In the boom days, spa holidays centered on luxurious treatments, often involving extravagant substances: gold-leaf facials, diamond massages, vinotherapy baths. No excess was too great, no pampering too much. People felt justified in allowing themselves every indulgence, from caviar shampoos to hot chocolate body wraps.
No longer. Those seeking to relax, refresh and restore are increasingly returning to the old-fashioned approach: a combination of fresh air, healthy food, physical exercise and immersion in natural beauty. In the heart of Austria and Germany, visitors are flocking to the modern equivalents of the
restorative resorts that Europeans used to call "cure houses." Rooted in the Western healing tradition that emphasizes getting back to nature, the latest spa trend fits the no-nonsense recession-era ethos, which involves doing penance for past excesses by returning to the elements. A vigorous hike or immersion in an ice-cold plunge pool, the theory goes, offers a more tangible—and certainly less showy—benefit than slathering one's face with gold leaf.
At the Schloss Elmau hotel, nestled in Bavaria's Wetterstein mountains, oldfashioned peace and quiet is the prescribed approach for cultivating a revitalized body and mind. Built in 1916 by the philosopher Johannes Müller, the hotel still subscribes to his belief in the healing power of silence and natural beauty. It offers guests a comprehensive list of outdoor activities, including guided mountain tours, hikes, rowing, skiing, horseback riding and wind-surfing. For the less active, there are four distinct low-tech spas, including a hydrotherapy-centered Badehaus, a Turkish hammam, a family spa and an outdoor nature spa, which offer massage, and thermal and electro treatments (rooms from €170 per night; schloss-elmau.de).
The idea that there's no place like home is severely tested at the Hotel Post, in Bezau, Austria, a former post office dating from 1850 that offers a nurturing perspective on hospitality. The hotel is intimately scaled to feel like a home, with sleek but warm modernist interiors contrasting with the traditional cabinlike exterior. Guests can participate in an array of outdoor activities in the backyard, including some tailored to the Bregenzerwald area, such as river-rafting, wildlife spotting, and hunting. The Post's calling card, however, is its organic bent: the menu at its award-winning restaurant is built around freshly prepared meals incorporating local produce and game, and all products at the spa are distilled using ingredients harvested from nearby forests and fields (rooms from €120 per night; hotelpostbezau.com).
The picturesque 90-room Schlosshotel Bülerhöhe, located in the Rhine valley just outside the spa town of Baden-Baden, takes a more clinical approach to healing. Guests can undergo a thorough—and pricey, at €1,500—intake to receive customized treatments for what ails them, such as manual lymph drainage or acupuncture. The hotel benefits from the region's historic reputation as a nearly magical center for natural healing, thanks to its extensive network of hot springs. Its grand atmosphere stems from its castle architecture, and its 44 acres of lush gardens and surrounding Black Forest environs invite long, peaceful walks (rooms from €165 per night; buehlerhoehe.de).
An old-fashioned cure doesn't always mean old-fashioned prices, however. The storied 173-room Dolder Grand hotel, perched in the hills above Zurich, recently underwent a massive $400 million renovation by Norman Foster's esteemed architecture firm. It reopened in March of 2008 with ultramodern building extensions rendered in dramatically lit, shimmering glazed glass. The centerpiece is the soaring 3,900 square meter spa and health center, which marries contemporary technology with tried-and-true treatments. Dolder's Snowparadise, for instance, requires guests to take a sauna and then roll around in the snow, jump-starting their circulatory systems. Perhaps the spa's most enjoyable experience is the series of outdoor baths, available to all guests. On a winter's night one can luxuriate amid pulsing jets and LED lights, as curtains of steam frame the twinkling cityscape far below (rooms from €576, thedolder grand.com).
The trend toward grounded wellness isn't only a Western phenomenon. In Japan, more than 200 hot spring resorts and local municipalities are promoting health-emphasized tourism, offering plans for visitors to improve their physical and mental well-being. Thoreau fans will delight in the Hoshinoya in Karuizawa, a short bullet-train ride from Tokyo, where guests can walk in the woods, examine footprints of wild animals and experience hot springs, while enjoying treatments and meals developed by Eastern medicine experts. In addition to exercising in nature, the resort places a special emphasis on sleep, offering a plan called Sojourn for a Good Night's Sleep, in which counselors help guests find the best conditions—including appropriate pillows and meals—that will allow them to get some rest. At the end of their stay, visitors receive a list of instructions so they can continue to sleep deeply at home (the three-day Sojourn plan, from $1,240; hoshinoya.com/en). Teddy bear not included.