10. King Spa: All-You-Can-Lounge Chill Buffet

Distance to relaxation: 3/5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 3/5 spigots

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Restaurant critic Giles Coren on a trip which included world-renowned French Laundry was tempted to say he enjoyed the Fast Food In-N-Out burger more than anything else. The bathing world equivalent of this was our enjoyment of the artificially-veneered, suburban King Spa in Chicagoland. It targets the pleasure center of the brain in a maximally indulgent way without regard for health, balance, or fidelity – none of which matters too much, because it feels good.

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We were taught by some regulars how to properly tie our hand towels. See above.

King Spa offers luxurious bathing and complements that ease by removing any need to perform, you don’t have to worry about doing the Korean bathing ritual “properly”. It’s an on-rails experience in which you’re lead through the phases: rinse, relax and rare treats. And importantly you’ll be shepherded along in their own-branded single-colour baggy t-shirt and shorts uniform. These cotton suits are so formless, and so identical to everyone else’s that a lot of body anxiety and social competition quickly evaporates. No one is allowed to show off, and everybody must look like they’re sleeping in all day on Sunday to watch cartoons on the couch.

 

 

img_3351-1There’s no reason physically or otherwise to be uncomfortable; on the contrary a virtually limitless array of themed rooms are yours to try. The twists run from gold-walled reflection, extreme temperatures, charcoal and salt infusions to lazy-boy movie theatre. This gives a Disney Land effect with ample “Entertainment” and rides to go on. It’s easy to fall into the fun of exploring each room and experiencing or even photographing the novelty. It’s highly Instagramable, and it would be easy to recount the day to your friends with a list of attractions ranging from Oxygen Room, to Amethyst Room, to the V-steam.

Yet another reason why King Spa is so Instagramable is the free and fast Wi-Fi which pervades the plush lounge and Dining Room.  Yes, Dining Room. This is Fully Automated Bathing Luxury where a wrist band swipe will order you a Bi Bim Bap, Japchae, or shaved ice and red-bean dessert.  Extra questionably-scientific hot rock treatments, premiumly-priced but groupon discounted, effortlessly beep on to your bill.

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One of the more unique parts of my (Adi’s) experience at the King Spa was sitting communally a top an herbal vaginal steam with four other women, each of us covered from the neck down by a brown schmatta. Our vulvas were infused with wormwood, mugwort, dandelion, and a few other herbs meant to encourage pelvic health. The thirty minute treatment (swiped on the wristband) was worth it mostly due to the sheer enjoyment of sitting in a circle of other women sweating their vaginas off too.

The commerce is tastefully moderated at the right times so that you might still enjoy some naked hottubbing with your colleagues in the gender seperated locker rooms. Exchange proud “banter” here (we were offered MDMA by a local) under the backdrop of a marble lion head jetting out your bath water. With the complimentary toothbrushes and razors, the once laughable 24+ hour stay fee becomes more clear.  It’s easy to see how one might opt to overnight at King Spa rather than a motel.

On our trek to King Spa’s strip mall location, because arriving by train, we had to cross a park which by chance was hosting Mongolia National day celebration. Stopping in for a moment on the festival to buy a few snacks beforehand we were offered tea and homemade food by a Mongolian Church organization. The minute or two of hurried exchange we had before pressing on to the Spa was more mindful than all the time at baths.

Even if you don’t regret eating those burger and fries, you might still feel a self-conscious health nag the day after. In King Spa’s case its the fact that you were never really in a position to focus on your breath for 30 seconds, or silently lay with the more meditative aspects of bathing.  It is a great all-you-can-lounge chill buffet if you don’t want to think too hard about it.

Shoutout to our brilliant Data Science for Social Good friends for making the posse.

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9. Laugardalslaug: Another Day at The Bath

Distance to complete relaxation: 2.5/5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 2.5/5 spigots

When we got off the bus and walked into Laugardalslaug the desk staff didn’t quite know what we wanted when our backpacks slumped heavily on to the floor. They weren’t exactly prepared to accommodate tourists. They guessed we needed a day pass and allowed our luggage to be stored behind the front desk. This is just a public swimming pool – but Icelandic style, and that’s the difference we were here to smell out.

