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Contemplation in the Catskills


“I’m not sure if you received the message, but the pools are closed. I’m so sorry” said the receptionist, politely. It was January 1 2022 and I needed those pools. In my mind, I’d visualised spending the first evening of the year steaming and sweating out all the holiday’s toxins, then cold plunging in a mineral bath.

But the genial hotel receptionist explained something about maintenance or an unexpected permit requirement, and apparently it’s not easy to find the necessary pool people over the holiday season — Piaule is, after all, deep in the Catskills, two hours’ drive north of New York, hidden in the woods along a winding mountain road.

I’d arrived in the early evening, and already the sky was beginning to bruise and the temperature had plummeted. Despite the fact there would be no cold plunging or warm soaking, I made my way to the spa. Branching off a long narrow space with concrete columns and stone floors, it was immediately clear Piaule’s spa is not typical of those you find in the US, where hotels’ wellness wings strive to outdo each other with the abundance and novelty of their frills and frippery.

Usually there are waiting rooms with giant relaxation chairs, snack bars stocked with the latest health fad, gaudy mosaic swimming pools, a bevy of uniformed staff and, in the background, the constant tinkle of generic spa music. At Piaule, there is none of this.

One of Piaule’s 24 cabins, set among 50 acres of wooded land © Sean Davidson

Instead, it offers a pared-back spa experience, more Japanese in aesthetic, with two treatment rooms, two pools, a steam room, a cedar sauna, and a minimalist yoga room with large windows that frame the distant mountains. In a relaxation room, two simple wooden chairs look out on to the landscape, as if to insist on quiet contemplation. The only drink available is chilled cucumber water, which you pour yourself. It is the epitome of what Piaule aims to represent — simplicity and a connectedness to the surrounding environment.

Map showing Piaule Catskill hotel in New York state

It fact, this is no mere hotel or spa, Piaule bills itself as a “landscape hotel”, a term coined in Norway by the tiny Juvet Landscape Hotel, which opened in 2009. “A landscape hotel is about stripping away all the distractions and focusing on the landscape — the design tries to enable that as much as possible,” says Nolan McHugh, Piaule’s co-creator alongside business partner Trevor Briggs. College friends, they started out founding a direct-to-consumer homewares brand (also called Piaule) in 2014; three years later they began seeking investors and a site for their hotel — it finally opened last summer. “Once you get to Piaule you can understand what a landscape hotel is,” adds Briggs.

Concrete columns in the spa area © Sean Davidson

A relaxation room seems to ‘insist on quiet contemplation’ © Sean Davidson

The pools are reminiscent of a Japanese onsen © Sean Davidson

The hotel sits on a 50-acre wooded plot, a former bluestone quarry. Guests stay in 24 cabins on stilts that have been stripped of distractions — TVs, phones, desks (though they do have WiFi, and a mini bar). Floor-to-ceiling glass doors look out to the forest below. Bathrooms have heated stone floors, plush waffle-cloth bath towels, rain showers, and toiletries that smell like pine and bergamot.

The glass-fronted main hotel building includes a lounge with big, curved couches and a zinc fireplace; the dining room looks like a European ski chalet with a slanted, slatted roof, bluestone floors excavated on site and simple wooden tables. In the summertime, the doors open on to a wide deck that tumbles towards a wall of tall grass.

After spending an hour bouncing from steam room to sauna to cold shower, I eventually made my way along the winding path to the main hotel building. With the cold air whipping my face, I was invigorated, even smug — who else felt this good on January 1? The restaurant wasn’t open (it currently only operates two nights a week due to limited staff), so I settled into one of the deep sofas and ordered a glass of wine and some local cheese. I played a game of Scrabble until my brain began to feel like porridge — it’s hard to concentrate after intense relaxation. By 8pm, I was ready for bed.

The cabins have floor-to-ceiling views over the forest © Jody Rogac

In the morning, I woke up in what felt like a treehouse and for around 30 minutes, I lay in my bed and watched the trees dance in the wind, not bothering to reach for my phone. I then made my way back to the spa for another sauna and steam room circuit, followed by a breakfast of coffee, fresh pastries, fruit, yoghurt and homemade granola.

