Finding Wellness on Governors Island

Parts of the former military outpost just below Manhattan have been rebranded as a quick city escape with glamping and self-care experiences. I set out to the newish QC NY spa to find out how far the culture has shifted.
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The summer after I graduated from college, two friends and I took an either cliché or rite of passage trip around Europe together. In between the jam-packed backpack and the limited access to Google Maps (it was 2010), there was Budapest, a city of meat and potatoes and many, many tubs.

I’m a water baby, and after several days of bopping around the Hungarian capital’s numerous indoor and outdoor bathhouses, I resigned myself to the fact that living in New York City is never going to compare to those offerings, at least aesthetically and culturally. (See: old men standing in warm water all day playing chess outside in an early 20th-century spa complex, versus old men standing in warm water in a small indoor soaking pool on the basement level of an East Village building.) But a good spa lover knows that the New York area is rife with its own varietals—high brow, low brow, in New Jersey—and when a new one opens, we’re all clamoring to try it out. So my interest was piqued when I got wind that an Italian company was opening up a spa on Governors Island with views of Manhattan. Would this be adding a European spa vibes option to our potpourri of Koreatown bathhouses, Instagrammy fare like Williamsburg’s Bathhouse, or iconic Spa 88 NYC energy? Was it going to feel high end but be within reach for normal people? Or was it just another sign that "wellness culture" has permeated all aspects of life? I had to see for myself.

From a 2003 report on the buildings on Governors Island 

From a 2003 report on the buildings on Governors Island 

The first U.S. expansion for QC Terme Spas & Resorts, QC NY opened last year to much fanfare, part of the continued wellnessification of an island with a long and storied history—including, as of late, glamping. Governors Island is still home to many empty buildings that have yet to lease or be developed—check out their website if you’re interested and in the market—and like many of those, QC NY is, depending on your perspective, discordantly or fascinatingly located what was once nurses’ quarters and housing for the families of the U.S. Coast Guard that were stationed there until the base was closed in 1996. Located on the north side of the island, they’re Neo-Georgian in style, historic, and were designed by architects Rogers & Poor in the early 1900s, as part of "the last major military building campaign on Governors Island, and that were a part of the island-wide beautification plan initially conceived by the architectural firm of McKim, Mead, and White," according to a 2003 report. While the exterior of the buildings was deemed important to preserve, "no interior elements" were, apparently, though the report went on to note that they have "spectacular views of lower Manhattan." Indeed, when the plans were first approved in 2015, one of the property developers noted that "It’s not going to be one of the super luxurious places that the city has plenty of, but it will have one of the best views in New York."

The exterior of QC NY, which is located in a former portion of the army buildings on Governors Island.

The exterior of QC NY, which is located in a former portion of the army buildings on Governors Island.

This history gives QC NY about as close a connection to Budapest as things can get in New York, since a few hundred years old is ancient for this city. The buildings were eventually reworked by architect Robert Henry, who specializes in "wellness design," and had this to say of of the renovation to Spa Business in 2021:

"‘I was inspired to repurpose three landmarked buildings into a "wellness campus" and integrate QC Terme’s unique hydrotherapy pools within this landscape to deliver a therapeutic aqua-journey with delicious views back to Manhattan. Just imagine relaxing in a heated outdoor hydro-pool in the middle of winter while it’s snowing, with this otherworldly view of the lower Manhattan skyline!’

In Henry’s opinion, QC NY will be an inclusive and affordable day resort, providing guests with the ultimate wellbeing experience coupled with endearing Italian hospitality."

When the spa opened last year, there was a flurry of press, mostly focused on, yes, the views and large outdoor pools looking out over them. A year and a half in, I wanted to see what 21st century wellness looks like when moved into a former army barrack, and how the spa was faring—and so I set sail on the ferry to find out.

The day my experiential compatriot and I went to experience QC NY was overcast with the inconsistent threat of rain—not ideal, but great for keeping away crowds. The spa is open for five-hour sessions until 10 p.m., and we figured a non-weekend would be best, so we headed to catch a ferry that would get us there at 4:30. Once off the boat, I overheard a teenager and her boyfriend ask a man working there, "This is Governors Island, right?" 

I got her hesitation—there is something sort of magically time-skipping about the island, like walking around a town that has been half taken over, half abandoned and frozen in the past. Since the recent development started, it feels like everytime you set foot there, there’s something new to explore. After a few minutes wandering from the ferry down old-timey feeling roads, we reached the spa, and stepped inside.

The City Spa, which is, yes, themed to look like the New York City skyline in wood.

The City Spa, which is, yes, themed to look like the New York City skyline in wood.

Though I understood they couldn’t (slash wouldn’t) change much about the historic nature of the buildings, I was surprised by how old the interiors felt—not in finishes, but in the shorter ceilings, warren-style hallways that defined earlier periods of architecture, the locker rooms and treatment rooms all tucked away into spaces that were clearly not designed for them and thus feel oddly sized at times. We checked in and got changed—the robes don’t have pockets, which I found strange, but assume makes it easier to avoid dealing with lost items. The most notable thing about QC NY is also the strangest—a wide web of extremely curiously themed rooms, which range from the City Sauna ("A kaleidoscopic metropolis, blending futuristic architecture with historic structures. On a clear day, take a seat and admire the unmistakable skyscrapers that enchant the world, while the warm embrace of the sauna envelops your senses") to Park Sauna ("How about taking a walk in the most romantic place in town? The charm of Central Park is renewed in every season") to the Upside Down Room, the design of which was clearly entirely imagined for Instagram posts.

We started downstairs; the place is a bit like a maze, which is enjoyable for unfolding but can certainly mean you’d miss things if you’re not careful. The bottom floor has already seen some wear—paint was peeling off the walls in the Foot Baths room, which actually gave it a bit of a Roman baths vibe. There’s definitely a childlike whimsy that accompanies finding each space, and comparing and contrasting them, and I found myself excited about what would come next.

The main draw, as you might expect, are the outdoor pools. Ignore the placards and you might miss the best one: the Underwater Music Spa Pool, where we dunked our heads, floated and found the dulcet tones of Vivaldi blasting, unbeknownst to the people in the next pool over. Inspired, honestly. Perfect Wellness Group—the American arm of the Italian company Effe—designed several of the custom saunas and steam rooms, and I found myself particularly taken with the sauna on the second floor that provided views of the city, and the table showers. The only thing that seemed to be off brand was the lack of cold plunge.

After trying out every seating arrangement in every pool, we posted up over a serviceable (if not entirely inspired) cheese plate and some delicious Aperol spritzes and enjoyed the view. This is not a deluxe experience—much to the chagrin of some Tripadvisor reviewers, who perhaps thought they were in for the life of the one percent at around $100—but it is communal and surprisingly kitschy in a way that reminded me of an Italian Spa Castle, and in that way, comforting. Showering off at the end of the evening, I spotted the Statue of Liberty through the window—not the wonders of Europe, but a true "only in New York" moment.

Top photo courtesy of Perfect Wellness QC Terme by Stefano Pasqualetti.

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Kate Dries
Kate Dries is Dwell’s Executive Editor. She previously worked at VICE, Jezebel, BuzzFeed, and WBEZ, and has written for many other publications. She's passionate about patinas. Get in touch: kate dot dries at dwell dot com




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