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"A trip to the Korean King Spa and Sauna puts visitors in another world"

By Monica Eng, Tribune reporter
July 8, 2010

King Spa and Sauna is like no place I have ever visited. And I'm guessing the same goes for you.Equal parts movie theater, beauty salon, nudist colony, relaxation retreat, restaurant, meditation studio, sauna, hotel, bath house and trip to Korea, it transports visitors to another world. Luxurious Korean-style saunas ? some of which also feature outdoor water parks ? have attracted huge followings in New York, Dallas and Los Angeles. Initial customers were largely Asians and Eastern Europeans, but the clientele now includes adventurous relaxation seekers of all origins. Chicago-area residents only recently got an opportunity to check out the concept when King opened its doors in Niles in May. My kids, mom and I recently escaped a muggy Sunday afternoon to visit King; here's how it went. About 4:30 p.m. we enter the peaceful, elegant, marble-lined lobby, pay our fees and get rubber wrist bands attached to keys and sensors with our locker numbers. Any extra services we opt for can be automatically charged via the wrist band.

The staff is friendly, informative and helpful, even finding a private shower in the locker room for my 11-year-old son, who is not into showering, steaming and dipping in and out of pools nude with a bunch of male strangers. My mom, 7-year-old daughter and I head for the women's locker room. Our first stop is at the bank of shoe lockers, where we lock up our sandals before proceeding to the main locker room, which features handsome wooden compartments for the rest of our clothes and bags. Once nude, we enter the adjacent spotless bathing area, lined with showers. Women in black bras and undies work at tables administering body scrub treatments. There's also a steam room, and in the middle of the room are three hot pools and one cool pool, where matur Korean women sit chatting and relaxing.

Before entering the pool, all patrons must take a thorough shower ? patrons are encouraged to report anyone who doesn't. We scrub up, then dip in the pools and visit the steam room. It's all exhilarating and relaxing; I'd love to stay longer but we figure we should probably meet up with my son, who is waiting in the coed area. Back in the locker room we change into the provided uniforms of thick, soft cotton shorts and shirts in pink, white and yellow. We head to th coed lounge area to find my son in his yellow uniform reading his book. He wants to know what all the thematically decorated saunas are for. I tell him that each of the nine (access included in the initial fee) is supposed to treat a different condition by using everything from salt to amethysts and gold. (Note: Children are not allowed in the very hot saunas.)

The lounge is full of patrons, mostly Korean families and some Eastern European adults who have found ingenious ways of tying their small towels on their heads to look like Princess Leia buns or King Tut headdresses. Mine just keeps falling off. The overall atmosphere feels like a cruise or health retreat. We make our tour of several saunas, quietly entering and lying down on a mat and a block of wood that serves as a pillow. The kids' favorite is the ice sauna, an ultra air-conditioned room lit with black light and furnished with wooden stump stools, "perfect for reading my book," my son says. While my mother visits a quiet room off the lounge for a 45-minute foot massage, the kids and I check out the Korean restaurant right off the lobby. There we eat baked eggs that have been cooked in the shell for three hours in a sauna, leaving them "chewy and light tasting," as the sign says. The menu also features more than a dozen popular Korean dishes as well as fruit smoothies and fresh fruit. All food can be charged to your wrist band.

Then we all head to the dark, quiet movie room filled with scores of empty recliners. A few minutes later, my kids are thrilled to be splayed out on recliners watching one of their favorite movies. I luxuriate in a couple of hours of quiet reading time. With the film over, we return to the saunas to try a few that we missed. Maybe it's because each has a specific story and purpose or because they are decorated so elaborately, but the saunas feel like amusement park rides as we travel from one to the other. The fire sudatorium, which is only for adults and is closed during certain hours, is so intense, most visitors wear a protective blanket when they enter its double row of doors. I manage to stay in for about one minute. Then we all head back to the single-sex areas for showers and some final dips in the baths. Soon we're back in our street clothes, making a reluctant departure. While other patrons will spend the night, we're off to our own beds ? despite pleas from my kids that we stay over as well. On the way out of the locker room I see women getting a treatment called the "wormwood steam hip baths," some sort of herbal steam treatment that comes out of a commodelike basin. It's a mystery I'll solve on my next visit.

King Spa and Sauna, 809 Civic Center Drive, Niles, is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week; 847-972-2540;


Know before you go
  • Do arrive early on weekday mornings if you want some solitude.
  • Do take a shower ? and use the house shampoo, toothbrushes, toothpaste and soap ? before using the facilities.
  • Do ask for a private shower facility, change into spa clothes and use the coed facilities if group nudity puts you off
  • Do check out the different saunas to see which ones help soothe what ails you.
  • Do bring a book. I know few places where I felt so free to read.
  • Don't chatter away in the movie, meditation or TV rooms.
  • Don't fill your belly too much before a body scrub, sauna visit, massage and whirlpool session.
  • Don't plan to bring in any outside food or drink or even flip-flops. Everyone walks around barefoot
  • Don't be shy; patrons come in all shapes and sizes, and many are grandparents.

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