The secret spa on Governor’s Island

First, an admission: I am an enormous, longtime fan of the parklike island just an 8 minute ferry ride from Lower Manhattan — and what I love best about “Gov Island” is its unfinished, run-down, ghost-like solitude. I love that it is infested with artists and art colonies. I even threw a summer literary house party there with Mutha Magazine. The island is a haven for creative humanity and is frequently festooned with outstanding art installations like The May Room: a church scribbled over with inclusive positivity and possibility.

So when I heard a spa was opening on the island, I pictured something raw and unsettling: a group of Catskills hedge witches burning sage as you slept naked, covered in mud dredged up from the East River bottom.

This is not that: this spa is pure luxury.

Real luxury.

Not the tasteless pyrite-encrusted mirrors of the hideous Trump-era pseudo, just-charge-it-on-my-Black-Amex wealthy. Also not the fear-based angry, get-off-my-lawn snobbery of old-school Upper East Siders. No. This is REAL luxury. Authentic luxury. From Italy. This is the timeless luxury you have only read about in literary novels with yellowed pages. This spa is called QC NY and friends, if you want an oasis where you can pretend to be Gatsby’s wife, this is it.

An actual floating globe. One of many in this lobby installation.

All of the high-end American spas I have been to feel like upscale medical facilities: you book an appointment for a treatment. Maybe you sit for a minute in a crowded, blank sauna if you’re lucky. You pay $500 which shocks you, and then you go home. Someone might give you a cucumber water along the way.

All of the low-end American spas I have been to have bordered on churches: you book an “experience,” you go in, you feel awkward because everyone is so comfortably naked or just so spiritually connected that even if they are wearing clothes, the clothes are wispy and you feel like you should be admiring the placement of the stones in the walls or communing with the energy of the plants strategically placed all over the aromatic room.

This place? It is Alice in WonderSPA. It’s the James Bond spa where diverse people wander around in bathrobes making smalltalk as they sip cocktails. This is special. And it’s just a ferry ride away.

Actual robed spa guests wandering the grounds — pools aren’t yet open but include the “underwater music pool” and about four other equally mysteriously-alluring small pools. None for swimming, FYI.

Finding the entrance is the first trick: it is marked only with a tiny sign in Italian and a small brass plate that informs: QC NY. I really hope they don’t change this. It is a delight to seek the doorway and a pleasure when you open the doorway to find…no people. Just some stairs up in front of you and two sets of stairs that go off in different directions.

Look close, there is a sign. Did you spot it? (it says “Wellness this way”) Welcome to a place that is not business as usual…

Past a fire door the room opens up. The floors gleam. There is an excited buzz. You are not the only person to be signing in (when I went, there was a cadre of Italians that sounded like the backstage of a comedic opera), but the staff has warm smiles and lusciously subtle 1920s-style uniforms. You could be in a play. You might be — it is hard to tell.

How the reflections make the staff vanish! How the floors gleam!

After a lot of finagling with credit cards (what am I signing again?) you hold a key on a wristband and a tag on another wristband that the staff helpfully informs you they will gladly cut off of you later.

(That sounds creepy, but this place is magic. It’s the kind of magic where you feel perfectly safe, but you’re not sure if everyone else is. )

And then you’re off, following a long string of directions (down that hall, past the globes, turn left and you can take the elevator or you can walk some stairs) and on the second floor after a few wrong turns, you will find the locker rooms.

Everything, down to the dust bins and wet swimsuit bags is decorated and subtle. The rooms are scented with pepper, sage, and cardamom (no flowers here, unless it was an orchid that a queen once held while weeping over a spilled bottle of wine….) — and out every window you can glimpse the skyscrapers you just escaped.

The women’s locker rooms are a warren of patterned paper. There are European touches that look exotic and amusing (square toilets, locks that are fed by Euro coins) and it is a joy that there are enough caves of lockers that even though you went in with five other strangers, each of you has your own private den of lockers for now, and once you unlock your locker you’ll find a bag with a bathrobe, slippers, and a towel.

It definitely made me wonder whether all 300 women’s lockers were ever meant to be in simultaneous use.

But nevermind! Off to the next event! The Bistro! Impossible to find (an employee cheerfully led me to it), it featured all-day drinks, and chocolates on every lunch plate. Delicious.

In addition to the menu items there is a complimentary snack buffet that would keep any working actress or supermodel very happy (fresh fruit and snappy celery sticks alongside chocolate cookies and snappy bread sticks). The coffee station is much harder to find, and the coffee is tiny and thick. Staff is hired for pleasant demeanor — they all seemed positively delighted to be working here. There are two secret saunas past the coffee station/bar — the place was a joy to explore.

The spa experience seems to be simply to wander around the many, many rooms in bathrobes and just…sit in various rooms. Which, my friends, is plenty. I was there from noon to 4pm. I booked a half hour “mini massage” which was simply wonderful — although it began with the question “back or legs,” I dozed off almost immediately to the music and woke up drowsy and ready to wander about.

I do not kid when I say the stairwells are confusing. Hogwarts? or Escher?

The fireplace room might have been disappointing (the fire is gas and throws no heat) except that it was a room of cozy rocking chairs. The pod room was spectacular — even the moment when the elderly Italian man wove his way through the pods not noticing me there with my book, and screamed when he saw me, causing me to shriek in equal alarm. The laughter was worth the fleeting second of panic. I quickly returned to my blissed out meditative state.

beware the robe-clad denizens of the pods

There are more than twenty such rooms, some dry, some with water features, each more mystifying than the last, all divided into utterly inexplicable groupings that have nothing to do with anything. There is an infrared bedroom (with decor that a young gentleman of the 1920s would have found ripping!) and several saunas, a handful of steam rooms (labeled by scent), and some spectacular unique water rooms like the foot baths.

Most of the water rooms were intriguingly opaque to me. What happens when you push the blue button? what are the metal tubes inside for? is the freezing cold water on the rocks meant to be alternated with the warm jets of water filling the square baths, or is that rocky river to be avoided?

Most of the rooms (including the saunas!) look out across the water at Manhattan or the Brooklyn Bridge — every room is set off with a little museum-like explanation of its unique themes and “look” — there’s a jazzy music room, a NYC sauna, there is even an upside-down room! (I took the most photos of that room but have decided to let you experience that for yourself.)

This is one of the many, many, many saunas. It is super hot in this room and smells deliciously of cedar.

I could go on and on about this spa. It was quirky. It was luxurious. It was constantly surprising and made me so happy. The care that went into the renovation of this old building to create this maze of wonder is staggering.

But instead of reading about it, I encourage you to go now. Go while it’s still fairly empty and still has interesting kinks. It’s delightful. I can not stop wondering how it will feel when it is busy — but right now the experience takes you to another world. A better one, where people smile and speak softly, where towels are always soft and frequently warm, where snacks are plentiful and complimentary and around every corner is a new surprise.

The QC NY Spa is on Governor’s Island (accessible by ferry from Brooklyn or Manhattan) on Andes Road very close to the Manhattan Ferry terminal. Prices are listed on their website and bookings must be made in advance. Bring a “modest” bathing suit. Everything else is provided, down to the shoes.

This is not a guest book, it is a scented space to allow your creativity to flow.

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M. M. De Voe

M. M. De Voe

Fictionista, collector of obscure awards, admirer of optimists in the face of dread. Author of Book&Baby, an acclaimed guide for writer-parents. mmdevoe.com