Autumn in Czechia -- Our first impression of Karlovy Vary is that it is cozy and whimsical, sophisticated and humble, earthy and grand. Karlovy Vary (Karlsbad), Mariánské Lázně (Marienbad) and Františkovy Lázně (Franzensbad) form the “West Bohemian Spa Triangle”. These spa towns offer mineral water from hot springs, natural gases, peloids (peat, silt, mud) and their climate – for drinking, bathing, inhalation, irrigation, personal care products, and spa treatments.
Karlovy Vary has attracted a cosmopolitan crowd for centuries, including aristocrats, and luminaries such as Goethe, Beethoven, Schiller, Wagner, and Chopin. It is located about two hours from Prague, easily accessible by car, bus, and train – drawing in tourists from around the world, even for a day-trip. Traveling by car from Germany: it’s about 2 ½ hours from Dresden, 3 ½ hours from Munich, and 4 ½ hours from Berlin or Frankfurt. From Moscow, there’s a three-hour direct flight to Karlovy Vary.
Many hotel spa centers in town offer bespoke medical programs for guests, starting with a 7-night stay, although two to three weeks is recommended, especially for treating specific health issues.
They specialize in treating digestive system diseases, metabolic disorders and endocrine diseases, diseases of the nervous system and of the musculoskeletal system. These spa packages include medical examinations and consultations, a “drinking cure” prescription for the hot springs, spa treatments, and medical procedures as required.
Holistic health care reaches deeper, though - into lifestyle and habits: wellness visitors should take daily walks in the forested hills in addition to strolls through the town, with its historic colonnades and pavilions, fountains, attractive architecture, art, boutiques and shops, cafés, Bohemian and international cuisine, theatre and music concerts.
We travel with our miniature spaniel, who holds an honorary position as a Chief Happiness Officer, and who likes to unwind in nature when he’s not working or taking power naps. Our criteria for accommodation thus include a dog-friendly hotel, offering special or unique spa treatments using the natural resources of the area; it should also have a central location, so we can explore the town on foot. For our visit, we decided on the Savoy Westend Medical Spa and Wellness Center, which made it known that it is the “only hotel in Karlovy Vary which has been accredited by the Ministry of Health of the Czech Republic.”
The Savoy Westend in the affluent Castle Hill neighborhood comprises five historical villas with rooms and suites, restaurants, medical spa center and wellness center. Our room in the Villa Rusalka was just a couple floors above the wellness center, which included a large swimming pool, saunas, Kneipp pool, contrast pools, and “salt cave.” The view from our window was of a vibrant forest across the street; the beginning of fall colors added golden splashes daily to the tapestry of trees.
Our accommodation rate was reasonable, and included a breakfast buffet and spa access. But the €30 fee per night for our spaniel had us wondering at check-in if we would find a plush dog bed, blanket and treats waiting for him in our room (spoiler: nothing to welcome a dog was in the room; the €90 total surcharge, they explained, was just a cleaning fee). Kind staff did treat our spaniel to loads of affection, so there’s that.
The broader issue with the Savoy Westend is that it is not advisable if you are counting on a unique wellness experience at your hotel for a few days in Karlovy Vary; anything less than a 7-night medical program could leave you in the cold, uninformed about the drinking cure and thermal springs in town - and guided by staff only to generic spa experiences, such as saunas and massages. They do not allow guests to book spa treatments ahead of time for short stays. We were informed of this policy after we booked our room. High-occupancy during a short stay means that they most likely cannot provide a medical consultation for you, or the special Karlovy Vary treatments.
“Priority is given to those guests booking a medical package stay,” admitted the General Manager, Ms Vanja Kurko Desmonde. In other words, this hotel's attitude towards short-stay guests is: you may be offered drinking cure medical consultations and special treatments only after long-term guests have been taken care of - if anything is still available. If you are planning a longer stay and treating the specific illnesses that they specialize in, the Savoy Westend could be recommended for its medical expertise, modern facilities and procedures, and its location.
Experienced spa professionals describe how visitors who achieve significant health benefits in Karlovy Vary are those who visit twice a year for two-week, supervised medical programs. Who wouldn't like to stay for a wellness week or two? Realistically, though, most of us must focus on quality experiences during weekends and shorter stays – whenever we can fit them in. We build on every experience and integrate what we learn into our home environments and lifestyles. And many of us who are attracted to thermal waters and spa towns are not treating specific medical problems; we seek to cultivate wellness with preventative health care. And if we travel to a traditional thermal spa town, we would like an authentic and unique experience there. To clarify this experience in Karlovy Vary: it’s about drinking the mineral spring water (which requires knowing the springs in town you should drink from), soaking in the mineral water; carbon dioxide baths, inhalation and mouth irrigation that use the mineral water; treatments using the peat and mud; the salt, and the climate.
So, make yourself a priority – no matter how long you can stay in Karlovy Vary. Make sure to book a medical consultation for a “drinking cure” prescription – and experience the special treatments.
Other hotels with medical spas and wellness centers that do allow short stay guests to book an in-house medical consultation ahead of time, and thus allow all of their guests to get a “drinking cure” prescription for the thermal springs in town:
Hotel Imperial (30-minute examination for about €51*),
Grandhotel Pupp (20-minute examination for about €20*), and
Carlsbad Plaza Medical Spa & Wellness (20- to 30-minute examination for about €47*).
*Prices quoted by hotels / current as of October 2019
These are luxurious and historic properties, but they also have weak points. For example, Carlsbad Plaza’s exorbitant fee of about €50 per night for dogs seems to have been designed to be prohibitive while simultaneously allowing them to claim they are dog-friendly.
You might recognize the Grandhotel Pupp, along with the historic Imperial Spa nearby, from scenes in the 2006 James Bond film, Casino Royale. Grandhotel Pupp charges €20 per night for dogs, but it sounds like it has its own cringeworthy way of prioritizing guests (i.e., guests not booking the more luxurious rooms and suites are purportedly led away from the grand reception in the main hall to a separate check-in area). Their café, with a view to the river and town is in a good spot, though, and worth a visit.
Hotel Imperial is another grand historic Karlovy Vary property. Their fee for dogs is €22 per night. It has been criticized, though, by non-Czech-speaking visitors for the language barrier with staff -- many of whom, aside from the hotel receptionists, may speak little or no English. Frankly, the hospitality staff that we spoke with in Karlovy Vary were all impressively bilingual or multilingual – it’s just that their other major foreign language(s) could be German, Russian, and/or English so it depends on whom you encounter in any given situation and, of course, your own linguistic and communication skills. Hotel Imperial is also located a bit away from town, though it is accessible by funicular.
Alternatively, you could stay at a holiday home in town and book your medical consultations and special treatments ahead of your visit at the well-situated, modern Castle Spa or the historic Elisabeth Spa.
At the Castle Spa (affiliated with the Carlsbad Plaza and managed by the Eden Group a.s.), you can reserve a medical consultation and some unique Karlovy Vary treatments in advance (requiring pre-payment, at the time of booking). You can go for a 1-day wellness visit or book a 3-day medical spa treatment program, which can be ideal for a long weekend. Or, you could book a medical examination for a drinking cure prescription and special treatments at the historic and very reasonably-priced Elisabeth Spa. Though its building is still impressive, this spa is not as innovative and famous as it once was – or as it may be again. After all, this is a town that knows a lot about resilience and renewal.
Just be sure to get your “drinking cure” prescription on the first day, and enjoy visiting the drinking stands and strolling through the town.