The scent of orange blossom brought a nostalgic hit to the senses, a languid air of Spain in springtime, as I walked into the reception of AIRE from the grandeur of (the oddly quiet) Robert Street in Charing Cross; this is a Seville-born spa, the eighth outpost in its expanding portfolio. This patch of WC2 is part of the very small, nearly forgotten, Adelphi district – the legacy of renowned 18th century architect brothers (Adelphi is the Greek word for brothers). Occupying the land between The Strand and the river, this small crosshatch of neoclassical terraces is bounded by the city’s most trodden streets. It is here you’ll find London’s most tranquil retreat. It’s not just the stuccoed exterior and elegant facades of Robert Street that bring prestige to AIRE’s latest location. The spa is located in the basement of a house once lived in by JM Barrie, the author of Peter Pan. And the setting is magical. The building has been immaculately restored and finely recast, enhancing the original charm of this historic townhouse and bringing it into the contemporary. It is pure escapism down in the spa, a peaceful sub terra haven – a place so far away from the hustle and bustle of London as the Neverland of Barrie’s masterpiece. Yet AIRE is exclusively for grownups. Only the imagination is to run wild.
On the right as you walk in is a library with high ceilings, bare plaster and beams, a wall of leather bound books, a battered leather chesterfield and a first edition of Barrie’s masterpiece. The style is very much of faded grandeur. To the left is reception, of simple decor and cool class, where you’ll find the source of the fragrant orange blossom and a placid welcome. Down in the lift (an unknown depth) and into the most blissful two hours. The last you’ll see of this world is the sleek changing room where you shower, change into swimwear and put on some (provided) anti-slip socks.
The entire spa is lit by candlelight. Walking down a great curving staircase, I wonder exactly how far under the ground I am. It certainly feels deep, not that the atmosphere is oppressive or claustrophobic, not under the high arching ceilings that have the feel of a church (more viscerally, I am transported to the Roman cisterns of Istanbul with their vaulted brick ceilings, simplistic in design and powerful in effect). It’s more by way of feeling so completely detached from modern life and London outside. It’s of complete privacy, ultimate serenity, instant relaxation. Something I haven’t been able to find in a long, long time.
There are seven baths in total – some swimming pool size, several for plunging – ranging from 40°C to 10°C, and one steam room. On entering, you’re advised where to start your bathing experience. The idea is to slowly journey through the different baths creating a circuit of relaxation and calm for yourself, the result being a rebalancing of both body and mind. Despite the lapping of water and faint music, which is played even under the water, there’s a kind of silence, a hush, and only a dozen people – or thereabouts – to share this vast space with. A session is two hours, during which you’ll have to worry about exactly nothing. Someone will come and find you for your treatment – even submerged in a plunge pool at the back of the Vaporium filled with the thickest steam I have ever experienced – and a gong is sounded at the end to bring everyone gently back from their meditative state and back upstairs to reality. It goes without saying that there are no phones down in this oasis. The sole intent is the simple, timeless pleasure of swimming, floating, wallowing in pools.
I start in the warm pool (36°C) that travels through three spaces decorated with enormous Grecian pots and pillar candles. The bath set at 40°C is big enough to swim laps in. The Balneum, ‘the bath of a thousand jets’, has s-shaped beds supporting blissed-out bodies enjoying a pummelling. My favourite was the salt-filled Flotarium hidden at the far end of the spa, through the warm marble stoned relaxation area. Piles of coarse salt flakes fill an alcove at one end of this room-turned-pool for a deep exfoliation. The bath claims to have the salt density of the Dead Sea, surely more, I think, as I float freely (almost godly), seemingly levitated, for an unknown amount of time, gazing up at a different carved ceiling of simple beauty before my mind ran away (or did it switch off?). It’s probably a blessing I discovered this bath last, so that I could experience the whole collection. When I come back to AIRE, I’m heading straight for this one for a full-session superlative float.
There are treatments, of course. When it’s time – no need to keep it yourself – you’re led up in a lift to a similarly serene candle-lit, floral-scented space that is perhaps above ground (in its traditional townhouse layout) but blacked-out completely to maintain the mystique. A 30-minute full-body massage was fantastic, using argan oil, in keeping with the ancient theme. No talking, just a whisper when it’s finished, and I robe up and descend again to the baths for a glass of cava, a plate of chocolate truffles and one last float before the gong sounds. For the more extravagant, there’s the ‘quintessential wine bath experience’. It includes a private soak in a tub of red wine, followed by a red wine grape seed massage. This ‘treatment’ aside, the the style of AIRE is simple, classic. It has created a timeless aesthetic in this once-cellar, executing it with what is undoubtedly cutting edge design and technology.
AIRE Ancient Baths London
2-3 Robert Street