Swimming in Seoul

Mar 3 2014

Single Spy

On the Road

4 min read

The W hotels are renowned for style with substance, and their outpost in Seoul does not disappoint in this respect. Perched up high in Walkerhill, the W announces its determination to impress from the dramatic pink lighting tubes in the hotel entrance, through to the vast white lobby with panoramic views over the Han river, on up to the rooms which have their own grey slate spa baths. On arrival, they take your photograph, which I assume all employees then commit to memory, as every time I walked through the lobby, at least ten trendy red-clad staff greeted me by name.

In between business meetings, I managed to pop to the gym a couple of times. This is large, bright, and mirrored to make it look twice its real size. The staff were all very helpful and keen to explain the high-tech machines. When I came straight down from my room in my gym gear, though, I got the feeling that I was rather letting down their very neat world order, as every other cyclist or runner was wearing a regulation black T-shirt (which I suspect is issued to their health-club membership). Sorry to be so sloppy in my faded blue sweats!

The gym has a very neat system for issuing water, too. This is provided in large iced jugs; you pour yourself a glass, then cover it with a lid with a letter on it. When you want your water later, you can recognise your glass by the letter. Very green.

There is a good range of equipment, including free weights, and most machines are equipped with TV screens. There are also some magazines in English. Why look at a screen or a book, though, when you can gaze down at the sweep of the river, high-rise Seoul, and the setting sun?

The pool -- you can come down from your room in your bathrobe should you wish -- is also well worth a visit. You need to take off your outdoor shoes at the door, and wash in the shower area at the side of the pool before you get in the water. A helpful young person will also issue you with a regulation swim hat. The pool is large enough for a healthy splash, and there are lanes reserved for lap junkies. The multicoloured lights in the roof make for a very relaxing atmosphere, as does the view.

Don't leave the W, though, without trying its spa -- a visit to this jimjilbang is not to be missed. There are separate facilities for men and women; spa-ing in Korea is about health and wellbeing, not relaxation a deux. I enjoyed a fantastic evening there.

To spa, you go to the entrance to the changing rooms. Here, someone greets you and puts your outdoor shoes in a small locker, the number of which matches the locker for your clothes in the main, huge, changing area past the silver-beaded curtains. Once you've put on your spa shoes, you can go through to your locker and change into a cotton robe. Suitably attired, you go down the stairs to a room where you leave your spa shoes. In one door, you go out the other to the showers. Korean etiquette demands that you wash yourself thoroughly before entering any of the spa pools; you get clean beforehand, as the spa pools are for relaxing in, not bathing. Many people also clean their teeth (disposable packs of brushes and paste are provided, a touch you seldom see in UK spas).

Nakedness is not optional. I hesitated on my first visit (I was new to Korean spa-ing), so a helpful attendant mined the depths of her English vocabulary (my Korean is restricted to "Hello") to explain what was required. "You must be..." she paused, then pointed at a naked Korean woman emerging from the steam room, "like her."

I can do that.

I whipped off my robe, showered, and set off to explore the facilities. Remember, though -- as with most gyms and spas in Korea -- you won't be allowed to display any visible tattoos (tattoos are associated with gang membership and are widely frowned on throughout the region). As long as you're not Amy Winehouse, then, you'll be welcome.

There are few signs at this spa in English but, if you know your way vaguely round a spa, you'll find the right direction. You'll find a large grey-slate steam room, wooden-benched sauna, and a series of rectangular pools with stated temperatures so you know what you're in for, ranging from astonishingly arctic to warningly warm. I especially loved the lavender pool which had a gentle, relaxing temperature.

There are also masses of fluffy while towels available, which you will need, as Koreans like their spas HOT. I am a steam fan, yet after a few minutes in the steam room, even I was ready to admit defeat.

The jewel in the crown of the W's spa, in my book, though, is the outdoor section. You go into a small room where you can don yet another pair of shoes, then push out onto a balcony which contains huge stone bowls of water, their steam drifting through the Seoul night. There aren't many pleasures in life quite so special as sitting naked in a stone bowl watching Seoul go about its business far below. What an astonishing end to a busy day.

I finished my spa evening with a shower; these come equipped with shampoo and conditioner, as well as body wash. Having retrieved my spa shoes, I went back upstairs to the changing rooms to dress. Here, there is plenty of body lotion, hairdryers, combs, cotton buds and cotton wool. I was completely relaxed, and ready for bed. Just time to swap my spa shoes for my day shoes, and my day shoes for my pyjamas.

For swimming and spa in Seoul, the W is a great choice. I'll be back.


Single Spy

3rd March 2014

Spy Likes:

Warm floors when you put your bare feet upon them; heated treatment beds; soft towels; attention to detail, so that your treatment room looks and smells beautiful when you arrive in it.

Spy Dislikes:

Cold floors when you put your bare feet upon them; therapists who use your treatment time to write up a list of product "recommendations" that they hope you will purchase.

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