The City as Spa


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.

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.

2. Take a class. While you’re picking your gym, carefully peruse the list of classes. Can you adjust your schedule to make it to yoga three times a week? Or guarantee that you’ll show up every Saturday for that swimming lesson? If you can, great. You’ll amortize the cost of your membership in just a few months. If not, consider a “class card” arrangement — 10 classes for $200 — at a fabulous studio like Brooke Siler’s elegantly rustic RE:AB PILATES facility at 33 Bleecker Street (212-420-9111, Siler, a second-generation athlete who’s over six feet tall, has written a bestselling book called The Pilates Body and developed an interactive Pilates Body Kit (St. Martin’s Press, $22.95) containing two CDs, 70 flash cards, and a 64-page workbook so you can follow up at home. But the real deal is a class with her, where you’ll learn how to control your “power center” — the elusive gut muscles that are crucial to good posture, back strength, and general physical functioning. Her staff offers circuit training combining cardio machines with mat work, an efficient process that gets you in and out in barely an hour. But you may find you don’t want to leave: The locker rooms offer plush towels, showers, and the amenities of upscale clubs.

3. Take a bus. If you drive to an expensive spa, they impound your car at the high-security gate, returning it, carefully washed, when you’re ready to depart. Few New Yorkers own cars, but the subway is our high-stress equivalent.

Here’s how you know you’ve extricated yourself from the city’s killer pace: You make time in your daily routine to ride the bus instead of the subway. MTA buses are big and bright and clean and usually pretty friendly. Use the time it takes to get across town to bask in the sunshine while reveling in the powerful air-conditioning (bring a sweater). Meditate, read, stare at the perpetually changing streetscape, or, as Purnick suggests, strike up an unexpected conversation. It’s calming — and much cheaper than taking cabs.

4. Pamper yourself. You needn’t pay spa rates to duplicate the wonderful brainlessness that overtakes you when you submit to a massage, a facial, a manicure, and a pedicure — all at the same time. At SIMPLY SPA (104 West 14th Street, 212-647-8919), the skilled therapists and cosmetologists multitask so you don’t have to. Check in, take off your clothes, don the slippers and the thick terry robes they provide, and head into a peaceful treatment room, where a cross-trained massage therapist-facialist first works on your back, then turns you over to steam and cream your face.

If you’ve ever had a massage you’ve probably longed to just lie there afterward, but there’s never time, always another client. At Simply Spa, you get to rest and luxuriate: One person tends to your face while another grooms your fingers and toes. As sybaritic experiences go, this one can’t be beat. (It’s actually better than having sex with two people at once.) The price compares favorably with purchasing each of these treatments separately ($150 for four services in 90 minutes), and you only have to keep one appointment. Call a week in advance; try to do it once a month.

5. Soak your feet. The Russian women who run SALON ZOIA (448 East 13th Street, 212-614-1898) know that deep relaxation begins with the feet. They’ve turned their corner shop into a local hang. Their East Village neighborhood may be gentrifying, but the clientele and staff remain diverse and friendly. Owner Zoia Stofman reaches out to both celebrities and the underprivileged, providing free styling to low-income women seeking employment. An hour in thrall to her gifted operators will leave your hands and feet soft (after a dip in hot wax) and impeccably groomed; the bright, minimalist space is also equipped for hair magic and full-body massage.

6. Take a walk. Residential spa regimes begin with hikes before breakfast, continue with various fitness classes and treatments throughout the day, and conclude with a walk after dinner. Adapt this routine to yours. Walk to work — or if that’s impossible, walk a mile at one end of your commute. Walk at lunchtime. Walk home or to your dinner date, and walk again after you eat. Manhattan is a walker’s paradise — remember, we’re on an island with newly rehabilitated waterfront parks. All you need are comfy shoes and time — the time you’ve saved by skipping the week out of town and spreading its largesse through your daily life.