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Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2007

Spa Destinations in Wisconsin

Options for luxury and budget travelers

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So one of my biggest surprises when visiting Canyon Ranch in Tucson, Ariz., was that a basic Swedish massage was the most popular spa service. Why pay all that money, I asked, to get something ordinary? The former Arizona desert dude ranch, which in 1979 helped give birth to the nation’s destination spa movement, started out as a fat farm—a place to toil while losing weight. Now the emphasis is on mind-body balance and wellness, a sign of changing and gentler times. A handful of Wisconsin businesses refer to themselves as destination spas, but none can begin to compare to Canyon Ranch. That said, Wisconsin still has plenty to offer with regard to spa getaways.

Buying Into the Lifestyle

Nationwide spa trends include full-time spa residences in a spa community that insists on tranquility and easy access to spa services and amenities. One that is trying to gain momentum in our state is located in Wisconsin Dells. Prices start around $750,000 for a Lifestyle Villa, developed as part of Sundara Inn & Spa.

Four of 12 villas have been sold since the concept was introduced in 2006. Like other vacation ownership properties, the buyer can live in the villa or put it into a rental program.

It’s also relatively easy to pretend you’re wealthy. The villa rental rates start at $479 for a larger unit, but that price is based upon double occupancy. It is $30 more for each additional person.

These elegant and comfortable units sleep up to eight (in four beds, including a sleeper sofa), and there is no obligation to arrange for any spa services. Overnight guests gain free access to the heated and outdoor pool, the spa relaxation area and the “purifying bath ritual” (self-guided spa treatments that involve water).

One drawback: There is a penalty for canceling a villa reservation with less than 14 days’ notice. That turned out to be worrisome to our group, which committed to a Thursday night that coincided with one whopper of a winter storm.

So we adjusted our schedules, carpooled as much as possible, took our time and arrived with the ingredients for soups, salads and snacks. It is important to bring a swimsuit, too, for the steam, aromatherapy, exfoliating and warm/cold pools in Sundara’s main building.

By 6 p.m., I had changed into pajamas and was making soup in the lofty kitchen, as friends sat on bar stools and drank wine at the kitchen counter. We had all that we needed—sleek table settings and linen napkins, high-end appliances and shiny cookware.

There was room for yakking and for privacy, a fireplace with three glass sides and a plasma TV for showing DVDs that we brought from home. Had it been summer, we could have shifted to the outdoor veranda. Feather beds, a whirlpool bathtub and bathrooms with shower stream options made this getaway feel decadent and indulgent.

A Spa for Value Seekers

A couple of weeks later, and about three hours north of Sundara, we were hugging the Wisconsin River, off of Highway 8, and looking for a dirt road. It leads to a gray stucco building, but the sign says “not the spa,” so we veer right—our only option— and follow a couple more curves.

The journey ends, and begins, among the ash, poplar and evergreens, just west of Rhinelander and Chequamegon- Nicolet National Forest. An estimated 250 lakes, rivers and streams are within a 15- minute drive.

When a spa is an overnight destination, most people don’t expect a low-budget experience. This is an exception.

The 42-acre Woodwind Health Spa opened in 1999 and has an American-Indian influence. In 2006, Budget Travel magazine chose Woodwind as one of the top 15 spa values nationwide. Owner Marj Champney, of Pennacook tribal descent, considers this a place to change as well as unwind. “The word ‘spa’ helps to keep a roof over our heads and get people through the door,” she says, “so the healing can begin.”

Both sexes are welcome, and single travelers likely will feel at ease because the property has a communal energy. Although there are hiking trails and indoor nooks for private retreat, this space is about gaining strength from each other. Rates range from $30 for a dorm bed to $110 for a double-occupancy private room. The price includes breakfast, and other meals can be purchased (Woodwind has a restaurant license). Accommodations are clean, cheerful and furnished simply, with ordinary bathrobes provided for the hallway walk to bathrooms.

We were the only overnight guests on a Thursday night and arrived in time for a 5:30 p.m. yoga class, $6 per person. Drumming, chanting and meditation sessions can also be arranged. Then came dinner, a fresh and balanced buffet; my vegetarian companion and I both ate well. The $15 meal included a glass of wine and ended with a “chocolate volcano,” warm cake with a pudding- like filling, plus table talk about what brings people together.

“We want people to feel like they’re coming home,” says Champney, who is also known as Eagle Spirit Woman. The next morning, we ate fresh fruit and organic granola while watching a halfdozen deer eat leftover greens tossed near the bird feeders. It all felt more like a B&B than a hotel, but without the Victorian frills. The gentle zigs and zags of our paths indoors are deliberate, feng shui touches to calm the spirit. Walls are soundproofed, and the only TVs are in a sitting room and the dorm room (it gets three channels).

Unusual spa services include the “integrative flotation discovery,” which I tried for $60. I spent an hour on my back in a 98-degree pool, held up by two cylinders of foam—one under my neck, another under my knees. “Have a wonderful journey,” Champney told me, before the work began. We both were wearing swimsuits, and my only job was to concentrate on taking deep breaths in and out. My ears were underwater the entire time; the accompanying sounds and sensations lulled and awakened.

Champney gently bent my limbs, massaging and administering light pressure to different points on the body. My eyes were closed, and I eventually saw a change of colors, from black to light blue, then a halo of green and bursts of white.

It was a beautiful, unusual and tender experience—one that brought a light trickle of tears as well as a deep sense of peace. The meditative journey, Champney says, is a way for some people to process grief, work conflicts, life transitions, dreams or priorities. “I believe in the power that I have in myself,” she said. “I can’t heal you, but I can give you the tools to get there.”