I love new experiences. I like to call them “adventures.” I’m pretty sure I’ve been planning adventures my entire life; whether that meant trying to run away from home (never got further than a few houses away) or sneaking into places I wasn’t supposed to be (far more successful there). As an adult, my adventurous streak means that I like to try new things, new foods, and meet new people. I’m going to start sharing them here when they happen, starting today. It is my hope that you will enjoy reading about them and maybe give me ideas for what to try next!
I had been hearing about King Spa and Sauna in Niles, Illinois for some time before I was able to try it. It’s a short drive from downtown Chicago. The Yelp reviews alone should be motivating enough for anyone, let alone someone like me, to be inspired to go. And yet, for a city dweller such as myself, Niles can be impossible to get to without a vehicle. Luckily, my good friend Junnie and my fiancé Jim both have cars so I’ve now been to the Spa on two separate occasions and had two completely different, even opposite, experiences.
The first time I went was with my good girlfriend Junnie, who is half Korean. This might be the easiest way to introduce yourself to a Korean spa if you are a total noob: go with someone who has a clue. Junnie had never been either but, I told myself, at least she speaks some Korean and would know what sort of food was good to eat in the food court. We planned to stay for 4-5 hours which we heard would go by quickly.
But first things first. King Spa, like any other good public bath and sauna, has a notoriety in our somewhat-still-Puritanical society as being “the naked spa.” And I’d like to shed some light on that. Yes, it’s true that when you are in the hot tub, shower, and steam room areas every patron is completely naked. Naked as a jaybird, as my mom would say. If you’re not used to seeing that many other bodies naked it might be a little weird but I swear you’ll get over it almost instantaneously. The “wet” parts are divided by gender and anyway, no one is looking. There are so many women of every shape and color that come here so please don’t let some body insecurity stand in your way. As Americans, for some reason, we have problems understanding nudity apart from sexuality and therein lies the problem. If this was a place that allowed bathing suits then it would be “weird” for people to take showers the way they’re intended to be enjoyed. Better to have an even playing field. And if you’re worried about the cleanliness of the spa I can put your mind at ease completely: the hot tubs are drained and scrubbed every night between 2-6 a.m. and every patron is required to take a shower before entering any tubs or steam rooms. They even come by with hair ties to make sure women with long hair aren’t letting their hair loose in the tubs!
Now that I’ve put your mind at ease, let’s talk about the experience itself. When you find yourself at the entrance flanked by lions, proceed inward and check in with the front desk. You will pay $25 unless you have a Groupon. This gets you admission into the entire facility except for the Base Rock room (totally worth the $5 upcharge inside) for a full 24 hours. You’ll get a little bracelet with a tag on it and a key. This number will be your account for the time you spend inside and you pay for anything extra (food, treatments, etc) on the way out. It’s also your locker number and the key will open both of your lockers. Both of your lockers, you say? Yes! As soon as you’re checked in, walk into your gender-appropriate locker room and come across this can’t-miss-it-sign:
Sit down, take off shoes, and lock them up in a small locker. By now you will begin seeing other people, some naked and some not. Find your locker. Take off your clothes, lock up everything except for maybe some preferred toiletries, and walk through the glass doors into the spa area. In my experience, I was already totally at ease by the time I found myself there. Junnie and I immediately scheduled a 90 minute scrub and massage for ourselves and then spent the next two hours relaxing and wandering the facilities. There are multiple pools of various temperatures to enjoy, sit down and stand up showers, and a steam room. When you tire of that, towel off and suit up in the uniform that everyone is provided and find your way out to the common area.
I will apologize here for not taking a picture of us in our splendid pink cotton short suits. But, really, I was not interested in capturing myself with wet hair and no makeup in a shapeless sack of cotton. If you feel you must have undergarments on or perhaps socks of course those are retrievable from the locker. Some people bring computers and phones out to the main area, too, since there is free wifi. Junnie and I elected to remain disconnected and many other people do, too. There are a bunch of different meditation and sauna rooms in the common area. Some are warm, some are incredibly hot. There is free water throughout and, if you feel like it, a room where a different movie is shown constantly. My favorite room was the Amethyst room which is exactly what it sounds like- a warm sauna covered in amethysts on the inside. The picture below is the Pyramid room which is covered in real gold. Each room is supposed to have different healing purposes but I’ll leave that up to the individual to decide whether it works for them or not. Jim loves the hottest room in the whole place but I’ve yet to even walk in since it’s about 200 degrees in there.
