Two subjects about which I can muster undiluted interest are self-indulgence and Korean food, and I was informed I’d be able to address both at Spa Castle, a 60,000-square-foot complex of pools, saunas, Jacuzzis, massage rooms and restaurants in College Point.
Nonetheless, I was slightly apprehensive about what I was getting into as I hailed a cab to take me to Queens. All things being equal, sharing a hot tub with strangers isn’t my thing. And my fears weren’t particularly assuaged when I arrived at the Holiday Inn-like structure an hour and $45 later and had to pass through an IRT-like subway turnstile, after paying a $35 admission fee.
Things only got worse, or should I say I felt weirder and more insecure, as I entered the men’s locker room and was instructed to deposit my shoes in a shoe locker by the entrance, then walk farther along, get undressed, put the rest of my belongings in a second locker and take a shower. “No swimsuits are allowed in the private bath area,” instructed a brochure I’d picked up in the lobby.
Open-air massage. ENLARGE
Open-air massage. ROB BENNETT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
I’ve had an aversion to locker rooms, and public male nudity, ever since probably second grade, when Bobby Lightfoot chased me around snapping a wet towel. On the other hand, I’d look like even more of a dork if everybody else was naked and I broke the rules by entering the showers wearing the assigned shorts and T-shirt that I was supposed to don only after I was clean. To make matters worse, the showers resided along one wall of a complex of hot tubs where my fellow customers could watch me while I soaped myself.
Perhaps this sort of casual nudity is unexceptional in Asia, or at least Korea—where the Spa Castle concept apparently originates—along with the absurdly skimpy little towels they give you to dry off. My wife asked me why I didn’t wrap a towel around myself if I was bothered. Well, that’s why. The thing was the size of a napkin.
Spa Castle’s rooftop outdoor pool. ENLARGE
Spa Castle’s rooftop outdoor pool. ROB BENNETT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
After employing perhaps a half-dozen of them and putting on my uniform, I made my way upstairs for a guided tour from Silvia Lickova, a charming customer-service manager. Ms. Lickova, who attended hospitality school in her native Slovakia before joining Spa Castle three months ago, sounded excited—and not only about Spa Castle’s myriad spa treatments and water features, but also about her career prospects.
“The company is growing,” she explained, though I already knew that: Screens in the lobby boasted that Spa Castle was coming soon to Washington, D.C., Chicago and New York. “Maybe in one year at 43rd and Madison,” she said, of the Manhattan site. “It’s going to be beautiful. Brand-new everything.”
She explained how things worked: Your $35 admission fee grants you access to all the pools, saunas, etc. Extras include any spa treatments, use of the fitness room and food and drink—all of which are charged to your account by using a waterproof electronic wristband you’re given when you arrive and which you pay upon departure.
“So many things are new to Americans,” and to Europeans, too, she acknowledged as she showed me a “sleeping area” where people were sprawled on the hard marble floor. “Small babies, they’ll bring them here and sleep for two hours.”
Another view of the rooftop outdoor pool. ENLARGE
Another view of the rooftop outdoor pool. ROB BENNETT FOR THE WALL STREET JOURNAL
The crowd seemed as diverse as the city itself. Certainly Koreans were represented, but there were people of every age and stripe, many of whom were attracted by the two outdoor heated pools—where, by the way, you’re required to wear a bathing suit. You can bring your own or rent one. Each pool also had individual stations where one (or two) can indulge themselves with massaging water jets, though several of the couples I spotted weren’t leaving it to the body jets alone.
While I didn’t take advantage of the pools, I booked a basic hour-long Swedish massage. The spa treatments don’t come cheap. Mine cost $90. But they go up to $500 a person at the “Avenue S” VIP private spa, the term VIP apparently not thrown around lightly. “John Travolta was here,” Ms. Lickova told me twice.
Lunch was a not-bad bulgogi, a marinated steak-and-onion dish, but the pickled side dishes (half the reason one goes to Korean restaurants in the first place) were disappointing, the red-hot kimchi insipid.
My massage was much better. However, as soon as “Lucy,” my Korean masseuse, touched my back she told me I had a lot of tension—she made it sound unprecedented—and scoffed at the notion that the soothing Swedish massage I signed up for would suffice. When I balked at the more-expensive Deep Tissue massage, she gave it to me anyway. At least it felt that way. Because she worked so hard and dug so deep, I feared that when it was over I’d be taking Spa Castle’s complimentary shuttle bus not to Main Street in Flushing to catch the No. 7 train back to Manhattan, but to the hospital.
Lucy’s English was only slightly better than my Korean. She’d occasionally giggle and repeat something as she pounded my flesh. I heard it as “sick,” assuming she’d divined signs of weakness or disease in my sinews. But the word was “strong.” I would have been more than willing to repay the compliment, but the tip was already included.
When we were done, she suggested I take advantage of “Sauna Valley,” a complex of seven themed heated huts across the way. I did, opting for the traditional sauna over ones that boasted colored lights, Jade and Gold, all of which were supposed to release beneficial rays and said to be effective against conditions ranging from acne, high blood pressure and diabetes to athlete’s foot (which I was slightly concerned about contracting, since everyone pads around in bare feet).
I made my way back to the locker room and another public shower. And on the way out I noticed a stop sign by the exit to the locker room that asked, “Are you dressed?” I certainly felt more relaxed and perhaps even slightly more comfortable with myself than when I’d arrived three hours earlier, but definitely not that comfortable.