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After the multigenerational locker rooms, we were met with the unlabelled, mapless facilities that expected you to have grown up here. Stepping outside we didn’t have much time to select between the kid’s pool, 5-bath-multi-temp hotpot set, and the rocky geothermal mini-lagoon, as the large tower-mounted digital clock/thermometer flickered between 0 and -1°C.

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Diving into into the 32° sanctuary – the lowest choice of it’s 35° and 38° cousins – we were struck about how standard-white tile this perfectly round, function-focused bath was. It wasn’t designed to say, “stark Icelandic modernism,” merely to be silent and good for your health. All utility, and no decoration, we may as well have been microwaving a hot pocket at the 7/11.

But to some degree we were looking in the wrong place, because at the very end of the grounds, with all the other baths leading up to this royalty of quotidian baths there is the geothermal highlight. Here, civil-engineering pumps in underground waters from afar for locals close-by. We entered not too timidly, and without speaking, so the 15 or so locals carried on in Icelandic in a familial low tempo, neighborly chatter.

This is a very normal town swimming pool, whose novelties after hot water cap out at a steam room, and custom made floating chessboard. Certainly, this normcore atmosphere make a quaint window into the mundane bathing lives of Reykjavik residents. That normalness is the quality to appreciate here, not any outstanding bathsmanship.

 

8. Kvika: The Bathless Taken

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Distance to complete relaxation: 2.5/5 spigots

Through our previous couchsurfing adventures we’d come to be in possession of a hand-drawn map of a mystical out-of-the-way hot pot just outside the small town of geothermally active Hveragerði. In true fashion we found  a willing travel companion on Couchsurfing’s Reykjavik discussion, and planned to meet them for coffee on this winter morning. It was then that we encountered our first obstacle, the locks to our car were frozen. An hour of bringing down boiling water in thermoses, and a bic-fired key set us on our way: some daylight, but not much passion lost.

icehorseOur surfcoucher was late arriving to our rendez-vous, but again we were put at ease by the third-wave-birch atmosphere of Reykjavik Roasters. Another hour, and half the sunlight gone, we motored through the desert of snow to volcano-land, popping the ambient sounds of Jóhan Jóhannsson into the compact disc player. We were enjoying the route, even stopping off for a few Icelandic horses.

 

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Unbathable. Try as I might.

We didn’t even rush our hour hike up the mountain, and did a stop-and-chat when our hike-surfer companion ran into a hostel homie.

And all of this would have been fine, if it wasn’t two days after the winter solstice at 66° North. This particular spacetime meant that the sun was setting, and legions of other hikers were descending the mountain with advice like “you’re 45 minutes away.” Still we maintained good spirits right up until an icy precipice that didn’t seem like it was going to be any easier to navigate in the dark. Adi fretted “my mom would be really disappointed with me if I fell off this cliff and died.” It seemed like the right moment to make the smart move, snap some nature porn, and GTF off the mountain.

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Still we had to salvage what we could, so we made another poor – but not life threatening – decision to go to the smallest hotpot in Iceland.

Kvika footbath is a souvenir key-chain of a hotpot. It’s targeted towards people who want the upper and lower halves of their bodies to be different temperatures – and have a nice view of the expansive Atlantic while they’re at it. Yet our visit was a nigh unbearable tale of wind, extreme cold, heat, and complete darkness. The joke wore thin 5 minutes in, so we returned to the warmth of an Aktu-Taktu chip-merchant. You might like it a lot more if you could see anything at all and have non-adverse weather conditions.

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meh

The day was charcterised by false starts of all sorts, and Kvika in some ways was one of them. The promise of this bonsai-bath is alluring no doubt, but there’s more laughing than earnest relxation to be had here.

7. Blue Lagoon: Land of Alizé and Soymilk

Distance to complete relaxation: 4.5 of 5 spigots.

Distance to complete relaxation: 4.5/5 spigots

Yggdrasil

Yggdrasil- an immense mythical tree that connects the nine worlds in Norse cosmology.

