A Midwestern warm-up

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"That's what they all say."

Head south: 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.

If you go

In winter and spring, rooms at The Osthoff Resort (101 Osthoff Ave., Elkhart Lake, Wis., 920-876-3366, osthoff.com) start at $110 per night plus tax with a two-night stay. There are many packages that include spa credits or discounts; ask when booking. The Aspira spa offers a broad menu of treatments and options, many of them costing between $80 and $250. Two of the most popular in winter are the Sacred Waters massage ($155 for 50 minutes; $200 for 80 minutes) and the Moroccan Hot Oil Massage ($135 for 50 minutes; $190 for 80 minutes).

About three hours north of downtown Chicago, Elkhart Lake is a perfect little Wisconsin town, which means there are a few things to do and see outside the resort. Paramount are two impressive restaurants a short walk from the Osthoff: Paddock Club (61 Lake St., 920-876-3288, paddockclubelkhartlake.com) which has a strong menu of pasta and classic (salmon, steak, pork) and a more modestly-priced food menu at the bar (green chili hamburger, quinoa burger). A few doors down is the more casual and equally tasty Lake Street Cafe (21 Lake St., 920-876-2142, lakestreetcafe.com) which offers pizzas, sandwiches, hearty entrees homemade desserts and a solid lineup of Wisconsin craft beer.

Depending on how many nights you stay and the available specials, rates at The Heartland Spa (1237 East 1600 North Road, Gilman, Ill., 815-683-2182, heartlandspa.com) start at about $175 per person per night. Services such a massage and facials are extra, but the stay is otherwise all-encompassing. Between the programming (classes, lectures, meals) and the spa's off-the-grid location, all your time will be spent at The Heartland. Despite the health focus — a day's menu, including a couple of snacks, rarely exceeds 1,600 calories — the food is fresh, filling and tasty. They provide three meals a day plus two snacks. Fresh fruit, coffee and tea are in constant supply.


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