Article by Korky Vann – Hartford Courant   www.courant.com 

It’s one of travel’s best-kept secrets.

Convents, abbeys and monasteries throughout the country and around the world are offering budget-priced accommodations to tourists looking to swap stays in busy hotels for more serene surroundings.

You could call them “divine accommodations.”

Providing respite to pilgrims and travelers is a tradition that stretches back for centuries, and a number of religious communities are continuing the practice today. Some welcome tourists, while others limit guests to those seeking retreats or days of meditation. Some are open to both.

And if you’re picturing spartan surroundings, bowls of gruel and mandatory prayer sessions, check again. Many are situated in beautiful, off-the-beaten path locales, feature comfortable rooms, private baths and home-cooked meals, and don’t mandate attendance at religious services.

A few examples:

The New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, Calif., set on the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean, offers stunning views, rooms with private gardens and fresh, mostly vegetarian meals. It’s run by Camaldolese Benedictine monks (contemplation.com).

Image 15-12-2015 at 12.37 PM (3)View from New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, Calif. (Provided by New Camaldoli Hermitage)

Mercy By the Sea, a retreat center operated by the Sisters of Mercy in Madison, features 33 acres of beautiful beaches, outdoor gardens and guest rooms, most with private balconies overlooking Long Island Sound. The property also includes Seascape Beach House, the former vacation home of Phil Donahue and Marlo Thomas, which was donated to the retreat center and is available for group rentals (mercybythesea.org).

The Convent of St. Birgitta, an order of Catholic nuns, operates the Vikingsborg Guest House in Darien. Tucked into picturesque inlets on Long Island Sound, the 10-acre property offers woodland walks, gardens and a private dock for boating and swimming (birgittines-us.com).

Locating these settings for respite, however, can be a challenge, because few advertise, says Jack Kelly, who, with his wife, Marcia, wrote “Sanctuaries: A Guide to Lodgings in Monasteries, Abbeys, and Retreats of the United States” (monasteries.net).

The book features more than 100 such places, including Catholic, Protestant, Buddhist, Jewish, Hindu, Sufi and Quaker destinations. The places themselves are often beautiful, overlooking the sea, or high in the mountains. Some are mansions with lovely gardens given to religious orders, some are spare Zen temples, some are simple cabins in the woods.

All, says Kelly, offer a warm welcome to guests seeking a place apart.

“In most cases, these places are hidden gems,” says Kelly. “The general public doesn’t know they exist.”

But occasionally word gets out, and when it does, folks can find stays in such peaceful surroundings, well, habit-forming.

The Kellys found that out on a cross-country trip from their home in New York to the West Coast.

“We’re bed and breakfast people,” says Kelly. “We like unusual places to stay. A friend told us about New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur, so we tried it and loved its beauty and solitude. From that, we discovered that other monasteries had rooms for guests and stopped at them. The other guests we encountered were some of the most interesting people we’d ever met. That trip led to our book.”

Global Peaceful Lodging

A similar serendipitous stay at a convent in Rome led to the publication of Trish Clark’s book, “Good Night and God Bless: A Guide to Convent and Monastery Accommodation in Europe” (goodnightandgodbless.com).

“I arrived in Rome with not much money and very little choice of accommodation. Someone recommended a convent near the Spanish Steps. Young and sophisticated backpacker that I was, I was horrified at the prospect,” says Clark. “But the experience turned out to be not only enjoyable but refreshing and unique. So much so that on my future travels I sought out these alternative accommodations.”

Clark compiled her findings in a guidebook that has become, well, a bible for thrifty travelers abroad.

“In the past, a bed and a bite to eat was the price of a donation, or whatever a traveler or pilgrim could afford. These days, being in the accommodation business is a means of survival for many orders,” says Clark. “Still, when booked direct, a room in a European convent is usually cheaper than a budget hotel.”

The same holds true for accommodations in religious houses in the U.S. Rates, which often include one or more meals, can range from suggested donations (more if you can, less if you can’t) to fees half or less than nearby hotels.

Darlene Ferris, director of marketing at Mercy By the Sea, says their facility hosts both general travelers and individuals and groups planning spiritual sojourns.

“The book ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ inspired some people to look for a different experience from that of a mainstream hotel,” says Ferris. “They’re seeking spaces that have a beautiful environment and a serene atmosphere, which is what we have here.”

That means rooms with no alarm clocks and no televisions (buildings do have Wi-Fi). Rates are $145 a night and include three meals a day, served in a dining room overlooking the water.

“We encourage visitors to unplug and disconnect,” says Ferris. “But total silence is not compulsory.”

The Monastery and Guesthouse of St. John the Evangelist, a community of Episcopal monks, is a five-minute walk from Harvard Square in Cambridge, Mass., gives preference to guests seeking personal retreats, but also welcomes last-minute travelers on a space-available basis (ssje.org/guesthouse.html).

Image 15-12-2015 at 12.35 PMSt. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. (Provided by St. John the Evangelist)

“People usually hear of us through word of mouth,” says Tom Marsan, guesthouse manager. “Once they’ve stayed with us, they often come back. We get a lot of repeat visitors.”

Rooms at St. John the Evangelist are simply furnished with single beds, chair and dressers and shared baths. Guests are invited to join communal meals, explore the gardens that overlook the Charles River, and attend midday prayers, if they like. Rates are $100 a night; $50 for students.

Image 15-12-2015 at 12.37 PM Guest room St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. (Provided by St. John the Evangelist)

Religious guesthouses generally welcome visitors of all religions. Most monasteries and convents open to tourists are relaxed in atmosphere, and guests can come and go as they please. There are no strict rules, although sometimes an evening curfew or period of quiet might be in place.

“It’s expected that guests will respect the lifestyle of the religious people living there,” says Clark.

In other words, if your taste runs to late-night pool parties, cocktail lounges and trendy restaurants, you’ll want to book elsewhere.

“We have high-quality accommodations, local, fresh food and a beautiful, peaceful environment, and often, it’s people with very busy lives who appreciate it the most,” says Ferris. “It’s a unique experience.”

Image 15-12-2015 at 12.37 PM (2) Lounge room St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. (Provided by St. John the Evangelist)

“Religious guesthouses are generally cheap, clean, safe and well located,” says Clark. “They offer a unique alternative to traditional hotels and B & Bs and provide a fascinating glimpse into the daily lives and rituals of a religious community.”

Image 15-12-2015 at 12.37 PM (1)St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge, MA. (Provided by St. John the Evangelist)