Europe's fabled old spas tempt many vacationers with their soothing waters. I took myself, instead, to the rolling hill country of northern Arkansas, where two historic resort towns -- Hot Springs and Eureka Springs -- still carry on the European spa tradition as they have for almost a century.

At least two public drinking fountains in Hot Springs spout hot mineral water, which comes as a startling surprise when you bend over for a refreshing sip. And some visitors soak tired feet in an ornamental fountain flowing with steamy hot water, as I once saw folks do at the hilltop spa of Bagno Vignoni in Tuscany.

Arkansas with a European flavor? I kid you not. If the idea seems improbable, you have been taken in by too many old moonshiner myths. The state is far more diverse and, as I discovered, full of pleasant surprises. One night I stayed in a cottage in Eureka Springs that faced a hillside abloom in iris -- as lovely a garden scene as you might find anywhere.

Actually, much of Arkansas' famed homespun heritage does remain, and I was eager to explore what I could of it. You can, as I had hoped, enjoy plenty of foot-stomping Ozark Mountain fiddlin' music and heaping platters of barbecued pork. Empty back roads climb into remote highland valleys ringed by thick woodlands. You are, however, far more likely to find a good fishing stream or an inviting swimming hole than an illegal still.

But I'm a sophisticated city guy, and the state's old spas appealed to me, too. So I plotted a rambling three-day, 500-mile driving trip out of Little Rock that took me through the scenic heart of the rocky-faced Ozarks but left plenty of time to soak and to steam in the European fashion as visitors to Arkansas have done for many generations. A sort of Arkansas sampler is what I had in mind.

"Step right in," said the attendant at the Buckstaff Bathhouse at Hot Springs National Park, motioning toward my private porcelain tub filled with 103-degree mineral water from some of the park's 47 natural hot springs. The park preserves the Buckstaff, a stately three-story brick and marble edifice that could serve nicely as a proper town library.

Part of the official bathing procedure that followed my soak -- the park stresses historic authenticity -- included a brief shower in an ancient contraption that spit dozens of bristle-like streams of hot water at me from every direction. The sensation is strangely exhilarating, like a brisk scrub in a Finnish sauna.

At the nicely restored Palace Hotel & Bathhouse in Eureka Springs, the resort's sole remaining bathhouse, the attendant led me to another curious old device that he jokingly referred to as "the torture chamber." The machine does have a nefarious look to it, but in fact it is a benign wooden steam cabinet dating back to the hotel's turn-of-the-century origins. I climbed in, leaving only my head thrust through the top. For a few minutes I sweated in eucalyptus-scented vapors while he wiped my forehead with a cool towel and fed me sips of drinking water. The pampering made me think I had regressed to the age of 2. I rather liked it.

I took my "baths," as the process is referred to in both resort communities, before breakfast each morning, and I found them an invigorating way to start the day. In Europe and Arkansas, it seems, the folks know how to live well. Thus refreshed, I drove off to sample the state's cultural and scenic highlights.

One afternoon I chatted with gray-haired Euphie Stewart of Onia, who has lived in the Ozarks all her life. She carves charmingly wrinkled doll faces out of ripe apples, a craft she demonstrates regularly at the Ozark Folk Center, a unique state park outside the village of Mountain View that was created to preserve the mountain folk arts. Large green Golden Delicious apples make the best faces once the fruit carvings have dried, she says; Granny Smith apples yield a face "that is too scrunched up."

That same evening, I attended one of the park's nightly mountain music fests. They feature a dozen or more local artists of professional caliber, ranging in age from about 12 -- a crowd-pleasing fiddler -- to oldtimers on auto harps, dulcimers, guitars and banjos. The tunes all date back before the 1940s, but they are played and sung with such zest they seem fresh and full of life.

The show is relaxed and friendly, and about every third song the audience is invited up onto the stage for a sprightly jig, a country waltz or a fast-stepping square dance. I had no partner, so I just watched and enjoyed while I nibbled on a box of fresh popcorn sold in the back of the hall.

At mealtime, I alternated between traditional country food and the nouvelle American cuisine that is very much in evidence both in Hot Springs and Eureka Springs. I was never served a bad meal or an expensive one. Magee's, a cafe across the street from Hot Springs' "Bathhouse Row," serves a heaping plate of Arkansas red beans, turkey sausage and rice for $3.75. For $4.99, you can try a memorable menu from my Midwestern boyhood -- chicken-fried steak, homemade mashed potatoes, vegetables and a salad.

