'We're Going to South Africa and We'd Like to Do it All'
Sean Sullivan spent most of the 1970s in the Peace Corps, and for nearly two years he trained volunteers in the southern African country of Swaziland. "That was during apartheid, and I had to drive through South Africa all the time," said Sean. "Back then no black people would look me in the eye." Now Sean wants to take his wife, Rita, who's never been to Africa, to see how things have improved in the Rainbow Nation. The Sullivans, from Darien, Conn., have set aside two weeks in February to travel to South Africa and Swaziland with Michael McMurray (a friend from Sean's bachelor days) and his wife, Michele. The foursome asked us to help plan their ambitious itinerary: see Cape Town, revisit Swaziland, and take a safari.
Hotels in Cape Town are far more expensive than in the rest of the country; even the Holiday Inn goes for around $200 a night midweek. The best values are at guesthouses and B&Bs, which charge about $40 per person. We first told the Sullivans to look at the online database of B&Bs from the Portfolio Collection. But with the exchange rate so favorable (6.5 rands to the dollar at press time), Sean said he wanted to stay somewhere luxurious. He eventually gravitated toward a 150-year-old, antiques-furnished home from De Waterkant Lodge & Cottages. Their cottage has a kitchen, a rooftop terrace, a balcony, and is within walking distance of downtown and the popular waterfront area.
Two of the biggest draws near Cape Town--the Cape of Good Hope and the Winelands--are both about an hour from the city. Sean thought about renting a car for a day trip to the vineyards, and we warned him that most South African rental agencies put a 200-kilometer cap (about 125 miles) on free daily mileage. Depending on how many wineries they want to visit, they'd probably have to pay extra. To guarantee unlimited mileage, all he would have to do is secure reservations before leaving the United States. Hertz and Avis both operate widely in South Africa, charging about $40 a day for a compact stick-shift car; automatics are typically twice as expensive.
But before they rented a car for the Cape Winelands, we offered up the possibility of hiring a guide, who would double as their designated driver. "I hadn't thought of that, but it could be a lot more fun that way," said Sean. For $61 per person (not including entrance fees or meals), certified guide Rob Davidowitz, of Beautiful Cape Town Exclusive Tours, would lead them on a custom winery tour in an air-conditioned Honda CRV or minibus.
Next, the Sullivans planned on visiting Swaziland, a tiny country embedded in South Africa's eastern reaches. "I know it was safe 30 years ago, but times change," Sean said. We assured him Swaziland is still safe. The trouble is that it's nearly 900 miles from Cape Town, and driving would take at least three days each way. Better to fly the 997 miles to Durban, South Africa's third-largest city, and from there drive through Swaziland and a few nature reserves, and end in Johannesburg (nicknamed Joburg), where they'd fly to Cape Town and then home. South African Airways quoted a price of $588 per person for the flights, but that wasn't the only option. Discount airlines have cropped up all over the globe, even in Africa. Nationwide Airlines quoted $95 one way to Durban, and three-year-old Kulula is selling tickets for just $66. The no-frills lines offered similarly priced flights between Joburg and Cape Town.
"I used to go to Kruger Park in South Africa, staying in rustic places and driving around on my own looking at animals," Sean said. "I wonder if this can still be done." It sure can. North of Durban, there's a circuit of such parks. The first stop, Hluhluwe-Imfolozi, is probably the best spot on earth to see both black and white rhinos in the wild. Positioned about 140 miles north of Durban off the busy N2 highway, its Hilltop Camp has sweeping views over the park. Just an hour east, on the Indian Ocean, the Sullivans could spend a day or two at Greater St. Lucia Wetland Park, a 1,000-square-mile UNESCO World Heritage Site that's home to hippos, massive saltwater crocs, and more than 100 species of butterflies. Guesthouses in St. Lucia are available for around $30 a night through South African Tourism's official website, southafrica.net.
From St. Lucia, it's about 185 miles up the N2 to the border of Swaziland, where Sean served in the Peace Corps. The hilly country is only 60 miles in diameter, making it easy to cross in a few hours. Hotels in the capital, Mbabane, tend to be either very basic or grafted onto tacky casinos, so we suggested the party pass through town just long enough for Sean to see how things have changed. We told them to continue 16 miles south to the Foresters Arms Hotel, a 235-acre retreat with rolling green pastures and groves of trees. From there, it's a 40-mile drive north through stunning mountain scenery to the South African border.
