NewYork’s Tribeca has not always been the go-to place for clean living. Quite theopposite, in fact. Back in the 1970s and 1980s – before Nobu, the Bugaboobrigade and Wall Streeters laid claim to its industrial lofts – the neighbourhoodhad a reputation for drug dealing, prostitution and crime, and steam houses wereused for an altogether different type of relaxation. But in May this year,Aire Ancient Baths – a Roman spa concept designed to cleanse, revive and detoxeven the most modern New Yorkers – opened its doors, and has since become apopular haunt for those seeking respite from the stresses of the city thatnever naps, let alone sleeps.
Airetakes 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 waterpool), progress to the caldarium (hot water pool), then the laconicum (steam room) and finally to the frigidarium (cold water pool), hopping in andout 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 applyfragrant oils to their squeaky clean skin.
The Romans believed that the warmwaters relaxed the muscles and joints while improving the circulation,digestion and appetite; that the hot waters would open the capillaries andprovoke a good sweat; and the final dip in near-freezing waters would close thepores and protect the body from infection. Today, the Roman bath ritual is seenas being especially effective when on a detox, as sweating further eliminatestoxins from the skin and can help soothe minds otherwise discombobulated bychocolate and carbohydrate withdrawal. I am not on a detox (New York and detoxmust be the ultimate oxymoron), but I am definitely here to relax, Roman style.
I’mon 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 areais tasteful – all dark wood floors and exposed brick walls. A veryfriendly receptionist checks me in and leads me down the stairs to another,calmer world. The noise of cabs screeching over cobblestones fades out as wewalk past beautiful pools and glass-boxed steam rooms illuminated bydimly lit low-hanging lights and candles. Despite the fact that it’s aformer textile factory and not an ancient ruin, this 16,000sq ft oasis somehowfeels authentic and is the best use of a basement I have ever seen.
I’m shownto my locker in the changing room, where I quickly slip into my swimsuit andcover my feet with plastic booties (I wonder if the Romans were worried aboutverrucas, too?). I’ve booked in for a 60-minute massage to get mecompletely relaxed before I take my first dip, so I head straight to one of theglass-walled massage rooms at the edge of the pools. The massage is firm and good– but not particularly earth shattering. My masseuse performs a rhythmicrelaxing rub using the Swedish techniques of effleurage (long, lightstrokes) and pétrissage (kneading), which are said to aid lymphatic drainage and improve circulation by stimulating deep layers oftissue. But the main attraction here is definitely the baths, and I’m eagerto get started.
I followa circuit, which takes me on an aqua journey of varying temperatures – startingwith 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 inthe first two before bouncing in and out of the last for a rather measly 45seconds. The shock of the cold water is so extreme I audibly gasp andmomentarily lose my ability to breathe. The fact it is supposedly doingwonders for my pores is little consolation. My goose pimples aregargantuan. As well as the different thermalbaths, I also float in a 37°C saltwater pool. The water seems alittle softer on my skin than it did in the other pools, and my body feelsweightless. I am über-relaxed. When I step out, my skin is silky and supple.
I have asecond massage courtesy of the 36°C propeller jet bath that doeswonders 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 marblestones. I help myself to some mint tea and lie back on a heated slab,zoning into a deep meditative state.
Myallotted two hours are up – just as I start to slip into an otherwordly realmof relaxation, it’s time to brave the bustle yet again. I exit feelingpurer than I thought imaginable in this city. My mind is clear, my body feelsbuoyant, my skin silky smooth.
THE BOTTOM LINE
The AireAncient Baths are a fabulous way to unwind – whether you’re visiting or alocal. The spa’s maximum capacity is 20 people and it is booked out on aper-session basis, so multiple entrances and exits rarely disturb the peace, andit stays consistently quiet. Guests buy two-hour sessions ($75, whichcan 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. Massagesare at an additional cost and can range from 15 minutes to an hour.
All inall, it was a splendid subterranean stress-buster that left my skin noticeablysmoother and softer.
The next Chronicles of a Spa Junkie will be published on Saturday December 8.