There comes a time in the life of many a journalist when we're asked to take a break from gorging on soup dumplings or Filet-O-Fishball sandwiches, going on pretty hikes, and watching Lifetime movies and do some real honest-to-goodness research. We're talking straying from our beats, leaving our comfort zones, peeling off our protective layers, literally and figuratively. This winter, we did it all. That's right: we went to the spa.
Now, this time we weren't looking for anything too weird—just a bit of warmth and relaxation that might be a splurge but still cost less than a tropical vacation. And we certainly found it, from a Pearl District massage that made us feel like an extra on The White Lotus to a rustic backyard bathhouse in North Portland.
Portland might not have any exclusive night clubs. As I prepared for my visit to Knot Springs, though, I imagined it was the closest equivalent. Memberships, which are currently sold out, run up to an eye-watering $500 per month, a combo 75-minute massage and hour-long soak rings up at $199, and even a single 90-minute soaking visit can cost up to $79 at peak hours. You might even catch local celebrities or athletes passing through town for a visit; even award-winning chef Gregory Gourdet has posted about his fondness for Knot Springs on social media.
At reception, you’re greeted with a waiver, a rack of covetable but pricey Swedish swimsuits for sale, and a Fitbit-like wristband that you hold up to a panel at each door, which beeps with a glowing, futuristic green light. Head up to the fifth floor to the springs, where you’ll leave your clothes in the sometimes chaotic locker room and don your swimsuit (no nudity here!) and provided Pendleton towel, then rinse off with the spa’s bespoke earthy body wash, minty conditioner, and house salt scrub. Step into the bath house, equal parts industrial and nature-inspired (think concrete and lots of plants), no right angles to be found, windows with views of the Burnside Bridge and the Old Town sign. Knot Springs isn’t a silent, tranquil spa; it calls itself a “wellness social club,” so go with a friend to dish details on your last date, or during packed peak hours, enjoy eavesdropping on a couple of bros discussing their next real estate deal. Phones aren’t allowed—it’s a nice opportunity to get away from the screen, so if you're flying solo, bring a book or perhaps your favorite local magazine (wink) instead.
For best results, try the bathhouse’s prescribed "Ten Steps to Relaxation" inscribed on the bath house pillar, which involve bouncing from the 104-degree hot tub to the 47-degree cold plunge, to the blistering hot sauna and back into the cold plunge. Cool off after the sauna with a scented refrigerated face towel and glass of sparkling water, or warm up after the cold plunge with one of the spa's two custom teas from Smith Teamaker. (Yes, I found myself juggling multiple silicone cups as I sipped on all the various beverages.) Being able to withstand the cold plunge for more than a few breaths—and without squealing—is a badge of honor here.
But pairing a soak with a massage afterward really takes the relaxation to the next level, and provided the serene experience I was looking for. Massages fall anywhere on the scale from a relaxing, nap-inducing Swedish massage to an intense ashiatsu massage, performed with the masseuse’s feet and body weight suspended from overhead bars. I was in the mood for more of a more gentle touch, so I opted for the Swedish. After the soak, the massage therapist met me at the entrance of the springs and escorted me downstairs to the treatment area, where canvas tents were lined up, one after the other, like a little village of relaxation. The massage table was heated—a nice touch—and my massage therapist encouraged me to check in whenever I wanted more or less pressure, or wanted more attention on certain areas. To my own surprise, amid mid-2000s relaxing jams like “In the Waiting Line” by Zero Seven, I found myself wanting more and more pressure. Maybe I’ll even be up for ashiatsu next time. 33 NE 3rd Ave Suite 365 —Katherine Chew Hamilton
Lomilomi Massage at Kanani Pearl Spa
Kanani Pearl, a low-key fancy spa, dives, purposefully, into Hawaiian healing and relaxation methods, facials to massages. The house body treatments sound straight out of Portland's food scene. Options include a papaya pineapple body polish—for one or two—and an Island Espresso Mud Wrap, “enhanced with finely ground coffee Arabica.” But the lomilomi massage is the raison d'être and spiritual muse of Kanani Pearl. Cost is $166 for 85 minutes.
Lomilomi, which translates as “rub rub” is a Polynesian method of kneading massage, calculated to go deep into muscle relaxation. Practitioners use long continuous strokes made with forearms, elbows, knuckles, and in olden times, sticks and stones. The style is intuitive, and no two lomilomis are the same. I'd call it somewhere between a massage and body work, capable of unleashing thoughts previously hidden beneath the threshold of consciousness.
It can be intense at times. At first, my female lomilomi-ist, strong as an Olympian disc thrower, seemingly had a GPS locator for every knot on my back. I felt like my older brother had snuck in the room to give me an upper body noogie. That alternated with the sensation of someone making bread on my back with the flat side of paddle. Honestly, I wanted to bolt.
