I'd promised to take my dad somewhere special for his birthday. But five months after the fact, I still hadn't thought of a good destination. A spa? Too girly. A museum? Too stuffy. A sporting event? Too common. And then I heard about Chicago's salt caves.

They are common in Poland, where folks have been relaxing in salt caves and mines for centuries, believing it improves their health. Breathing in air saturated with the healthy mineral and its associated microelements (such as iodine, magnesium, potassium and selenium) is said to foster good sleep, alleviate symptoms of allergies and asthma, relieve hypertension and stress and even cure hangovers.

Since Chicago has a hefty Polish population -- supposedly the largest outside of Warsaw -- it's no surprise the United States' first manmade salt caves were created there. Crafted entirely from prime, natural salt harvested from the sea or earth, the salt rooms were an instant hit with local Poles. But recently the rest of us have caught on to their magic.

Dad, who happens to be 100-percent Polish and a Chicago native, was intrigued when I told him where we were going. Our first stop was Megi's Spa, tucked in a strip mall near O'Hare International Airport. Megi's cave features salt from Poland's ancient Wieliczka mine near Krakow. Once one of the world's oldest operating salt mines, it's now a major tourist attraction, with more than a million folks annually trekking through it to gawk at its salt statues, chapel and underground lake, plus breathe in the brine.

To pay homage to this famous source, Megi's cave resembles an elegant mine, with salt nuggets covering the floor and large, salmon-colored chunks tastefully imbedded in the walls. Old, wooden beams stretch around the door and are crafted into structures on the walls, including a faux dam over which a briny solution trickles.

Patrons can relax in one of the lounge chairs scattered around the room or reserve the entire cave for any of Megi's massages save the honey massage. "Honey is sticky, and we don't want to drop it on the salt," explains owner Megi Stoklosa.

Breathing easy in the salt air

When dad and I popped in, local Helen Filipek was sitting quietly in a chair. On her fourth session, she was already an ardent fan.

"Everything just opens up for you after a session in the cave," she said. "I can breathe easier and my aches and pains go away. Plus, it's just very relaxing."

With the room's dim lighting, soothing earth tones and the pleasant burble of the trickling brine, it was easy to see why.

Later, we drove to Galos Caves a few miles away. Almost hidden in the sprawling Jolly Inn banquet complex, Galos Caves doesn't have the chic appeal of Megi's. But its look is pleasingly fanciful, featuring dolphins and sea horses carved in salt, plus a mermaid statue guarding a small "salt box" for kids, equipped with brightly colored pails, shovels and other beach toys.

As with Megi's, salt pellets smother the floor, while salt stalactites appear to drip from the ceiling; the walls are comprised of neatly formed salt bricks. Strategically placed lights cast soft lavender, green and pink hues around the room.

Galos Caves is fashioned from Crimean salt straight from the Black Sea. Air conditioning in the walls and heat in the floor infuse the air with a salt-iodine mixture. Employee Kasia Michon said the 45 minutes we'd spend in the room would be equivalent to the therapeutic benefits of three days at the seashore.

Slipping on the required white socks, we watched Michon rake up the nuggets on the floor, causing a wispy film of salt to rise up and float in the air. We were instructed to first walk around the room to stimulate our circulation and allow the pellets to give our feet mini-reflexology treatments. Then we were simply to sit back and relax in one of the reclining chairs as we massaged some of the salt nuggets into our hands.

Michon shut the door and the lights dimmed. As dad and I slowly walked around in circles, a taped message touted the benefits of salt caves. Then the sounds of waves crashing ashore filled the air and we reclined in the chairs, salt nuggets in hand. Within minutes Dad's breathing became slow and rhythmic as he drifted off to sleep.

All too soon our 45 minutes were over. As we were leaving, a mother and toddler entered the facility. The tot ran straight to the door of the cave and began yanking on the door handle to get in. "He has allergies," his mom explained, "and this really helps his stuffy nose."

That night, dad and I slept deeply. Was it the salt cave, or mere coincidence? We went with the salt.

Melanie Radzicki McManus is a travel writer living near Madison, Wis.