Lesbians have never flocked to gay men's-style bathhouses, but North American dykes are finally catching on to this oldest of traditions thanks to a slew of sensual, dyke-friendly saunas. Ride this new wave of bathhouse chic at San Francisco's quasiauthentic Japanese-style
Kabuki Springs and Spa. The Caucasian girls at the door don't demand shoe removal, but under rice-paper lights seated women scrub more or less traditionally before heading into the 104-degree bath. This utterly classy joint prioritizes relaxation and quiet (no touching!), but rumor says it isn't devoid of lesbian social opportunity.
Surprised that something so good could survive a Pacific crossing and land (somewhat altered) in this homo holy city? Don't be. Downtown in the Mission District, visit Osento, the mother of dyke saunas. The Missouri-born owner, lesbian-feminist Summer Kraml, made her bathhouse's business cards in 1959--way before the birth of lesbian-feminism. Today, neighborhood dykes and tourist chicks dip, steam, and sunbathe from noon till midnight year-round. No public displays of affection allowed, but there's no rule against flirting! Every dunk in the hot tub demands a cold splash; the wet sauna sparks a craving to beach on the seasonally sun-drenched patio. Meanwhile, veteran soakers recount rowdy Calistoga weekends and investigate newbies' tattoos, like sorority sisters inducting pledges into a hidden world.
"I love that place," says Julio LaFleur, who hired Summer as consultant and mentor for her own Hot House, a five-year-old women's sauna in Seattle. Quiet Hot House caters to regulars--lesbians, gardeners, athletes, artists, and performers--but think naps and yoga, not friendly chitchat. "People come for physical and emotional healing," Julio says. As a result, "we have no windows, no sound--you can't tell if it's rainy or sunny, day or night."
Summer's and Julio's bathhouses are West Coast riffs on the Japanese sento, ladled with free-floating feminism, New Age spirituality, and feminine attraction. In a similar vein, Chicago's women-only Thousand Waves Spa just smells better--and is more relaxing and affordable--than most American spas. Two lesbian martial arts instructors own this place, and unlike Hot House and Osento, which are straight-friendly but very queer-popular, Thousand Waves is the sort of place that seems totally queer, though it might just be your imagination. TWS's massive subterranean relaxation room, filled with Nordic-style wood, photos of water, and veiled blue sleeping cushions on low benches, is like some kind of women's dormitory in heaven. It's easy to spend a long time here, and you should, because unlike in San Francisco, you can't just turn your face to the sun afterward and run out in a T-shirt to some lesbian tattoo parlor. Wait until your hair dries.
Lacking East Asian conceits (and very popular with Asian-Canadian women, perhaps on that account) is Toronto's Pussy Palace. It's another kind of animal altogether--a bathhouse uninhibitedly imitative of steamy men's saunas--that also gives north-of-the-border girls a chance to play outdoor polar bear and indoor smoker, and to embrace other differences between Canadian and American laws and customs. It's also one of perhaps only two wholly trans-inclusive saunas. Held monthly at Club Toronto (normally a gay men's bathhouse), the party focuses on socializing, not bathing. For privacy head to the fourth floor, a deliberately creepy labyrinth of mirrors, slate-gray walls, and a prison block with barred doors. In summer, enjoy the pool, enter workshops, and ogle the bathhouse priestess. Or check out PP's spanking-new little sister at the steamy Central Spa in suburban Hamilton. Both events are erratic, so get on the Pussy Palace mailing list. And steam away, ladies!
Central Spa 401 Main St. W., Hamilton, Canada; 416-588-6191 Hot House 1019 E. Pike St., Seattle; 206-568-3240 Kabuki 1750 Geary Blvd., San Francisco; 415-922-6000 O-Sento 955 Valencia St., San Francisco; 415-282-6333 Pussy Palace Toronto; 416-925-9872, Ext. 2115 Thousand Waves Spa 1212 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago; 773-549-0700 The information in this story was accurate at the time of publication. We suggest that you confirm all details directly with the establishments mentioned before making travel plans.