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SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. - The Saratoga State Park probably qualifies as one of the most elegant parks in the United States. Take a drive through the grounds on your next visit to Saratoga Springs and it's easy to see why. The serene pine forest is dotted with treasures that include the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, Hall of Springs, the Victorian Swimming Pool with its arched promenades, a performing arts theater, the Saratoga Automobile Museum, Gideon Putnam Hotel, and at the very edge of the 2,700-acre property, the Roosevelt Baths and Spa.
Built in 1935, the sparkling, mineral-enriched waters of the baths have been luring locals and tourists for decades. They come to immerse themselves in uncommonly deep, pre-World War II bathtubs filled with comforting, mineral-enriched water piped in from the park's subterranean springs.
Spa Director Michelle Calzada said that once the restorative properties of the water were discovered by tourists in the early part of the 20th century, bathing in the mineral waters became as much a Saratoga pastime as horse racing and gambling.
Soon, Saratoga's bathing industry was robust enough to accommodate three bathhouses: The Lincoln Baths (now office space for the New York State Court System and Saratoga Park Police), the Washington Baths (now the National Museum of Dance), and the Roosevelt Baths.
Until recently, the Lincoln Baths operated on a year-round basis. But when the Roosevelt Baths reopened after a nearly $4 million renovation project, the Lincoln Baths closed its doors.
Calzada said renovations included asbestos abatement, interior renovations, dÃ©cor overhaul, new bathrooms and heating systems, and structural repair.
The state owns the building, and Delaware North Companies Parks & Resorts, who also operates the Gideon Putnam Hotel, runs the business. The Roosevelt Baths now boasts 42 private bathing rooms, each with its own sunken tub, massage table and bathroom.
The spa also features a full-service hair salon; locker rooms; steam rooms; and treatment rooms for services such as facials and body wraps.
As Calzada walked the nearly silent hallway of the women's wing on a recent weekday, she explained that the discovery of the legendary mineral waters of Saratoga Springs long predates the tourism influx of the 1930s.
"Native Americans were using the waters for centuries," Calzada said. "They bathed in it, drank it, used it for treating wounds."
Europeans officially made the discovery after Sir William Johnson traveled to Saratoga from Johnstown, visiting the waters at High Rock Spring after being injured in the French and Indian War. And with the dawn of horse racing in 1863, 'taking the cure' at the springs became all the rage for wealthy tourists.
Calzada said the Roosevelt Bath and Spa offers spa services such as massage, mud wraps, pedicures, and even hair styling. But it's still the restorative qualities of the mineral water that's the driving force for loyal customers, including an Orthodox Jewish clientele who visit daily during the summer.
She said there have been misconceptions about the baths that have probably kept some from venturing in for a try. "There's no communal bathing, each bath has complete privacy," she said. "And those who get massages are draped in sheets."
There's also the stereotype that the baths cater strictly to the wealthy. Minerals baths are $25 for a 40-minute soak, and the price includes the use of the steam room. If a mineral bath is taken in conjunction with a spa treatment, the bath is $20.
Bath attendants are on hand to guide visitors and explain the bathing process. Each tub is filled with a combination of hot tap water and mineral water from the springs below. Attendants are trained to keep the bath water at approximate body temperature to avoid dizziness or excessive sweating.
Bathers also have the option of exiting the tub 10 minutes early in order to enjoy a catnap wrapped in warm sheets. For an extra $6, essential oils can be added to bath water.
The pale brown color of the water and its champagne-like fizz is courtesy of the nearly 16 minerals that give the waters their trademark healing quality. The carbonated mineral water for the baths comes from an underground spring on state park property and gets its effervescent properties when forced through a limestone fault-line.
"It's good for circulation, minor aches and pains and overall relaxation - one of the ingredients is lithium," said Calzada. "It's also great for the skin. We've had people come here to treat their psoriasis."
And as the Native Americans did, many come to drink the mineral water. In the lobby of the Roosevelt Baths is a tap with running mineral water.
Saratoga Springs has at least 20 drinking springs scattered throughout the town, including several on the grounds of the Spa State Park. Calzada said each drinking spring has slightly different mineral qualities.
She peered into a room, which had just been prepped for an in-coming bather. The air was moist and herb-misted, and the tub brimmed with bubbly mineral water. All was quiet except for piano chords softly playing on the sound system.
"Coming here for a bath is really an experience," she said. "The water is fizzy so you tend to floatâ€¦sometimes it just feels as if you're floating away."
The Roosevelt Baths and Spa are open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. seven days per week. Reservations are necessary and can be made by calling (518) 226-4790. For more information, visit http://www.gideonputnam.com/roosevelt-baths-and-spa-1158.html.
Stacey Morris is a food and travel writer based in upstate New York. Her Web site is www.staceymorris.com