It wasn’t even cold in Moscow when I made my way back to the Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow that night, the temperature only lazily falling below 70 degrees Fahrenheit as the setting sun disappeared into the crimson skyline of cathedrals and the Kremlin.
I had spent two weeks touring around the country with Travel All Russia, gaining exclusive access to the museums of St. Petersburg and enjoying insider tips from the guides as they whisked the group back to Moscow on the high-speed Sapsan train. But now I was alone in Moscow and ready to turn up the heat on my solo adventure in the city.
The entire trip I heard teases about the amazing health benefits of a Russian banya. “It will detoxify your body inside and out,” one guide told me. “It takes years off your complexion,” a cosmopolitan Russian added. “It leaves your skin as smooth as stone,” yet another said. “The whipping with branches doesn’t hurt that bad,” an eager passerby threw out.
I had no idea what the process entailed. I only knew I was intrigued and wanted to see what all the buzz was about for myself, so I booked a two-hour treatment at one of the city’s best spas, inside the Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow.
Two doormen met me at the grand entrance of the hotel, ushering me with a smile toward two stunning Russian women holding out trays of cold towels and welcome drinks. Despite the hotel’s American branding, an Armenian-Russian family owns the Ararat Park Hyatt, and the property beautifully reflects its lineage with traditional Russian opulence and exotically stunning Armenian touches throughout.
My bellman guided me through the lobby to my guestroom (one of 208 in the hotel, including 29 suites), passing by the lobby bar and a tempting Fueguia 1833 boutique on the way to my floor. He smiled with pride while describing the hotel’s coolest features, like its chapel on the ninth floor and the panoramic views from the hotel’s rooftop bar; but when I mentioned I was there for the banya experience, all I got was a smirk and a questioning look.
“Do you know what banya is, madame?” he politely prodded.
“Not even in the slightest,” I replied.
“Ah, well you’re in for a real Russian experience then,” he added sincerely as he opened the door to my deluxe room overlooking the Bolshoi Theatre.
I paused in my room only long enough to drop my bags off and quickly look down on the busy streets below before I made my way to the Quantum Spa & Health Club to begin my “real Russian experience.”
A Russian banya is similar to a Turkish sauna, a hammam or a bathhouse, only the temperature, humidity and rituals vary slightly. Almost every summer country house (dacha) in Russia has its own banya, traditionally a free-standing structure made of wood containing a small room for tea and a separate sauna space holding a furnace that can heat the interior to temperatures of more than 200 degrees Fahrenheit. The tradition is meant as a social experience, where close friends spend time chatting and detoxing in the heat before heading to dinner. Traditionally, men go with men and women with women, but in places like Siberia, it’s become more of a family bonding time.
In big cities like Moscow the experience has been elevated as a private retreat, and that’s the environment I stepped into when I entered my private banya room at the spa. The lights were dimmed, and in front of me sat a corner sofa with a table set with tea and homemade cookies. The only other features in the room were the wood sauna itself; an expansive rain shower; and a deep but narrow, black-bottomed plunge pool filled with cold water. My therapist and I were the only two in the room, and she guided me through the entire process, starting with the importance of wearing the traditional Russian sauna hat made of felt. The bell-shaped hat helps protect the head from the extreme heat and prevent any headaches or dizziness while in the sauna. So with her guidance, I took my first step of my banya experience by disrobing and entering the sauna clothed only in my felt cap.
The ritual came in three parts. I spent 10 minutes in the sauna to heat up before jumping in to the plunge pool and moving to the massage table to enjoy a detoxifying sugar scrub and massage in the main room. I then returned to the sauna for 15 minutes, and my therapist left me to shower and sip some mint tea in the quiet serenity of my private room. When she returned, she ushered me back to the sauna to apply a honey mask to my skin to remove the toxins, gently patting my body with soft, soaked eucalyptus branches. Another shower and peaceful moment with my tea, and she brought me back to the massage table for a relaxing eucalyptus soap massage.
She set a fresh cup of tea on the table and left me to relax and enjoy the room for the rest of my scheduled time. I felt completely detoxed, my complexion was glowing, my skin was smoother than stone, and believe it or not, the branch whipping was actually pleasant and didn’t hurt at all. It turned out everything I had been told about the experience was true.
With my new trust in Russian advice, I headed back to change in the locker room so I could test out my bellman’s tip on experiencing a sunset on that panoramic rooftop terrace.
QUANTUM SPA & HEALTH CLUB
Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow
4 Neglinnaya St.
Moscow, Russia 125009
tel 7 495 783 1234
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