Review

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.

 

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.

 

1. Esalen: Baths for SpacePriests

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Distance to complete relaxation: 4.5/5 spigots

Welcome to Mars. The ancient scriptures indicate that long ago the human race was concerned about the viability of terraforming our red planet. That was before we discovered Aquaforming. Dear SpacePriests, Esalen is your aquatic high temple.

The ritual of shadowy purification begins only during the deep Skuggic hours, or as you might call it, 1 to 3am. Much like the earth-dwellers did when they first came, you descend down lanterned lane to meet your first bath, the sounds of crashing waves. At the end of the moonlit jetbridge you are deposited at the mouth of your hallowed concrete temple.  De-shroud yourself in one of the two launching chambers, perform a rinse of filth, and finally, submerge.  Twelve aquacapsules are peppered across the temple grounds, perched at the very edge of the pacific cliff.  Some small, likened to the clawfoot tubs of yore, others are built to fit a quorum of humans. Find a dew-slickened massage table to integrate the mineral nutrients of water with the evaporative air element. Heighten your senses: relax your sore body in the sulfurous waters simultaneous to the visual meditation of the black and white ocean.

Deets

Clothing optional and disabled access friendly, Esalen is inclusive as well as ruthlessly geometric. We appreciated the wheelchair accessible bath at the roof level which had a mechanized chair built into the tub. We bathed with about 20 other water warmeruppers, which the venue easily accommodated with privacy to spare. Esalen Institute is located along the coast of Big Sur California.  Roughly three hours from Oakland, it’s close enough for a trip on a whim. Its hours and location make Esalen a bit too distant for a winding night drive back (unless you’re a master of keeping yourself up by doing arbitrary long division while your partner sleeps in the passenger seat). The only other pieces that prevent spontaneity are the required reservation and price. Esalen is a retreat space that generally requires a larger outlay of coin. The only hours open to public use are 1-3am nightly. You can view a visit in the middle of the night as a fun adventure – our approach – but we’d rather there was no restriction. Additionally, you have to call between 9-noon the morning of your trip to reserve your spot.  At $30/person Esalen is an extraordinary bathing experience but it doesn’t quite redefine the concept.  For this we give it 4.5 spigots.