Thursday, December 17, 2009

Three Gyms in Bellingham: Where to Wear Your Batman Costume

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One of the first things that I wanted to get settled when I arrived in Bellingham was to find a good gym. I figured that one of the best ways to get over the various temporal and spatial shocks of moving was to quickly establish a few healthy rituals - the mortification of the flesh being one of the most important.

Several years ago, I got a week pass to the Bellingham Athletic Club (BAC) and found it to be an excellent facility:  central location and a selection of top of the line cardio equipment, weight machines and free weights. The locker room was clean and offered the three basic requirements: steam, sauna and whirlpool. I also enjoyed the little bottles of mouthwash and Vitalis, the small containers of Q-tips. Felt like I was at a country club more than a gym.  They even let me stow my bike in the hallway. All in all, a good experience. I sang the praises of the place when I returned to Austin.

When I returned for a visit the following year, I looked forward to returning to the Athletic Club. It just so happened that right after I arrived there was a big snowstorm. Nevertheless, I trudged several miles through the snow to get a good workout at the BAC. I approached the front desk and asked to buy a week's pass. The girl informed they didn't offer week passes. I told her that I had purchased one the year before. She said, unh-unh. So I asked if I could just pay for a day pass. Nope. I asked to speak to the manager. She said that the manager was running late because of the snow. At this point, I was near begging. I told her again that I had been here the previous year, that I loved the place, that I had walked several miles in the snow to workout here... could I just pay for a single workout? Nope. And with that, I walked out.

So... back to the present day: sadly, BAC is not high on my list of gyms to get a membership at in Bellingham.

I realize how unfair it is to let one bad employee change my attitude towards a place. I should add that I probably couldn't afford the membership rates at this point of my tenure here in Washington.

A quick Google search reveals that BAC has won the reader's choice for best gym for the last three years. I insert the following quote with only a modicum of irony:
A perennial reader favorite, Bellingham Athletic Club has won Readers' Choice Best Fitness Center three times. Owner and general manager Cathy Buckley attributes the club's popularity partly to her fantastic staff. "If you're here more than a week and we don't know your name, that's a surprise," she says. BAC also invests time in keeping its workout equipment updated, she adds.

Google: reviews, directions, related links

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So I called Bellingham Fitness (BF) and spoke with a guy named Scott, who said that he was the owner. I told him that I wanted a basic workout plan, would like to come down to the gym to check it out. He told me they had no contract and that there was a basic monthly fee of $35. Sounded good to me. Told him I would be coming by in the afternoon.

When I arrived, a nice but fast talking Evan showed me around. I had been a member of 24 Hour Fitness in Austin and this place was pretty much along the same lines: rows of cardio machines, full range of Cybex, Nautilus, tons of free weights, mirrors all around. The locker room was satisfactory and they had the obligatory sauna, steam and whirlpool.

After the tour, Evan sat me down and promptly brought out a contract. I thought you guys didn't have any contracts, I said. Well, this is just to cover the automatic withdrawal from your account and covers us on insurance liabilities. OK. Then, after a bit of song and dance, he told me he would make a special deal with me to not pay the usual $200 initiation fee, but that I still had a $50 membership fee plus first and last month's dues paid in full. Monthly fees were around $38. I said that's not really what I was told on the phone. Evan replied that it was, but it was just that I didn't understand about the membership fee and the first and last month's dues. Told him I'd think about it. Gave no banking info and signed off so that I could get the free trial. I was told I had three days to inform them about cancelation. Fine.

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So I was allowed to workout and I found the facilities to be very good. The wet area around the whirlpool was a little creepy in that it's behind mirrored glass looking out to the gym. A bunch of old guys were sitting around in chairs checking out the women. Not unusual. But the mirrored glass kind of threw me. But that was minor. I figured that I'd probably join.

Once home, I reevaluated my finances and decided that I couldn't join at this time - maybe next month. So I called BF, thanked them and told them that I couldn't join right now. The girl told me that I had to come in to the gym to cancel. There's no way to just do this over the phone? I didn't even give any banking information and, actually, was calling just to be nice. Sorry, you have to come in. The next day, I walked down to the gym and told them that I wanted to cancel. Had to sign another contractual type form and was told to hang on to it "just in case". In case of what, I asked. You never know, I was told. So much for no contracts at Bellingham Fitness.