Are you dead or are you alive? Squint out at the colossal mountains in the background and you are forgiven for believing your arcane transport to the ethereal Yggdrasil cosmos. Here you are subsumed by the creamy bath, an elixir resembling Alizé and soy milk. Lay your head back, feel the volcanic heat on your skin, and the snowflakes on your tongue at 65° North. Thick steam rises in the air, opaque against the shy sun showing for just a moment on the winter solstice. You have slipped into the foggy underworld known as the Blue Lagoon.

Bláa Lónið (Blue Lagoon) is a natural hotspring which retains almost all of it’s supernatural charm despite being built for a flown-in for the weekend global audience. Without knowing what it looked like before the construction diggers came, the design remains a soft carving of nature. The wade-able landscape is subtlety divided into enough activity areas that serve as entertaining circuit training as well as relaxing unplugging. Social psychology and architecture will lead you do laps of: mud facemasks, off-shoot benches, sparkling wine, hot waterfalls, and saunas. The lagoon remains a strange and well-crafted wonder despite the shepherding.

Tips:

Tips:
· take breaks in the resting lounge
· take food even though they tell you not to. ·take a towel or two or you’ll pay for them.
· don’t worry about getting your hair wet, because it invariably will. It will also becomes straw-y, but will return to normal after a good deep condition.
· if you want to want to take pics, buy a waterproof phone/camera bag for €10 before it costs you €25 at the bar.

Given the flocks of holiday-makers here, the compartmentalization of the lagoon is a plus because it means that you contend only with a subset of crowd at any time. Still, take some time to crawl to the most sparsely populated outer regions where you can lie down and pretend you understand the creation story of a world born of ice and fire. There’ll be enough time to see a world of bragging Skype calls and distant offices on the iPhones of patrons who haven’t left the bar.

The specialness of the location and the water’s X-factor is real, if hard to appreciate fully. Open your eyes too wide you will see a modern capitalist tourist trap which competes uneasily with the otherworldly nature. Our Airbnb host (and here’s the contradiction again), told us what it was like to go to Grindavík 40 years ago. It was a time when she could enjoy her own country’s offerings without paying €40 to a private company. That’s an unavoidable moral blemish part and parcel of this wonder of the bathing universe.

6. Breitenbush: The Simple Wellworn Rocking Horse Heirloom

 Distance to Complete Relaxation: 4 out of 5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 4/5 spigots

When you’re on an heirloom rocking horse the craftsmanship is undeniable, stands alone, and is as much of a Gesamtkunstwerk as any mobile operating system might aspire to be. When you want to replace your mobile addiction with rustic simplicity, it couldn’t hurt to have a subtle logic conducting the unplugging. Breitenbush accounts for all the details through what is clearly decades of commune homesteading. They know its not just about the baths. That’s why once you’ve paid your entry fee, despite all a full agenda of meals, yoga and piano performances, there is no one to pay, and no commerce in which to be engaged. Unburdened from consumer choice, you become aware of the water in which you were a fish.

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Food

“What should we get for lunch?” is not a question you have to concern yourself with (or breakfast and dinner for that matter). At Breitenbush they serve a nutritious buffet a few notches above co-op slop. It’s not foodie-good, but simple and vegetarian and vegan. You’d have to be pretty picky not be delighted with every visit to the dining hall, and because of that Breitenbush has engineered another decision out of your day.

Family Friendly

Breitenbush is child-positive without being Disneyland. The beauty of the balance they strike is that it’s not pandering to children, nor are they unwelcome bathing pariahs. For instance in front of the main hall there is a grassy field with hula-hoops laying about. In the library there are children’s books and games. But if Breitenbush were to only have monkey bars and Dr. Seuss available in corners, they wouldn’t have achieved what they did. It is the very fact that they eschew the default boundary between child/adult things that makes Breitenbush feel more than child-accommodating, but family-friendly.

Library and Activities

During a bathing excursion, the fact is that sometimes you can’t always be in the water. Breitenbush recognizes this and has you covered in a choice of group or individual “activities”. Our favourite amenity was the dedicated library room. Harbin too had this (RIP) but the shelves and chairs had more pretense imbued in their interior design. The medium-sized collection was good enough to produce a current Economist, a few nat-geos, and some paperbacks, which perfectly fit unwinding the mind after dinner. Exiting the library you can find a sign-board which will alert you to the organized going-ons. When we were there this included a yoga class in the evening, and a stargazing session. But more over, our most enjoyable time came when a cheerful staff member sat down at the upright piano in the hallway. Appreciating live piano on an impromptu spur was a resetting mindshift as enjoyable as the wet ones on offer.

