"Taking the waters" has always been big in Europe. Now, at the same time it is spending millions on new facilities, Switzerland's spa industry is adding the concept of staying well to its traditional "cure"programs..

The spa vacation is a concept with which American travelers are largely unfamiliar. First of all, the spa experience requires a fairly long stay, at least four or five days, and we Americans are all about packing up and moving on after a day or two. Got to see that next museum, that next cathedral, that next charming village. A 15-minute dip in the hotel pool, or an hour or two at poolside with a cool drink and a good book, is part of American culture, but putting ourselves in the hands of strangers who assault our bodies with fingers of steel and jets of water at varying temperatures, sometimes for days and even weeks at a time, is not.

Maybe the time has come for us to get with the program. If nothing else, staying in the same place for a week is healthier because it means less stress and more relaxation. And to be fair, many European spas now recommend exercise as part of their protocol. What's better, for example, than a day of strenuous hiking or bicycling, followed by a late afternoon swim or whirlpool, a short nap, a leisurely dinner, a glass or two of wine, and, finally, coffee or brandy in front of a crackling fire before toddling off to bed to start the process all over again? Break it up with an occasional daytrip to a nearby tourist attraction and you have the formula for a relaxing, healthful week in Europe.

For those interested in such vacations, there's good news from Switzerland. Swiss spa towns and hotels have spent millions to improve their facilities. Older baths and pools have been renovated and opulent new facilities built. The industry's mission has expanded to encompass the concept of "wellness" to go along with the traditional "cure." They hope to add younger, healthier customers and make health maintenance as important as the treatment of illness.

Between 1990 and 1996, to improve existing facilities and expand services to meet the demands of an increasingly health-conscious clientèle, the 20 spas with natural sources of thermal or mineral water that comprise the Swiss Spa Association spent nearly $600 million.

In 1993, for example, the remote Engadine town of Scuol opened a $40 million spa in the village center. The space-age, multilevel complex of fountains, indoor and outdoor pools, saunas, steam baths, beauty and fitness facilities, boasts a therapy center staffed by medical professionals. Under certain arrangements, hotel guests are given access to the spa which has brought the town additional visitors.

While physical exercise is now recognized by researchers as enhancing the quality of life and possibly also lengthening it, the medical benefits of such activities as sitting in a pool of warm, mineral-rich water, or in a tiny, extremely hot, wood paneled room, are less certain. Even though "taking the waters" may not guarantee a longer life, for most of us it can be fun and relaxing.

This month we review a handful of Swiss hotels which currently offer special spa packages. Some have their own facilities and others, like the Hotel Traube in Scuol, offer programs that allow guests free use of a municipal spa.

As you know, it costs more to travel in Switzerland. However, most of the packages listed, while perhaps not outright bargains, at least offer good value, especially for Switzerland. All prices quoted are for double room occupancy. Most of the hotels mentioned offer free parking and are convenient for rail travelers.

Solbad-Hotel Beatus - Merligen

This quiet spa hotel is directly on Lake Thun, in Merligen, just 10 minutes by car from Interlaken. Most of its 77 comfortably-appointed rooms offer views of the lake and the Bernese Alps. Guests can stroll the hotel's extensive grounds or along the lakeshore or opt for a more vigorous outing, such as a hike to the St. Beatus stalactite caves. The hotel has two restaurants, the Bel Air and Orangerie, an outdoor, 95-degree F. mineral bath, an indoor pool, sauna, and solarium. Every evening there is live piano music and guests have access to an 18-hole golf course nearby in Unterseen/lnterlaken.

The hotel also schedules special events including classical music concerts, magic and fashion shows and boat trips. Each year, from November 19 to January 2, 100 Christmas trees bearing 20,000 lights greet guests at the hotel entrance.

The hotel's Vitality Wellness package includes six overnights, buffet breakfasts, five-course dinners, three guided hiking tours or excursions and two massages. Also included are entrance to the lakeside mineral baths with underwater massage jets, stand-up whirlpool, neck jets, aerated underwater benches and forced-current canal.

Some of Switzerland's greatest attractions - the Brienzer Rothorn, the Stockhorn, Wengen, Mürren, Grindelwald, the Jungfraujoch and the Kander Valley, for example - are within an hour's drive or train ride of the Beatus.

• Contact: Solbad-Hotel Beatus Merligen, CH-3658 Merligen-lnterlaken, tel 41/33 528 181, fax 41/33 513 676
Basic Package: Six nights double room with breakfast and dinner.
Per Person Price: Through December 610 Sfr. ($488) per person.

