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Go with the flow: an Austrian spin on hot tubs.

Tucked away in the heart of the Tyrolean Alps lies the quaint village of St. Anton am Arlberg, Austria. Best known for its legendary ski slopes, the alpine town exudes a cozy mix of old-world culture and international flair. Surrounded by craggy mountains, one can only reach it via train or a narrow, snaky highway. Sausages, red meats and dense cheeses dominate most restaurant menus, while notorious apres-ski bars like the Krazy Kangaruh and Post Keller draw partiers from around the globe. Historically, few have ventured to this remote mountain settlement for health reasons. Now, that's changing.

In With The New

Until two years ago, St. Anton am Arlberg had little to offer tired skiers hoping to soothe sore muscles, much less health-minded individuals, except small spas located in traditional Heidi-style inns. With the dawning of the 2001 World Alpine Ski Championship, an event as popular with Austrians as the Super Bowl is with Americans, came the need for a face-lift. Therefore, the old train tracks that for a century had run through the center of town were re-routed and the stunning Center for Wellness and Communication was built in their place.

Situated at the base of the dramatic Alps, the architecturally striking 43,000-square-foot center provides a modern contrast to the time-formed mountains, petite homes decorated with painted pastoral scenes and domed church anchoring the town. The center's sleek lines and grass-topped roof blend seamlessly into hills dotted with hay sheds, while warm lights emit an inviting glow on snowy nights. State-of-the-art conference facilities and an exceptional restaurant specializing in light Italian-Asian fare attract many of the town's visitors, but the real draw is the center's wellness section. For the price of just a few brews at the local pub, guests can sample time-tested health treatments with a contemporary spin.

Comprised of three swimming pools and solariums, Finnish and Kelo saunas, a massage center, a fitness room, a samarium, a Turkish bath and Kneipp showers, the center serves as a gracious hostess to those seeking relaxation, peace of mind and a respite for weary legs. Stylish indoor/outdoor pools suitable for adults and children provide an elegant answer to the standard water park. Perhaps the most unusual feature is the elliptical flume, a modern invention created to improve the age-old problem of poor circulation.

Hot Tub Spinoff

Technically an oversized warm tub, the egg-shaped "flume" has super-powered jets designed to propel soakers around its perimeter. Called an elliptischem aussenschwimmkanal in German, the term literally translates to "elliptical, external swimming channel." in reality, it's a simple current--much like one in a slow- to medium-moving stream--that happens to be located in a pool. Expecting a typical winter whirlpool experience, the uninitiated will most likely be startled by the cool 79-degree temperature (the average spa hovers around 104 degrees) and strength of the jets, which do much more than just relax. Even the heaviest pool-goers will be lifted off the central oval sear and deposited in the accumulating current.

When the current turns on, it's time to go with the flow by walking, swimming or floating. At four feet deep, the flume is designed so adults can easily keep their heads above water. The body will automatically adjust to the flume's rhythm--if one lets it. Fighting the flow usually results in collisions with fellow soakers or losing swimming trunks, but for some people this is half the fun. Measuring 35 by 18 feet, the flume comfortably accommodates four people at a time. To experience the full effect, tub guests should be separated by about eight feet.

As with ordinary swimming, swimming with the flow increases heart rate and blood circulation. Walking or swimming against the current intensifies this effect. Regardless of which direction one chooses to move, the jets' massaging qualities reduce muscle tension, much like a regular hot tub or massage, and ultimately flumers relax. As for the cool temperature, people usually forget about it once they start moving. After 10 minutes of motion the current shuts off, creating a 10-minute resting period.

Sound strange? Maybe so, but these Austrian-style pools are becoming increasingly popular abroad. Berndorf Baderbau, the company that constructed the flume, has built about 250 flumes throughout Central Europe. While management at the St. Anton center could have opted for a traditional-style whirlpool, they didn't. "The flume benefits more people," explains Robert Illsinger of Berndorf Baderbau, who consulted with the center on the flume.

A Long History of Hydrotherapy

Of course, Austrians are no strangers to unusual water therapy. More than 100 towns in Germany and Austria contain the word bad or "bath" in their names and Father Sebastian Kneipp, whose late-eighteenth-century water treatments are still practiced throughout the world today, hailed from the neighboring Bavaria region of Germany, Separated from Austria by just a few mountain ranges, his hydropathy technique known as Kneipp's Cure or Kneipping quickly spread across the border and became a popular phenomenon. Combining water, herbs and nutrition, Kneipping treats a host of illnesses, many of which are attributed to circulatory problems.

Although the regimen changes based on the particular disease and day of the week, Kneipp's Cure usually involves a morning herbal bath for a certain body part (e.g., a knee or arm) and an evening stroll in a Kneipping pool. These pools, utilized mostly by the elderly today, contain 15 inches of frigid water and a metal rail. Kneippers walk slowly back and forth while holding onto the rail, lifting their knees 90 degrees before gently re-immersing them. The theory is that the cold water literally shocks the system back to health. While the waters of the elliptical flume are not quite as chilling, one can see the parallels between the two activities.

As one might suspect, there are many skeptics who doubt the healing powers of elliptical flumes and other unorthodox water treatments with Austro-German roots. For what it's worth, a number of West German doctors continue to regularly prescribe water treatment therapy for various circulatory problems. Whether one believes in the elliptical flume's benefits or not, it's fun to try. After all, how many people can say they've been spun around a pool, with teeth chattering, beneath Austria's starry alpine sky?

Wendy Dunaway Wall is a freelance writer based in Denver, Colorado. She has served as the director of SKI USA, the international marketing division of the National Ski Areas Association, and enjoyed skiing for over 25 years.
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Title Annotation:Alternative Paths; hot tub swimming pools massage sore muscles
Author:Wall, Wendy Dunaway
Publication:American Fitness
Geographic Code:4EUAU
Date:Jan 1, 2004
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