Want to shed all the stresses and excesses of 2010 by taking a mind-clearing, soul-nourishing winter vacation that's all about "me"? Sure, you could jump on a plane to a far-flung destination where your itinerary revolves around pristine, pink-sand beaches and rejuvenating spa treatments (actually, that sounds fine by us). But if you're really looking to escape on a reflective, rebooting sojourn this winter, and you're willing to forgo the sunning-yourself-under-a-palm-tree-for-a-week routine, we have another idea: decamping to an off-the-grid religious enclave.
That said, "vacationing" at a monastery isn't for everyone. But for those looking to hunker down for a spell in a place where peace and quiet are plentiful — and where there's no shortage of time to reflect on the year past and assess the future — retreating to a cloistered community is an increasingly popular option, even for non-believers. Below you'll find five notable, eco-forward Catholic enclaves in the U.S. that offer retreats to guests seeking good food, cozy quarters, beautiful natural surroundings and unlimited contemplation time.
Location: Big Sur, Calif.
Escape-mates: Camaldolese Benedictine monks
Accommodations: New Camaldoli offers a retreat house with nine private, single-occupancy rooms, each featuring a personal garden and half-bath, as well as five private "trailer hermitages" that provide "greater solitude and privacy." Group lodgings are also available.
Activities: Not talking, taking contemplative constitutionals around a stunning coastal mountain setting, soaking up killer views of the Pacific Ocean, stargazing, eating vegetarian cuisine, sampling brandy-dipped fruitcake and "holy granola" at the bakery and gift store.
Eco-cred: The community's new green prefab infirmary was designed by eco-architect extraordinaire Michelle Kaufmann.
Good to know: "In the interest of maintaining a silent and contemplative atmosphere, retreatants are asked to refrain from using radios, typewriters, or musical instruments." Pets are allowed.
Location: Conyers, Ga.
Escape-mates: Cistercian monks
Co-ed: Yes, with the exception of the Monastic Guest Program
Accommodations: A smoke-free guesthouse is available on the beautiful monastery grounds. Meals are included with the $60-$100 suggested rate.
Activities: Scripture reading, journaling, attending conferences, appreciating local flora and fauna including "monastic geese," visiting the Honey Creek Woodlands natural burial ground, shopping at the Abbey Store (fudge and fruitcakes abound) and at the bonsai garden store.
Eco-cred: The monastery takes land conservation and environmental stewardship very seriously: "It can be argued that 2,000 acres is an excessively large area to create a beautiful solitude for contemplative life. However, after years of prayerful discernment we continue to believe that the property is not just for us but is a treasure that needs protecting for future generations — not only for monks, but for all who see 'greenspace' as a cherished commodity." And for all those who hunger for places of solitary beauty.
Good to know: "In all retreats, some degree of silence is maintained and there is an emphasis on the practice of a healthful lifestyle in regard to food, relaxation, and exercise. Many enter a retreat in order to make a serious decision or commitment, or to take the opportunity to examine the quality of their spiritual lives. Spiritual direction can be arranged with advance notice." All major credit cards are accepted. Checkout is at noon.
Location: St. David, Ariz.
Escape-mates: Olivetan Benedictine monks
Accommodations: Eleven single or double guest rooms in the Tolomei Retreat House are available for retreatants. Guests may also stay at the Monte Cassino RV Park, located on the monastery grounds.
Activities: Reading, appreciating art at the monastery gallery, hanging out at the RV park, participating in the "monastic exercises of silence, solitude, simple living, community and personal prayer."
Eco-cred: According to the monastery website: "As good stewards of the land, ecology and environment are important to the Holy Trinity Monastery community. On the 132 acres, there is not only the church, living quarters, offices and dining area, but much of the land is devoted to farming. The farm work and much of the building construction has been done by community members and oblates." In 1993, the monastery received the "Conservation Co-operator of the Year" award from the San Pedro National Resource Conservation District.
Good to know: "Bring a flashlight and alarm clock. Basic linens and towels are provided."
Location: Abiquiú, N.M.
Escape-mates: Beer-making Benedictine monks
Accommodations: A main guest house features 13 single- and double-occupancy rooms, including a suite and a ranch house with three double rooms, a kitchenette, a common room, a shared bathroom and a private shower area. Rooms are heated with gas space heaters during the winter. A two-night minimum stay is required.
Activities: Hiking, not talking, manual labor ("we encourage our guests who wish to have a balanced monastic experience to share in the work of the community, if not on all days then at least on some days of their stay"), celebrating the Eucharist, learning about green building methods.
Eco-cred: The monastery follows a progressive, green-building-focused sustainability initiative named Strawbilt. The monastery includes a solar farm that provides electricity to the buildings. Newer buildings boast passive solar design, straw bale construction and other green features.
Good to know: "We use a satellite telephone at the monastery and do not allow its use by the guests. The nearest regular telephone is at Ghost Ranch, about 15 miles from the monastery." Shorts are not allowed in the chapel, refectory or guesthouse area.
Location: Madison, Wis.
Escape-mates: Benedictine sisters
Accommodations: Single and double guest bedrooms offer "comfort without distraction," along with private bathrooms. Private hermitages are also available. Continental breakfast is included in room rates; buffet-style lunches and dinners incorporating locally grown ingredients are not.
Eco-cred: Relatively new (it opened in 2009), the 3,000 square-foot Holy Wisdom Monastery is LEED Platinum certified, scoring 63 out of a possible 69 points under LEED-New Construction (NC) guidelines. The monastery is currently the highest-rated LEED-NC building in the U.S. Additionally, the grounds of the monastery are used as a "living laboratory" for environmental education, and non-retreat volunteer opportunities on the land are available throughout the year.
Good to know: "It can be helpful to begin your inward journey with some small ceremony: put your favorite afghan across your knees, play your favorite calming music, close your eyes and look to your heart."