Casa Berno - Ascona

This very quiet four-star, 71-room hotel, between Monte Verita and Ronco, just 3 kilometers from Ascona, offers wonderful views of Lake Maggiore. All guestrooms have southern exposure and a balcony. The Berno's "Wellness a la carte" package includes three or five nights lodging plus breakfasts and dinners, welcome drink, gala Ticino dinner, one free use of the hotel's sauna and solarium plus free use of the hotel's mountain bikes, fitness room, swimming pool and sun terrace. Three nights a week there is live piano music in the hotel bar or on the bar terrace. Optional activities include guided hikes (Tuesdays), accompanied bike trips, mini-golf or golf on Lake Maggiore (Wednesdays), breakfast at a local farm or a visit to the botanical garden or wine cellar (Thursdays), canoeing on the Ticino river (advance reservation only). Also available are windsurfing, sailing (sailing and surfing school), water skiing on Lake Maggiore, tennis, golf (special golf holiday packages available), horse riding, flying and paragliding school.

Ascona is in Switzerland's Italian-speaking canton of Ticino, on Lake Maggiore. It is a town of palm trees, artists and pretty lakeside cafés. For those not strapped to a chaise at Casa Berno, easy one-day excursions are possible to Lugano and to Varese, Como, Domodossola and Milan in Italy.

• Contact: Casa Berno CH-6612 Ascona, tel. 41/91 791, fax 41/91 792 1114. Disabled accessible.
Basic Package: Three or Five nights double room with breakfast and dinner.
Per Person Price: Three nights 640 Sfr. ($512), Five nights 975 Sfr. ($780)

Grand Hotel Regina - Grindelwald

Grand Hotel Regina, a stately, five-star, is located in the center of Grindelwald, within suitcase-carrying distance of the rail station. It is a member of the "Leading Hotels of the World" and "Swiss Golf Hotels." The Regina offers five-star ambiance and breathtaking views of some of the country's most famous peaks, including the Eiger North Face. Public rooms are graced with French and Swiss clocks, paintings and sculpture from the private collection of Alfred Krebs.

The "Eiger, Mönch Well-Being" package includes two nights' hotel, champagne buffet breakfast, five-course "wellness" dinner menu, two massage treatments and use of the solarium for two 30-minute sessions. Meals are prepared with organic produce from the Regina's own vegetable garden.

Hotel guests dance to a live piano and orchestra every night in the hotel bar and in summer, there is a nine-hole golf course and guided tours to the hotel's mountain hut.

The Regina has two heated pools, sauna, tennis court and sunbathing lawn.

Grindelwald is a somewhat touristy village that occupies one of the most beautiful sites on earth. Views from everywhere are stupendous and unforgettable. We suggest no excursions, just walk or sit and gaze at the awesome panorama. A train ride to Kleine Scheidegg and/or the Jungfraujoch is also in order.

• Contact: Grand Hotel Regina, CH-3818 Grindelwald, tel. 41/33 854 5455, fax 41/33 853 4717.
Basic Package: Two nights double room with breakfast and dinner.
Per Person Price: Two nights 570 Sfr. ($456)

Schloss Steinegg - Hüttwilen

Just south of the western tip of Lake Constance, in the picturesque farming village of Hüttwilen, is Steinegg Castle, a newly-renovated, 45-room hotel known for holistic health and fasting regimens.

Its "Fasting in a Romantic Castle" package includes 10 nights' hotel accommodations, lectures on nutrition and fasting, morning walks with pulse measuring devices, two daily exercise classes, guided walks, individual and guided bike tours.

The modified diet, under a doctor's supervision, consists of seven days of herbal teas, broth, whey, protein drink and vegetable juices. Over the next three days guests are put on a select vegetarian regeneration diet. The program incorporates baths, massages, compresses, heat treatments, beauty afternoons, cosmetics and a lot of exercise. Other dietary plans are also available. The hotel claims the typical weight loss is between 8 and 19 pounds.

Fitness room with light equipment, polar pulse measuring devices, cross-country bikes, ergometer bikes, table tennis, library and use of Hüttwil lake beach are among the facilities offered by the Steinegg. In addition, there are tennis courts and an indoor pool in nearby Herderen, riding stables In Frauenfeld and golf courses at Erlen and Niederbren.

On a vacation such as this it is probably unwise to venture where temptations such as cold beer, pommes frites and sizzling, greasy sausages await. Those with unbreakable wills, however, should be aware that boat rides on the Bodensee and along the Rhine are nearby as are the towns of St. Gallen, Appenzell of cheese-making fame, and, of course, Zürich.

