Woodwind Spa: remote, sacred, reasonable

We are hugging the Wisconsin River, off of Hwy. 8, and are 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 a Native American influence. Budget Travel magazine in 2006 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. That includes breakfast, and other meals can be purchased because Woodwind has a restaurant license. Accommodations are clean, cheerful and furnished simply, with bathrobes provided for the hallway walk to bathrooms.

We are the only overnight guests on a recent Thursday night and arrive in time for a 5:30 p.m. yoga class, $6 per person. Drumming, chanting and meditation sessions also can be arranged.

Then comes dinner, a fresh and balanced buffet, and my vegetarian companion and I both eat well. The $15 meal includes a glass of wine and ends 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 Marj, who also is known as Eagle Spirit Woman.

The next morning, we’ll eat fresh fruit and organic granola while watching a half dozen deer eat leftover greens, tossed near the bird feeders. It all feels 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 sleeping rooms are above the spa treatment rooms. The only TVs are in a sitting room and the dorm room (it gets three channels).

There also are gift shops. One has a New Age feel, with crystals, oils, jewelry, aromatherapy products and self-improvement books.

Woodwind’s overnight capacity is 24, unless there is camping on the property. When larger groups are accommodated for organized retreats, some stay at motels in Rhinelander. A regional airport is two miles away.

Staff will host nondenominational retreats, organize workshops for cancer survivors, teach volunteers how to avoid burnout, welcome solo travelers or groups of friends who want to relax in a quiet and natural setting.

Marj, the youngest of nine kids raised on a New Hampshire farm, moved to Wisconsin from San Francisco. She lived in Wisconsin for four years before Woodwind was built with retirement money from her work as a building designer and contractor.

“A eagle always comes to me and guides me to where I need to go,” the 57-year-old says, and that is how she found the site for her health spa.

“Charging $110 for a 50-minute massage is ridiculous,” she believes, referring to the more typical destination spa rates. “We want to help all people” gain access to this type of service.

That includes pets and children. “A child’s life is stressful,” Marj says. “They have the same stress that adults have, but not the same range of tools to deal with it.”

Unusual spa services include the $110 Eagle’s Touch Massage, a 90- to 120-minute service that incorporates crystals, oils and heated stones. The $90 Raindrop Therapy combines massage, reflexology and cranial-sacral healing for up to 90 minutes.

I try the Integrative Flotation Discovery, for $60, and spend 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,” Marj tells me, before the work begins. We both are wearing swimsuits, and my only job is to concentrate on taking deep breaths in and out. My ears will be under water for the entire time; the accompanying sounds and sensations lull and awaken.

Marj gently bends my limbs, massages and administers light pressure to the body’s energy points. My eyes are closed, and I eventually see a change of colors, from black to light blue, then a halo of green and bursts of white.

It is a beautiful, unusual and tender experience – one that brings a light trickle of tears as well as a deep sense of peace.

The meditative journey, Marj 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,” Marj says. “I can’t heal you, but I can give you the tools to get there. Only you have the power to get over the bumps.”

For more: www.woodwindspa.com, 877-362-8902. Woodwind Health Spa is at 3033 Woodwind Way, Rhinelander. Donations defray the expenses for women who could benefit from but can’t afford the facility’s services.