Yoga began at 11am, with a softly spoken instructor who had recently relocated from Brooklyn. Later I had a massage: “Any areas I should focus on?” asked the therapist in a firm but gentle voice before instructing me to lie down. There was no pre-massage pampering — no oil selection, foot bath, or exfoliation. After the treatment she snuck out of the room quietly then didn’t return.

It was one of the best massages of my life and I didn’t even get her name. “[The spa] is meant to be autonomous,” Briggs later told me. “It goes back to relaxation and getting rid of the distraction. We wanted to create an experience that doesn’t have a ton of attendants doting on you or breathing down your neck.” 

The glass-sided dining room © Sean Davidson

One of the deep sofas in the lounge © Sean Davidson

Afterwards I headed into the nearby town of Catskill, which is set along a rippling creek. Recent years have seen rising numbers of New Yorkers moving upstate, and here old buildings are being overhauled to become boutique hotels and new, glass-fronted restaurants serve bagels with lox. I stopped in for a coffee at Willa’s, set in a former industrial building that looks like it belongs in Brooklyn’s hip Dumbo. Outside I noticed an electric car charger plug attached to a crumbling brick wall — a sure sign of where this old town is going.

That night, I went across the river to Hudson for dinner at Feast & Floret, a restaurant filled with fresh-cut flowers and roaring fires. Hudson has quickly become one of the ritziest towns in the Hudson Valley, with a busy Main Street of polished antique shops and artisanal cheese and bread stores. Former New Yorkers waltz around in flannel jackets and shearlings, thoroughbred dogs in tow. The dinner was sublime — grilled radishes with honey and black pepper, wild mushrooms and lamb with mint and Israeli couscous. But by the end of it, I couldn’t wait to get back into the mountains. One of the reasons it’s nice to leave New York is because you leave New York. And while upstate’s resurgence has had some huge benefits including a rise in local producers, restaurants and shops, it’s also nice to just get lost in the woods.

Mary Holland was a guest of Piaule (piaule.com); cabins for two from about $450 per night

More new spas in New York

Sauna cabins at the William Vale in Williamsburg

Winter Spa at The William Vale 

Saunas appear to be having a moment in the New York area. Williamsburg’s William Vale hotel has introduced an outdoor winter spa, with a collection of red cedar saunas and hot tubs located on the fourth floor terrace of the hotel. For a true Nordic experience in the heart of New York City, visitors can book the barrel-shaped sweat-rooms and soaking tubs by the hour. Doubles from $220, the sauna and hot tub experience costs $120 per person for 90 minutes; thewilliamvale.com

Gurney’s Montauk Resort & Seawater Spa 

Gurney’s, the seaside resort in Long Island’s surf town, has teamed up with the creator of Aire Ancient Baths to design a new Seawater Spa that will launch this March. They promise a pool fed by the icy Atlantic, as well as a eucalyptus-infused steam room and a number of ocean-facing bathhouse-style experiences including hot and cold plunge pools. Treatments such as hydrotherapy and chromotherapy will also be available. Doubles from $595; gurneysresorts.com

Aman, New York

Who thought their next spa getaway could be to one of the busiest cities in the world? In Manhattan’s Crown building on 5th Avenue, the latest Aman will open in the spring with a three-storey wellness centre. Inside the slick space will be seven treatment suites, a yoga studio, hydrotherapy facilities and a 65-foot indoor pool. Rates yet to be announced; aman.com

Willowbrook Spa, The Lake House on Canandaigua

Set on the banks of Lake Canandaigua (one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York) the Willowbrook Spa’s location might be as calming as the space itself. Opened last year, the spa has a wide range of treatments, from sweat sessions in saunas set along the creek to “bodywork” massages designed to help realign your posture after too much screen time. Doubles from $310; lakehousecanandaigua.com

The spa pool at the Aman New York

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