Birdwing Spa: A healthy dose of winter

  • Article by: KERRI WESTENBERG , Star Tribune
  • Updated: December 19, 2009 - 9:26 PM

Birdwing Spa near Litchfield, Minn., helps visitors both embrace winter and melt away any chill.

A fitness specialist leads snowshoers on an hourlong hike at Birdwing Spa. Exercise classes, healthful meals and pampering treatments such as facials and massages highlight trips to the in Litchfield, Minn., getaway.

Photo: Kerri Westenberg, Star Tribune

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On a landscape covered in snow, I heard nothing except my breathing and the rhythmic crunch of snowshoes. I'd hiked for several minutes, from my room through thin woods to a small lake, before the February chill ceased to sting my face. Bare, gnarled branches checkered the pure blue sky, and a well-worn deer track cut straight across the frozen water.

As I approached the shoreline, I nearly stepped on a frosty milkweed pod standing stiff above the white ground. I stopped to admire the plant's muted beauty -- and its seeming determination to endure another icy winter.

I knew the feeling.

That same resolve was what brought me to Birdwing Spa, a retreat in the countryside near Litchfield, Minn. Each winter, I take a trip that lets me marvel in Minnesota's deep cold -- and defy it, too, by strapping on snowshoes or cross-country skies and stepping into the bracing outdoors. Last year, I chose a getaway that would not only put me in the maw of the season, but also coddle me for my endeavor. Birdwing offered not only trails winding through woodlands, but also treatments that would surely help me carry on until spring.

I'd braved temperatures in the low teens for an early-morning hike, knowing what was coming later: a soak in a hot tub, a facial and a massage.

The snowshoe trail led over the lake, veered onto an island and continued to the far side, where it eventually passed through a restored prairie, most of its native plants buried under snow. I watched a nuthatch do its upside-down dance on a tree and a hawk scan the meadows for breakfast.

After an hour's walk, I came upon the main house. At Birdwing, all paths eventually lead to this stucco and timber lodge that sits on a rise overlooking the lake. It contains the dining room, where communal meals are shared, a few guest rooms, and, in the basement, a sauna, whirlpool tub and the spa treatment rooms.

Across the front yard and driveway stood a tall red barn, a defunct silo nestled to its side, where my spacious room was among eight, some large enough to accommodate groups.

Beyond the barn, an oversized shed perched near a pond. It had once stored the light machinery needed to manage the 300-acre landholding, but was now filled with other essential equipment: treadmills, stationary bikes and an exercise studio where a variety of classes are held daily.

I popped into the main house to grab a pre-breakfast apple from the fruit bowl and to check the events schedule penned on a whiteboard: 9 a.m., breakfast; 10 a.m., qi gong; 11 a.m., drums alive; noon, lunch; 1 p.m. balance ball; 5:30 p.m., dinner. The day was shaping up nicely.

Not your usual getaway

"My husband sent me here because I needed a break," my tablemate told me over dinner the previous night. Her college-age daughter had a dangerous condition and the stress and hours spent caretaking had led to headaches and poor sleep.

At breakfast, I met more of my weekend cohorts, including two women from Illinois who had made the nine-hour drive for a weekend at Birdwing every winter for nearly a decade and a bride-to-be and her attendants bonding over facials.

Men come, too, the young woman who doubled as manager and chef assured me. "We had a guy whose wife sent him here to unwind. He kept driving to the coffee shop in town for the wireless connection. And maybe he'd grab a muffin, too."

A weekend at Birdwing, it seems, may not be for everyone.

Richard Carlson opened the spa 25 years ago, after he and his wife had spent time at spas in Europe. Back then, there were fewer than 50 such retreats nationwide, practically none in the northern states, and they encouraged stays of a week or longer and catered to people who hoped to lose weight. While daylong and weekend trips make up much of Birdwing's business today and guests are welcome to bring in outside food and wine, that original sensibility permeates the place.

Pancakes rich with oats, wheat flour and flaxseed are topped with a fruit sauce; guests are served two the size of your palm. (Fruit and cottage cheese rounded out the meal.) Stuffed peppers at lunch got their protein from black beans, almonds and a mere 1/8 cup of cheese per serving. Silken tofu formed the creamy base of a pumpkin pudding. The meals were delicious, interesting, even inspiring, as they are meant to be with their creative calorie-cutting brazenness, but not exactly robust. Each day at Birdwing, the grand calorie count of all three meals, which shun excessive sugar, white flour and fat, generally does not exceed 1,500.

