A one-of-a-kind Wisconsin spa blends indigenously inspired tradition with ancient healing wisdom.
It was 1886 when immigrant entrepreneurs Otto and Paulina Osthoff entured north from their Milwaukee home. After years of untold suffering, Paulina had experienced a nervous breakdown, and her physician
suggested that spending some time near the healing waters of southeastern Wisconsin’s Elkhart Lake might help. Legend had it that the Potawatomi Indians who originally inhabited the area had bathed in this lake—formed by retreating glaciers and fed by springs—so
as to feel “rejuvenated and handsome” once more.
Perhaps the crystal-clear lake, one of Wisconsin’s deepest, did indeed play a role in Paulina’s eventual recuperation. In any case, the Osthoffs never went back, and Otto built a large summer resort in the locale. The Osthoff Hotel housed an amusement area, art-deco bar and dance hall. About 40 years later, the tiny village of Elkhart Lake evolved into a gambling
haven and Prohibition hideaway, with speakeasies coexisting alongside the area’s dairy farms. In the 1950s, the debt-ridden hotel was sold off, and for the next 30 years, the facility operated as a drama camp.
In 1995, investors restored the property’s German architecture and Old World charm, and reopened the Osthoff as a destination retreat. By 2005, the resort had gained a conference center, several restaurants—and
a Four Diamond rating. The following year, The Osthoff Resort introduced Aspira Spa and, in 2013, it was recognized by Travel + Leisure as one of the top three spas in North America.
As I step inside Aspira’s prairie-style interior, I note that the spa, with its concentric circles and dark-wood furnishings, feels as timeless as the lake it overlooks. I spy a breathtaking grotto, a Tibetan bell, some Native American baskets, a couple of geodes and some ancient-looking statues. I soon learn that the Aspira team has incorporated Elkhart Lake’s lauded
healing waters, considered some of the purest in the country, into its service menu. This is one among many ways they’ve managed to imbue ancient healing wisdom into spa protocol.
Aspira, after all, is intended to mean“infused with spirit.” Here, the decor, philosophy and treatment protocols indeed exude the essence of a wide range of cultures and traditions.
East , West and Beyond
The indigenous influences at Aspira are far-reaching and multi-faceted. The space itself was designed to embody the relationship between the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal and water. On the menu, adventurous
guests will find chromatherapy alongside ancient Moroccan hammam rituals, reiki and more. Massage modalities range from lomi lomi to myofascial release.
The effect, however, isn’t hodgepodge and sporadic, but rather seamless and intentional. After checking in, I duck into a quiet, dark “spa library” filled with philosophy- rich reading materials and wall nooks showcasing
Indian serving utensils, a Native American medicine wheel and other artifacts. Lola Roeh, general manager of The Osthoff and a world traveler, explains that she and fellow staffers find such treasures “all over.”
Roeh, who grew up on a Wisconsin farm, has a background in holistic medicine, chemistry and biology, and her passions include learning about plants and natural healing rituals. Thus, the philosophy of the spa
she largely developed is to “embrace healing traditions from people the world over,” she says. “Many cultures fall under that umbrella, but we drill down closest to the practices of our indigenous people: the Native
Americans who settled on the shores of Elkhart Lake.”
In researching the region’s three most prominent indigenous tribes—the Potawatomis, Ojibwas and Menominees—Roeh uncovered plenty about native fauna. “I’d been picking elderberries my whole life before I learned they’re extremely high in antioxidants and flavonoids,” she says. “Also, according to local tribes, cedar is an herb of protection and purification.”
Hence, menu items include the Elderberry Facial (50 min./$130), wherein steam and moist towels are infused with locally picked elderberries—“We macerate them immediately before the treatment, so the antioxidants
and flavonoids are at their most potent”— after which dried, ground berries are used to exfoliate the skin; and a Cedars Massage (50-80 min./$155- $200), featuring freshly gathered cedar from the
surrounding forests. The wood is used in a cedar-infused oil massage, and to envelop guests in a large duvet filled with aromatic cedar sprigs.
Then there’s the Sacred Waters Massage (50-80 min./$155-$200), for which therapists collect water from Elkhart Lake in deerskin bags and then apply the bags, warmed, to clients’ bodies, to better penetrate
tissues during massage. “We aim to provide services you won’t find anywhere else,” Roeh explains.
Aspira’s earthy motif is evident in the spa’s deluxe treatment suites. Accommodating up to four guests, the rooms feature natural stone whirlpools and fireplaces to help keep clients toasty during harsh Wisconsin winters. Therapists can even set up massage tables
alongside the hearth.
All of the spa’s treatment rooms are spacious, with rounded edges that echo the concentric circles upon which the entire 20,000-square-foot spa is designed. The circles, Roeh explains, serve to “signal that there’s
no end to the relaxation and tranquility afforded by he spa experience.”
Before reporting for my treatment experience, I step into the most stunning spa space I’ve ever seen: the meditation sanctuary, where water gently flows over a wall of sculpted stone and into a massive, handmade
copper vessel. Cushions are arranged around an effervescent reflecting pool. Roeh describes this space as the “soul of the spa.” She continues, “We want guests to expand their experience here—rather than just get a massage or a facial, they can really envelop themselves in this healing space.”
As within the rest of the spa, the meditation sanctuary
was designed to balance the five feng shui elements. “It’s very subliminal,” says Roeh. “Unless you study feng shui you don’t really understand the mechanisms of how the elements are represented
and balanced among one another—you just get a real sense of peace when you step into the sanctuary.”
I can’t argue with her there. By the time my therapist finds me, I’m breathing deeply and thinking unusually calm thoughts. Today, I’ll receive the Chakra Balancing Massage (80 min./$190), which aims to balance the body’s seven spiritual energy centers—or chakras—via the application of chromatherapy. My therapist will be performing light, soothing strokes along my meridians, while directing a chakra-specific hue on each part of the body associated with that chakra.
“So, if your chakras are spinning too quickly or slowly, or are out of rotation, the vibrational frequency of the light will restore balance,” she explains.
Balanced chakras are thought to augur physical, emotional and spiritual well-being and, I must say, when I finally rise from the table, my overall sense of peace seems to have skyrocketed. That inner tranquility persists throughout my session in Aspira’s Finnish sauna and hot tub dip in the coed lounge area, which features floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking Elkhart Lake, and an al fresco whirlpool. Nature is a big part of the experience here, points out Roeh. The spa’s spacious pedissage room affords the same great view, as does the yoga studio.
The Business of Healing
Locals comprise about 25% of Aspira’s clientele, so whenever spa
management rolls out a new service menu—about once a year—they
issue a press release and take out local ads. The area’s populace is also
invited to join a spa club, whose benefits include periodic email invites
about special offers.
Decisions on which spa treatments to keep or suspend are based on a formula that Roeh calls “blended profitability.” The success of a given service isn’t measured solely by numbers. “It’s about asking ourselves how that treatment relates to our philosophy, what its response has been and how it factors into our finances,” Roeh explains. Aspira leaders do regularly attend trade events for inspiration, however, which often leads
to tweaks in existing services. Notes Roeh, “We may choose to do some
refining—subbing in a new herb or plant, for instance, to create a
When I finally manage to tear myself away from the tranquil spa and
venture back into the outside world, I find myself paying closer attention
to the organic gardens decorating the Osthoff Resort. They’re rife
with lavender, chamomile, rosemary, indigo, sunflower, violets, lilies, garlic and hawthorn berries. The sight makes me marvel at the fact that
as exotic and utterly transporting Aspira is, it is also—somewhat ironically— a tribute to its own roots.