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Could a sweaty gym actually spawn a luxury hotel? Apparently, yes

Manhattan’s new Equinox Hotel, birthed from the upmarket Equinox fitness chain, is an advocate of healthy living, with clean food and workouts galore.

Could a sweaty gym actually spawn a luxury hotel? Apparently, yes

The fifth-floor pool deck. (Photo: Equinox)

Soon after I checked into the Equinox Hotel in Manhattan, a nurse arrived in my room to administer an intravenous vitamin infusion.

“It’s our signature drip – it’s got a little bit of everything in it,” nurse Courtney explained cheerfully, as she prepared a cocktail that included vitamin C, magnesium and a jumble of other life-boosting ingredients. As I watched the orange-yellow contents of an IV bag drain into my arm, I accepted Courtney’s assurances that my hair and skin would gain a noticeable shine.

So began an unusual stay at the first luxury hotel to grow out of a cultish New York gym. Soon to follow would be other health-enhancing treats, including a deep-tissue massage with CBD oil and a flash freeze in a cryotherapy chamber at minus 100ºC (minus 150ºC, if you include wind-chill).

Equinox, for the uninitiated, is not merely an upmarket fitness chain. It is a lifestyle. Since it was founded in New York in 1991, it has been at the forefront of the wellness movement that has remade – or certainly re-attired – western society. There are people whose relationship to Equinox may be the most devoted in their lives (perhaps part of the reason for the fervour of this week’s backlash when it was revealed the group’s owner was hosting a fundraiser for Donald Trump).

Some can be found outside my office on Manhattan’s West Side, where gazelles clad in athleisurewear stroll up and down Hudson Street, leading lives seemingly oriented around their visits to the local Equinox outpost. So it is only logical that Harvey Spevak, the chain’s executive chairman, would at last give them a place to lay their heads at night.

“Other hotels, they take a yoga mat, they put it in a room, they call it a wellness room and they charge 50 bucks more,” said Philipp Posch, the hotel’s astute general manager.

Equinox, by contrast, wants to weave its wellness ethos into every fibre of the hotel and so cater to a “high-performance traveller” who is less interested in white-gloved service than optimising – their career, their fitness, their sex life, their longevity.

“It’s the way the world is going – clean food, working out, being healthy,” Posch said, as we strolled past glowing guests who tended to be long of leg, taut of tummy and extravagant of trainer.

“It’s the way the world is going – clean food, working out, being healthy.” – Philipp Posch

In this quest for optimisation, I sensed a bit of the tech barons’ determination to hack the human body and so defy the bounds of time and ageing that restrain the rest of us. Was Equinox a bit creepy, I wondered? Could a sweaty gym actually spawn a luxury hotel?

When I visited in early August, the 212-room property was just opening, following a blaze of pre-publicity including a promotional film starring Naomi Campbell. The hotel is a key ingredient of Hudson Yards, the sprawling US$25 billion (S$34.7 billion) commercial and residential development built from scratch by The Related Companies atop a rail yard on Manhattan’s far West Side.

Related, which bought Equinox in 2005, is betting that a hotel-cum-mega-gym will be yet another amenity – along with a flotilla of retail and dining options, the Shed cultural centre and the Vessel, a critically derided but popular 150-foot-tall Thomas Heatherwick public art sculpture – to lure people to the Yards.

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The bathrooms are equally sleek. (Photo: Equinox)

Not everyone, mind you. The rooms start at US$700 a night, with suites going for twice that. Mine hewed to a stripped-down idea of luxury. Enormous flower arrangements and bowls with glass balls and other baubles had been banished. Instead, there was a subdued enclosure of dark louvred wood and marble, with muted shades of blue to match the Hudson River outside my window.

Accessories were highly curated: Equinox has commissioned a bespoke skincare line with herbs and flowers to match those found on the nearby High Line elevated park. The minibar featured such treats as a vial of hypertonic seawater minerals, probiotics and detox snacks.

Some of the luxury was hidden from view. Related invested in double-thick walls to muffle the outside noise of Manhattan – including the construction of the second phase of Hudson Yards.

“We want to really own this whole sleeping concept,” Posch declared as he showed me a hotel mattress specially assembled in northern Greece with layers of crushed coconut shells, horsehair and charcoal. Each bedroom, says the marketing material, “is a temple to total regeneration”.

The health club is the heart of the matter. It occupies 60,000 sq. ft. (5,574 sqm) on two lower-level floors and includes indoor and outdoor pools and a cutting-edge spa. There is a SoulCycle spinning studio next door.

Guests have full run of those facilities – but not necessarily the inner sanctum: A private gym-within-a-gym, the E Training Studio, that will be limited to 70 members and require a retinal scan for access.