In folklore, the Ozarks hid many an illegal still that produced moonshine whiskey. I never did see or taste any moonshine; instead, I stumbled unsuspectingly across the Cowie Wine Cellars in Eureka Springs' historic district, one of several small wineries in Arkansas. Oh yes, it seems the yuppie culture has invaded even these hills. Next to the winery, where tastings are offered, the Cowie family operates an attractive restaurant in a newly refurbished Victorian cottage called the Spring Street House. The restaurant, of course, features Cowie wines.

Initially, I was drawn to the restaurant by its menu, which makes use of regional favorites such as duck, catfish and beef in untraditional ways. But the wine list sparked my curiosity. An Arkansas wine? I'd never heard of it. Sorry to say, I wasn't very adventurous at dinner. I ordered a carafe of ubiquitous chablis, which I found very appealing though a little sweet. Later, I was told I should have ordered a cynthiana, a very dry dark red wine made of Arkansas grapes. It apparently is winning recognition in sophisticated wine centers. My meal -- a large steak flavored in Cajun spices -- was delicious. The full tab, including wine, a dessert of carrot cake and tip came to $31.

Arkansas has dubbed itself "the natural state" because it offers so much in the way of outdoor recreation. The usually gentle Buffalo National River, a slender unit of the National Park System, flows east through remote Ozark woodlands for almost 150 miles, providing some of the finest canoeing in America. Outfitters can organize an easy day's outing or a multiple overnighter. Other Ozark rivers, among them the White River, are ideal for lazy summer float trips on rented rubber tubes.

Much of the northern half of the state is covered by the forested hills and expansive lakes of the Ouachita and Ozark mountain ranges -- a substantial part of which have been set aside for public use as state and national park and forest lands. The Ouachitas extend westward from Hot Springs. The Ozarks rise north of Little Rock. These are not soaring ranges. Mount Magazine, the state's highest peak, rises only to 2,753 feet. But it is altitude enough for the flatlanders of the Mississippi River Valley who flock to the shady backwoods hollows to escape the steamy heat of summer.

Unfortunately, I arrived in Arkansas during an exceptionally rainy period last month that caused flooding in some lowland areas. I had hoped to plunge into some of the inviting swimming holes and lakes described in the state park tourist booklet. But the rivers ran swift and full, and the sky was overcast much of the time. The rain, however, did not stop me from driving the scenic back roads that crisscross the hills. The way was lined by fields of spring wildflowers in full bloom.

More than once, I pulled off the road to take in a pastoral valley scene that might have been painted by Disney artists. One such road is Route 74, which winds west about 10 miles from Jasper to tiny Ponca, a village on the Buffalo River. Another is Route 5, a 20-mile byway that meanders south through the Ozark National Forest from Calico Rock on the White River to little Mountain View. Limestone cliffs rise above the hillside road; below, small herds of fat cattle graze in lush pastures.

I thought it was fun just reading the unusual names of some of the towns along the way, such as Morning Star and Evening Star, which are neighboring communities. Just north of Mountain View is the village of Fifty-Six. This one took me to the guidebooks. The explanation turned out to be quite logical; the town apparently got its strange name from the 56th school district in which it was located.

At the Ozark Folk Center, I picked up a copy of "Ozark Country" by Ernie Deane, a former journalism professor at the University of Arkansas who touches on a variety of Ozark subjects in his interesting and helpful volume. Some tourists in Ozarks Country, he writes, "often express a desire to see some genuine hillbillies and seem disappointed when nobody can point one out." The Ozarks have blossomed as a vacation playground, and the only Dogpatch you are apt to find in the hills today is an amusement park near Harrison that recreates the comic strip characters of that fictional community.

In decades past, the baths of Hot Springs and Eureka Springs were touted as possible cures for almost anything that ailed you. Nowadays, of course, we know better, and the baths are offered as a recreational activity that can aid in easing stress or loosening tight muscles. I found them pleasant and soothing.

Hot Springs and Eureka Springs both owe their existence to bubbling springs, and they also share other similarities -- a curious history, an appealing canyon setting and bustling summer crowds strolling streets lined with crafts shops and art galleries.

But there are differences. The springs of Hot Springs emerge from the ground at a steaming 143 degrees, and the water must be cooled to about 100 degrees before it reaches the resort's several bathing establishments. It is pure and drinkable. At Eureka Springs, the spring water is cold, and it is no longer piped to the town's only remaining bathhouse because its purity is not assured. Instead, the bathhouse uses the city's drinking water, which the bathhouse first cleanses of chemicals and then adds minerals and heats.