An hour's travel farther is the Crocodile Bridge gate of Kruger National Park. This park, roughly the size of Massachusetts, is the world's premier do-it-yourself game reserve for the Big Five (elephants, lions, buffalo, leopards, and rhinos). Private reserves nearby charge at least $200 per night, but Kruger gets tourists close to the same animals in 14 motel-style rest camps for less than $50. The camps sell groceries, they're staffed with knowledgeable rangers, and electrified fencing keeps out predators.
We suggested a few strategies for the couples in Kruger. First, don't stay at the same camp twice, since backtracking diminishes the chances of seeing fresh animal groups. Second, avoid the most popular camps (Skukuza, with its own airport, is the busiest)--tourists stampede out each morning, making sightings rarer. Finally, drive at least halfway up the 257-mile-long park, since the topography and fauna vary along the way. We charted a course up Kruger's spine from Lower Sabie camp (near hippos and crocs) to Satara (in lion country) to Olifants (above a dramatic escarpment where elephants roam).
Sean's thirst for adventure still wasn't quenched. "Do you think that then we could fly to Victoria Falls in Zambia?" Yes, they could--Nationwide Airlines flies there from Joburg for $200 each way--but after a two-week whirlwind, the couples should probably think about taking it easy. Besides, they'll have saved so much money on this trip, there can always be a next time.
Luxury Yachting on Pocket Change
Hitchhiking a ride on a yacht is not as tricky as it might seem. You don't need to swim to a harbor buoy and stick out your thumb. You don't even need white loafers or a set of Captain Stubing-issue epaulettes. What you do need, however, is some crucial insider information. Either that or you can learn the hard way, like I did. Just out of college, I decided I would hitchhike on vessels from Florida to Venezuela. I walked the various docks around the fancy harbors in Miami and Fort Lauderdale and heard the same embarrassing line: "Why are you trying to do this during hurricane season?" I eventually made it as far as the Virgin Islands, but only because I flew there. Since then, I've learned the ABCs of "crewing," which turns out to be a rather reasonably priced way to see the world from the deck of a yacht. You and the sea Why do people fling themselves to the open seas on a stranger's boat? For some, yacht hitching is just a cheap way to get from A to B. Others prefer the adventure to flying over the dimpled oceans with a high-altitude TV dinner in their laps. And many simply find life on the water an almost spiritual experience, and without the funds for their own yacht, they find this is a great way to get their fix. You may be drawn by all of these, or find the most rewarding aspect is the camaraderie and lifelong connections you make onboard. If this is your first time at sea (yes, you will be labeled a landlubber), at the very least you'll find out if yachting is for you. And until then, you'll just have to (in this order) pray for calm waters, stay on deck, stare at the horizon, use motion-sickness pills or patches, puke, feel temporarily better, puke again, endure hell, and-getting back to square one-pray for calm waters. For most people, thankfully, seasickness subsides after a few days. The basics The first thing you need to know is that hitching on yachts isn't just possible. It's fairly common. Private yachts and sailboats of all types often need an extra pair of hands during a sea passage-some have professional captains delivering a boat to a new owner somewhere, some have "old salt" couples who live aboard their vessels full time and simply need the help or the company of fresh blood. "Yachties" (live-aboard sailboat owners, often retired) are a fixture in ports around the globe, and they tend to follow general routes through regions and countries where anchorages are safe, the scenery is agreeable, and the prices are low. Yachties are colorful characters with a seaworthy culture all their own. If you know the sailing seasons, the yachting epicenters and routes, how to present yourself professionally, and above all, if you're persistent, it's possible to get a working passage, catch a free lift (you may be asked for $5 to $25 per day to cover your food and drinks-depends on the captain, your negotiating skills, and how much they expect you to work), or even earn money onboard while heading almost anywhere. Most agreements are done casually at the individual harbors, others may have written contracts. Passages can last anywhere from a couple of days to a couple of months. You don't need to be in peak condition to crew on a yacht, but if you're reasonably fit and slender it certainly helps. This works for you as much as for the captain