“THIS is the best night of my life!” burbled Rory as he was swashed in an inner tube around the whirlpool section of the outdoor hot pools at Inspa World.
I have heard this before. And besides, how great could the greatest night of a life only six-and-three-quarters-years long be?
Still, it was pretty cool: my stepson, Rory, and his buddies whirling endlessly around as I let the bubble jets pound my kidneys and tickle my feet, lolling back to watch the steam rising into the night and the jet planes drifting down into La Guardia, every once in a while lazily checking to make sure no one had drowned.
This was the capper to a weirdly sybaritic evening: plunge pools, saunas lined in gold, jade and salt; massage chairs; spare ribs with kimchi, Korean soap operas and a lot of viewing other people’s tattoos.
Inspa World, a five-story 60,000-square-foot funhouse, bills itself as a “spa and water park.” But that doesn’t quite capture it. At a mere $30 to get in, and kids scrambling around, it’s no Canyon Ranch. And without water slides or wave machines, it’s no Typhoon Lagoon, either. The closest relative may be the “mustard-off pools” in Dr. Seuss’s “Happy Birthday to You!”
Call it an aquarium for humans. You end up feeling like someone’s well-fed goldfish, darting around in the bubbles, wondering what is behind the next gilded rock.
Inspa is an elaborate local copy of a jimjilbang, a traditional Korean 24-hour bathhouse where families soak, steam and eat together, and sometimes even sleep over.
The setting is also unexpected: it is in College Point, Queens, just north of the “valley of ashes” in “The Great Gatsby,” and hard by an industrial park.
Once you’ve fought your way off the bridge ramps (be smarter than me — avoid rush hour), you can hand your keys to a valet.
From the building’s top balcony you can gaze over the auto-parts warehouse next door and see the lights of the Bronx-Whitestone Bridge twinkling on Long Island Sound. Inspa World (which will change its name in a few months because, it turns out, a West Coast day-spa chain has the same name and threatened to sue) opened last May.
THE owner, Steve Chon, a Queens architect and developer, said he spent $25 million building it and hopes to open 19 more, the next in Dallas. There are other jimjilbangs in the United States, Mr. Chon said, but none as large with big outdoor pools like his.
Mr. Chon said he first advertised to Korean-Americans, “but I was always targeting mainstream Americans.”
The first “mainstream Americans” to become regulars were Russians and Hasidic men from Brooklyn, said Yong Seok Choi, Inspa’s vice president. Now there is an eclectic mix.
On the Friday night spent with Rory, his pals Oliver and Eleanor, ages 7 and 5, and their parents, about 70 percent of the clientele was Asian. As we entered, a group of women who appeared to be West Indian were leading in a friend.
“Why is she blindfolded?” I asked, naïvely.
“Bachelorette party!” they explained.
Paying the entry fee gets one a jazzy blue or pink electronic bracelet and a bow toward the glass men’s and women’s doors. The bracelet is both locker key and charge card for food, massages and tube rentals at the pools.
First, your shoes get their own locker; the floor is spotless blond wood. Then, once you strip down to just your bracelet (and assuming you do not join the man squatting naked on a table clipping his toenails into a tray), you enter a vast room with dark stone walls, saunas, steam and many pools: lukewarm, hot, hotter, bubble-jet, cold and frigid. As a child, I paged through pictures of a Roman bath, wishing I’d been born then; finally, I can live it.
There are no strigils, but there are little wooden buckets and stools on which to perch, Asian style, while showering and shaving, as well as regular showers. Toothbrushes are on offer, along with squirts from a big tube of Colgate on a string. Push a button on the wall and a jackhammer of cold water pounds down to massage your scalp.
The atmosphere was relaxed; no one seemed bothered by Rory leaping from pool to pool like some crazed faun.
The ladies bath, my wife said, had scenes both sweet and mystifying: little girls scrubbing their mothers’ backs, and women squatting over heated pots. The pots, I learned later, were herbal steamers, supposedly very soothing after giving birth.
Exfoliating rubs were given by muscular women in traditional jimjilbang work wear: bras and panties. Travel writers describing Korean baths always say the same thing: the mitts are so rough that your skin rolls off in little gray worms.
Next, all clients don the house’s short cotton pajamas — gray for men, orange for women — and troop upstairs to the sauna floor, the spa’s social center. There was something perky and democratic in the air, all of us multiethnically together, scrubbed and uniformed like cheerful first graders. Or maybe it was the air; the spa bubbles in extra oxygen.
Half the floor is a food court: juice bar, pizza or sushi, Starbucks or Häagen-Dazs. Wall-mounted televisions silently play shows with English and Korean subtitles. The other half is a kitsch paradise: a green stone meadow coursed by a running stream and dotted with igloo-shaped saunas.
The word “sauna,” a puzzling sign explains, is “from the Finnish words ‘sow’ (an admiration of ‘wow’) and ‘nar.’ ”
The sign’s medical advice is just as strange. Heated gold supposedly releases infrared rays that suck out bad energy. Jade fights high blood pressure, paralysis and athlete’s foot.
Hocus-pocus aside, the saunas are stunning. The gold one has tiles coated with 96 percent pure gold, Mr. Chon said. He hid them from his own workmen during construction, and two have been pried out by thieving visitors.
The jade one is actually dazzling geodes, the salt one has pink blocks said to be chipped from the Himalayas. The mud in the mud one is imported from South Korea, which is apparently well-known for its mud. It’s also the biggest and hottest — 190 degrees, too hot for me.
TAKING a sauna while stretched out on a tatami mat in borrowed pj’s is a bit sweaty and itchy for my taste, but the kids loved testing them all. There is also a row of deck chairs beneath heat lamps for those aspiring to feel like a carved roast in a rathskeller. To cool off, one enters the “Iceland” room, which is lined with frosted pipes. We had a mini-snowball fight.
You can get a sea-salt pedicure or an organic peel, feel kneaded by a massage chair or sack out in the designated sleeping area — which at different times contained a meditating man and a fussing baby. Above that, there are three more floors. We skipped the mezzanine of personal TV chairs because children were unwelcome, and headed to the restaurant. Basic Korean fare — pork, beef, noodles — came with multiple side dishes for $10 to $12. My only frustration was the lack of beer.
“No spirits,” a server said.
Alcohol is banned for fear of heart attacks in the saunas, Mr. Chon said later.
Also, he said: “There are females in same area, and when men have a couple of shots, they’ll do anything. That’s sexual harassment, especially in America.”
The ban particularly irks some guests, he added, who like hell-hot saunas with a frigid vodka chaser. His security guards take bottles away and break up what he calls “love behaviors.”
But, Mr. Chon said, Russian guests are welcome to “use their whips, some kind of tree” — presumably a reference to a nice thrashing with birch branches that some feel is the perfect lagniappe to a good steam.
We spared the rods and spoiled the children, changing into bathing suits for the heated outdoor pool, which boasts 40 different water-massage functions.
Getting a permit was a yearlong struggle because of neighborhood opposition. Offering massages “made people think we were opening a whorehouse,” Mr. Choi said.
“Now they’ve changed their mind,” he said. “They come here, they say, ‘Whoa, this is nice.’ ”
I did not canvass the neighbors. But I believe it. Rory now wants his 7th birthday party there. And his friend Eleanor says she is moving in.