Sometimes next-level relaxation requires slipping into another world. These Midwest resorts can take you there—overnight or just for a day.
Sundara Inn and Spa
Sundara Inn and Spa
| Credit: Kevin J. Miyazaki

I’ve been to plenty of restaurants that recommend making a reservation. But suggesting also that I wear a bathrobe to dinner? That was a first. Reluctant to shed either my skepticism or my clothes, I headed to Sundara Inn and Spa’s Nava restaurant—and found myself an awkward, business-casual lighthouse in a sea of terry-cloth-clad diners. Along with my detox cocktail, watercress salad and post-massage bliss, the meal served up a life lesson: Every resort is a world unto itself. As with all travel, you have the best time if you embrace the local customs.

Sundara is a microculture of calm in the busy Wisconsin Dells. Adults only. A peace-and-quiet policy (aka no cell phones or electronics). And a new Cambrian Oasis wing with faux stone walls cast from real cliffs nearby. In the oasis, a hot waterfall fills a soaking cave. The indoor-outdoor pool (86 degrees year-round) circles a firepit outside, with a swim-up bar at the other end. Surrender to the flow, and you’ll drift miles away from daily life.

Other resorts send you someplace entirely different. One dropped me in an over-the-top, safari-themed indoor water park. At another, chefs handed aprons and knives to guests. I even found a 24-hour Korean spa charging just $40 for its labyrinth of saunas. Whatever your pace, there is a fantasyland out there to rejuvenate the soul. And who doesn’t need it to weather the back half of winter?

Log Cabins at Big Cedar Lodge
Log Cabins at Big Cedar Lodge
| Credit: Courtesy of Big Cedar Lodge

Big Cedar Lodge, Ridgedale, Missouri

Few spaces give you the opportunity to say posh and taxidermy in the same sentence. My cabin perched above Table Rock Lake was one of them. Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris pulled all stops when he dreamed up this domain of big game, fish and outdoor luxury on the edge of Branson. Wooden Amish bridges span sculpted waterfalls and canyons. Guests have access to several restaurants and lodges, a marina with boat rentals, and the immaculate Cedar Creek Spa. The heated outdoor pools and hot tubs close in January but reopen in March.

After Dark Join the irreverent Singin’ Cowboy at Buzzard Bar or explore Fun Mountain’s epic arcade.

Kalahari Resorts
Kalahari Water Park
| Credit: Courtesy of Kalahari Resorts and Conventions

Kalahari Resorts, Sandusky, Ohio and Wisconsin Dells

They had me at “Midwest’s largest indoor water park.” It’s a high-energy scene. But kids crash hard after a full day of splashing (plus life-size elephants and giraffes, gigantic game rooms, and towel animals folded on the bed). At night, sneak off for steak at one of the higher-end restaurants with good food, wine lists and cocktails. Or book a halotherapy or float-tank session in the spa for the chillest “adult swim” you’ve ever experienced.

Go For The surf-wave simulator and year-round temp of 84 degrees.

King Spa and SaunaNiles, Illinois

It’s not a resort, technically. But the clerk at this 24-hour Korean spa in the Chicago burbs said I could sleep in the recliner sanctuary overnight for $10. Before donning a voluminous uniform (gray for boys, pink for girls), I soaked in hot tubs and sweated a river in a steam room—then on to the nine themed sauna chambers. After roasting like a human panini on a 130-degree stone slab, I wished I’d paid for the overnight. Instead I ate: The $40 day pass doesn’t cover food, but the kimchi and bibimbap are vital add-ons.

Go For Mad heat, meditation and cultural immersion.

Sundara Inn and Spa, Wisconsin Dells

The Sundara universe revolves around relaxation. A ban on phones in common areas creates ethereal headspace. New Woodland Suites have five showerheads synced with a digital control and thermostat. Excessive? Definitely. But you’re paying for the unforgettable. A 40,000-square-foot expansion in 2018 added the Cambrian Oasis soaking pools and bar, a salt therapy room, Nava restaurant, and a rooftop greenhouse.

Go For Ultra-zen pampering (for the day or overnight).

Winter skating on Osthoff Pond
Winter skating on Osthoff Pond
| Credit: Courtesy of The Osthoff Resort

The Osthoff Resort, Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin

Two unexpected things I brought home from a cozy weekend near Sheboygan: proper knife technique and a knockout vegan recipe for my next potluck. The chefs felt like family after a four-hour class and meal at The Osthoff’s wellness-focused L’ecole de la Maison cooking school. Guests can also skip dicing and chopping and head to Otto’s Restaurant or Lola’s on the Lake—or retreat to the Aspira Spa. Turreted roofs and old-world decor cast royal touches across the 134-year-old lakefront property. Try ice-skating in the winter, or savor bonfires and boat cruises after the spring thaw.

After Dark Book a suite for private fireplace and balcony perks.