since most yachts have narrow passages and tight sleeping arrangements. In other words, if you shop at Big & Tall, you're in for a seriously cramped voyage. This also applies to what you bring. Space is limited, so a compact kit will be appreciated. Show up pulling a Samsonite wheel rig and you've got a few strikes against you already. There's not much special gear involved, but in your collapsible bag you'll want some nonmarking deck shoes, a good hat that won't land in the drink when the wind picks up, sunblock, UV sunglasses with safety straps, motion-sickness pills, and some smart clothes that won't get you thrown out of the occasional yacht club. How to look for passage If you're planning a trip by yacht well in advance, head for the Web (see our sidebar). Various sites match crews with ships. You can also check the ads in yachting magazines and newsletters. There are also crewing placement agencies that specialize in this very service, but be prepared for a membership fee in the neighborhood of $25 to $75. Before you pony up, consider how good your credentials look on paper. And with all ads for crew, keep in mind you're not likely filling an empty spot for a leisurely ride. They need you. Perforce, they're looking for someone with skills, from cooking to motor mechanics. And if they're taking a charter client, they're generally willing to pay for your services: $200 to $1,000 per week (including tips) depending on your duties. Paid or not, many are happy just to get a deckhand-an able body attached to a mind that can accept washing dishes, cleaning out the cabin, and scrubbing the boat-a few of the chores you can expect to do at some point, as well as taking your turn at "watch": staying up at night at the helm while the boat is under way. If you're winging it-and if you're planning to hitch your way from country to country on yachts, you probably are-head down to any major harbor and start by scanning the notice boards. Step two is to find the harbormaster and ask if he knows any captains looking for crew. That way, you can tweak it into a personal reference ("the harbormaster said I should speak to you about a crew position you're trying to fill"). If that doesn't yield any leads, ask if you can use his radio to announce on the local sailors' channel that you're looking for work. Getting onboard In the casual atmosphere of the marina, it's easy to forget that all your inquiries should be treated as interviews. If captains don't like how you look or conduct yourself, they may not reveal they have a position available or refer you to others. You want to dress smart (usually clean and neat will suffice) and demonstrate that you're easygoing and levelheaded. In other words, keep the giant python tattoo covered for now and don't bring up religion or politics. Moreover, learn some yachting manners. Always ask for "permission to board" before letting your foot cross the rail. If you're a good cook, mention it. If you've got technical experience, let the captain know. If you've got solid job recommendations, keep copies on hand. Tell the captain he's welcome to search your luggage (he may request this anyway) and that your travel documents are in order (make sure they are). The interview works both ways; you want to size up the captain and crew as well. Are these people you want to be stuck with at sea? Women travelers especially must beware. Will you be the only woman onboard? Can you talk with other women onboard who have sailed with these men before? Find out. Once you set sail, it's too late. Where and when Caribbean: The sailing season begins in October following the summer hurricanes and lasts until May. If you want to head "down island" (south), show up in Miami or Fort Lauderdale from November to March. Antigua Race Week (end of April) is the Big Event and the Antigua Yacht Club marina is an ideal place to pick up a berth to just about anywhere, especially South America, the United States, and Europe. In the Caribbean and Central America, try marinas and yachtie bars in Antigua, Grenada, Saint Martin, and Panama City's Balboa Yacht Club (for passage through the canal). Mediterranean: The season kicks off in June, when yachts need crew for their summer charters. Nearly all major marinas are active, but especially Antibes, Las Palmas, Rhodes, Malta, Majorca, Alicante, and Gibraltar. Then, in November, there's a 2,700- nautical-mile fun run from Las Palmas de Gran Canaria (Canary Islands) to Rodney Bay in Saint Lucia called the Atlantic Rally for Cruisers (ARC). Over 200 boats participate, and even more make the crossing unofficially. So from October to the end of November, there's a mass exodus to the West Indies. The standard point of departure for the two-to- four-week Atlantic crossing is Gran Canaria. If you show up at the