MidwestWeekends.com — Your Travel Guide to the Upper Midwest

Minneapolis spa getaway

A group of girlfriends find a bargain in their own back yard.

The Aveda Institute in Minneapolis.

© Beth Gauper

At the Aveda Institute, students offer low-priced massages and facials.

In winter, a spa getaway sounds like just the thing.

Relax, rejuvenate and renew. Cleanse the skin, clear the mind. Get rid of stress and enter a portal to tranquility.

Like a lot of women, I thought a spa vacation would make a good girlfriend getaway, a relaxing break in routine.

But even in the Midwest, destination spas charge $350-$500 per person for basic packages. What to do, if you want a little coddling but cash is tight?

You head for the Aveda Institute in Minneapolis, the best-smelling place in Minnesota or, maybe, the planet.

Aveda was founded in Minneapolis in 1978 by Austrian-born Horst Rechelbacher, who was a pioneer in aromatherapy and the use of natural, plant-based materials in skin- and hair-care products and cosmetics.

In 1986, he renovated a five-story former Masonic temple in the Old St. Anthony neighborhood of Minneapolis, just across from downtown, and turned it into the Aveda Institute, where bevies of black-clad student estheticians learn how to bestow "hair, skin and sensory experiences'' — that is, massages, facials, body wraps and manicures.

Savvy Minneapolitans of all incomes go there for low-priced but high-quality treatments, administered in dim, hushed rooms suffused with aromas tailored to each guest's taste and mood. Often, a girlfriend and I make a day of it, lunching in the neighborhood before getting the $40 facial, which takes an hour and a half and includes a neck and shoulder massage and a series of mists, masques and steamy towels.

But one January, a whole passel of us made a weekend of it. Our getaways usually are in fall, but that year, my friend Sandy put in a special request for a trip that would combat the post-holiday blues and be close to home.

We decided to head up the river to the Falls of St. Anthony, which powered the flour mills that made the town famous. The original Hennepin Avenue bridge was the first ever built over the Mississippi, in 1855, and the district contains the city’s oldest house, built by Ard Godfrey in 1848.

The Hennepin Avenue Bridge in Minneapolis.

© Beth Gauper

The Hennepin Avenue Bridge, site of the first bridge across the Mississippi, connects downtown to the Old St. Anthony neighborhood.

After the milling era faded, the adjoining neighborhood filled with Eastern European émigrés, but most of them had moved on by the 1980s. Their heritage lives on at at Kramarczuk's, where stout matrons dish up borscht and pierogies, and at Baltic Imports next door, which has the region’s best selection of Ukrainian etched eggs.

By the end of the 20th century, this prime district across from downtown had gentrified, becoming home to pubs, bistros, shops and coffeehouses. Brownstone-style townhouses and condos were snapped up by empty-nesters from the ’burbs as soon as they were built. They’re all close together, too — two dozen restaurants, a dozen shops and half a dozen nightclubs and pubs within three square blocks.

It was so close to home it was a little disorienting at first: “This is like a parallel universe,’’ Sandy said as we walked into our inn.

But after a cocktail hour spent sitting in front of the fire with cheese and wine bought from nearby Surdyk's, often called the Twin Cities' best wine and cheese shop, our near escape seemed sufficiently distanced from our homes, and we were feeling relaxed.

“It’s like the Snoopy cartoon: ‘There’s no problem so big it can’t be run away from,’ ’’ Jean said.

Before heading for dinner, we spent half an hour at  the Bibelot Shop, whose irresistible gift items have been busting women's budgets for decades. Then we walked to Conga Latin Bistro on the next block.

The Michael Hauser Flamenco Trio was performing with the Sevillanas, three strikingly attractive dancers in long ruffled gowns, and we watched them stamp and twirl as we passed around a pitcher of sangria and plates of empanadas, croquetas and tortones.

We could have gone back to our fire, but instead, we decided to stop by a nightclub on cobblestoned Main Street, on the banks of the Mississippi.

We whiled away a pleasant hour at the coolly sophisticated restaurant-club, listening to a jazz singer and pianist over flan and coffee.

“It kind of brings out the party animal in you — a little conga music, a little freezing cold,’’ said Jean as we walked back to the car.

