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The rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England, provides an illuminated view of the Bath Abbey and the darkening sky while you float comfortably in warm water.

The rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England, provides an illuminated view of the Bath Abbey and the darkening sky while you float comfortably in warm water. (Matt Cardy / Thermae Bath Spa)

The rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England, provides an illuminated view of the Bath Abbey and the darkening sky while you float comfortably in warm water.

The rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa in Bath, England, provides an illuminated view of the Bath Abbey and the darkening sky while you float comfortably in warm water. (Matt Cardy / Thermae Bath Spa)

The Minerva Pool at Bath's Thermae Bath Spa.

The Minerva Pool at Bath's Thermae Bath Spa. (Matt Cardy / Thermae Bath Spa)

The old Cross Bath, with its stone construction, forms part of the modern, glass-walled Thermae Bath Spa complex. The two have separate admission fees.

The old Cross Bath, with its stone construction, forms part of the modern, glass-walled Thermae Bath Spa complex. The two have separate admission fees. (DeeDee Doke / Special to S&S)

A glorious sunset of orange, pink and purple streaks the sky over the rooftops of Bath, England. Turn around, and the spires of Bath Abbey loom, about two blocks away.

In both directions, the view is sumptuous from the open-air rooftop pool at the Thermae Bath Spa.

And the water is deliciously hot.

Set in the city center, it is like an upscale public swimming pool with several distinctions: The piped-in music is serene New Age-ist, all chimes and natural percussive effects. There are no swimming lanes or diving boards. There are no screaming children.

Mid-evening on a recent Sunday, there were just enough people in the water supplied by Bath's central hot springs to keep the place from feeling desolate.

It is bliss, pure and simple.

The aquamarine calm at the Thermae Bath Spa belies the controversy around the development, billed as "Britain's original and only natural thermal spa."

One contractor was fired during the project, a grand opening scheduled for 2003 that was to feature the Three Tenors had to be called off, and at least one court case is expected to result from what some have called the U.K.'s "national embarrassment."

Never mind. Now the city's ancient Roman Baths have a working modern equivalent, and they are a real treat.

My husband, Steve, and I had long wanted to visit Bath. His birthday, the rare opportunity to take a long weekend together and the opening of Bath's spa more or less coincided - and we booked two nights in a bed-and- breakfast inn.

The B&B was on top of a steep hill above Bath's city center, where the spa is located. Walks up and down the hill before we hit the spa provided the necessary aching limbs to properly appreciate the 95-degree Fahrenheit waters on the second night of our stay.

At 19 pounds - about $36.50 - for the least expensive spa experience, a two-hour session isn't cheap. But the price doesn't keep the lines from forming for spa entry during the day.

For 19 pounds, a visitor gets to use the New Royal Bath's rooftop pool, the downstairs Minerva Pool, the steam rooms and changing rooms. Renting a towel, a robe or slippers costs extra, if you don't bring your own.

When you pay your fee, you are issued a waterproof plastic SmartBand. Choose a locker in the changing rooms, hold the band up to the lock, and voilà, the locker can be unlocked and locked at will. The changing rooms are unisex, but private cubicles are used to get in and out of swimsuits. And make no mistake, swimsuits are required.

We went downstairs to the indoor Minerva Bath first. That initial jolt of immersion into a pool is usually the worst part of a swimming experience for me, but this time, easing into the pool's liquid heat was a sensual delight.

Once in the pool, you can swim to your heart's content, or take advantage of the regularly timed water jets for a hot tub experience. Or you can find the area where a regularly timed gush of water showers you from a slightly elevated position above the pool. This hot waterfall, strong enough to knock you off balance, refreshes and takes your breath away at the same time.

An elevator ride away from the Minerva bath is the steam chamber. In many steam rooms, the air is so dense that staying for longer than a minute or two is uncomfortable. In this one, however, the fragrant hot air lulls you into a considerably longer stay.

The area contains several circular steam rooms with marble benches, a power shower with its own light show, and foot baths.

Not all the individual foot baths work, and one seat was already broken when we were there. But the experience picks up once inside the steam rooms, each of which can comfortably fit 10 to 12 people. The aroma of eucalyptus scents one room, peppermint another and jasmine - my favorite - a third.

And then comes the rooftop pool. The air might be brisk, but the pool water is always warm.

The rooftop hot tub apparatus offers a bubblier experience than that in the Minerva Pool. And a slow swim under the fading sunlight comes close to the ultimate relaxation experience.

Two hours go by too quickly. Who cares how long it took to build Bath's modern spa? This state of bliss was worth the wait.

DeeDee Doke is a freelance writer living in England.

Know and Go

Opening times

New Royal and Hot Baths: 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. (Last entry at 8.)Cross Bath: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. (Last entry at 7:30.)Springs Café & Restaurant: 10:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.Children younger than 12 are admitted only by medical referral. Children between 12-16 must be accompanied by an adult on a one-to-one ratio.

Prices :

New Royal Bath

Two-hour spa session, 19 pounds (about $36.50)Four-hour session, 29 poundsAll-day spa session, 45 poundsCross Bath

90 minutes, 12 poundsTowels, 2.50 pounds; slippers, 1.50 pounds; robes, 3.50 poundsAvailable treatments:

Facials (aromatherapy, caviar and pearl)Massage (aroma, couples, Indian head, Thai, traditional)Wraps (desert heat, green coffee, Moor)Special baths (Alpine hay, Chardonnay, classic peat, Cleopatra, lavender blossom)More information:

Thermae Bath Spa, Hetling Pump Room, Hot Bath Street, Bath BA1 1SJ, United Kingdom; telephone (+44) (0) 1225 331234; e-mail reservations@thermaebathspa.com or info@thermaebathspa.com.

- DeeDee Dole


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