AFTER four days here, I drove about 25 miles south through the beautiful Bohemian countryside to Marienbad. It was founded in the early 19th century by an abbot at the nearby monastery of Tepla, who was convinced by a balneologist, or mineral water specialist, that there was money to be made from a mineral spring in the green depths of the Slavkov Forest.
The valley around it was drained, more springs were discovered -- each duly named and funneled into a fountain -- and a town was planned around lush greenswards reminiscent of London's Hyde Park. Today, Marienbad seems frozen in an eternal afternoon nap.
Most of the spa-goers I encountered here were German and geriatric. The air is more sedate than in funky Karlsbad and slightly more pretentious, though shops on the handsome main street run by Vietnamese immigrants specialize in Asian knock-offs of Gucci and Prada.
Marienbad has most of the same attractions as Karlsbad: vintage architecture, concerts in the park, colonnades, walking paths in the woods and a grand hotel, the yellow, neo-Baroque Nove Lazne.
The Nove Lazne is part of a chain that runs seven other spa hotels in town. All of them have been lovingly renovated on the outside but are less than elegant inside, with none of the antiques and bric-a-brac that make you know you're not at a Hilton.
I stayed at one of them, the Hotel Hvezda-Skalnik, on a handsome crescent in the center of town named for Goethe, whose nearby lodgings have been converted into a museum. The hotel has treatment facilities, though it lacks a pool. (There are no public spas in Marienbad, apart from a few in hotels that welcome outsiders.) So I booked a mini-spa package at the Hvezda-Skalnik, that included for about $115 a day breakfast; dinner or lunch; and six procedures.
I especially liked the Vibrosauna, during which I lay in a warm, closed, vibrating capsule, watching the counter on the operating panel tell me how many calories I was losing without moving a muscle: 63 in 30 minutes.
At that rate, I could have stayed in the Vibrosauna all day.
But the food was terrible, a sort of Betty Crocker-does-diet, and there were only four entree choices at dinner, labeled ration, frugal, lowering and diabetes. One night the ration offering was a plate of overdone roast beef and steamed vegetables that wouldn't have surprised conscripts in the British Royal Navy. And there was rarely more than fruit for dessert, which explains why I kept seeing people from the hotel eating mountainous ice cream sundaes in cafes.
Then I chanced on something shocking near the Cross Spring pavilion: rows of people in workout togs on stationary bicycles, spinning, just as they do in L.A.
As it turns out, Western-style spa exercise and procedures, such as spinning, laser treatments and hot stone massage, are creeping into Karlsbad and Marienbad.
It may be inevitable, but I'm not sure it's good. I like the idea that all you have to do to get healthy is to drink Bohemian mineral water.
Begin text of infobox
Land of ahhhs
From LAX, connecting service (change of planes) to Prague, Czech Republic, is available on Lufthansa, British Air, Air France; American and United connecting to British Air; and Air Tahiti Nui, KLM and Aer Lingus connecting to Czech Airlines. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $1,148.
To call the numbers below from the U.S., dial 011 (the international dialing code), 420 (country code for the Czech Republic) and the local number.
WHERE TO STAY:
Grand Hotel Pupp, 2 Mirove Namesti, 353-109-630, www.pupp.cz, is a neo-Baroque town landmark. Doubles from $250.
Hotel Carlsbad Plaza, 23 Marianskolazeoska; 353-225-502, www.carlsbadplaza.cz, is the height of luxury and service in Karlsbad. Doubles from $150.
Hotel Romance Pushkin, 37 Trziste; 353-222-646, www.hotelromance.cz, where I stayed, has doubles for about $80-$125, including breakfast.
Hotel Embassy, 21 Nova Louka; 353-221-161, www.embassy.cz, in the center of town, has a historic tavern on the ground floor, grandfather clocks, porcelain stoves and doubles from $115, with breakfast.
Garni Hotel Mozart, 18 Stara Louka, 353-236-072, www.hotel-mozart.cz, is tidy and well-equipped. Doubles about $80-$90, including breakfast.
Lazne III, 5 Mlynske Naboezi; 353-225-641 www.lazneIII.cz, has a public spa with an array of treatments, and Spartan rooms. Doubles $40-$50, including breakfast and spa pools.
Hvezda-Skalnik, 7 Goethovo Namesti; 354-631-111, www.marienbad.cz, is in a handsomely renovated building. The rooms are large and well-equipped, but apart from breakfast, the spa food is disheartening. Doubles $55-$90 per person, with breakfast; mini-cure program $80-$115 per person, double occupancy, with two meals and two treatments per day.
Hotel Esplanade, 438 Karlovarska; 354-622-162, www.esplanade-marienbad.cz. It has generous spa facilities, access to a nearby golf course and doubles from about $270.
Hotel Saint Antonius, 472 Anglicka, 354-622-888, is clean and convivial, on a park on the southern side of town. Doubles $50-$85, including breakfast.
WHERE TO EAT:
There are taverns and cafes, including Karlsbad's popular Elephant on the Tepla River, and Diana at the Diana Tower, but in both spa towns, hotel dining is mainly the name of the game.
TO LEARN MORE:
Czech Tourism, (212) 288-0830, www.czechtourism.com.
-- Susan Spano