New York Post - April 2008
TAKE THE WATERS CAN YE OLDE SARATOGA SPRINGS STILL CURE WHAT AILS YOU?
By JENNIFER CEASER
April 15, 2008 -- BACK in the early 1800s, New Yorkers suffering various ailments didn't have the options available to them that we have today. A common cure was to "take the waters," with the belief that the mineral content of waters bubbling up in the bathhouses of resorts such as Saratoga could fix them. Reports cite gout as a particularly common complaint.
I don't have gout. At least I don't think so. But I do have stress, trying to complete a move from Manhattan to Brooklyn. A modern ailment, to be sure. Could an old-fashioned cure do the trick?
Up until the early 1950s, Saratoga Springs' four large bathhouses regularly saw around 190,000 bathers each season.
Today, there is less than one-tenth that number, and there are only two places in town where you can indulge in this now-quaint ritual.
What I discovered is that both baths are functioning these days primarily as spas, offering a variety of 21st-century treatments, like chocolate facials and paraffin manicures, with the baths being almost an afterthought.
They are there, however. In Saratoga, as in other bath destinations, mineral-rich, effervescent water is pumped from a spring (a nippy 50 or so degrees, no matter the season) and then mixed with regular hot tap water to achieve a comfortable 98 degrees. All baths are taken in private rooms, in what look like regular bathtubs, though they can be deceptively deep.
The naturally occurring minerals - varying amounts of magnesium, bicarbonate, sodium, iron, potassium and lithium, among others - are no longer widely believed to "cure" anything, though many swear by the water's therapeutic effects on skin diseases, circulation and the immune system.
My first stop was the Crystal Spa, located next to the somewhat shabby Grand Union Motel on a major thoroughfare dotted with auto-body shops and fast-food restaurants. (So much for the grand bathhouses of yesteryear, I thought.)
I was led down a carpeted hallway to a pink-tiled room outfitted with matching curtains and cherub-covered wallpaper. The attendant had drawn my bath and dimmed the lights. The room had a faintly metallic smell and there was a yellowish tinge to the water. I stepped in and there was an ever so slight fizzing as I moved about in the deep tub. I sunk lower, hoping the water would help alleviate a recently acquired neck sprain. But 25 minutes and $25 later ($21, plus a tip), I didn't notice a substantial difference in my pain level - at least not one that couldn't be achieved by taking a regular bath.
After a quick lunch at the colorful, themed Circus Cafe in downtown Saratoga Springs - with the main street (called Broadway) lined with quaint red brick buildings housing restaurants, record stores and boutiques - I headed to my next bath.
I had high hopes when I'd read about the Roosevelt Baths & Spa, since this was one of the town's original bathhouses, built in 1935. It's part of an historic complex nestled in the 2,200-acre Saratoga Spa State Park, about a 10-minute drive from downtown.
I followed a winding, pine-tree lined road to exactly what I'd been hoping for - a hulking, columned building with enormous arched windows that looked like it meant serious hydrotherapy business. I entered the light-filled reception area and checked out the extensive spa menu. A 40-minute mineral bath was $25, $30 if you added an herbal blend; if you combined it with any treatment, it was a 20-minute bath for $5 less.
Since my neck was still aching, I opted for a 30-minute massage and added the "Tension Tamer" herbal mix to my bath. I was led from the cramped waiting room down a long tiled hallway (not unlike a psych ward) to my room, where my bath awaited.
As I immersed myself in the deep tub, I started feeling the fizzing action. In fact, I wished that I'd forgone the oily herbal mix; when it was added, my bath seemed to lose some of its effervescence.
As for the building, it had been renovated four years ago, but more changes are afoot. In January of this year, Delaware North Companies bought the Gideon Putnam Resort, which operates the Roosevelt Baths, and has slated about $500,000 for more upgrades.
"It's a bit institutional, so we're planning to warm it up a bit with some soft colors," says general manager Michael Barnes. They're planning more than just cosmetic changes: Four of the 42 treatment rooms are being fitted to offer 100-percent mineral baths, by directly heating up the water instead of diluting it with tap water. (Perhaps in response to the exposé The Post ran last year.)
"Some people believe that when you heat mineral water, the minerals and gasses drop, so it's not as beneficial," says Robert Kuhn of New York State's Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation. "But we believe in giving patrons a choice."
The Roosevelt's four new treatment rooms should be ready by Memorial Day, and the remaining upgrades should be finished in early June.
Did the waters cure my aching neck? No.
My stress? Absolutely.
GO: There is regular service from Penn Station to Saratoga, trip time is around 3.5 hours. Fares run around $110 RT (amtrak.com).
STAY: Our pick is the friendly Union Gables B&B, from $170. (800) 398-1558; uniongables.com.
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