The Baths
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But what about the actual baths? There are many, and each designed to be a backdrop more than a centerpiece. They baths are separated into two areas, upper and lower. The upper baths are a sophisticated smooth rock each for about 10 people, and overlook the river. They feel as if they were crafted by someone who also throws ceramic pots. And you’ll probably find a potter of the sort in there. The lower and older set are tiled and arranged in ascending heat order topping out at about 44⁰C. The vibe here is more a utilitarian, pore-cleansing hot-cold dip-cycling. The sauna is a steamy wooden cabin of precise woodworking, which is everything a sauna needs to be and nothing more. By paring down options in baths and bath extravagance, Breitenbush reduces your cognitive load in yet another dimension.

Unburdened.

The essence of Breitenbush is that it is complete and minimal without being spartan. Enjoy choicelessness and live off the simple offerings. Eat but don’t fuss over eating, smile and twirl a hula-hoop with those around you, read what’s on the shelf. Let the baths get out the way, so the reasons that you’re there can be focused on: to warm your muscles, to be outside and quiet, to metabolise your life-events with a close friend, or to meet a new one.

Iceland and Denmark Itinerary

We’ve got another bathing trip on dock and this time we’re seeking refuge from the cold in geothermal Nordic waters. Here’s where we might be heading:

Iceland:

  • Northern Lights hunting
  • Fontana Geothermal baths CAN DO ON GOLDEN CIRCLE TOUR
  • reykjavik roasters coffee
  • Public pools, Laugardalslaug I’ve heard is good
  • Golden Circle self tour, Thingvellir, Strokkur Geysir, Gulfoss
  • Vik: Reynisfjara Beach (black sand, basalt rock columns, difficult to visit during high tide, went the morning)
  • Skogafoss: our favorite waterfall where we witnessed a double rainbow
  • Jokulsarlon: Glacier Lagoon AND don’t forget to go to the black sand beach where you can see all the pretty ice formations

And lastly, we have a cartographic enigma depicting an unnamed hotpot near Hveragerði. Apparently it is landmarked and sweetened by its adjacency also to a lovely tea shop. With a treasure map in hand, the adventure begins…

Treasure Map of a small hotpot.

5. Oakland Floats: The Unbathing

 Distance to Complete Relaxation: 4 out of 5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 4/5 spigots

One question Max likes asking children is, “What is the lowest you can jump?” It’s an unusual question because while our physical culture can be obsessed with finding out maximum energy expenditure, we rarely explore the minimum edge. A floatation tank asks, “what is the least amount of effort you can put into living at this moment?

Go to the deprivation tanks. Remove your clothes. Rinse yourself clean. Silence sound with waxed ear plugs. Slide into the salt suspension. Close the door and shut out the light.

Senses withdraw. These are the optimal conditions for meditating.  The high is the same as you would get from any kind of meditative practice—the inner experience isn’t unique.  You’re still watching a monkey brain leap around, but rather than even having the ability to fiddle with your clothing or adjust the way that you’re sitting in order to take yourself out of that discomfort, your body simply feels suspended. The largest shift you can make to your environment is to choose to have your hands above your head or at your sides.

The novelty of sensory deprivation tanks is that by limiting all your options, you’re left with a greater degree of mental spaciousness. Perhaps this is what it’s like to be in the womb. The entirety of the world is just two things: dark and liquid.

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After 75 minutes, you aren’t born anew, but some inner mentality has been refreshed. New-age synth-chimes fade into the utero-tainer. Your muscles activate, only slightly, to push the door open. Once neglected retinas will increase their light absorption, infinetly-fold. Standing is really hard. Harder than you’ve ever experienced standing to be, at least since you were a peri-embryonic ten-month-old. Collapsing on the sinky couch in the lobby, you grab a mandarin.  The distinct citrus oils ionize into the air.  The first taste post soak is the tart juice running down your throat.

