• Benji Sills

AIRE Ancient Baths

Updated: Feb 25, 2020

Paige and I spent an entire year taking pictures of us pretending to be fast asleep at every major attraction we attended. We found this endlessly amusing and it really became the start of our desire to document everything we see and do together. To celebrate our year of naps, last Christmas I bought Paige a neatly printed photo album of every single sleeping picture we took. It is worth noting that Paige’s gifts to me have historically been equally ridiculous. We once joked about a wacky painting in a Manhattan art gallery and so that following Christmas, Paige bought me a full scale print from the artist. Notably, she framed it wrong and it has followed me through several different apartments hanging entirely upside-down. We actually met the artist at an event later on and told him this and he responded by giving us a signed print, which we naturally also hung upside-down. Not to be outdone by this ridiculous gift, I made her a custom action figure of a guy who used to cycle around our neighborhood and had a funny haircut.

All this to say that a spa day is not exactly a gift that one would expect exchanged between us. We tend to opt for the odd and so I decided for Paige’s gift this year that we were going to do a spa day, but with a twist. As usual, we only had the bare minimum idea of what we’d signed up for as we arrived at AIRE Ancient Baths. On the way over we had hypothesized that the lobby would have a water jug brimming with cucumber slices and that was pretty much the extent of our knowledge on luxury spas.

The first breath in the AIRE lobby is one of the most refreshing you will ever take. Stepping in from the cold, damp January we were immediately treated to a warm blanked of air tinted comfortably with earthy smells. The lobby was dimly lit by an assortment of candles - a type of light that can quickly slide downhill into a Dracula’s Castle vibe - but the layout of the lobby is so welcoming that it immediately washed us over with a sense of calm. We arrived fifteen minutes ahead of our time slot, which was a wise move as the staff asked us to fill out some entry forms on a couple of tablets. These forms largely collect standard info, as well as allowing you to specify trouble areas if you’ve opted for the massage package.

After grabbing a brief cup of water (we completely missed the mark - the jug was filled with lemons instead of cucumbers), we were pointed off into our separate changing rooms. You feel the luxury immediately - before this the closest we had come to a bath house was a day at a New York City public pool. Clearly the locker room experiences were quite different. I was instructed by the room’s attendant on how to use the lockers, each of which were spacious and pre-fit with all the necessary amenities (towel, bathing robe and waterproof slip-ons). There were also changing stalls and a number of exquisite looking showers, which we’ll get to later.

I changed into my swim trunks and looked around. I was clearly not a regular: everyone else was perfectly toned and clad in sleek black bathing suits, whereas I stood there dumbly in my bright red Hawaiian print trunks looking like I’d misplaced my snorkel and disposable camera. I threw the robe over myself to look - at least momentarily - like I was supposed to be there and made my way out to meet up with Paige.

We had an hour to explore for ourselves before our massage and wanted to take full advantage of it, so we hung up our robes and began to look around. Right off the bat, the baths are beautiful: deep under street level, the room is very warm and lit cozily by flickering candles. Each bath is sunken into the beautiful stone floor and surrounded by stone pillars, all designed to evoke the feel of an ancient Roman bathhouse. Of course, the baths themselves are a little more advanced than the cold slop they had in Ancient Rome: each pool is themed differently and you can choose your own pace and order to move between them, so as to customize your experience. Please note that the sudden increase in quality photography is due to us not being allowed to take photographs inside the bathhouse, so all photos of the actual baths are from the AIRE Ancient Baths website.

There are six pools in total, all surrounding a steam room, and you get a sense of how worthwhile each one is by the number of people in them. Thankfully, AIRE keeps a strict cap on how many people are in each time slot, so no bath ever feels crowded. Even so, clearly the most popular is the Flotarium: the salt water bath. Designed to simulate the experience of the Dead Sea, the bath is filled with enough salt to help you casually float around like a bit of loose driftwood. The effect looks a bit like the aftermath of a mafia hit, with lazily floating bodies bumping aimlessly around the pool, but we were excited to jump in and join the fray. Paige loved it, immediately sprawling out and drifting off like an abandoned tarp. I faced more difficulty however, my gangly and awkward figure apparently distributing my weight impossibly towards my feet. On each successive attempt to float my feet dragged down as if I were a cartoon prisoner, anchored to a ball and chain.

Eventually I got the hang of it and joined Paige in submissive float. We took turns pushing each other gently across the surface like a round of human shuffleboard. It was intermittently very relaxing, although total immersion was prevented by the constant fear of prickly saltwater to the eyeball. It should also be noted that your lips will taste like you dozed off on a soft pretzel, although it was sort of tasty so this isn’t really a qualm. Eventually I started to itch and so we quickly showered off in a booth next to the pool before moving on.

Perhaps the next most popular and our personal favorite was the temperate bath. It is definitely the prettiest bath: tucked away in the back corner, the long pool is slightly concealed, which gave us the feel of wading through a beautiful stone cavern. The water is like a perfectly drawn bath, the temperature so pleasant it was like paddling through a comforter. I could have moved in. We spent a while in there, including a long bit where Paige relaxed in a submerged seat and pretended to interview me as if I were a plumber calling in for an unfortunate flood. Even though we could have happily spent the rest of our time in there, we wanted to experience everything and so dragged ourselves over to the third most popular: the hot bath.

