Each summer, my grandmother would sit outside — whether it was a rooftop in Brooklyn or a backyard in rural Ohio — and soak her feet in a basin of warm water, taking in the sun. As a young child, I wasn’t entirely sure what this was for other than the fact that she considered this therapeutic, but the idea of “taking the waters” always stuck with me, and I’ve since been fascinated by the idea of various forms of water-based treatments.
When I moved to New York City, I learned that Saratoga Springs was the place to take the waters and take a break from the city, starting in the 1830s — for those who could afford it. I also learned that there was a complex of several spa buildings and a historic hotel that were now located in the Saratoga Spa State Park and still in operation today. History, mineral baths, a park and being able to get there from the city without a car? I’m in. I’ve always wondered about my grandmother’s belief in healing waters, and there was no better place to investigate than a town that was known as the “Queen of Spas.”
I stayed at The Gideon Putnam — the charming historic hotel located within the park. Completed and opened in 1935, the hotel originally catered to those taking a rest cure, who typically stayed for around four weeks at a time, and features some of the original wall murals by James Reynolds with interior design done by Dorothy Tuckerman Draper.
The Gideon Putnam provides a map to all the natural springs on park property — as well as the mineral component of each type — allowing you to go on a wet scavenger hunt through the woods to taste the different waters. This water-based treasure hunt had it all: history, health, walking through the woods at your own pace and plenty of opportunities for hydration. Some tasted like the sweetest, purest water ever. Others (well, most) were more of an acquired taste, which reminded me of effervescent rotten eggs, but not in a bad way. (Really! I took some of the more pungent water back to my room to drink later.)
One of the best-tasting springs was very close to the ground. I crouched down on my hands and knees to sip the water, assuming that it must be extra good to be worth the extra effort to drink it. Turns out, it was positioned like that because it is for dogs. A member of the hotel staff later informed me that usually there is a stainless steel bowl around the fountain, making it much more obvious that it’s for canine hikers, not human ones.
But back to the baths.
This isn’t a swanky Manhattan day spa or a Zen den of relaxation in LA. The individual rooms’ Roosevelt Baths look much more like an old hospital, but in the best way possible. The clinical atmosphere made the whole thing feel more legitimate, and given that it has actually been around since the 1930s — not just constructed to look old with fixtures from Restoration hardware — also feels authentic. The common areas and relaxation room, though, feel thoroughly modern, but just as effective.
While there used to be several large public baths located in the Saratoga Spa State Park, only the Roosevelt Baths remain. They are probably most suited to modern-day bath-goers because unlike some of the other buildings on the spa complex that featured large wardlike rooms full of many bathtubs, each tub in the Roosevelt Baths comes with its own private room with an attached bathroom.
The tubs, tiles and plumbing are all original to the 1935 structure, and the tubs are specially designed for therapeutic soaks, sitting several inches into the floor for added depth. You’re provided with a stool you can stick in the water because as you’ll quickly find out, the high levels of sodium make you particularly buoyant. Also, the water is effervescent — thanks to the carbon dioxide — and tickles your skin with tiny bubbles. It also contains trace amounts of iron, calcium and magnesium, which each come with their own potential health benefits, as well as lithium, which is thought to lift the bather’s mood.
After 45 minutes in the tub, an attendant knocks on the door to pull you back to reality and leaves you a hot towel to help coax you out of the bath. I left feeling extremely relaxed, bordering on sleepy, and noticed that my skin was very soft for the next few days following the baths.
I should also clarify that over the course of the weekend, the two 45-minute mineral baths were the only form of bathing I did. Your first instinct may be to shower after sitting in a tub of murky water, but according to the staff members at the baths, showering is actually not recommended after taking a mineral bath to allow plenty of time for the minerals to sink in. Again, this isn’t something backed by years of empirical evidence, but it made sense and was a legitimate excuse to skip showering.
Despite people flocking to mineral waters and baths for centuries for healing purposes, the actual medical benefits of mineral baths in curing diseases or improving health are unclear, says Dr. Mimi Trinh, a family medicine physician at MemorialCare Medical Group of Saddleback Memorial Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California There is a field of science called balneology or balneotherapy, she explains, which is the treatment of disease by bathing, usually in waters containing minerals, but this field of medicine is not very well-known, and scientists who perform studies in this area are mostly in Europe or Japan.
“There is a suggestion that the act of soaking in water, whether there are minerals involved or not, helps to relax our bodies, and in doing so, relieves stress as well as achy joints or muscles,” Trinh says. “Therefore, those who are able to do this on a regular basis, may reap the benefits of this relaxation technique.”
That’s the thing with alternative therapies: As long as they’re not harming you in any way, it’s probably fine to utilize them if they make you feel better. Will sitting in in a tub of brown bubbly water for 45 minutes cure all your ailments? Probably not, but it was an enjoyable and relaxing experience that I hope to have again soon.