Consult your own physician before undertaking a regimen such as this.

• Contact: Schloss Steinegg, CH-8S36 Hüttwilen, tel. 41/52 747 1481, fax 41/52 747 1500
Basic Package: 10 nights double room
Per Person Price: 10 nights, through Nov. 26, 790 Sfr. ($632); 10 nights, Nov. 26-Dec. 18, 711 Sfr. ($569)

Hotel Verenahof - Baden

Located in the pedestrian zone of the spa area of Baden, the Hotel Verenahof was built 150 years ago in the romantic architectural style of the Belle Epoch. It has 70 rooms and is the only hotel in the Baden spa area with direct access to the mineral baths.

The hotel's "Taking the Waters and More" package includes 7 nights' hotel, buffet breakfasts and three-course dinners, welcome cocktail party, free fitness room, sauna, daily newspapers, hotel library and access to the mineral baths.

The hotel offers a different guest program - concerts, lectures, excursions, etc. - each week.

The spa town of Baden, on the river Limmat at the foot of Jura mountains, is only 20 minutes by rail or car from Zürich. The spa, considered the most mineral rich in Switzerland, goes back to Roman times. There is a castle to explore and the old town rates a Michelin star. Easy one-day excursions might include Basel, Schaffhausen and the Rhine Falls, the medieval town of Stein am Rhein, Freiburg in Germany and Lucerne.

• Contact: Hotel Verenahof, Kurplatz 1, CH-5400 Baden, tel. 41/56 203 9393, fax 41/56 203 9394.
Basic Package: Seven nights double room with breakfast and dinner.
Per Person Price: 980 Sfr. ($784)

Aparthôtel des Bains - Ovronnaz

A new three-star resort hotel built in the chalet style of the region with a decor that emphasizes wood, is the Aparthôtel des Bains. its location is particularly quiet, guestrooms offer the usual amenities and most have balconies with mountain views. A gallery connects the hotel to the modern, airy Thermalp Center with indoor and outdoor mineral pools, saunas, beauty institute and restaurants.

The hotel's seven-day package includes room, breakfast and dinner, baths, whirlpool, sauna, Turkish bath, weekly social program, underwater massage, daily pool gymnastics, a wine tasting, two guided hikes, a Valaisanne evening, introduction to the Sophrology relaxation method, a microkinetics therapy session and free mountain bike use. Tennis courts are five minutes from the hotel, there is a golf course in Sion, 16 miles away, and the region offers 150 kilometers of signed hiking trails.

Ovronnaz is a Valaisanne resort village on a sunny, south-facing terrace in the foothills of the Muveran range above the Rhône Valley, just north of the main road between Martigny and Sion. Convenient one-day excursions are possible to Sion, Montreux, Zermatt and Chamonix in France.

• Contact: Les Bains d'Ovronnaz Ovronnaz CH-1911, tel. 41/27 851 111, fax 41/27 851 114.
Basic Package: Seven nights double room with breakfast and dinner.
Per Person Price: 990 Sfr. ($792) per person.

Hotel üja-Traube - Scuol

The small, family-owned üja-Traube hotel, with 20 pine-paneled guestrooms, is located near the center of Scuol, a two-minute walk from the town's opulent $40 million spa which features waterfalls, grottoes, a whirlpool, saunas, solariums and an impressive Roman-Irish bath. The space-age structure is built on several levels with indoor and outdoor pools, steam bath, three types of saunas and a medically-staffed therapy center.

The Traube's "Viva Engadina" package offers seven days room plus breakfast and dinner, daily tickets to the spa, and one free entry to the Roman-Irish baths.

At Scuol, the valley narrows considerably and the craggy peaks of the Lower Engadine Dolomites loom over the town. Below Scuol, the lake dotted valley widens and offers some of the best walking in all Switzerland. Paths in the mountains are challenging, but throughout the valley are many miles of relatively flat trails. Guided walking tours through the National Park are easily arranged. The region is reputed to have more days of sunshine than any other part of Switzerland.

Though it is in the north corner of the canton, the rest of the Engadine, including such towns and villages as St. Moritz, Pontresina, Zernez, Zuoz and Guarda, can be easily explored from Scuol.

• Contact: Hotel üja-Traube Scuol CH-7550, tel. 41/081 864 1207, fax 41/081 864 8408.
Basic Package: Seven nights double room with breakfast and dinner.
Per Person Price: 980 Sfr. ($784) per person.

October 1996