Skin Under The Overpass

Under the freeway in north Seattle may seem like an unlikely place for a spa, but then again, Little Red Day Spa is not your ordinary establishment. Artist Jeff Hengst shares his personal studio with the community by opening the space as a spa for private, reservation session and—a handful of times a month—for public drop-ins. His oil paintings of human forms and other organic shapes line the walls of this creative cave, and telltale signs of inspiration can be seen on the hardwood floor. Though the room is large and with high ceilings the space still feels intimate and it was only during my orientation tour that the spaness of the space became evident.

The woman who gave me the tour was hosting the evening. She was friendly and helpful, yet she warned me repeatedly and in no uncertain terms that sexual behavior, or even “sexual energy”, were completely unacceptable at the spa. After the third direct statement I was starting to feel a bit uncomfortable, especially as I had brought my longest and most loyal spa-going companion—my mother—with whom I was beginning to exchange dubious looks. We were hoping for a relaxing evening of chatting and pampering, unfortunately for us, on this evening, it was not to be.

We went for one of the Ladies Night drop-in evenings, which, like all drop in sessions male or female, is clothing optional. There was a free-spirited, bohemian vibe to the event that intensified as more people showed up. Everyone enjoyed taking the time to choose a unique bathrobe from the large wardrobe. Then with the wine and other refreshments they had brought, draped themselves across couches or chairs and soaked in the hot tub.

My mother and I were both fully aware that “clothing optional” actually means, “clothing frowned upon.”  We have gone to many spas together and some of those have been “skin only”. But the fact that a “please sit on your towel” policy did not seem to apply to the furnishings, here, and the fact that hostess felt the need to make numerous and pointed reminders about not being sexually active in the spa, made us a tad uncomfortable. We made a snap decision to cover up and became the proverbial lepers of the evening. We also obviously flustered our hostess, who came over to say that she supported our decision to wear bathing suits, but we would probably be more comfortable if we took them off. I know she was trying to be kind, but it ended up making the whole thing turn slightly nightmarish, especially as the place was filling up with naked women who were gawking at our covered bodies.

Determined to get our money’s worth without dropping our vestments, we soaked for a few minutes in the disappointingly tepid tub before moving on to the redeeming part of the evening: a self-administered, clay body-mask and “salt glow”. A large blanket was spread on the floor, in the centre of which was a copper bowl filled with locally-sourced clay. We applied the clay sitting on the blanket under the warmth of a heater. The extremely fine grain of the clay gently exfoliated my skin as I applied it and the light application dried quickly under the heat. After I showered and buffed my body with the salt glow, my skin was honestly as soft as it’s ever been.

At this point we would have loved to luxuriate a little longer and perhaps get a mini massage on offer for a small fee; however, we were feeling too out of place. We exited as gracefully as we could and resolved to see if the nearby Banya5 or Hothouse were still open.

I can certainly imagine that Little Red Day Spa drop-in times are a great way to relax, and at $15 dollars for the softest skin you are ever likely to get, it is worth every penny. Still, I couldn’t help thinking that next time I go I will rent the space out for myself.

Visit Little Red Day Spa’s homepage for more information on drop-ins, rates and reservations.


St. Leon Hot Spring


St. Leon Hot Spring is a wild, slightly sulphurous hot spring  just north of Nakusp B.C. and is and accessible option for those who would rather stay away from the commercial springs in the area. The Nakusp area has a number of wild and developed hot springs and is great as a destination or as a stop on the way so something else.

At St. Leon there are three soaking pools on a steep hillside fed by hot and cold sources. The pools are all nestled in a rocky outcrop. To get to the smallest and hottest you can climb up the rock with the help of a knotted rope.  This tiny pool with a bird’s eye view is filled with piping hot water directly from the source. It is a natural wedge shaped tub with a small stone retaining wall and is perfect for one or two bathers who can take some serious heat. The middle pool is still quite hot. It is very shallow with a rock wall built around it. The biggest pool is a concrete lined pool in the shape of a guitar. It is the perfect temperature for good long soaks. Hot and cold water is piped into the guitar shaped pool and can help you regulate the temperature of your soak.

St. Leon Hot Spring has an interesting yet elusive history. Though none of the sources seem to agree on the specifics, the following seems to be the bones of the truth. In the early 1900’s there was a hotel built on Upper Arrow Lake (just a few kilometers west of the springs) and water from the pools was piped in. The hotel did well until the war, prohibition and a new rail line reduced steamboat traffic to the resort. It never really recovered and eventually burned down in 1968. A logging company now owns the land, and volunteers from Nakusp maintain the springs.

This secluded, yet not so secret, spring has recently been taken out of guidebooks and tourist information centers at the request of the owners in hopes of decreasing unruly traffic at the pools. However, the seven others we encountered there were all return bathers who had known about the pools for decades and were happy to share stories of their own previous dips at St. Leon Hot Springs. They were a colourful crowd, but each had equal distaste for those who besmirch springs and jeopardize everyone’s access. For the time being, the logging company is still allowing responsible bathers use the springs. We can help to continue to make St. Leon Hot Spring (and all hot springs) accessible for bathers by leaving them better off for having been.  Click here to read about the problem and how to be prepared and be a solution.