Most bathing is an indulgence of the senses, but deprivation tanks flip the paradigm. Oakland floats is basically an inoffensive unplace which gets out of the way of the experience—the unbathing.

4. Bagby: Attention Walmart Bathers

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Distance to complete relaxation: 1/5 spigots

The memory conjured up by slapping paper wristbands around our forearms felt more like entering a commerical waterpark, or being 21+ at a Nickelback concert than relaxing bathtime. This should have been all the foreshadowing we needed.

At half an hour, the walk from the parking lot is just a bit too long, and yet it is the most enjoyable part of one’s experience at Bagby.  Once we landed at the bath-sheds the greetings were chiding beer-laughs over Top 40 on BIG JAMBOXes. The large public bath was overrun by a group of friends who thought that the best way to interact with you was to ignore you completely. And in trying our luck at the semi-public bath our welcoming was sneering for trying the broken hottub that they had been so wise to avoid – then more ignoring and blaring pop. So we slumped off to the dressing-room sized private “tubs”.

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No-tech water delivery system.

With some determination, we set to drawing a bath of solitude. Stifled again, we could only get up to our ankles in either scalding or freezing water in a hollowed out log that was closer to a bobsled than a hottub. This is what the bath is like:

Someone is trying to ultraboil their diva-cup at one end of a sluice whose run-off you can pipe in to your grody slimepit. If this is too hot, use a 5 gallon bucket to schlep in some freezing water from a nearby well. You can not get the temperature right, and it cannot exceed a height of more than 6 inches because the canoe is inefficiently plugged up by a softball on a string.  The walls are adorned with carved Graffiti gems such as “Future Kurvers” and the perplexing “cholofsts.”

That’s when we understood that trying to appreciate the finer points of bathing at Bagby is like trying to study in your dorm room during spring break in College. We got bored of being uncomfortable after about 10 minutes of putting a good smile on the situation, took a selfie and GTFO’d.

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the bobsled team wetting the bottom third of their bums.

Other disturbing features of this ogre’s collection of hot cisterns, was its clothing required policy (which we did not respect too well). Leaving the din of shouting behind we were more cognizant of the glitter litter and discarded wristbands on the ground. “Bagby has all the social mores of Walmart,” Harry quipped.

Back in the parking lot, the friendly forest ranger asked how we liked the baths.  Rather than expressing our discontent, we placated them with an “ok,” – the quicker way to escape.  One out of five spigots because five dollars is a pretty cheap way to have a bad time.

3. Cougar: Ice Cream Sandwiches For Woodland Creatures

Distance to relaxation: 3 out of 5 spigots

Distance to complete relaxation:
3/5 spigots

Cougar Hot Springs are like an It’s-It Ice Cream Treat:

  • It’s uncomplicated as far as it lets the ingredients speak for themselves.
  • It’s unquestionably good from a value for money perspective.
  • But it’s over more quickly than you’d like, unless you make an attempt to savour it.

At the foot of Cougar Hot Springs you will meet the Enchanted Gnome, protector of this aquatic realm. He disclaims to you, as he must to all travellers, that dropped trou lies ahead.  You consent with a knowing wink and pay your nominal $6. Taking a big swig out of his gallon-sized coffee goblet, this rosy-cheeked friend bids you good bathing, and points up towards the path ahead. There is only one road leading to Cougar:  along a steep and unrailed ledge, then through the thick Cascadian greenery. The trail and the baths themselves are not embellished. A verdant fernscape surrounds the bases of impossibly towering trees–D-Firs in Portland hipster parlance.  After a quarter mile walk you spot the wooden construction, enough to hang your clothes up but not to house a shower.

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Squirrel’s eye view.

The 4 baths themselves are products of intentional rock rearrangement that divert hot spring water to trickle rather than rush down the hill.  Given that the water cascades between the pools, the hottest lies at the top, which is comfortable enough even in the midday sun.  If you’re looking for a scalding McCafé experience these may not be your baths. The hot springs are not designed with seating in mind, but a group of ten Tetris masters could optimize a pool. Due to the natural roughness, interpool navigability requires some degree of scampering and creative perching lest you pumice your perineum. The demographics we found there ranged from Nordic parent/adult-child trios, fruit offering Gaia couples, and lone wolf semicreepers with faithful canine companions. You might well be the recipients of wafting sage smoke, a nug, or a haphazardly sliced watermelon.

