Recreation & Wellness
by Andrea Codrington, 12/22/2008
Even the best holiday season can leave you feeling physically drained, financially strained and desperate for some much-needed rest and relaxation. Fortunately, New York City offers up a rich variety of affordable spa experiences that are as ethnically diverse as the City itself. Whether you choose a traditional Russian banya in Brooklyn or a high-tech Korean jimjilbang in Queens, Chinese acupressure downtown or Indian henna tattooing uptown, one thing is clear: bodily bliss is closer—and cheaper—than you think. Unlike with most high-end spas, which focus on the individual, the majority of these immersive experiences are communal in nature. While emphatically no-frills, the following venues are clean and friendly—so get a group of friends and spend an entire afternoon luxuriating in activities that have been enjoyed since the 6th century BC. After all, as the news keeps telling us, more than ever we're in this together.
Coney Island Banya
Situated on a nondescript block along Coney Island Avenue in Brooklyn, this just-renovated, 10,000-square-foot Russian banya provides all the ingredients for an authentic collective bathhouse experience at the low entry cost of $25. Decorated with hand-painted frescoes, a clean, spacious vaulted room features a therapeutic Jacuzzi (with powerful 6hp jets) and a cold plunge pool, while an adjacent steam room (now with a rotating array of aromatherapy scents), dry sauna and wet sauna offer ample opportunities to get your schvitz on. Of course, no trip to a banya is complete without platza, a traditional Russian spa treatment that entails getting lightly beaten with a bundle of sodden oak branches in full leaf. It's invigorating and well worth the $30 price just to watch the platza man don his special elfish hat. Also, the café here uses healthy organic ingredients to give traditional Russian fare a "peasant-gourmet" twist.
Steinway Street may be a long way from São Paulo, but you'd never know it once you walk into this Brazilian-run full-service salon in Astoria. Brazilians are known for their unapologetic fondness for aesthetic procedures of all kind, so don't be surprised if you see staff members wearing white T-shirts with the word "Botox" emblazoned in rhinestones on the front. Hair removal, of course, is this spa's specialty, and an artfully administered—and surprisingly painless—Brazilian bikini wax costs a mere $30 (for men, though, it's $80). For $85, you can get the poetically titled banho de lua, or "moon bath"—a full-body exfoliating and moisturizing procedure and massage with a variety of Brazilian unguents.
The bare-bones interior of this Indian day spa in East Harlem gives no indication of the ornate beauty of the henna designs its talented artists apply to hands, wrists, arms, necks, backs and ankles—for as little as $15 for a decorative wrist band to as much as $90 for a full-on bridal treatment. For somewhere in between, you can walk out the door with your hands tattooed with an efflorescence of vines, paisleys and mandalas that will last for a few weeks if you don't wash them for a day. Praba also offers authentic South Asian hair-removal services using sugar waxing and threading. A trio of Indian Barbie dolls looks on approvingly from their perch atop a cabinet, adorned in hot-pink saris and knowing smiles.
Russian & Turkish Baths
As the oldest bathhouse in New York City—it's been in operation since 1892—Russian & Turkish Baths on 10th Street is an East Village landmark. (And, with its $30 entrance fee, it's the cheapest thing going in Manhattan.) Once the place where tenement dwellers without hot water went to wash, Russian & Turkish Baths is now frequented by a lively combination of hipsters and old-world schvitzers. While entering the bath's basement space can feel at first like descending into Dante's Inferno, you soon become accustomed to the subterranean labyrinth featuring a redwood sauna, a Turkish steam room and the bathhouse's centerpiece—a Russian sauna superheated by 20,000 pounds of rocks that are "cooked" every night. Spring for a $35 platza and get "beaten" by oak branches soaked in olive oil soap, or opt for the more relaxing black mud treatment for $48 in a partitioned-off room.
If you've ever wondered what spa heaven looks like, get that friend with a car to drive you to College Point, Queens, and find out at this over-the-top, 100,000-square-foot Korean jimjilbang—a high-tech big box bathhouse that must be seen to be believed. Pay just $35 ($45 on weekends) at the front desk to gain access to four floors of facilities—including single-sex sections, where you wander from steam room to sauna to Jacuzzis set at four different temperatures, and the much-vaunted "Sauna Valley," which boasts individual hot rooms that incorporate mineral salt, gold, jade, yellow mud, infrared and LED lights. At $50, the 30-minute body scrub is a must that leaves your skin as soft as the proverbial baby's bottom. Complete the total sensory experience with an authentic Korean meal at the top-floor Sky Restaurant.
Wu Lim Qi Gong Master
Offering vigorously administered hour-long acupressure-style massages for a staggeringly low (albeit oddly numbered) $42, Wu Lim Qi Gong Master is arguably one of the best deals in town for those not shy of body or faint of heart. Nestled in the garden level of a SoHo storefront, this bargain-basement Chinese establishment offers 14 massage beds in an open-plan room with a distinctly undersea atmosphere due to the low lighting and seafoam green walls. Though there are plenty of lunchtime quick-fixers who remain clothed for shorter sessions, it's recommended to strip to your Skivvies for longer intensives—all administered through clean sheets in a style reminiscent of shiatsu.