New York’s Tribeca has not always been the go-to place for clean living. Quite the opposite, in fact. Back in the 1970s and 1980s – before Nobu, the Bugaboo brigade and Wall Streeters laid claim to its industrial lofts – the neighbourhood had a reputation for drug dealing, prostitution and crime, and steam houses were used for an altogether different type of relaxation. But in May this year, Aire Ancient Baths – a Roman spa concept designed to cleanse, revive and detox even the most modern New Yorkers – opened its doors, and has since become a popular haunt for those seeking respite from the stresses of the city that never naps, let alone sleeps.
Aire takes its cue, as the website explains, from the rituals employed by the ancient Romans. The wealthy would come to the thermae (public baths) to socialise, unwind and revive. They would begin in the tepidarium (warm water pool), progress to the caldarium (hot water pool), then the laconicum (steam room) and finally to the frigidarium (cold water pool), hopping in and out in that order up to four times before enjoying a massage performed by the tractatores and finishing up with a visit to the unctores, who would apply fragrant oils to their squeaky clean skin.
The Romans believed that the warm waters relaxed the muscles and joints while improving the circulation, digestion and appetite; that the hot waters would open the capillaries and provoke a good sweat; and the final dip in near-freezing waters would close the pores and protect the body from infection. Today, the Roman bath ritual is seen as being especially effective when on a detox, as sweating further eliminates toxins from the skin and can help soothe minds otherwise discombobulated by chocolate and carbohydrate withdrawal. I am not on a detox (New York and detox must be the ultimate oxymoron), but I am definitely here to relax, Roman style.
I’m on bustling Franklin Street, a block from an artist loft I once called home, and at street level there is no guessing what lies beneath. The reception area is tasteful – all dark wood floors and exposed brick walls. A very friendly receptionist checks me in and leads me down the stairs to another, calmer world. The noise of cabs screeching over cobblestones fades out as we walk past beautiful pools and glass-boxed steam rooms illuminated by dimly lit low-hanging lights and candles. Despite the fact that it’s a former textile factory and not an ancient ruin, this 16,000sq ft oasis somehow feels authentic and is the best use of a basement I have ever seen.
I’m shown to my locker in the changing room, where I quickly slip into my swimsuit and cover my feet with plastic booties (I wonder if the Romans were worried about verrucas, too?). I’ve booked in for a 60-minute massage to get me completely relaxed before I take my first dip, so I head straight to one of the glass-walled massage rooms at the edge of the pools. The massage is firm and good – but not particularly earth shattering. My masseuse performs a rhythmic relaxing rub using the Swedish techniques of effleurage (long, light strokes) and pétrissage (kneading), which are said to aid lymphatic drainage and improve circulation by stimulating deep layers of tissue. But the main attraction here is definitely the baths, and I’m eager to get started.
I follow a circuit, which takes me on an aqua journey of varying temperatures – starting with the delicious 36°C tepidarium, moving on to the hotter 39°C caldarium, before plunging into the freezing 7.7°C frigidarium. I move from one to the other three times, lolling about in the first two before bouncing in and out of the last for a rather measly 45 seconds. The shock of the cold water is so extreme I audibly gasp and momentarily lose my ability to breathe. The fact it is supposedly doing wonders for my pores is little consolation. My goose pimples are gargantuan. As well as the different thermal baths, I also float in a 37°C saltwater pool. The water seems a little softer on my skin than it did in the other pools, and my body feels weightless. I am über-relaxed. When I step out, my skin is silky and supple.
I have a second massage courtesy of the 36°C propeller jet bath that does wonders for my weary arms. I also spend time in the relaxation room, where two of my fellow guests are sharing tea while lounging on hot marble stones. I help myself to some mint tea and lie back on a heated slab, zoning into a deep meditative state.
My allotted two hours are up – just as I start to slip into an otherwordly realm of relaxation, it’s time to brave the bustle yet again. I exit feeling purer than I thought imaginable in this city. My mind is clear, my body feels buoyant, my skin silky smooth.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The Aire Ancient Baths are a fabulous way to unwind – whether you’re visiting or a local. The spa’s maximum capacity is 20 people and it is booked out on a per-session basis, so multiple entrances and exits rarely disturb the peace, and it stays consistently quiet. Guests buy two-hour sessions ($75, which can rise to $500 for a deluxe three-and-a-half hour ritual in a private area including wine, cava and massages), which includes the 90-minute thermal circuit. Massages are at an additional cost and can range from 15 minutes to an hour.
All in all, it was a splendid subterranean stress-buster that left my skin noticeably smoother and softer.
The next Chronicles of a Spa Junkie will be published on Saturday December 8.