beginning of November and chip in some food money for the crossing (about $250), you've got a good chance of catching a lift. Better, even, if you arrive earlier. South Pacific: The main springboards are a few marinas in northern New Zealand: Opua, Whangarei, and Auckland, probably in that order. Most boats leave in the autumn (end February-end April). If you want passage in the other direction (to New Zealand) or on to the United States, your best months are July to October. Some prefer to start in Australia. There, try the marinas in the Whitsunday Islands, Townsville, and Airlie Beach. To head to Indonesia, May to July is promising. Returning home You may be able to catch a ride right back to your departure point. But don't count on it. Even if you've prearranged a long round-trip berth, one thing or another may cause you to hop off earlier. Expect to spring for a cheap one-way plane ticket, ferry ride, or bus trip, depending on where you end up. Resources for gettin' salty Postings: Bulletin board: yachtsclassified.com Post for crews: pacificcup.org/crew_lists/crew_list Matching boats with crews: partnersandcrews.com Florida-area crew list: walrus.com/~belov/florida-skippers.html New York-area crew list: walrus.com/~belov/skippers.html Agencies: Crew Unlimited (crewunlimited.com) charges $25 to sign up, then takes sizable chunk from the vessel hiring you. Crewfinders (crewfinders.com) charges $40 to sign up, then charges much larger percentage fee from vessel hiring. Marina: Listings: marinamate.com/marinas.html Yacht clubs by location: sailorschoice.com/yachtclb.htm More yacht club links: guam-online.com/myc/myclinks.htm Reading: The Practical Mariner's Book of Knowledge: 420 Sea-Tested Rules of Thumb for Almost Every Boating Situation by John Vigor (McGraw-Hill, $17.95) First signs for a first mate Here are a few warning signs, besides the eye patch and hook in place of a right arm. 1) Cabin looks like a guy's college dorm room 2) Navigation equipment doesn't look like it could locate a cruise ship in a bathtub 3) Any signs of transporting contraband 4) Captain with a hot temper 5) Major repairs being done to boat's hull Words of wisdom from crew members "You don't need to know how to sail to do a crossing; you need to be neat, clean, and trustworthy. If you're doing day work for a boat in the harbor, show up on time and take it seriously." -Jonas Persson "Once we were in the Caribbean, it didn't take longer than five days to catch a lift. You just need to make sure that you don't get left someplace without a lot of yachts. Barbados, Saint Martin, and Antigua are the places you want to be." -Peter Laurin
Condo and Villa Rentals Around the World
Dazzled by the life of a British couple in the south of France, more than a million Americans bought Peter Mayle's charming book, "A Year in Provence," and thousands more have since followed his course, if not for a year, then at least for a summer month in a European home. Like Mr. and Mrs. Mayle, though in a different land, many crave such a profound, shared experience and want to settle for a time in a foreign country, grow fluent in a foreign language, be greeted as regulars in the local shops, feel the softness and maturity of an ancient culture. But setting all this in motion is harder than you might think. The problem stems from the need to rent such a home sight unseen. Unless, several months in advance of your stay, you're willing to make a trans-Atlantic trip just to look over the available properties, your sole option is to rely on an illustrated, mail-order catalogue of rental homes--and hope for the best. At least a dozen "international real estate brokers" publish such listings, and will supply them to you either free or for a nominal $2 to $4 (refunded if you then rent through them.) Among such companies are: Home Base Abroad (781/545-5112); Vacanze in Italia (800/533-5405); Vacances en Campagne (800/771-4771); Ville et Village (510/559-8080); International Lodgings Corporation (212/228-5900); Interhome (800/882-6864); and more. But is the method really satisfactory? Can a printed catalogue with one or two photos of each home, and a paragraph of description, really capture the qualities of each such dwelling? Though the great majority of people using the international brokers seem satisfied, other renters arrive at homes alongside a busy highway that doesn't appear in the photograph, or at homes reached by virtually-inaccessible dirt roads, or near industrial villages, or too closely alongside other homes. There's a better, two-step approach. Simply phone for the catalogues and scan their photographs. Make a tentative choice of several in one compact region, and ask the broker to schedule visits to them. And then use an inexpensive, off-season, one-week, trans-Atlantic, air-and-hotel package (less than a thousand dollars per person, when other expenses are included) to scout the tentative choices. Is this the course of a foolish spendthrift, a "rich American"? To begin with, you can assign a single member of your family to make that trip, thus limiting the expense to about $ 1,000 (possibly much less in low season). Even if you spend slightly more, the cost is only a fraction of what you will later pay for the one-month rental, and it's a prudent expense. Would you rather risk an unhappy month in a home that's not to your liking? In addition to using the U.S.