The Corn Belt’s former weight loss destination has evolved into a holistic wellness mecca—but still delivers country charm in spades.
The Heartland Spa, a quaint retreat occupying 32 acres of Midwestern
farm country in the tiny hamlet of Gilman, Illinois, first garnered national attention back in the early ’80s when it was a strict weight-loss facility.
As the story goes, in 1983, Steven Spielberg called the Heartland to page highprofile guest Oprah Winfrey and inform her that she was his choice for the lead role in the film The Color Purple. The then-actress had to cut short her stay, as Spielberg wanted her to be heavy for the part. But Winfrey, who went on to become one of the most influential and successful women in the world, has since raved about the
spa on-air on several occasions. And the Heartland has grown and succeeded as well, shedding its draconian approach by the late 1980s as major advances in the field of wellness led employees—almost all of whom are licensed nutritionists—to shift their focus. (In its early days, a stay at the Heartland meant submitting to a diet of about 1,000
calories a day, surrendering your car keys so that there was no chance of escaping to Gilman’s Dairy Queen and donning a pig-shaped lapel pin if you dared ask for a second helping of food.)
Today, management deems it far more beneficial to help guests spearhead positive lifestyle changes than to harp on restriction and rapid weight loss. Fad diets aren’t entertained here, nor are fleeting fitness crazes and newfangled spa trends. “Today, we serve a diet of about 1,500-1,800 calories a day, and we’ve made a conscious effort to provide a more educational, fun experience,” says Heartland’s health and
fitness manager Kimberly Onnen.
Over the course of 27 years, the bucolic spa has indeed developed a reputation as an unpretentious, nurturing environment that inspires guests to make positive lifestyle changes as they experience the latest in fitness, nutrition and stress management.
The Road Home
Though the majority of spa guests hail from the nearby metropolises of Chicago (90 miles north), St. Louis and Indianapolis, the Heartland also
attracts far-flung spa aficionados seeking a certain brand of escape that many other destination facilities can’t provide: the unparalleled tranquility offered by endless surrounding acres of goldenhued,
vacant farm country and a level of support that a small town serves up best. Once a dairy farm, the Heartland first opened its doors in 1983
after a 10-month, $2 million renovation, during which an indoor pool and three-acre, man-made lake were installed as well as an underground tunnel leading from the Manor (a former farmhouse)
to the Spa Barn (where repurposed stables serve as
The Heartland’s small guest rooms are simple and cozy, and its manor, rife with wicker furniture, crocheted pillows and patriotic tchotchkes,
has the air of a time-frozen grandmother’s home, rather than a state-of-the-art destination facility. According to Onnen, the décor contributes to the spa’s appeal.
“We want people to feel like they’re coming ‘home to The Heartland,’ ” she explains. “A judgment-free, low-key environment where there’s no
attitude and no competition. We intentionally keep it simple.”
Up to 32 guests at a time—most often middleaged gal pals, mother/daughter pairs and solo guests seeking serious unwinding—spend two to five days sans TVs, cell phones and other outside distractions.
To nurture a strong support group, guests do almost everything together, including taking meals, morning walks and fitness classes.
“But the first rule of the Heartland is, you do as much or as little as you want, no pressure,” Onnen says. So while some guests flock to the front row of each yoga class, others prefer to while away time in front of the manor’s stately fireplace, reading between spa treatments and meals. Still others simply seek emotional rehabilitation. “People tend to come back to us after experiencing the loss of a loved one, or after being diagnosed
with a serious illness or having survived a disease,” Onnen says. “They’re seeking ways to continue to live healthfully, so we offer complimentary bereavement services with a licensed counselor.”
Guests also take part in motivational wellness seminars (popular choices include “Master Your Metabolism,” “How to Create Your Own Fitness Program,” “Laughter Yoga” and “Aromatherapy for Mind & Body”); participate in group exercise and stress management classes; and dine on fresh, low-fat meals and snacks prepared by Chef Barb
Peters, who pairs her healthy fare with cooking
A 2:1 guest/staff ratio ensures that each client receives ample, personalized guidance throughout his or her stay. And the unofficial Heartland uniform—an oversized T-shirt and gray sweats provided
to all guests—signals that vanity and pride (and by proxy, cosmetics, accessories and electronic devices) are inadvisable. The result is an added element of relaxation.
“Once you’re here, it doesn’t matter what walk of life you come from, what you do or where you live. We find that people are more at ease, open-minded and comfortable this way,” Onnen says. “And if you do opt for makeup or jewelry, you’ll probably just have to take it right off for a spa treatment!”