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Midwestern warm-up: Let a spa turn cold and gray into warm and sunny

Published: Saturday, April 6, 2013 1:15 a.m. CDT

ELKHART LAKE, Wis. – “So what brings you here?” my massage therapist, Serena, asked while leading me from the Aspira spa’s hot tub to the soft table where she would rub me down in a haze of sandalwood oil for the next 50 minutes.

“Just looking for a warm-up,” I said.

“Good call on a day like this,” she said.

The day, in a word, was winter: high-teen temperatures, bony, shivering trees and an inch of snow on the way. In other words, it was the perfect time to pad around in a bathrobe and slippers while moving from core-warming pursuit to core-warming pursuit: the hot tub, a massage, the seven-headed shower, lunch (in my bathrobe), more hot tub and, finally, a chromatherapy bath where the colors shift from blue to purple to green to balance my energy amid the toasty bubbles and jets.

Even in the grip of winter, you too likely can stand a slice of rejuvenation and escape. But if that quest be hemmed in by distance and time, there is no shortage of spas that exist solely to take you away, no matter that they’re in, say, central Wisconsin in winter.

I headed to two to remind you of the possibilities for the remaining arctic weeks.

— Aspira spa at The Osthoff Resort (Elkhart Lake, Wis.)

Wisconsin is loaded with spas, but I opted for the small-town splendor of Elkhart Lake, population 967. Things were quiet amid the gently rolling frozen farms.

“This is the slowest time of the year,” said the bartender at Lake Street Cafe, where I stopped for an India pale ale from 3 Sheeps Brewing in nearby Sheboygan. “It doesn’t help that it’s 5 degrees outside.”

The Osthoff wasn’t much busier. A few nights earlier, the resort had rented fewer than 10 of the 240 rooms tucked in its sprawling, U-shaped complex that sits beside the lake sharing the town’s name. The front-desk clerk told me, “Give us a call if you get scared in your own building.”

Even after exchanging a few “The Shining” jokes, I still wasn’t scared. Instead I cranked up the thermostat, switched on the gas fireplace and put up my feet.

The next day began with a swim in the resort’s pool — not a part of the spa and therefore just another hotel pool at heart — before crossing the Osthoff’s seemingly endless maze of halls to reach the spa.

While the resort opened in 1995 and the rooms are very much of that era — comfortable in their beige predictability but not quite cutting-edge luxury — the spa opened in 2005 and feels decidedly more modern: plenty of stone, tile and dim lighting through its 20,000 square feet, which includes more than a dozen quiet rooms for pursuits ranging from massage to meditation.

An attendant led me to the lightly-scented men’s locker room (pine, perhaps), pointing to the stack of white robes, white slippers and amenities — lotion, combs, razors, mouthwash and the like. The men’s lounge, like the women’s, offered the classic spa buffet of nuts and dried fruit, ice water and hot tea. Unlike in the women’s locker room (where I took an authorized look), the magazine stack was composed of recent issues of Sports Illustrated, Fortune and Time.

I spent half an hour in the circular co-ed whirlpool that sat between a stone fireplace and a wall of windows that allowed warm, bright streaming daylight to stream in. On a midweek in January, I was alone.

Alone until Serena showed up. Dark hair pulled back and wearing glasses, she led me to a dim room with a fireplace, shower, whirlpool tub and massage table (Aspira has several such “massage suites” for stays that can extend beyond the rubdown). I had opted for the Sacred Waters massage, one of the spa’s signature treatments and ideal for mid-winter.

As I laid face down, Serena began by placing a deerskin pouch filled with warm water in both of my hands and one on my lower back. The water, she said, came from a nearby lake in a nod to the American Indians who have used the same body of water in ceremonies for generations. As Serena went to work, I became too intoxicated by her handiwork to ask how exactly the resort procures water from a frozen lake. And on Serena went, filling the next 50 minutes with a joyous winter vortex of sandalwood, comfort and warmth.

“Any questions?” Serena asked when she was finished.

“Yes,” I said. “Why didn’t I get the 80-minute version?”

She laughed.

“That’s what they all say.”

— The Heartland Spa and Fitness Resort (Gilman, Ill.)

Four warnings greet visitors to The Heartland Spa on the long flat plains 90 miles south of Chicago: Drive slowly. No hunting or fishing. Private property. No junk food.

If you doubt the importance of “No junk food,” don’t; it prompted a woman who arrived just after me to whisper to her companion, as if she had just drawn a mustache on the “Mona Lisa,” “I ate a cupcake this morning.”

The Heartland decor can best be described as 1980s farm, which makes sense because the spa is housed in a former dairy farm and opened in the ‘80s. It is more modest than modern, but that is part of its home-spun charm.

The Heartland Spa offers the opposite warm-up of Aspira and many other Midwestern spas. Let’s call it a healthy warmth. Yes, the classic spa-like luxury is at hand: massages, facials, manicures and the like. It also includes the less typical, like an ionizing foot bath that detoxifies through the bottom of the feet. The color of the water supposedly indicates which part of the body has been cleansed.

But you don’t just have things done to you at The Heartland. Down on the farm, you are entering something that is uniquely its own: a community, a spirit and a mind-set. It is unfussy, unpretentious and nonjudgmental, all things that happen when everyone is wearing the same clothes.

Yes it’s true: When booking a stay, The Heartland asks a guest his (or more likely her) size so the standard Heartland wear can be prepared for arrival: well-worn T-shirts and sweatshirts that bear a thin “H” on the chest, as well as a moderately thick robe. Upon request, Heartland sweat pants also can join the ensemble. (I brought my own.) When any of the above are dirty, simply leave them on a mat outside the room and — poof — new ones appear.

“I love that I barely had to pack to come here,” one guest said.

I sneered at my Heartland wear at first but was won over within 45 minutes — about the time that I realized it was appropriate to change into sweat pants for dinner. Most of my fellow guests also surrendered to the Heartland look, creating an unlikely democracy of relaxation and ease.

A warm-up at The Heartland can come in the form of hard work or relaxation. It’s up to you. The weekend features no shortage of programs, lectures and spa offerings, but for me the ideal was a mix.

On the first night, for instance, I threw on my loaner sweatshirt and joined a Qi Gong class of slow, deliberate movements that our instructor, Gary, said stimulated our chi. When finished, he swore we all could feel that chi — or our life forces within — flowing between our hands in the form of warmth. We followed it up with a class called Meditation of the Breath.

The next day was a combination of hard work and relaxation: water aerobics, a massage, a turkey burger (with feta sauce) and the finest nap I’d had in ages. Later that night, a guest lecturer (who doubles as a Chicago police sergeant) would give a talk titled “Zestfully Simple Ways to the Good Life.” In short, she told me, choose to be happy and you will be happy.

If this all sounds too healthy and progressive, worry not: on the welcome tour, they tell you where the dish of red-and-white mints resides in case of emergency.

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