The next morning, we took a swing through the shops on the street across from Surdyk's — GH2, a consignment store for designer clothing; Let's Cook, a gourmet shop; Belle Reve Boutique; and Pacifier, a baby store where the Republican National Committee dropped part of the $150,000 it spent to outfit Sarah Palin during the 2008 convention.

Then, after a quick lunch at Panera, we hurried over to the Aveda Institute, where I’d made reservations for facials. First, we sipped cups of Aveda's signature anise-scented tea and filled out a questionnaire about our concerns and stress and energy levels, which help the students decide on a course of treatment.

Guests are treated with oils and tonics pegged to emotional states, such as Fulfillment, Creative, Intuition and Bliss. It's New Age, as you'd expect from a business based on the ayurvedic healing methods of India. But most people end up in the Relaxation state.

I knew my friends, who had never had a facial, would be knocked out by these — and they were, almost literally.

“I told the woman, ‘I don’t think I can get up,’ ’’Adele said afterward. “I was so relaxed, it was as if I’d taken a Xanax.’’

“When we came out, we couldn’t even remember each other’s names,’’ said Becky, who joined the others before I did.

We'd forgotten our blues, too. Our brief getaway had done the trick.

Trip Tips: Minneapolis spa getaway

The Nicollet Island Inn in Minneapolis.

© Beth Gauper

The 1893 Nicollet Island Inn once was a door factory.

Getting there: NorthEast is just beyond St. Anthony Main, across the Hennepin Avenue bridge from downtown Minneapolis. For more, see On the river in Minneapolis.

Other inexpensive spas: In the north-central Wisconsin town of Rhinelander, Woodwind Health Spa and Wellness Center was named one of America's Top Spa Values by Budget Travel magazine. For more, see R&R in Rhinelander.

Aveda Institute spa services: Facials are $40-$50, an hourlong massage is $45 and body wraps are $50. Manicures are $15, pedicures $20. A hair cut with shampoo and blow-dry is $15. There's a small cafe in the building and a shop that carries the Aveda products. Services are available Monday-Saturday. Reserve at 612-331-1400.

Dining: Two blocks from the Hennepin Bridge, Kramarczuk's cafeteria serves Eastern European comfort food — pierogis, cabbage rolls and sausages from the adjoining butcher shop. Punch Pizza serves great Neapolitan-style pizza and salads. At Ginger Hop, the menu is Southeast Asian, with an emphasis on beer.

On the next block, Surdyk's has an excellent deli; if it's a nice day, buy picnic fare and eat it on Nicollet Island. On the next block, Whitey's and The Bulldog N.E. are known for their burgers. There are more pies at Pizza Nea. The Butcher Block serves sturdy Italian fare and a bar menu, featuring 14 varieties of chicken wings, until 2 a.m. on weekends.

Two blocks farther, Gardens of Salonica serves fine Greek food in a casual setting.

It's a short hike, but Alma is one of the most sophisticated restaurants in Minneapolis. It's on University Avenue, two blocks from Father Hennepin Park and the Stone Arch Bridge.

Along Main Street, Picosa serves Latin and Caribbean food and hosts a salsa band on Fridays. Kikugawa is a Japanese restaurant.

Nightlife: Keegan's Pub offers Irish lessons, music, pub quizes and a Half Way to St. Patrick's Day festival in September. Conga Latin Bistro offers dancing and music. Nye's Polonaise Room is famous for its authentically retro atmosphere, with its World's Most Dangerous Polka Band and piano bar featuring "Sweet'' Lou Snider. Beneath Ginger Hop, Honey lounge features live jazz and other music.

On Main Street, Picosa offers live Latin jazz and salsa with dancing.

Accommodations: The limestone Nicollet Island Inn, built in 1893 as the Island Door and Sash Co., is in the middle of it all. It has a restaurant and 24 individually decorated rooms, all with views and some with whirlpool; ask about packages. 612-331-1800.

We stayed at the LeBlanc House, an 1896 Queen Anne-Dutch Colonial built by a French-Canadian mill engineer. It's walking distance from the northeast Minneapolis shopping area, but its three rooms, each with only one bed, are better suited to couples. 612-379-2570.

Information: NorthEast Minneapolis tourism, 612-676-2288.

Last updated on March 12, 2010