By the early 1800s, the cluster of 47 separate hot springs on the edge of the Ouachitas already was drawing crowds seeking miracle cures. To protect the purity of the water -- which remains intact today -- the federal government took an unprecedented step in setting aside the land surrounding the springs as a public reservation. Hot Springs might, as a result, be considered America's first national park, although there was no National Park System until much later in the country's history.

Hot Springs had developed into a sophisticated spa by the turn of the century, drawing wealthy patrons from all over the country. A strip of almost palatial bathhouses was constructed along the town's main street, all supplied by the pure spring water carefully monitored by the Park Service. This was Hot Springs' famous "Bathhouse Row," as elegant a block as could be found anywhere in the country. The Row, along with an area of about 5,000 acres occupying a series of high, shady hills in downtown Hot Springs, was officially made a national park in 1921.

Today, the focal point of the park is the seven bathhouse structures, which are still standing. The Buckstaff, built in 1912, is the only one among them, however, that continues to serve as a traditional bathhouse -- although four hotels and other facilities outside the park boundary offer baths in hot spring water supplied by the park's reservoir.

In the center of the Row, the Fordyce Bathhouse, an ornate building topped with a beautiful stained glass skylight, has just undergone a $5-million restoration and serves as the park's visitor center. Five other former bathhouses on the Row are expected to be refurbished in the next 2 1/2 years. Two will become health and fitness spas, one a museum and another an antique shop. The fifth may be used as a park theater or exhibit hall.

"Bathing," as practiced in Hot Springs, withered in popularity after World War II as the American public pursued a vast array of new recreational opportunities that opened up to them. In 1985, National Park officials and Hot Springs civic leaders initiated steps to curb the ensuing decline in the downtown district. The refurbishing of Bathhouse Row has been an important aspect in the resort's renewal.

Meanwhile, Americans have become more aware of the importance of stress reduction for better health. As a result, the number of bathers at Hot Springs is growing steadily. About 100,000 baths were given last year, according to Roger Giddings, the park superintendent, still well short of the million or more in the heyday of bathing before the war.

Well, I will be one of those counted in the 1990 statistics, and if I lived anywhere near Hot Springs I might prove to be a regular bather to be tallied again and again. The park outlines a traditional procedure to be followed by the Buckstaff and any other facility using its spring water. Perhaps reflecting government influence, the experience -- despite the opulence of the building -- is somewhat more antiseptic than sybaritic. It's relaxing, not sexy. At the Buckstaff, there are separate floors for men and women, so bathing suits are unnecessary. (In some places, you can soak communally with suits in a modern hot tub.)

At the front desk, I dropped my wallet in a safety deposit box and was directed to the men's locker room, where I stripped. The attendant presented me with a sheet, which I would use as a coverup as I moved from one step of the bath process to the next. First came the soak, a relaxing 20 minutes in an oversize tub filled with 103-degree water. A whirlpool device whipped up waves around me, and I was handed cups of hot water to sip -- "to help you sweat." I stretched out and all but fell asleep in my private cubicle.

Next I was escorted to an enclosed metal steam cabinet, where I sat alone for the specified maximum of two minutes. Sweat gushed from every pore. Now it was time for the hot packs -- steaming hot towels wrapped around any aching muscles. None of my muscles ached, but I figured my calves could use some nurturing, so the attendant carefully encased them. I laid back on a raised cot, and he folded the sheet about me and left me to rest for about 20 minutes. I felt like a mummy, displayed in a row of similar mummies.

That wonderful scrub-brush shower came next, followed by the final step, a brisk 20-minute massage by a male attendant who slathered me in a luxuriant oil. The bath took just over an hour and cost $21. Not only did I feel good physically, I had taken part in an authentic historical procedure -- thus also satisfying an intellectual curiosity. You shouldn't leave Hot Springs without giving bathing a try, if only for that reason.

Eureka Springs is a picturesque Victorian village preserved as it was built decades ago. Rows of old stone and gingerbread frame buildings cling to the steep sides of intersecting gorges, and no street runs straight for more than a few feet. Sidewalks become steps to get you from one level of town to another.

My first impression was that the place resembled a Western boom town flush with the discovery of a rich gold vein. Eureka Springs was a boom town, in fact, but it was the region's 60 cold-water springs emerging from limestone crevices that brought the community to the nation's attention in 1879. In a matter of months, the area around the springs was transformed from a wilderness into a thriving town.

