only to find their confirmed spa treatment reservations were nowhere to be found. Instead they had to settle to alternate, shorter treatments, with long waits beyond the hours they’d reserved.
“The hotel is under new management,” one of them said. “And lots of things have been getting messed up.”
So yes, The Elms has come a long way from the time I peered through its musty windows and into its historic past when it was shuttered years ago. Two or three sets of investors have plowed their hard earned into fixing it up since and it clearly shows.
Would I stay there again?
Maybe…for free…or if I needed to hide out for some reason. Or maybe get married in the middle of nowhere.
Short of that, I’ll probably pass.