Soaking in Warmth: Hot Springs

Destination: Symes Hotel Hot Springs

Destination Symes Hotel in Hot Springs, Montana


 Montana Living — The bell on the front door jingles and a young man with thick red hair saunters into the lobby of the Symes Hotel.

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Rick Esterling sidles up to the lobby piano, cracks his knuckles and sets into a rousing rendition of the Dark Town Strutters Ball:

'You better be ready 'bout a half past eight, I want to be there when the band starts playin' I'm going to dance off all my shoes When they play those jelly roll blues Tomorrow night at the dark town strutters ball ...'

A man and woman, each wearing white terry cloth bath robes, stop to catch the tune, smiling and nodding in approval before they leave the lobby to slide into the hot springs outside. A crackling fire glows in the lobby fireplace as the piano player plinks out his tune on the ivories. It's a snapshot of a scene that could have happened 50 years ago - but it's today, and the Symes Hotel in Hot Springs is a veritable time vault, a museum of Montana history.

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Built in the style of a Spanish mission in 1928, the Symes is a two-story stuccoed art-deco building that sits near the head of a gulch overlooking the town of Hot Springs, nestled in a wide valley on the Flathead Indian Reservation about 30 miles southwest of Flathead Lake.

The valley is a ranching and tumbleweed kind of place. It's dry and arid here in this valley that almost looks like eastern Montana, but Flathead Lake and the Mission Mountains rest just over a series of rolling grass ridges. Here in Hot Springs, it seems, time has stood still. The Symes Hotel remained in the Symes family for much of its existence, until current owners Leslee and Daniel Smith bought it in 1996.

Their purchase of the hotel ushered in a new era for the historic hotel - and the town. As tourists from Seattle, the Smiths had come to Hot Springs to seek out the soothing waters, whose salubrious exhalations of sulfur leave the skin feeling soft and smooth, the mind relaxed.

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On a whim, the Smiths ended up buying the Symes, which at that time was an aging, decrepit hotel. "The place came with its own residents. Every time we opened up a room it was like opening a bag of bees," says Leslee Smith, the hotel manager/dishwasher/cook and concierge.

"Something called me to this place," she says. "Before I came to town, I never knew Hot Springs even existed. But then we turned the corner, and saw it sitting there, all big and pink, with a for sale sign out front. "We bought it because I was afraid someone else would buy it and ruin it." The Smiths have turned the Symes around, making it into a regional melting pot of guests and people seeking the soothing hot water. You might see college professors and students from Idaho, Kalispell or Missoula, or tourists from California.

The Smiths have spent thousands of dollars on renovations, from remodeling rooms, to adding a commercial kitchen, an elaborately tiled spa and sauna, and in-room hot tubs. There are 32 rooms at the Symes, each with its own character and design, from claw-foot bathtubs to iron bed frames. A sweeping second-story sun room looks out over the courtyard, where guests splash about in a two-terraced pool filled with the natural hot water that comes out of the ground at a sweltering 108 degrees.

Last fall they owners of the Symes built a new, 20-foot by 40-foot hot pool. The water in Hot Springs is said to have some of the best mineral content in the world, right up there with the famous Baden-Baden pools of Switzerland. The high concentration of sodium bicarbonate and other soluble minerals help make the Symes' water the best in the world for curing all that ails you. When the Smiths bought the Symes, the hotel had most of the original furniture from when the Symes family owned it.

To this day, walking into the hotel is like entering a time vault. Sitting rooms along the hallways are filled with Adirondack chairs from the 1930s, mohair couches and hand-tinted photographs from the Symes' heydays in the 1950s. With the Smiths' help and energy, the Symes is now the cultural mecca of Sanders County. Started in 1997, the Hot Springs Artist Society brings in musicians, artists and New Age practitioners who practice Eastern medicine and healing, something a bit out of the ordinary for this cattle ranching community.

On one particular winter afternoon, a small group of people in the hotel's sun room were practicing Qigong, a Chinese form of breathing and meditation. In a private hot pool outside, massage therapist Kathy Kendall performed a form of floating massage called Watsui on a hotel guest. The cultural themes are an effort by the Smiths to invigorate the town spiritually, physically, and economically. The events and practitioners, says Smith, "have been a huge success for us. It's made a huge economic impact on the town." Smith is energetic and outgoing, and to her no feat is too large to undertake - even helping to revive the Hot Springs economy.

After all, she did buy the Symes. "It's a bit of a phenomenon that we didn't lose our shirts over the first year and half," she says. "If I'd have investigated the local economy I'd have said 'no way' to buying it." Smith realizes the economic impact the Symes is having on Hot Springs, and vice versa. Other than the school district, she's probably the largest local employer. "Here, it matters if I buy our groceries downtown.

It's really important that this town thrive." In the winter, guests come mainly from western Montana and Idaho, while in the summer the hotel gets visitors travelling to Glacier National Park. Hours of operation are pretty flexible. "If you're here on Christmas day, I'll cook you Christmas dinner," Smith says. Through the years, the Symes has gained its share of patrons. In fact, it was recently featured in Arthur Frommer's Budget Travel magazine. The hotel still gets people who visited there when Keeva Symes owned the hotel although, Smith says, "They're still a little offended why they have to pay more than $12 a night." Some of the people came to the Symes and never left.

Esterling, the piano player, was one. A software engineer from Silicon Valley, Calif., Esterling escaped the corporate race to find a much simpler life in Hot Springs. He's done maintenance and odd jobs at the Symes, where once lived, and is known to play piano in the lobby when he feels the urge.

Coming from Silicon Valley and big cities like Washington, D.C., Esterling and his wife, Beth, were overwhelmed by the warm reception they experienced in Hot Springs. "I love the people," he says. "I was overwhelmingly embraced. This is our way of living. I don't see as many boundaries here as I saw in bigger cities. "Or maybe they're here, but I don't feel them. The hippies get along with ranchers, the whites get along with the Indians. All those normal society barriers seem to have less weight here.

"Socially, this is one of the most liberal places I've lived."

On the Web:

(The Symes Bathhouse Grill is open for dinner Friday through Sunday from 5:30-10:30 p.m. Breakfast is served seven days a week at 8 a.m.)

If you go:

The Hot Springs Artists Society sponsors entertainment weekend nights at the Symes Hotel. Breakfasts are served Saturday and Sunday until noon and dinners Friday, Saturday and Sunday evenings. The Symes Bathhouse Grill is open for dinner Friday through Sunday from 5:30 p.m. to 10:30 p.m.