An excerpt from the Yelp review:

While I was waiting for the front desk, two guys started arguing loudly nearby - one apparently a manager and the other apparently a disgruntled former instructor there, feeling he was owed some money. I couldn't believe that they continued having such a loud argument about it right in the entryway, and almost let the testosterone chase me out, but I really wanted to try out the whole tanning business.
The rest of my experiences with the staff were fine, and I did end up using up the punch card, but I won't be going back, and I certainly wouldn't want to work out in the giant warehouse-like room full of exercise equipment. Ick. What a negative-feeling place to be.

Google: directions, reviews, related links

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After telling my gym stories to my sister that night, she said, you should try the YMCA. I've heard that it has great facilities and that it's pretty cheap. And, she added, they are practically in the center of downtown in an old building.

The next day I dropped in. Immediately, I could sense this was the place for me. It was authentic, warm, full of life, kids running around, teens on the climbing wall, toddlers being watched over in a playroom, mothers with daughters swimming in the pool. I walked up to the business desk and asked how much it cost to become a member. $33 dollars a month. No membership fees. No first and last month. No hard sell. No sell at all. Just a simple, honest experience. Funny that such events seems rare these days. You can pay by the day, the week, the month or the year. I paid for a month and also paid for a towel service: $4 a month. They took my picture and gave me a little bar code key to get into the facilities and locker rooms.

Went upstairs and found the locker room to be substantial. Strangely refreshing to see an even mix of men of all ages. Maybe a few more old timers - which I took as a good sign. The gym itself was more modest than the BAC or BF, but it had everything one could need. It is on the third floor, so as you are running on the treadmills, you can look out over downtown Bellingham. There are also stacks of hand towels for everyone - which was nice. Beside the weight room is a full sized basketball court. In short, a great place with a great old school, authentic, feel.

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Just to be complete, here's an amusing review from Yelp about the Y:

I come here everytime I'm home because the Y rocks.
It's cheap, being very affordable for us students and they have EVERYTHING!
You want to lift weights, do a lil cardio to get that heart rate going? They have it! If you like to swim, they have a huge swimming pool! They have a bball court, racketball court (fun to go into those rooms and go crazy). Are into rockclimbing? Check it out, they have it! You can't go wrong at the Y and the people are SO nice! My mom used to drop me off at the day care center here, and I hated it when I was kid, like I totally kept to myself and just wore my batman costume, even though they didn't like when I did-but I didn't care, and forgive them, because they are the YMCA, and they would forgive me too if they were in my position.

Google: direction, reviews, related links

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  1. Thanks for posting your experiences in each gym. We are right now looking for a gym in Bellingham and this was useful. We were a member on Bellingham Fitness, but never again after they were inappropriately charging us for something. We were going to take a little break from the gym and when we went to cancel they continued to charge us for 2 additional months even though we were month to month and wouldn't budge. Bellingham Fitness is an unethical company. I also agree that their one way mirror sauna is a little creepy. We are going to check out BAC and didn't even consider YMCA until reading this. Thanks

  2. I've tried each of these gyms, and completely agree with you on every aspect. Bellingham Fitness is super unethical, seedy and just plain desperate. Don't even get me started on the way they use dingy clothes to "clean" the equipment. Ick. BAC has an awesome locker room but the main gym area is cramped and claustrophobic. The Y is everything you mentioned, everything the other gyms are not, AND there's a view from the treadmill!

  3. I was reading this and kept thinking, "This person should go to the Y. Go to the Y next!" And then you did. It was a real cliffhanger for a minute there, though.

  4. Bellingham Fitness is full of contract scams. I just got scammed from them, and I think everyone who works there is 10 years old with an IQ of 3. And the thing is, they don't seem to care that they are losing both me and my husband as members.

  5. There is also a Golds Gym in town, I would have loved to have had your opinion on it too! It is rare to have a cross reference, and your definitely helped me make up my mind. Thanks!

  6. I was a member at the Y for 5 years back when Becky ran the amazing morning aerobics program. When Becky left the Y, I became a member at the Bellingham Tennis club for 5 years. I played some great tennis at the BTC but it got just got too expensive. At $200 a month for a couple, its now only for the well-to-do and their offspring. Now I just ride my bike to and from work, rain or shine and run 4 miles everyday at lunch. Coupled with my Pilates ball and some free weights, I'm in better shape than ever before and I keep the money. I never joined either the BAC or Bellingham Fitness, both were absolutely ridiculous places.

  7. nasty dirty place, predatory sales tactics, Run don't do it. Paid cash and still was messed around.

  8. This was very helpful! Thanks.