The circumstances of recent months have altered how many of us feel about travel. For some, the yearning for human connection has grown. For others, there’s a newfound peace in solitude.
Every year, some 300 million people take a spiritual journey, according to the United Nations. Northern California is—and has historically been—a destination for this kind of travel. From zen centers in Marin County, to a hermitage high above the crashing Big Sur surf, to a Santa Cruz mountain refuge run by nuns, to the East Bay’s own San Damiano Retreat, each destination offers a reward along the road less traveled. Over the years, I have had deep, rejuvenating experiences at a variety of retreat centers. Here are a few favorites:
San Damiano Retreat, Danville
On a short, winding road above downtown Danville, a lovely mission-style villa includes gorgeous views of the San Ramon Valley. The devilishly named Mount Diablo may be the backdrop, but serenity rules at this retreat named after the church in Assisi, Italy, where St. Francis heard the call from God.
The Franciscan friars have been welcoming visitors to San Damiano since 1961. With 55 acres of oak- and bay-studded trails, Italian sculptures of the 14 stations of the cross, fragrant gardens, and inspiring vistas, San Damiano offer dozens of places to spend restorative time in nature.
I spent my 50th birthday at San Damiano, reflecting on life’s milestones. I found peace along the meandering Windmill Walk, with its bowed and twisted trees that form natural arches over the path. I photographed the orchard, where raptors surf the air currents and owls live below. I walked the labyrinth in the fragrant Canticle Garden and on the three-quarter-mile Hillside Trail as a family of deer passed through. (San Damiano is also adjacent to Las Trampas Wilderness Regional Preserve, a great place for bird-watchers to see several species of hawks and even eagles.) Everywhere you turn at San Damiano, there’s beauty—and a bench on which to rest and contemplate life’s mysteries.
Private rooms cost $100 for the first night and $85 per night thereafter, including three meals daily. sandamiano.org.
St. Clare’s Retreat, Soquel
A spiritual spa for the soul. That’s how the Franciscan Missionary Sisters of Our Lady of Sorrows describe their retreat center, high in the Santa Cruz Mountains. A former resort dating to the 1880s, the property was bought by the Franciscan Missionary Sisters in the 1950s and renamed St. Clare’s Retreat.
Today, it sits on 50 acres and features two buildings with guest lodgings, an enormous wraparound deck, outdoor swimming pool, chapel, a spacious dining hall, lovely gardens, and plentiful walking trails. Fall is especially splendid, when the sun still warms your back and nature turns the leaves to a kaleidoscope of colors. Bunnies nibble on the clover and deer forage in the woods, but the nuns also welcome visitors with service animals, and families with children.
The No. 1 takeaway for guests at St. Clare’s is the power of life on the mountain, which they experience in peace and silence. I was privileged to have this opportunity when, just months after losing my “dream” job in a mass layoff, I made an overnight retreat to St. Clare’s. The Sisters were kind and accommodating, inviting me to dine with them and share personal stories. When it came time to meditate, I walked along Rodeo Gulch Road, a quiet road that ascends to a spot where—on a clear day—you can see the ocean. Madonna Grove was also a favorite place for reflection, due to a circle of magnificent redwood trees that forms a natural cathedral.
Rates start at $195 per person for a private room for three days and two nights. stclaresretreat.com.
New Camaldoli Hermitage, Big Sur
Famed travel writer Pico Iyer calls this heavenly hermitage the one place on earth that profoundly changed his life and showed him how to live. And many visitors to the New Camaldoli Hermitage—founded in 1958 by monks from the Camaldolese branch of the Benedictine family—feel the same way. It’s not just the beauty of Big Sur and the 800-plus acres of postcard-perfect wilderness—it’s the mystique of the monks themselves.
There are nine retreat rooms and five hermitages along with dozens of places to look out over the ocean or stroll in solitude on the forested trails. One walk takes you by Limekiln Canyon, where lime was once fired to make concrete for San Francisco after the 1906 earthquake. The wildlife roams freely here; you can spot everything from bobcats to coyotes, and the monks say they occasionally hear wild turkeys gobbling while they pray. Speaking of prayer: The monks have their own style of chanting composed just for their monastic congregation. The public is invited to join them for morning lauds and evening vespers.
The New Camaldoli Hermitage can only be accessed by a steep, one-lane road that ascends to an elevation of 1,300 feet. The Hermitage offers more than just rooms with a view—you’ll receive insight into living a life of gratitude, work, and harmony with mankind, what the monks call “blessed common belonging.” And the homemade Holy Granola (available in the gift shop) is one of the best souvenirs you can take home from a trip.
Private rooms start at $135 per night and include three meals daily. contemplation.com.
Meditation Centers in Marin County
Two options for nourishing body, mind, and soul in the North Bay.
Green Gulch Farm, Muir Beach
A one-time ranch turned organic farm, this 115-acre property runs through a fertile valley to the ocean and offers zen meditation, study, and practice. For overnight visitors, there’s a retreat center and Japanese guesthouse, along with a teahouse. Muir Beach is only a 20-minute walk away, and Muir Woods and the Golden Gate National Recreation Area are easily accessed by nearby trails.
Single-occupancy room rates (meals included) start at $100 per night with a two-night minimum. sfzc .org/practice-centers/green-gulch-farm.
Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre
The teachings of the Buddha and meditation are the focus of this 411-acre refuge in West Marin County. Spirit Rock includes everything from drop-in classes to residential retreats lasting anywhere from three days to two months or longer. Residential retreats are usually in groups of 30 or more.
Prices vary by retreat program. spiritrock.org.