UPDATE: In November 2018 I was informed that the springs are under new ownership and asked to remove directions because of vandalism and abuse.

Photo–Daniel Irvine

Ritual Bathing

Around the world, throughout history and in almost every culture there are rituals around bathing. For many the act of washing is not only external purification, but internal or spiritual as well. Even today, all the major religions in the world have a ceremony in which water is used as a symbol for spiritual purification; consider the various uses of baptism, bathing in the Ganges and the Islamic absolution ritual wudu.

In most of pre-Christian Europe and the rest of the world hot springs were sacred places. They often had temples built on or near them and became places of worship. A well-known example is Bath, England, where nearly two thousand years ago, a temple was built to Minerva near the hot springs. In the 3rd century, the Romans constructed the baths as we see them today.

St. Augustine

There is a traditional Finish saying, “Saunassa ollaan kuin kirkossa,” – you should be in the sauna as in a church. However, throughout history the Church has intermittently condemned bathing. Plato and Augustine’s separation of the physical and spiritual spheres vilified the body, condemned public bathing, and severed the connection between physical and spiritual well-being. Consequently, even in the 21st century many people incorrectly associate bathhouses only with prostitution and sexual activity.

Though bathing is becoming less associated with formal religious ritual in the west, practices such as yoga, meditation, and even pastoral care are associated with the growing spa industry worldwide. Even the decor at many spas references sacred spaces. There is usually an atmosphere and etiquette that encourages a quiet, meditative environment much like the Finnish recommend. People are encouraged to speak in soft voices, leave all distractions behind, close their eyes and breathe deeply. The atmosphere is, by nature, spiritual. Whatever your views, going to a spa will undoubtedly create a deeper harmony between your mind and your body; which were the original intentions of ritual bathing.


Banya5 and Venik Lounge: Photo by Natasha Irvine

Banya5 is Seattle’s premier Russian sauna experience. It is self-described as an “extreme environment,” and with the sauna, or prilka, at 200 degrees they are not joking around. After initialing in at least five spaces and signing the waiver in the reception area I was able to watch a short video detailing spa specifics. I learned that, like their Scandinavian neighbours, the Russians also alternate between hot and cold temperatures to heat and cool the body and regulate the heart rate. The difference is that Russian hot is HOT! I was there for the real Russian experience, so after I changed into my bathing suit I walked passed the other tempting facilities (salt pool, hot tub, cold plunge and steam room) right into the sauna. After only 7 minutes I was cooked to the point where I felt like combustion was imminent. I walked the few paces to the cold pool and plunged in. Time to do it again? Absolutely!

Banya5 Layout: Photo by Natasha Irvine

Personalize your experience at Banya5 by booking a massage or a scrub. You can also enjoy a cup of tea or lemon water in the upstairs lounges perfect for napping, chatting, or reading. Just don’t expect a perfectly solitary retreat. With its modern industrial design this place is quite hip and social. It gets packed on weekends and in the evenings. Bring friends or join the regulars after your soak for a bit more of Russia at the vodka bar next door: Venik Lounge.


Photo by Natasha Irvine

On Capitol Hill in Seattle, Washington there is a steep staircase going down behind the shops of an old building on Pike Street. If you ring the bell by the door at the bottom of the stairs you will be pleasantly surprised by what you find when the door is opened for you.

A tightly knit knot of small compartments make up a women’s only, clothing uncommon, public bathing facility called Hothouse Spa and Sauna. In the dimly lit rooms there is a serene atmosphere where the people are friendly, whispers are mandatory, and the simple pleasures of being hot and clean are enjoyed.

Lavender by the Hothouse Entrance: Photo by Natasha Irvine

After taking off your shoes and signing in, the rather cluttered reception area gives way to sleek bathing facilities. The locker room is open onto a quiet area for resting where you can fill a glass with filtered water and lime slices between soaking and sweating. A quick shower is mandatory before moving on to the sauna, the hot tub or the luxurious lavender steam room. Massages are a good thing to book in advance, but I just happened to be lucky and got one only minutes after signing in. The rate for entry is only $12 and massages are more than reasonable as well. Though affordable, the massage was excellent and the facilities were modern and spotlessly clean. The experience I had at Hothouse rivals many which charged triple the price.

The only complaint I have about Hothouse Spa and Sauna is the bathroom. It is in a rather awkward location between the change rooms and the shower with two doors, neither of which lock, and only one very exposed seat. Unfortunately, this is also the only area where a blow drier is available. However, it seems that a simple folding screen or “L” shaped privacy curtain would be a simple way to remedy this problem. I hope they consider it, because despite this inconvenience I will go back to Hothouse Spa and Sauna whenever I am in the area. The lavender steam room alone is worth the trip.