But the thing about a lomilomi massage is it keeps changing, like the ocean, sometimes fast, slow, ominous, pulsing, profound, blissful. It's an experience. After my arms were gently pulled and stretched, my hands webbed, my fingers pulled and massaged, one by one, I swear I could have thrown a Cy Young pitch. At some point, my feet were flopping wildly like fish on a boardwalk, shaken awake, literally. Later, they were wrapped in warm towels like big outer-space boots. Another hot, moist towel cradled my neck. I became one with plankton. During the “belly rub” segment, my only thought was a deep understanding of why dogs are so happy.
The treatment concluded with a glorious head massage, gentle rocking, pulsing, scratching. I felt like the luckiest person on Earth. White Lotus has nothing on Kanari. A treatment here and who cares if Greg cheated? 1111 NW Marshall St —Karen Brooks
At the Float Shoppe, you can relax in a small-scale version of the salty Dead Sea. The family-owned business offers floating and massage at a charming, old home-turned-spa in Northwest Portland. Its lobby is stocked with herbal tea from Tea Chai Té and a hot foot bath for a short soak before your 90-minute session ($75) in one of its closed-lid or lidless float tanks.
Full disclosure: I was expecting floating to be a hallucinatory, crossing-to-another-dimension type of experience—a little like Stranger Things, minus the terrifying Demogorgon. Besides hallucinations, studies have also found that sensory deprivation or floatation-REST (restricted environmental stimulation therapy) provides physical and psychological benefits, such as heightened creativity, reduced lactic acid buildup and muscle tension, and stress relief.
The Float Shoppe’s tanks are filled with Epsom salt–infused water and heated to about 95 degrees. I tested out the “Tranquility” float pod, which is recommended for first-timers like myself. It looks a bit like a large clam with optional starlights scattered across the inside of its shell.
The water only came to my ankles—but trust me, you’ll float. About a thousand pounds of Epsom salt are dissolved in the water, making it extremely buoyant. After lying in the water with a cushion under my head, I began to drift effortlessly, sometimes bumping into the sides of the tank. For several minutes, I was in a state of panic. I was acutely aware of my neck, slightly tense from the unfamiliar sensation of being suspended at zero gravity, and the sound of my heartbeat in my ears. A temporary wave of motion sickness even passed over me. I sat up to catch my breath and salt water trickled into my eyes. (Don’t worry: you're provided a spray bottle of fresh water to flush out your eyes or other sensitive areas if this happens.)
It's pitch-dark and silent in the soundproof pod; you’re totally disconnected from any external stimuli, including the effects of gravity, which can be startling at first. But as someone with chronic pain and athletic injuries, I was grateful to experience the weightlessness of floating. Your spinal column lengthens and your muscles relax.
After my 90 minutes were up and I washed my hair and ears with vinegar to break down the salt—the Float Shoppe provides a towel, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, ear plugs, Vitamin A&D ointment, lotion, and Q-tips—I stepped out into the open air, feeling slightly disoriented, but mostly refreshed.
I didn’t hallucinate, but I did find a sense of calm, once I got past the initial adjustment period. My experience taught me that floating requires patience as your body and mind slowly adapt to giving up control—something that I imagine comes with greater ease if you can afford to keep it up. 1515 NW 23rd Ave —Isabel Lemus Kristensen
I did not expect to feel this relaxed so close to an Arby's. Nor did I expect to feel so carefree when making the appointment for a soak at Blue Star PDX had me filling out a multipage questionnaire, wondering what myrrh smelled like, and pondering my relationship with the revolution.
Situated in a North Portland neighborhood a stone's throw from N Lombard Street, Blue Star holds two clawfoot tubs in a semi-enclosed (but private and covered) cedar structure in the backyard of a home-based massage practice. The elaborate booking process warned me of possible cancellation due to wind, air quality, and "flareups of civilization collapse," but on my visit there was just a gentle rain falling on the clear roof panels and trickling through the impressive gutter system.
For $100 (cash only), a group of up to four people can share the space for an hour, though it might be close quarters if all four are in the tubs at once. Longer sessions are available, too, up to three and a half hours. Soakers can add a cold plunge option for $20. If you keep a one-person-per-tub ratio, though, you can really stretch out. Towels are provided; swimsuits are optional. Each tub has a call button if guests need help, but otherwise you're left alone until a 10-minute warning that the session's about to end.
Bathers preorder a bath blend that comes in what looks like a giant tea sachet. My Thai-influenced selection smelled of lime, coconut, and lemongrass, while my soak partner opted for cedarwood, frankincense, and myrrh. There's also a bowl of Epsom salts with an optional dash of CBD oil. The hot water and aromatics are relaxing enough on their own, so I'm not sure the CBD boost added anything, but it certainly didn't hurt. You can BYOB, too.
The setup is a bit folksy, with Dr. Bronner's on offer for the pre-soak shower and a ukulele available for guest use. But there's a welcome empowering edge, too, with stickers in the changing room reminding you that "you don't hate Mondays, you hate capitalism" next to a display advocating skin cancer self-checks and instructions for a DIY TheraCane massage. It was the only massage available on our visit—Blue Star's owner, a licensed massage therapist, is fully booked and not taking new clients at the moment. 7402 N Vincent Avenue —Margaret Seiler