Membership comes with a US$1,500 initiation fee, and buys the wizardry of Equinox’s top trainers, led by Hicham Haouzi, a former Thai boxer who is 50 but looks, unnervingly, as if he is going on 30. Stephen Ross, Related’s 79-year-old overlord, tightens his glutes here.

“It’s fitness, but it’s bigger than that,” Haouzi, a two-decade Equinox veteran, said of the chain’s appeal. “It’s about how guests are going to feel and live five to 10 years from now.”

Those sunning themselves on the fifth-floor pool deck on a recent afternoon certainly seemed content. The deck was a slice of Miami on the Hudson, with tanned bodies wrapped in snug swimsuits. It was in spitting distance of the Vessel, allowing tourists arrayed on its honeycomb of 2,000 steps to gawp at the flesh.

The fifth floor pool deck overlooks Thomas Heatherwick's Vessel. (Photo: Equinox) “It’s fitness, but it’s bigger than that. It’s about how guests are going to feel and live five to 10 years from now.” – Hicham Haouzi Having stashed our children at a friend’s house, my wife joined me at the spa, which Posch likened to a “Formula One pit stop” to repair ailing travellers – presumably so that they could hit the gym or complete a public offering.

Our first treatment: Cryotherapy. Stripped down to the essentials, we donned face masks, heated earmuffs and thick slippers and long gloves before entering a glass-enclosed chamber designed to rush the blood in our bodies from the extremities to the core. It was like the ice baths used by rugby players to recover after a match – except crammed into three Arctic minutes. As the beats of Salt-N-Pepa piped in over a sound system, we swayed, shivering, like two yetis at a disco, until our time was mercifully up.

Then we moved on to a one-hour deep-tissue massage – the first massage I have had since fatherhood arrived nine years ago, hastening the erosion of my sleep and spine. When Daniel had finished, my feet tingled and I had a distant, battlefield stare. I remember him holding my head in his hands, speaking to me about my hips. I could see his mouth moving but was unable to process the information. (He would later send a note with stretching recommendations to my room – a nice gesture).

By the time we sat down to dinner a half-hour later, I was invertebrate. I struggled to hold the menu for Electric Lemon, the Equinox’s new “clean cuisine” restaurant on the 24th floor – much less read it.

My voice was hoarse – perhaps my vocal cords had frozen? I thought of the robot C-3PO in the early scenes of Return of the Jedi, when he is a whining bag of discombobulated parts.

A cocktail restored some vital functions. Then came a surprise: The food. I had been expecting a plate of virtue. Instead, the Lemon was genuinely tasty.

We shared lamb and Long Island striped bass, as well as potato flatbread and hay-roasted oysters.

Chef Kyle Knall relies on freshness and technique to limit butter and cooking oil without compromising flavour. Tender parts of our lamb were grilled, for example, while cubes of the fattier shoulder were braised, and the gluten-free pasta is made from chickpeas.

After dinner, we took the night air on the Lemon’s outdoor terrace where, a host assured us, health- and sleep-obsessed guests would indulge in bad behaviour. “I mean, there are beds out here,” she noted.

With that inspiration, we hauled our nutrient-enriched bodies back to our room. We eventually drifted off to sleep. Then, at around 2.34am, things went awry. I awoke and could not return to sleep. My agony only deepened as I fretted about what I would tell Posch the next morning when he inquired about my night’s rest.

I had obeyed Equinox’s sleep gurus: Turning the temperature down to a cool 19C, lowering automatic blinds intended not merely to darken the room but to encase it like a narcoleptic tomb, and nibbling melatonin-rich cherries.

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No sleep. My body glowed like a hot coal. Maybe Equinox had given me more magic potion than I could handle? Maybe I was not equipped for the new luxury? The hours slipped by.

When it was time for my 7.15am fitness class, I was too shattered to go. I was too shattered to do much of anything.

Two heroes came to my rescue – and so led me to a deeper appreciation of Equinox. First there was Ara Patterson, its vice-president of food and beverage. Registering my distress, Patterson nudged aside my third cup of coffee and fed me a regenerative tea with butterfly blue pea flower and other bits of magic.

I felt the tea steadying me. Or maybe it was Patterson, who made me feel listened to and cared for in a way I rarely experience with my fellow New Yorkers?

Next, Haouzi escorted me to the spa, where he put me on a Wave Table that provides “harmonic therapy”: 30 minutes on the undulating table, listening to music in a semi-vegetative state, is meant to equal three hours of sleep. Haouzi left me on for an hour. Then he threw me back in the freezer.

I emerged reborn. As I bid my new Equinox friends farewell and headed to the office I was not quite optimised but I was no longer a wreck either. On most days, for most of us, that’s good enough.

By Joshua Chaffin © 2019 The Financial Times

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