Sundara rides to top of spurt in spa choices

I have lain naked on a bed of hot stones, and under a 105-degree canopy of steam. I’ve been wrapped in foil, oiled up to smell like cinnamon, rubbed down to feel like limp spaghetti.

Strangers have worked on my feet to get kinks out of my back. They have pulled on my limbs, massaged my scalp, pressed out knots and stretched away tension.

No, not all in one day, but that day may be coming.

The 26-suite Sundara Spa, on 26 acres in Wisconsin Dells, aims to “pamper you beyond belief,” says its CEO, Kelli Trumble. It is to open next month and aspires to be a destination spa – a place that provides “a beautiful escape for body and spirit.”

It is intended for adults only (a 16- or 17-year-old may go with a parent or legal guardian). Room rates are $159 to $465 per night, depending on the time of year, number of people and type of suite. There will be breakfast in bed, an in-room gas fireplace, sophisticated bathroom amenities and sound system.

Upon check-in, each customer will be interviewed about goals for their stay – with salon, fitness and/or spa services reserved accordingly. Most services cost extra, and choices are extensive. There are spa packages for couples, specific services for men, private yoga instruction.

Treatments will be preceded by a five-step “purifying ritual” that involves aromatic steam, a rainfall shower, dips into hot and cool pools, potions that exfoliate and showerheads that pulsate – all to nudge customers into a state of nirvana.

The three-night Sundara Revival – which includes lodging, various spa services and meals – is $1,000 per person, based on double occupancy.

Trumble is a Dells native and former executive director of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor and Convention Bureau. Her marketing campaign will target baby boomer women in the Midwest as Sundara customers, then men, then younger consumers of spa services. For more, call (888) 735-8181 or go to

The size of the spa industry increased about 40 percent from 2000 to 2002, according to a PricewaterhouseCoopers study. About 75 percent of the 9,632 spas nationwide are day spas, similar to hair-styling salons, as they only provide day-use services.

More salons are adding spa treatments – such as pedicures, facials, massages – to their services, observes John Fahey, who directs the barber/cosmetology program at Madison Area Technical College.

Hotels and resorts also are adding spa services, and these account for 1,150 spa locations nationwide, says the International SPA Association.

A more elite category is destination spas, where “the intent of the guest is for a life-enhancing stay,” says Michelle Kleist of the Destination Spa Group, a branding association. Kleist says about 37 properties in North America meet their criteria, all of which have been in operation at least two years.

Midwest DSG members include Birdwing Spa, Litchfield, Minn.; The Raj Ayurveda Health Center, near Fairfield, Iowa; The Kerr House, Grand Rapids, Ohio; and The Heartland Spa, Gilman, Ill.

“Typically, a spa is categorized as a general member before they open, and then the owner works with ISPA on the correct classification,” says the International SPA Association, of which Sundara is a member.

Several respectable lodging facilities in Wisconsin provide an assortment of spa services. Here are a few that we have tried.

The Spa at Grand Geneva, Lake Geneva, or (800) 246-5468 – I paid $64 for a steam canopy here, an effective way to ward off the chill of winter and get a buzz without consuming alcohol.

What happens? A tent-like cloth covers everything but the face. Then you remove the towel that’s covering you and lavender-scented steam rolls in. It’s 105 degrees for 20 minutes.

During that time, the face, neck and shoulders are massaged. Ice-cold compresses are put on the forehead while the body heats. It helped make me laid-back, content and stupid for the rest of the night.

Sue, a friend, paid $64 for the Mini Stress Buster, a 30-minute massage, from the lower back and up. She liked having a heated gel pad on her back, before the work began, but also noted that she can get a 60-minute massage for $50 at home.

An attempt to increase her massage to one hour didn’t work, as staff were booked on a recent Friday night. We had made our appointments two weeks in advance.

Kathy, another friend, paid $59 for the Grand Spa Hand treatment, a one-hour procedure and her first-ever spa treatment. It was a lot of soaking, scrubbing, massaging and nail polishing.

“I felt like a queen,” Kathy said, even though it was the last appointment of the day, so the room was being cleaned and the aromatherapy candles weren’t lit.

The spa price list includes taxes and tips. No add-ons, and that’s a rarity.

Cameo Spa Salon, Great Wolf Lodge, Wisconsin Dells, or (866) 333-1612 – A one-hour Hot Stone Massage Therapy costs $90 here, and it is one of the more unusual treatments on the menu.

Flat and smooth, heated stones are placed on a massage table. You lie on top of them, face up, and it’s not uncomfortable.

This is an ancient treatment. The masseuse uses her hands, oil and additional heated stones to work the kinks out of the body. There were about 20 scents of oil to choose from, or the oil could be unscented.

The only slight distraction to this soothing procedure was when a slippery stone occasionally escaped the therapist’s grasp, klinking onto the floor.

I also incorrectly assumed that toiletries would be available to freshen up afterward, so on I raced to my next appointment, a glint of oil on the tips of my hair, with no comb or time to spare.

Booking the day tight was defeating the purpose of relieving all that stress, I suppose.

Kohler Waters Spa, Kohler, or (866) 928-3777 – Marjean, my best friend, had a rough summer a couple of years ago, so I treated her to a massage ($70 for 25 minutes). It was her first.

We both were surprised when a guy turned out to be her masseuse. I’m told that he did a great job, but she hasn’t been back.

A massage is a pretty intimate experience, particularly for first-timers. If it wasn’t possible to offer a choice between man and woman therapists, it should have been easy to clue in the customer, as in “Your massage will be with Mark at 9 a.m.”

This spa, associated with the five-diamond American Club hotel, has gotten accolades from Conde Nast Traveler and is in “100 Best Spas of the World,” a book written by International Spa Association founder Bernard Burt.

It’s big on creative water treatments (not surprising, considering Kohler’s plumbing fixture heritage), and I witnessed one as I soaked in the coed relaxation pool. (I paid $30 to get access to the generic spa and lounging areas.)

Again, maybe it’s me, but if I’m paying to be pampered like this, I also want privacy. The coed nature of this area, even with its plush chaise lounges and subdued mood, seems more inviting for couples than single women taking a break from business.