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Squirrel.

Even if you take a luxurious 15 minutes per tub, the running time is only a third of Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (in which you can glimpse the aforementioned Gnome in minute :56). A typical time extension strategy at these places consists of out-of-water relaxing. The lack of lounging planks at Cougar make these intermissions challenging to take. Coupled with lack of on-site drinking water, an entire round here is capped at about an hour.

If the major things on your mind are that your boss is a wanker and you haven’t got your mom a present for her birthday yet, then Cougar will not be the most generous gelato.  However, if you’re armed with the attention to really appreciate this melting ice cream of a hot springs, there’ll be plenty to lick off your fingers.

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Invasive species.

 

2. Harbin: Baths for Witches and the Techno Riche

Distance to complete relaxation: 3.5/5 Spigots

Distance to complete relaxation: 3.5/5 spigots

Harbin’s entrance, with its tiles and vines and handpainted signs prepares you to enter one size fits all Hippie Chic. Like a YMCA owned by Deadheads appealing to Silicon Valley middle management. Whether you want to glamp with a bathroom, rent a room in the Norcal Disneyland hotel, or just let your Miata shine in the sun for a few hours, Harbin keeps you in striking distance of the baths.

Protip: Definitely bring a flashlight, fsho. The walk from the camp area to the baths is a minor but dark walk for which you’ll need light.
Attribution: http://califias.blogspot.com/2014/12/harbin-hot-springs-and-heart.html

There are six pools, from very hot to very cold along with a sauna and steam room. The heart-shaped pool fails on it’s promise of being a either a quiet special love-zone or a communal watering hole. The sauna and steam are standard. The warm pool is the largest of the silent pools, and is decorated in a witch-serves-a-nice-country-breakfast sort of way. But the real standout is the candlelit hot pool, a few steps away, with gnarled cast iron handrails that takes it all the way to coven-in-a-new-moon-mikvah. The overhead handrail allows you to hang half-in-half-out of the pool, providing maximum erector spinae release. There’s only room for about 10 people in the hot pool, but its very high temperature ensures there’s someone exiting to let you in.

It’s not that the entire compound is naked, in fact the only place that’s naked is the bath areas. The changing rooms can get full and are co-ed. Dick-wagglers exist, but are a silent (non-voting) minority. Only one erection was spotted and no one approached us. In fact it is quite coupley, but not to the degree that it would be unenjoyable as a platonic group of friends. It is the happiest place on pangea, after all. This interpretation of the Magic Kingdom has learned the lesson to keep your patrons fully entertained. Yoga lessons, a Restaurant, a movie room, and library. The food is mediocre but healthy, compromising on flavourfulness and fanciness, but not on quality. The library room, oh the libray room. It’s a great little refuge, for when your ereader is more appealing than being naked outside. It’s wooden and handcrafted. It’s not hobbled together and it’s free.

Our dedication to economizing our purse backfired on us during our trip. Unfortunately before leaving we didn’t fully rinse a can of garbanzo beans before recycling it, which very much angered the wind Gods. They knew our human-weakness, these wind Gods, that we required some non-zero amount of sleep, and therefore exacted revenge on us through the audio of tent-flappiness. It was really extraordinarily flappy. Not like a hummingdbird, or an even a scarf in a Miata. This was more like being in the cargo hold of an old propeller plane, except its sputtering engine was on the inside. We tried very hard to ignore this cacophonous plastic on plastic sound while cuddling necessarily for warmth. We contemplated abandoning the idea of trying to sleep, and eventually did at around 5 am, an hour before day break to seek refuge in the hot pool. Our deprived brains still acknowledged the heat of waters, and even registered the sweet sunrise dancing on the bare winter branches – but perhaps with not as much mirth as it could have. Upon return to our spent tent, some camping neighbours approached us. “How was your night?”  We responded distraughtly “very flappy tent.” And they said “yeah,” and we knew that they just knew precisely what we meant.

As it was now time to go, we augmented our scattered 15 minutes of sleep with two espressos at the on-site cafe, much like the YMCA smoothie bar – if only the Grateful Dead owned it.