By the time you get through all of these rooms, you’re probably sleepy. If you don’t have an appointment for a treatment by all means go upstairs to sleep in the quiet sleeping area (more on that later). Junnie and I had treatments so we watched the time carefully and got back to the hot tubs in time to be called for our scrubs. This was perhaps the most adventurous part of the whole experience: I got the daylights scrubbed out of me, totally nude, while a tiny Korean lady in her underwear, with limited knowledge of English, pushed me all over a table with Brillo pads and then eventually jumped right on my back to beat the knots out of my shoulders while covering me in baby oil.
Yeah. It was intense.
I’m not entirely sure I’ll spring for it again, all things considered. On one hand, the amount of dead skin and old lotion she scrubbed off of me was disturbing and I was glad to see it go. On the other, the scrub was so rough that I thought for sure I was going to leave without a single freckle or mole left on me. As I lay on the table, which without the small towel under me could easily be a slip and slide, I couldn’t help but think that the little Korean lady was a touch sadistic. I’ve had many massages, body treatments, and waxes in my day but there’s something about being sopping wet and also completely naked that is awfully vulnerable. And I’m pretty sure these ladies aren’t trained massage therapists since the massage was reminiscent of the one that comes with a pedicure. On the plus side, I was total Jell-O after the treatment and they even wash your hair for you and pumice your feet. I doubt I’ve ever been cleaner than I was right then.
When Junnie and I were finished with the 90 minute treatment we sat for a bit in the tubs to get our senses back and then decided we were starving and went to eat. I won’t get into all the food here because frankly I’m no expert on Korean cuisine. Junnie said it was a little expensive but it was very tasty. I will vouch for the smoothies/juices, though. I am obsessed with the blended fresh mango and crushed ice. Amazingly delicious.
The major difference between my two visits is the overnight option. Junnie and I went on a Friday and were done just in time for rush hour traffic back to the city (oops). Jim and I, on the other hand, decided spur of the moment to head out there on a Friday at 10 p.m. knowing full well we might have to spend the night. And we did.
It was, in a word, surreal. Moderately comfortable, moderately quiet, moderately dark. If you need complete comfort, silence, and dark when you sleep it might not be for you. Then again, you might get so relaxed that conking out for a few hours whenever you happen to be there could happen very easily. The surreal part comes in when it dawns on you that you are sleeping in one big room with at least 30 other people, all of whom are strangers other than the one person you might be with. And as you might expect, community sleeping has its downsides. People snore, fart, move around, whisper to each other, and kids run around looking for their parents and generally don’t sleep. This is at least the case in the mixed gender room. There are two smaller rooms that are gender-divided that I would probably use next time since the women’s side seemed much quieter. I crashed at midnight that night and woke up a bunch of times. It was not the most deep or restful sleep I’ve ever had but it was relaxed and meditative. Jim and I got up at 7:30, cleaned up, then checked out and went to breakfast afterwards. We joked it was our “longest date ever” since it began with dinner the night before.
All in all, King Spa and Sauna is going to be a regular part of my health and wellbeing routine. It’s immensely relaxing and a great value for the basic experience. When I go in the future this is what I will bring and what I suggest you consider:
- My preferred moisturizer, especially facial products. There is plenty of free stuff to use but I happen to like my own face lotion at the very least.
- Hair elastic if you have long hair. Otherwise you will be forced to use a rubber band.
- Loofah or body scrub, if you don’t want a treatment. The sit down showers are great!
- Conditioner. The one product that simply isn’t there. Everything else from brushes to combs to blowdryers to q-tips and toothbrushes are there, though.
- Eye mask for complete blackout dark naptime.
- iPod for meditation music with noise-canceling headphones or alternatively ear plugs. Beware becoming Rip Van Winkle! It could happen!
- Socks or flip flops for the common area if you can’t do the barefoot thing.
- Clean change of clothes or at least clean underwear.
Things to leave behind include body consciousness, fear, and your towel. You’ll need none of those! Please let me know if you have been or are going to King Spa and Sauna. I’d love to hear about your experiences, especially if you spent the night with strangers like we did!