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A Tale of Two Spas

How does a luxurious bath house in Manhattan compare to an age-old institution? A well-pampered pro takes the plunge

I’m a self-care addict. There has yet to be  a therapeutic treatment—no matter how obscure—that I haven’t explored. Microcurrent facials? I’m in. Craniosacral therapy? Sign me up. Sensory deprivation tanks? Why not! I’ve been poked and prodded by sturdy Brazilian masseuses and scrubbed raw by loofah-wielding Korean women. But one indulgence has remained a constant enigma in my physical regimen: the bathhouse. That is, until now.

Let’s be clear: Therapeutic baths aren’t new. Whatever you call them—in Japan, there’s the onsen; in the Middle East and North Africa, the hammam; and in Russia, the banya—the practice spans continents far and wide, and many cultures have long relied on it to cure myriad ailments. Today, a new crop of dewy and desirable faces promoting public bathing brings the centuries-old tradition into the present: Model Irina Shayk recently revealed that the baths are her best-kept beauty secret and actor Colin Farrell has said they’re his favorite place to detox. And let’s not forget The Spa at Trump SoHo, which calls itself “the first luxury Manhattan day spa that incorporates this Middle Eastern bathing tradition”—an ironic boast considering a certain someone’s recent ban, but I digress. The constant buzz around bathhouses was enough to spur a spa obsessive like me to investigate: In an era when “luxury” and “authenticity” grow ever more synonymous, how does the latest high-end incarnation—say, the chichi Aire Ancient Baths, in Manhattan’s Tribeca—stack up against the age-old shvitz, like the East Village’s Russian and Turkish Baths, the ne plus ultra of old-school sweat lodges?

The warm, hot, cold, and ice pools at Tribeca’s Aire Baths.

First thing first: The Russian and Turkish Baths are not a spa. They’re an institution—a gritty sliver of old New York in a perpetually gentrifying neighborhood. Despite (or thanks to) a storied past involving Russian expats, police raids, and mafiosos, the Baths—open 365 days a year—have lured devout, even cultish, fans since 1892. (They celebrate their 125th anniversary this year.) This faceted history comes into focus as my husband and I walk through the iron doors on East 10th Street one glacial February afternoon. It’s actually our second attempt—the week prior, I was brusquely turned away by a grumbly Hasid who informed me that Thursday afternoons are “men only.”

In the lobby, which most closely resembles a military bunker, a gentleman clad in a velour robe (open just enough to display a gleaming gold cross) orders us to leave our valuables at the front desk before handing us papery robes not unlike those at my ob-gyn’s office. I undress in a curtained-off locker room, in front of two long-limbed models and a turbaned Kundalini yogi. Nearly naked, I head to the canteen, which hawks Russian delicacies including blinis and Baltic herring—the latter too authentic for even my born-in-the-U.S.S.R. husband to try. I order a bottle of water as a Bolshevik-chic émigré in a white fur sips a bowl of borscht while cradling a glass of red wine.

The plunge pool at the Russian and Turkish Baths in New York’s East Village.

Holding (ok, clutching) my husband’s hand, I descend into the bathhouse. First up: the cherrywood sauna. The benches are packed. An aging rocker chugs a can of beer half-concealed in a plastic bag. The conversation ranges from Bernie Sanders to sauerkraut juice to a friend’s screenplay. Nearly everyone is on a first-name basis—it’s Cheers with flip-flops.

Half an hour later, following a visit to the eucalyptus-infused Aromatherapy Room, it’s time for our platza: a treatment wherein the skin is beaten with a bundle of oak branches, or venik, to promote circulation—or as the Baths’ website calls it, “Jewish acupuncture.” Inside the Russian Room, a sauna that runs close to 200 degrees, a shirtless Vin Diesel doppelganger guides me to a bench and slaps a cold towel over my head. He begins to thwack me with the venik. Suddenly, he douses me with a bucket of ice water, and I nearly choke gasping for air. (Apparently, the repetition of hot and cold at schizophrenic intervals speeds detoxification.) I’m instructed, “Go to pool.” The body of water in question is a 46-degree arctic basin that makes polar plunges sound idyllic. I dunk myself in the frigid water. Every cell in my body is singing, or screaming—I can’t tell which. As I emerge, I think, this is what a newborn must feel like: pure and wildly confused. My husband and I decide we’ve had enough. I’ve never been so dizzy or thirsty in my life. As we step back out into the urban tundra, dried and dressed, I’m not sure what was ailing me, but I feel healed.

Across town, inside a massive, subterranean former textile factory in Tribeca, Aire Ancient Baths (which, by comparison, turns five this year) is a nod to the tradition of thermal baths that date back to the Roman Empire. Sitting beneath the soaring ceilings and towering Corinthian columns, I can almost feel the spirit of past emperors marching by—until I realize those vibrations are actually the thumping bass of a nearby Tracy Anderson Method cardio studio. Even though it’s a midweek afternoon, the lobby is abuzz with people in stylish puffers tapping away on their Apple Watches. Apparently public bathing is the new power lunch. I’m given a futuristic bracelet and a matching digitized locker where I find a cool pair of scuba socks that I’m instructed never to remove. I walk past a row of hair dryers long enough to rival any uptown salon’s and arrive at the entrance of a 16,000-square-foot candlelit grotto featuring six urban lagoons.

My first stop: the salt flotarium, where two couples luxuriate in briny water meant to mimic the composition of the Dead Sea. They give me a quick once-over and wade in the other direction. I feel slightly self-conscious but proceed to scoop up a handful of salts to scrub my body. As I float weightlessly, I muse aloud, “This is what Helen of Troy must have felt like.” After sufficient sloughing, I hop into a glass-encased steam room where a willowy blonde in a high-waisted Eres bikini canoodles in a corner with an elderly gentleman. Having left my husband at home for this go-round, I feel conspicuously single—there are only 13 people allowed at Aire at a time, and most are couples. I move on to the cold-plunge frigidarium—an ice bath that runs 50-degrees cold. Though not as punishing as the Russian plunge, it’s still a white-knuckle experience. I hop into the warming soak of the caldarium and my skin stings in that delicious, thoroughly cleansed way.

Soon, I’m beckoned to my massage by a diminutive Thai man who leads me behind a beaded curtain overlooking the baths. As I recline on a plush, terry cloth-covered bed to a soothing Sufi soundtrack, he begins to knead my stiff back with smooth, purposeful strokes. It’s a stark contrast to my frenetic platza treatment days earlier. After 30 minutes of rendering my tense muscles into a supple heap, he leads me to a heated marble bench. With no clocks or vibrating cell phones to jolt me back to reality, I sip mint tea in uninterrupted bliss. It would be easy to siphon off hours of the day here were it not for the  bell indicating it’s time to go. Back in the locker room, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I’m serene and glowing. Is it a face, and a body, to launch a thousand ships? Perhaps. At the very least, it’s enough to get me a cab right out front.

The warm pool, or tepidarium, at Aire Ancient Baths.

In the car, I reflect on both experiences. Starting at $77, Aire is certainly the more luxurious. Amid its devotion to detail and top-notch service, however, perhaps it overlooks one important facet of public bathing: the public. At $45, the Russian and Turkish Baths, on the other hand, are unapologetically utilitarian. But what they lack in frills, they make up for in authenticity. As has been true for centuries, there are no secrets at the bathhouse—and that’s part of the fun. So while Aire may be an oasis for harried urbanites, if legitimate communal catharsis is what you seek, head East. Nostrovia. 

All images: Courtesy

Main historic image: Photo by Weegee (Arthur Fellig) International Center of Photography Getty Images