Despite being advertised as a scalding hot alternative to the temperate bath, the two seemed fairly indistinguishable from one another (although our temperatures had likely warmed from the former) and we floated pleasantly in the broiling water for several minutes before moving on. Also present is the jacuzzi bath. Framed by beautiful underwater lighting, the rippling surface glows enticingly. The bath here is no gentle bubble bath however - the powerful jets create a rollicking surface of froth, like a very pleasant tsunami. We enjoyed several minutes here but ultimately left to freshen up in other pools, as this bath feels chilled slightly lower than the others. It’s public pool warm rather than rich friend’s hot tub warm.

Speaking of temperature, we also decided to brave the two remaining pools, if they can be considered pools at all. These dual death trap sinkholes are frighteningly called The Frigidarium and are set to 57° and 50° respectively. We watched in horror as a man slowly lowered himself into the bath and then held himself there, entirely submerged, for several minutes. He came out eventually, looking like he’d just been rescued from an ice fishing accident. But it’s not an adventure unless you try everything so, after some convincing, I was found crouched on the edge muttering “I don’t want to do this” over and over. Paige roped me in with a countdown and we took the plunge. I don’t remember much of the next several minutes, except a hazy recollection of scrambling out and belly flopping into a hot bath as quickly as possible.

Having braved the delightful variety of baths, we also wanted to spend a moment in the sauna. It sits squarely in the center of the room, surrounded by the baths - a glass case clouded with rolling waves of steam. We grabbed our robes, opened the door and were immediately blazed with the cozy fog. In the center of the room there were tiered seats to relax on, which Paige immediately hopped onto. I was far too afraid of being burned however and instead stood around, fidgety and whining every time a warm drop of condensation plopped down onto my head. It was mostly a straightforward sauna, but there was the addition of two wash basins that seemed slightly confusing. I refer to them as wash basins only because that’s my best guess as to what they were, but they looked exactly like toilets. Two large porcelain toilets sitting prominently in the middle of the glass room. It wasn’t quite foggy enough for it to be acceptable to use them, so we left. Just outside of the steam room was also a cozy seating area with complimentary tea and water. We recommend drinking it after the sauna, because if you have it before it’ll all just be boiled back out of you anyway.

We spent the majority of the evening excitably rushing back and forth between whichever bath caught our fancy, but it wasn’t all we were there for. I’d also booked the half hour massage, which a staff member came to collect us for. We were brought into a couples room by two massage therapists. It was candlelit and calming at first, until they instructed us to de-robe and left. “Did they mean...everything?” I asked Paige anxiously. Despite her vehement insistence that we were indeed supposed to be nude, a little part of me couldn’t shed the image of an unsuspecting masseuse walking in on unexpectedly indecent clientele. “What if we got it wrong?” I repeated over and over again. It’s just that “I thought I should be naked” isn’t an excuse that flies in many scenarios, so instead I spent the entirety of my massage wrapped in uncomfortably damp swim trunks. From the waist up however it was fantastic - they were thorough and careful and it gave us a relaxed half hour to mentally unwind.

After the massage, we rounded out the remainder of our time back in the baths. Eventually the gentle closing bell began to chime and we headed back to the changing rooms. I didn’t particularly feel the need to shower, but my bathroom at home has all the comforts of a prison, so I thought I’d better take advantage of the amenities. The showers were large and luxurious, with fancy shampoos freely available. It’s probably the only time I’ve ever bothered to experiment with conditioner. I was so wrapped up in the comfortable shower that I almost didn’t notice my swim trunks beginning to slip from the back of the shower door, where I’d flung them over the top. I spun and saw them sliding rapidly away just in time. Assuming they were just falling, I sprung out a hand to catch them but then felt a firm tug from the other end. “No, it’s okay” whispered a gentle voice from the other side of the door. I assumed that this was to be my fate: to be robbed in ASMR by a mysterious stranger, and so I watched in horror as the remainder of my trunks slipped away and then the entirety of my robe afterwards.

I figured since I’d already been mugged I might as well complete my shower and turned my focus back to that. After finishing, I went out into the changing room to find that I had not, in fact, been victimized. Instead, my trunks lay inside a bag, neatly folded and dried, and my robe had been properly added to the laundry basket. “Have a good night” the custodian whispered, drifting by not like a criminal but rather a helpful ghoul. I thanked him, grabbed a couple of complimentary q-tips to clean my computer keyboard and headed back out to the lobby. There I found Paige and we gushed together about the experience - if you’re looking for a unique way to treat yourself, it really can’t be beat.

AIRE Ancient Baths can be found in downtown Manhattan at 88 Franklin St, New York, NY 10013. They also have other locations around the world - one in Chicago and four across Spain (Barcelona, Sevilla, Almería and Vallromanes).

It can get pricey so make sure to book in advance for a treat yourself kind of day.

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