The City as Spa

Surviving New York in summer—and fall, winter, and spring— without blowing your budget

Political commentator Joyce Purnick recently sneered in The New York Times at reports that visiting journalists covering the Republican National Convention would be treated to subsidized spa treatments and other indulgences in the city that never sleeps. Her scorn is understandable. It's not visitors who most need downtime and pampering. It's the rest of us, who live with stress 24-7-365, especially in summer, when we work at desks blasted by air-conditioning and then wait on subway platforms, shvitzing in the heat.

The well-heeled understand the value of spa holidays. They flock year-round to retreats in mountains and deserts, where they exercise, hike, and sleep well; eat carefully measured portions of healthy food; and submit themselves to buffing and massage, hot-wax treatments, and seaweed wraps.

They pay dearly. If you were to take a week-long break at a venerable residential spa like the Golden Door, the fee there, plus taxes and airfare to San Diego, would run you close to $7,500—and that doesn't include the vacation days you use up, the cost of child care at home, and the stress you put yourself through before you can get away. You return blissed out, probably slimmer, extremely calm—and broke. Then you have to go back to work, day in and day out, and deal with the same set of stresses that drove you to consider a spa visit in the first place, with the added burden of more credit card debt.

Aruba on the Hudson: The pool at Manhattan Plaza
photo: Shiho Fukada
Aruba on the Hudson: The pool at Manhattan Plaza

Our strategy costs way less—$3,000 at the outside—to keep you sane, healthy, and happy here in New York for an entire year! In six weeks of regular exercise you'll develop a very useful "addiction" to a regime of swimming, yoga, Pilates, running, aerobics, biking, or even walking. Once you do that—and paying for it in advance is a very effective way to assure that you'll get hooked—you'll have set a pattern that should stay with you for life.

1 Join a gym. You can do this for thousands of dollars at the fancier spots, or for way less at city recreation centers. The newest one, the CHELSEA RECREATION CENTER at 430 West 25th Street (212-255-3705), costs $75 a year (only $10 if you're over 55, and, get this, free if you're under 18). Its five floors have plenty of natural light; a 25-yard indoor pool; a regulation-size gym; Ping-Pong, foosball, and billiards tables; state-of-the-art strength-training and cardio fitness rooms; a computer room with Internet access; and a variety of programs and activities for children, youth, and adults. Its main drawbacks: It's closed on Sundays, and shuts down early on Saturday afternoons—and there's no towel service or locker rental, so you'll have to tote your stuff and a heavy key lock. But your membership lets you use all the public pools and recreation centers across the city.

If you want a slightly more glamorous facility—one that's open daily and will rent you a permanent locker, lend you a couple of towels, and include a full schedule of classes in the monthly fee—consider the MCBURNEY YMCA at 125 West 14th Street (212-741-9210). Less than two years at this location (its former home, at 23rd Street and Seventh Avenue, is being renovated by David Barton), it has a heated pool open from 5:30 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every weekday (8 to 8 on weekends); terrific yoga classes at all hours; a permanent floating basketball game for players of all ages, races, and genders in its huge gym; and a padded running track that circles the pool on an upper deck. Drawbacks: The studios are in the basement, so there's no natural light, and the rental lockers have no ventilation, so you don't dare leave a damp suit. Costs run from $76 a month for adults to less than $10 monthly for kids under 12, and there are several different discounts (ask at the membership desk).

Also in the middle range is the MANHATTAN PLAZA HEALTH CLUB, which has everything going for it except location: At 482 West 43rd Street (212-563-7001), it's out of the way for anyone who doesn't live in Hell's Kitchen. But it's well designed, flooded with light from above, and comes equipped with two large whirlpool baths, a climbing wall, a café, a sundeck, and—its best feature—a stunning new swimming pool under a big glass bubble, where it feels, and looks, like the Caribbean all year round, even when it's 4 degrees out. At just over $1,050 annually for new members, it's cheaper than an island vacation and lasts a lot longer. Weekly swimming classes spruce up your strokes and help build strength; the aquatically adventurous can also try water aerobics and synchronized swimming.

If you went to either of these places twice weekly for a year, you'd be paying less than $10 a visit, and if you regularly take an exercise class or swim, you'll see how buying in bulk works out to substantial savings as compared to dropping in at a freestanding yoga or Pilates studio. (Keep in mind that many health insurance plans will reimburse part of the cost of membership if you present proof that you've attended a minimum of 50 times in a six-month period.) And visiting journalists and Republicans should note that all three of these establishments are less than a mile from Madison Square Garden.

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