On a chilly winter morning, almost nothing feels so good on your skin as hot water. Morning, noon and night, hot-tub spas around the city are warm, wet and able to release your body from the grips of Chicago`s cold.
``We were in the Bahamas, `` said one South Side man recently as he emerged with a companion from one of the five private suites at Clearwater Hot Tubs, 15 W. Hubbard St.
With hourly hot tub rentals, Clearwater has been tackling cold-weather tensions since 1979, said co-owner Mark Pertile.
Pertile said Midwesterners had to thaw their impressions of the big, bubbly tubs, because they are often associated with wild life in carefree California.
``People don`t realize the hydro therapy, `` he said. ``But people have slowly adapted and sales are going up.``
Some rather unlikely groups have caught on to the soothing quality of the hot tubs at Clearwater, which are kept around 104 degrees Fahrenheit. Pertile said his spa serves one group of executives that comes in for its monthly board meeting, a party of seniors that comes in weekly to soak before going bowling and even a gathering of women from a Milwaukee church that soaks and prays once a month.
Clearwater also basks in the glow of sales from regular customers who work in the offices surrounding the spa and drop in for a lunch-time soak. Some come for a quick rest on one of the spa`s two tanning beds.
Primarily a tanning salon, Tan Chicago, 1 E. Oak St., has featured a video spa for almost two of its five years in business. This cozy suite has a videocassette recorder that allows patrons to watch a movie while soaking in a redwood hot tub. According to the spa`s general manager, Randy Novak, a new kind of vegetable is growing in this suite.
``Instead of being a couch potato, be a spa potato, `` he said.
Presently, Tan Chicago, with 11 tanning rooms, rents only one hot tub suite. It features a cedar-wood sauna, a cool-mist shower over the tub, private washroom facilities and a small refrigerator installed in a wall for refreshments. Like Clearwater`s suites, Tan Chicago`s also provides stereo radio with a cassette player.
Ceiling fans and vents for fresh-air circulation in the Tan Chicago suite prevent moisture damage to videocassettes.
Novak boasts that professional athletes, politicians and entertainers, including actress Marilu Henner and singer George Michael, are among the bathers who have rented the video spa.
``Sometimes we think people are superstars, we just can`t recognize them, `` he said.
If you`re not a superstar, but you keep crazy hours nevertheless, Novak said Tan Chicago can make pre-paid arrangements to have the video spa open at early morning hours.
Pertile and Novak have seen some of the same ideas come to life in the heat of the hot-tub spa. Several people have brought a blindfolded friend to the spas, and many marriage proposals have been offered in a hot-tub suite.
One groom-to-be did not propose in a hot tub, but his bride-to-be was thinking hot tub for his 24th birthday.
``My fiance did this as a surprise for my birthday, `` said John Letman of the Near North Side. ``It`s very comfortable because you can adjust the flow of bubbles. It`s like a full body massage.``
Hot tubs are cleaned by electronic purification and chlorine and bromine treatments that kill bacteria. The suites are wiped down with hospital disinfectant and the tubs are regularly drained and refiltered.