Destination spas: What is the perfect setting?

One of the biggest surprises, when visiting Tucson’s Canyon Ranch in 2003, was that a basic Swedish massage was the most popular spa service.

Why pay all that money, I asked, to get something good but basic? Our tour guide shrugged. “We’re not trendy,” she said, but more concerned with “empowering people to take care of themselves.”

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.

More than 50 classes and activities are scheduled daily, up to 240 people stay at one time and the staff-to-guest ratio is 3-to-1.

I’ve seen a handful of Wisconsin businesses refer to themselves as destination spas but none can begin to compare to Canyon Ranch.

That said, Wisconsin contains a plethora of excellent places to knead, oil, stretch and wrap your limbs. Through work research or by personal choice, I’ve sampled some of the more unusual spa options, like sweating inside a body bag of steam, getting encased in foil, being blasted with water from several directions, having hot stones line my backbone.

When I simply want a massage, I open the phone book at home and pay about one-half the price of a resort massage. When traveling, what I’m seeking is a one-of-a-kind experience, more than value.

What I’ve learned is that intangibles can matter as much as the therapist’s expertise. This is what happens in a perfect spa setting:

– The customer gets a choice between a female and male therapist or, if that’s not possible, is clued in when the appointment is made.

– The changing area is clean and stocked with toiletries: deodorant and mouthwash, lotion and hair styling gel, tampons and combs. Lockers lock, and private changing stalls are available.

– Robes and slippers are in good shape and comfortable. Our favorite is the soft and stretchy Kashmere robes at Sundara Inn & Spa, Wisconsin Dells,, 888-735-8181.

– The therapist doesn’t assume that you want to be rubbed up with scented oil and doesn’t automatically scent a treatment room. Especially with patchouli.

– A personal inventory of customer preferences, aches, pains and phobias is done before a treatment begins. The therapist shouldn’t assume how much, or little, you know about the spa procedure. You never exceed your comfort level when baring skin.

– The therapist doesn’t push a line of aromatherapy or skin care products, especially as the service is being rendered.

– Spa service prices contain the therapist’s gratuity. Few places do this, but an exception is Grand Geneva Resort & Spa, Lake Geneva, and 800-246-5468, where prices include a 10 percent tip.

– There is a comfortable area to linger after a spa treatment, to lessen the jolt from relaxation to reality. Kohler Waters Spa provides a great option, especially for couples, because of its coed lounge (with pool) and the ability to discreetly stroll – still wearing a robe – to overnight accommodations in the Carriage House, right above the spa. For more:, 866-928-3777.

– There are four separate lounging areas: for groups, couples, men and women. Stock each with cold water, juice and a light snack or two, like fruit.

– There are relaxing diversions to help make the experience last hours. Inspirational reading materials and self-guided spa treatments are a plus. A fine example is the new Evensong Spa at Heidel House Resort, Green Lake. An indoor labyrinth encourages walking and meditation. Views from large windows are of nature and Tuscumbia, the state’s oldest golf course. Spa cuisine can be delivered. For more:, 800-444-2812.

Any place can call itself a destination spa, but the Destination Spa Group is a national branding organization whose members agree to meet specific criteria.

Like what? Only healthy foods and beverages are served – no alcohol. Daily, facilitated physical fitness activities are offered. Programs also include education about how to improve lifestyle and health.

“The spa’s sole purpose for being is to provide the guest with a health-renewing experience, and the only reason the guest would attend is to participate in the health and wellness oriented program delivered by the spa,” the group explains online.

It’s all a response to “a world in which ‘spa’ has come to mean many different things.” Other spa organizations exist, but none with this level of standards. For more:, 888-772-4363.

Membership includes three Midwest properties:

The Heartland Spa, a former dairy farm near Gilman, Ill. (90 miles south of Chicago),, 800-545-4853.

Birdwing Spa, 300 acres of woodland/prairie near Litchfield, Minn. (70 miles west of the Twin Cities),, 320-693-6064.

The Kerr House, a Victorian Manor in Grand Rapids, Ohio (southwest of Toledo),, 419-832-1733.

Not a member, but extensive in its programs and services is The Raj, near Fairfield, Iowa (290 miles southwest of Madison). The Ayurveda health center, on 100 acres, is based on ancient treatments from India that include bowel cleansing.

The goal is to rid the body and mind of toxins caused by bad eating habits and the environment. For more:, 800-864-8714.