By Brian Clark Special to the Post-Dispatch
When P.J. Barbeau’s daughter visited her from New York City last summer, the St. Louis resident decided to surprise her offspring with a trip to the Wisconsin Dells.But the pair didn’t ride roller coasters, zip around go-kart tracks or visit the slippery water parks for which the Dells are famous.Instead, they decamped to the posh, adults-only Sundara Inn and Spa (sundaraspa.com), nestled in an 80-acre pine forest, complete with occasional deer, fox, coyotes, skunks (yes, skunks) turkeys, owls and other wildlife.Better yet, it’s one of the top-rated destination spa resorts in the country, earning accolades from Travel + Leisure, Town & Country, Men’s Journal and Organic Spa Magazine for its atmosphere, service and many luxury treatments.“Because of the pandemic, my daughter Marcy and I hadn’t been able to see each other for a while, so I decided to do something fancy and out-of-the-ordinary,” said Barbeau, a retired school teacher.
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When friends and relatives recommended various Wisconsin Dells resorts where the duo could zip down water tubes and partake in other high-energy attractions, Barbeau declined their suggestions.
A room at Sundara offers luxury amenities.
“I said, ‘no thanks’, we are going to get pampered and do the whole girlie works,’” explained Barbeau, who said their luxurious room featured a fireplace and Jacuzzi.“Marcy is a ‘spa girl,’ so I researched places in the region that I thought she’d like and the Sundara came up highly recommended. Because we didn’t want to fly, it was great that it was just 400 miles away and within driving distance.”The Sundara — a Sanskrit word for “beauty” — didn’t disappoint Barbeau or her 29-year-old daughter.“Our stay was absolutely wonderful, from the massages to the facials to pedicures, manicures and the food,” said Barbeau, who estimated she spent $2,500 on their three night, four-day stay. “We got the whole package.“We spent most of our time in plush robes, and we were treated like queens,” she noted. “Like I said, I’m not a high-roller, so this was a splurge. But I’d go back again in a heartbeat.”Those words are magic to John Morris, general manager of the Sundara.“We like to say that the Sundara is five miles away from the Dells and its water parks, but a million miles away in atmosphere and environment,” mused Morris, the inn’s general manager and a former tennis pro who began working at the inn and spa six years ago.Prior to his Badger State job, he held spa director positions at resorts including WaterColor Inn and Resort in Santa Rosa Beach, Florida; Essex Resort and Spa in Essex, Vermont; and Hawks Cay Resort in the Florida Keys.
Even in winter, the heated pools of Sundara Spa in the Wisconsin Dells make for a relaxing getaway.
Morris said the Sundara was founded in 2003 by Dells native Kelli Trumble, who went on to become Wisconsin’s state tourism director.Though some thought it was an odd location, Trumble’s vision was to create a spa and inn that would be a welcome addition — and counterpoint — to the Dells’ hustle and bustle and attract visitors from around the Midwest and beyond. From the start, it’s been “electronics-free.”Her plan worked and almost immediately attracted a following from spa aficionadas in the Midwest. Morris said the Sundara’s demographics have long tilted toward a feminine clientele with a 70/30 percent female-to-male ratio. Women often bring their husbands or boyfriends along for massages and even facials, sometimes reluctantly. But women’s groups are the most common visitors.In the beginning, the Sundara totaled 40,000 square feet, but it’s more than doubled in size since then. It now has 27 treatment rooms and 44 overnight rooms, up from 16 and 26, respectively.“Back then, there weren’t a lot of common areas,” Morris said. “But we transformed the Sundara into a true destination spa in 2018.”After the major expansion, he said the Sundara began hosting wellness classes, yoga, meditation and mixology courses, as well as new offerings like guided nature hikes, sunrise and sunset cruises on a nearby lake, more treatment rooms and the Nava (Sanskrit for “fresh”) Restaurant, which serves breakfast, lunch and dinner.For those seeking quiet, the spa added a conversation-free lounging area called Suvela, which is Sanskrit for “silence.”The Sundara also built a demonstration kitchen and private dining room for culinary classes, a fitness studio, a quiet salt therapy room and added the socially oriented Cambrian Oasis, which features replicas of the Dells’ sandstone cliffs, an indoor/outdoor bar and mini-waterfall.“The big difference prior to 2018 and after was that there is now more ‘wellness stuff’ for people to do,” Morris said.
The Sundara Spa in the Wisconsin Dells offers a variety of spa treatments.
Morris said his favorite thing about the Sundara is its setting in a pine forest.“It really is in harmony with nature,” he said.“When I first arrived, it reminded me of spas I’d seen in Colorado, Arizona or California. It truly is a place to energize your soul, and I’d put it up against any other destination spa in the country,” added Morris, comparing it to the Miraval Austin Resort in Texas or the Mii amo destination spa in Sedona, Arizona.Though children under 16 aren’t permitted at the Sundara, Morris said some families stay at the upscale cabins that are owned by the Wilderness Resort (wildernessresort.com) and are within a short walk of the spa.“Mom can say ‘Dad, you watch the kids’ and then she walks over for a massage, facial or something else,” he said. Other guests simply come for day visits and treatments.Though Morris said many Sundara guests spend all of their time at the spa, other popular non-waterpark spots to visit in the area include:1. The Wollersheim Winery, Distillery and Bistro (wollersheim.com) sits on a scenic hillside just a stone’s throw from the Wisconsin River near Prairie du Sac, 29 miles south of the Dells. In the 1840s, the Hungarian nobleman Agoston Haraszthy planted the state’s first grapevines here. He departed in 1849 for California, following the siren call of the gold rush, and helped develop that state’s wine industry. Some of the stone buildings on the property date to the 1850s. The winery and distillery are open daily from noon to 5 p.m., while the bistro is open daily from noon to 3 p.m. A number of winery tourings and tastings are offered.2. International Crane Foundation (savingcranes.org) north of Baraboo, is famous for its work saving cranes, including the rare whooping crane. The 300-acre facility is home to all 15 of the world’s crane species. It is 10 minutes from the Dells and open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. from May 1 through Oct. 31. It has more than 10 acres of new crane exhibits, a demonstration prairie and restored wetlands. Admission is $12 for adults, $10 for seniors and $6 for youth 6-17. Kids under 6 are free.3. The New Life Lavender and Cherry Farm (newlifelavender.com) is 15 miles south of the Dells. Visitors can take classes, go on farm-to-table tours and learn about lavender, fish, sheep, beekeeping, as well as how to make lavender wreaths. If that creates an appetite, try a homemade lavender cherry pie or sip a lavender drink.4. Wisconsin Dells Boat Tours (dellsboats.com) offers scenic tours of the Upper Dells, where the Wisconsin River winds its way past rugged sandstone formations that tower above the water. More than 150 years before water parks were invented, visitors first came to the Dells for rowboat tours. Next came steam paddlers and then today’s double decker steel vessels. A favorite, mellow trip is a sunset dinner cruise with live music.
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