According to historical accounts, a prominent Arkansas judge spent a month at the springs in 1879, drinking and bathing in the spring waters. His ailments were cured, he told family and friends, and his general health had improved greatly. The word spread rapidly to a national population eager for any ray of hope in the struggle with chronic illnesses. Though the region was remote, a community of 10,000 had sprung up by the end of the year. Eureka Springs was a national sensation.

Only the Palace Hotel & Bathhouse, built in 1901 and restored by new owners, continues to offer old-style baths today. The baths are open to anyone, but it is inviting to stay in one of the hotel's large antique-decorated guest rooms, each of which has its own huge whirlpool tub for two.

The Palace is a solid-looking stone structure that sort of backs down a cliff. The guest rooms occupy two stories above the street. The bathing rooms occupy a lower floor that descends into one of the town's gorges. In this setting, the hotel offers a bath only slightly different from the traditional bath at Hot Springs. Men and women use the same bathing hall, so you keep your sheet more tightly wrapped around you.

I soaked for about 20 minutes in a clawfoot tub in a private cubicle, and then I was escorted to an oak barrel steam cabinet that was installed when the hotel was built. I had never been in one of these head-out-of-the-hole machines, and I thought the experience might be claustrophobic. But you can push open the doors at any time, so that fear evaporated in a cloud of eucalyptus vapors. From my perch, I could look down a steep, wooded hillside.

Afterward, I was led to a massage room, where a mask of moist Utah clay was spread over my face -- to cleanse the pores, I was told. In the final step, an attendant -- a female, this time -- gave me a 30-minute massage. Again, the procedure took a little over an hour, and the cost was $35. As at Hot Springs, I considered the treatment a rather pleasant little history lesson.

On the back roads of the Ozarks, "Granny" seems to have all the action. I lost track of the number of signs I passed urging me to stop at "Granny's Quilts," "Granny's Bar-B-Que," "Granny's Sugar-Cured Hams" or "Granny's Crafts." I suppose the proprietors simply are emphasizing the homespun heritage for which the Arkansas hills are known.

I was in search of authenticity, however, which is what drew me to Mountain View, a backwoods community where the traditional crafts are alive and well. It is home both to the Ozark Folk Center and the Arkansas Craft Galleries, the official retail outlet for the Ozark Foothills Craft Guild.

The folk center preserves historical hill country crafts and musical arts. As visitors watch, local artisans make such useful household objects of the past as brooms, white oak baskets, cedar rolling pins, elaborate quilts, oak rocking chairs, native clay pots, mountain fiddles and 12-inch-tall apple-face dolls. They are sold in the center's gift shop. The Arkansas Craft Galleries sell both traditional and contemporary crafts created by the 300 members of the craft guild, a cooperative. There are four shops in Arkansas -- one each in Mountain View, Hot Springs, Eureka Springs and Little Rock.

The folk center is part of a woodsy state park draped across a series of steep hillsides just outside Mountain View. The park offers guest lodging in modern cabins, an outdoor swimming pool and a large and pleasant dining room that surveys the forest from a hilltop vantage. On another hilltop is the 1,000-seat music auditorium. The heart of the park, however, is the crafts area with its 17 octagonal structures, each of which shelters a skilled artisan willing to answer questions while he or she works.

Euphie Stewart, attired in a floor-length dress and bows from the past, was just finishing up an apple face when I stepped into her cabin. I caught her slyly slipping a slice of apple from her knife into her mouth. Nodding toward the building next door, where the wood carvers were at work, she smiled: "I've got the edge on them. They can't eat their shavings."

Carving a face in an apple is something of a risky business. "I can't tell what they're going to look like until they've shrunk. No way." To shrink an apple on which she has worked, Stewart first dips it in lemon juice and spreads it with salt as a preservative. Then she places it in a glass cabinet under a 100-watt blub. The drying process takes at least three weeks, during which she begins adding real makeup to color the face.

She prefers to work with Golden Delicious apples because they are large and tart. "Tart apples dry real well."

Once the drying process is completed, she examines the face to determine if it has a masculine or feminine appearance, so she can dress the body accordingly. The body is a twisted wire frame that she wraps in cotton padding. Apple seeds or beans become eyes; half grains of rice double as teeth, and she carves the hands and shoes from wood. A completed doll costs between $65 and $100. "I've never charged more than $100," she insisted, as if anything higher for her art was somehow unimaginable.

