Swiss spa touts 'freedom of choice'

Associate editor Cathy Carroll visited the Grand Hotel Quellenhof Health, Spa & Golf Resort in Switzerland last month. Her report follows.

BAD RAGAZ, Switzerland -- Spa vacations are considered one of the hottest trends in luxury travel today, and the U.S. does not lack resorts catering to that interest.

The Grand Hotel Quellenhof Resort's outdoor pool If consumers could easily have a week of massages, facials and workouts without getting a passport, why try to sell them on such things in Switzerland? At the completely rebuilt Grand Hotel Quellenhof Health, Spa & Golf Resort, the answer lies not only in the Alpine scenery, which soothes guests the moment they arrive, but also in the Swiss attitude toward what a spa experience should be.

Edith Nussbaumer, the property's marketing director, said this Swiss spa's philosophy is to enjoy nature and oneself. She said she could not understand the regimented atmosphere of a famous spa she visited recently in the western U.S. "People would get up at 5 a.m. to hike, but they would walk and walk and not see the nature, and it was like a stress to go to all the classes," she said.

And then there was the food. "They would serve this [lowfat] food, and at the end of a week, you could have one cookie. You couldn't even have a glass of wine," she said.

The philosophy at Grand Hotel Quellenhof, in contrast, is one of freedom of choice, said Nussbaumer. She made her comments over a lunch -- served on the hotel's terrace -- that started with a salad of rabbit filet with warm mushrooms. It was followed by scallops with Pernod, spinach and asparagus, accompanied by a 1997 Riesling, and ended with a dessert of vanilla ice cream with berries.

Americans, she said, can learn from the Swiss spa attitude that healthy living can be about enjoying food and outdoor activities rather than boot-camp-style exercise and denying oneself good-tasting meals. At the same time, fresh salads, fruits and vegetables are emphasized on menus that offer low-salt and low-fat dishes. A nutritionist can devise a diet in consultation with a physician and the head chef.

Local wines, especially Blauburgunder pinot noir, are served here, and the hotel serves its own brand of bottled Alpine water.

The Swiss, particularly those in this village, should know about creating spa experiences, given that since medieval times, travelers have ventured here to "take the waters." The water that gushes from a cliff into the Tamina Gorge is 98 degrees. It is pumped about three miles into the resort's indoor and outdoor pools.

The five-star property, which reopened in November 1996 after an 18-month rebuild, has been fine-tuning its spa and fitness program during the last three years and is targeting a youthful, active clientele, Nussbaumer said.

It should not be a tough sell. Clean, crisp air wafts down from snowcapped mountains and tall pine trees encircle the resort. Guests can take in the vistas from the warmth of an outdoor pool that is a virtual playground of relaxation. But to get there, guests never have to walk outside in temperatures that can be chilly to someone wearing a swimsuit. Instead, the pool is designed with a canal leading directly from the spa into the warm pool.

Once in the water, guests can venture to several stations, each with its own configuration of water-massage jets. A stone grotto in the center of the pool is evocative of the water's source from the Tamina Gorge. Here guests can get a water massage from a jet inside the structure. They can also get a massage by standing beneath a waterfall that tumbles down over the grotto. For a little fun mixed in with the relaxation, guests can move to a corner and be swirled round in the "current canal."

Inside the spa are a nearly 7,000-square-foot "water landscape:" a Roman thermal bathing "temple;" a 56-foot-long swimming pool; saunas; steambaths; hot tubs, and frigid plunge pools. In the aromatherapy steambath booths, big enough for two, guests can press buttons to release the scent they desire: hayseed, camomile, pine or mint.

The fitness area offers daily classes, many not usually found in U.S. fitness programs. Classes range from "active awakening," with exercises designed especially for those with varicose veins, to qi gong, a mix of meditation, breathing and slow body movements performed to Chinese music. Other classes include exercises designed to support and strengthen the spine as well as the more familiar step aerobics. Facials, massages, manicures, pedicures and other treatments are available at additional charges.

The hotel's par 70, 6,300-yard golf course offers a 50% greens fee reduction for hotel guests. The resort area also offers biking, jogging, fishing, horseback riding, hang-gliding, rock climbing and skiing. The Pizol ski area, at 7,000 feet, can be reached from Bad Ragaz by gondola. The St. Moritz ski area is about a 90-minute drive, and Davos is 40 minutes away.

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