More proof that a weekend at Birdwing is not your typical getaway: You can skip the 11 a.m. checkout rush. Arrival time is 7 p.m., after dinner (though you can arrange to arrive earlier); departure is at 4 p.m. That way, guests can get the most of the daily workout schedule and relax.

"People used to come to us to lose weight," said the fit, gray-haired Carlson. "Now, overwhelmingly, people are coming here to decompress, escape their pressured lives."

The setting helps. The main lodge overlooks a pristine lake. Trails wind through prairie meadows and woods. A birdfeeder is alive with activity just outside the dining room's bay window.

When Carlson was looking for a place to open his spa years ago, he immediately saw the potential in this former private home. "There is a lot of natural habitat out here. There is a lot of birding out here -- that's where the name came from -- everything from hawks to egrets to pelicans to any number of songbirds," he told me after breakfast.

When I crossed the yard to my room, I spotted a pheasant feather whose brown and black lines stood out against the silvery snow like an exclamation point.

Muscle work

The exercise studio resounded with fast-paced music, and I kept pounding in rhythm on the tail of the loon. The oversized duck was painted on the cinderblock wall, and I was the last in a row of women hopping and beating balance balls with drumsticks. When it was time to step right and bang on your neighbor's ball, I got Minnesota's state bird instead.

The Drums Alive class, a cutting-edge offering imported from Germany, was one highlight of a busy day. But for me, the real fun started after dinner, when I made my way to the spa for a facial and a massage.

The thick terrycloth robe I changed into in the dressing room was classic spa. The wait by the fireplace was not. The Illinois duo had set up shop on the sofas, eating potato chips and watching a sappy movie. I plopped mindlessly by the fireplace until one of them warned me that she'd seen sparks fly through the screen. I sidled over and waited for one of the white-coated women who floated around to call my name.

Who knew that there were acu-pressure points on faces that can spur the production of collagen? That was one of the lessons I learned before melting away into a stupor.

On the massage table, my hands were covered in a warm, herbal gel while a strong-armed masseuse kneaded my body. When she picked up my arm to gently tug, I felt my muscles submit.

As the treatment came to a close, I lay on the table and began to wonder how I could possibly entice my warm, listless body to move from the cozy lodge, and the cozier treatment room, into the cold night air. I needed to get to my bed in the barn.

I delayed, dawdling in the dressing room and dining room, where some of the women still sat after dinner, trading stories and drinking wine. But when I eventually stepped outside, I was still glowing bright with fresh skin and warm muscles, shining back at the stars in the twinkling night sky. Spring couldn't be far away.

Kerri Westenberg • 612-673-4282

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  • BIRDWINGING IT

    Basics: All workout classes, meals and two treatments are included in the price of the two-day package at Birdwing Spa near Litchfield, Minn. Prices start at $515 for the package; longer and shorter packages, including a one-day, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. option, are available. Typical check-in time is 7 p.m.; checkout is 4 p.m. This allows visitors to take advantage of a full day's activities.

    Rooms: While my suite in the barn was spacious, with two queen beds, a table and chairs, a sofa, TV and whirlpool tub in the bathroom, style was lacking. It was cozy, but not chic as I've encountered at higher-end (and much costlier) destination spas.

    Food: The three meals served daily contain a total of no more than 1,500 calories. A fruit bowl on the dining room table can stem growing hunger. Two veteran Birdwingers drank wine and ate chips in the communal TV room downstairs during my stay. Such off-the-menu indulgences are welcome. If you prefer wine with dinner, bring a bottle (and offer to share it with your tablemates).

    Activities: Cross-country skis and snowshoes line the front porch and are free to use, but ski trails are generally not groomed. The main lodge offers a great room overlooking the lake, a quiet room, and a television room with a DVD and video player, plus a movie library on the basement level. Also on that level are a sauna and whirlpool, which can be used at any time, and the spa treatment rooms. In the summer, visitors can canoe and kayak on the lake and hang out at (or take a class in) the outdoor pool. Fifteen miles of trails are groomed in the summer; in wintertime that number is somewhat reduced.

    Treatments: A variety of treatments, from manicures and waxing to wraps and massages, are available. I was tempted by, but did not try, a honey-almond moisturizing facial and a birch tree detoxifying wrap. A full menu is listed on Birdwing's website.

    Contact: 1-320-693-6064; www.birdwingspa.com. Ask about the winter weekend special, which offers a $25 credit per person, per day.

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