That evening, before the music fest, I stopped in the park restaurant for dinner. The special of the day appealed to me -- a huge slice of prime rib, lean and nicely prepared. It came with a salad, a hot roll and a heaping scoop of mashed potatoes with gravy. No alcohol is served in the park, so I ordered a Dr. Pepper, as I noticed others around me were doing. Dessert was a double scoop of vanilla ice cream. From a historical perspective, the menu seemed appropriately homespun, as did the price -- just under $12, including tax and tip.

So here is a little parting advice. If you can't afford the fine spas of Europe this summer, consider Arkansas. It offers a bit of the European flair, but at real down-home, hill-country prices.

WAYS & MEANS

GETTING THERE: Little Rock is the obvious jumping-off point for a visit to Arkansas' Ozark Mountains and the spa resorts of Hot Springs and Eureka Springs. Delta, United, TWA and American are among the airlines offering flights from Washington. Delta charged me $301 for a nonrefundable round trip. But summer air fare sales are in progress, and for a short period (until last week) TWA was advertising a fare of only $198.

THE ITINERARY: My three-day, 500-mile circle itinerary took me south from Little Rock on I-30 and U.S. 70 to Hot Springs National Park, about an hour's drive. I spent the first night in Hot Springs.

From the park, I headed north to Eureka Springs on Route 7, an officially designated scenic byway through the Ozark National Forest. I turned west on Route 74 at Jasper, north on Route 21 outside Ponca and west again on U.S. 62 to Eureka Springs, a distance of about 200 miles. I spent the second night in Eureka Springs.

The following day, I drove east on U.S. 62 to Flippin, turning north on Route 178 for a view of Bull Shoals Lake and Dam. From Bull Shoals, I turned south on Route 5, another officially designated scenic byway, to the Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View. I covered about 140 miles, staying in the park the third night.

To return to Little Rock, I took Routes 9 and 16 south to U.S. 65, linking with I-40, a distance of about 90 miles. Several scenic state parks, national forest lands, lakes and rivers (good for fishing, swimming and boating) are on or near this route.

I tried to stay off the major routes marked in red on the Arkansas State Highway Map. I found them to be lined for long stretches with unsightly signs and tourist lures. In contrast, the secondary roads, represented in black, proved unfailingly scenic, although some roads leading to national forest picnic and campgrounds were rough going on gravel.

WHERE TO STAY:

Hot Springs: As a popular resort, the community is represented by practically every motel chain in the country. I stayed at the Arlington Resort Hotel and Spa, a large and well-maintained old hotel rebuilt in 1924 that stands at the end of "Bathhouse Row" and fits in nicely. It operates its own bathhouse, with water piped in from the national park hot springs. The roof-top hot tub also is supplied from the park's reservoir. The hotel's public rooms, including the bar and dining rooms, have a slightly faded elegance that reminded me of an Old European hotel. Strolling violinists played at dinner, and a dance band took over in the lobby later in the evening. The rate for two people ranges from $48 to $72 a night. For reservations: 1-800-643-1502 and (501) 623-7771. Eureka Springs: Eureka Springs, too, offers a wide range of lodging choices. Most motels are located on U.S. 62, an unsightly strip of tourist lures and fast food outlets about a half mile from the town's attractive historic district. Five historic hotels and several bed-and-breakfast inns are located well away from the clutter in the historic district. The hotels all looked inviting. I stayed at the Palace Hotel & Bathhouse, which has eight deluxe suites, each with its own whirlpool tub for two. Rates for two range from $85 to $100 a day, which includes an afternoon wine and cheese tray and continental breakfast. Cottage accommodations on a hill above the hotel are $75, without the food. The hotel offers the only traditional bathhouse facilities in town. For a reservation: (501) 253-7474.

Mountain View: Mountain View has several motels, but my lodging choice would be the modern cabins of the Ozark Folk Center State Park. The setting is woodsy, and you are a short -- but steep -- walk away from the folk center craft exhibits and the music hall offering nightly Ozark Country tunes. Sixty rooms are available. The rate for two, with tax, is $43.20 a night. For reservations: 1-800-243-3655 and (501) 269-3871.

INFORMATION:

Hot Springs: Hot Springs Convention and Visitors Bureau, P.O. Box K, Hot Springs National Park, Ark. 71902, 1-800-543-2284 and (501) 321-2277.

Eureka Springs: Eureka Springs Chamber of Commerce, P.O. Box 551, Eureka Springs, Ark. 72632, (501) 253-8737.

Ozark Folk Center State Park: P.O. Box 500, Mountain View, Ark. 72560, (501) 269-3851.

-- James T. Yenckel