-based, international brokers to make a list of several potential properties, you can also ask the local tourist bureau, on arrival, for introductions to local brokers. The Condo Alternative The--"condo vacation"--living in a fully-equipped apartment or villa on the grounds of a resort hotel, or in a "condo community" is also an increasing popular method of enjoying a "restful, refreshing, relaxing vacation."Therefore we've included condo rentals in this "Holiday Home"section. Part of the appeal of a condo rental is the spaciousness and variety of the lodging itself; some vacationers feel cramped and deprived in the average-sized hotel room; they value the chance to raid the refrigerator at night, cook themselves some eggs, read in the living room while their spouse sleeps in the bedroom. The other appeal is price. The advocates of condo vacations will heatedly argue that the condos cost far less than an equivalent hotel room; that by renting a condo for a week or two, one enjoys savings wholly apart from the ability to occasionally cook a meal and eat in. Obviously, the condo is a special value for traveling families or small groups, who enjoy considerable per person savings by staying in a multi-room condo rather than in several hotel rooms. Finally, the condo advocates also argue that renting a condo is infinitely superior to buying a "time share" the other method of enjoying vacations in a multi-unit apartment or villa. A condo rental does not "tie you down" for years; it involves no initial large outlay or risk; it doesn't require that you later find a buyer, or engage in complex "exchange" transactions (living in someone else's time share) if some year you'd rather vacation somewhere else. The "International Real Estate Brokers" Although we've listed a number of the sources for overseas villa rentals in our discussion of "the Perilous Search for a Summer Home Abroad," above it seems important to supply a more comprehensive list, not simply for Europe, but for the Caribbean and other areas. For the British Isles Home Abroad (22 Railroad Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts 01230, phone 800/533-5405 or 413/528-6610, homeabroad.com) rents the vast majority of its more than 2,000 properties in France and Italy, but it also has a few dozen apartments in London, a handful of castles in Scotland, and some unique country homes throughout England. Interhome (1990 NE 163rd St., Ste. 110, North Miami Beach, FL 33162, phone 305/940 2299 or 800/882-6864, interhome.com For apartments in London, a major, long-established company is The Barclay International Group, phone 800/845-6636 or 516/759-5100, barclayweb.com. Rentals start at the British equivalent of about $125 per night. For English country cottages, London apartments, and hotel rates on a rental basis, contact British Travel Associates of Elkton, Virginia, phone 800/327-6097, or 540/298-2232, britishtravel.com. Cottage & Villa Holidays offers short-term rentals of nearly 250 barns, cottages, manor houses and even castles in the UK and Ireland, from $800 a week. Phone 800/642-0577 or write to them at P.O. Box 16927, Savannah, GA 31416, cottageholidays.com. For London apartments, contact Home from Home, 75 Wilton Road, London SW1 1DE, 011-44-207-233-8111. Privately-owned London flats, apartments and houses for short-term rentals. Centrally located. Competitive prices. Phone 800/748-9783, homefromhome.co.uk London apartments rented directly from London, phone London Pied a Terre at its London number, 011-44-207-499-6692, londonpied-a-terre.co.uk. Apartments or flats in London at moderate rates, phone Holiday Flatlets, 38 Emperor's Gate, London SW7 4HJ, phone 011-44-207-370-1040. Rentals start at 180 pounds ($339) a week for a studio. For the Caribbean Jamaican Association of Villas and Apartments (800/VILLAS-6, villasinjamaica.com) supplies a free color brochure outlining its services in securing villa and apartment rentals in every major resort area--Montego Bay, Negril, Ocho Rios, Port Antonio, Runaway Bay and Discovery Bay. For renting villas and apartments on the pricey island of St. Bart's, sometimes at surprisingly low rates, phone St. Barth Properties in Franklin, Massachusetts, 800/421-3396 or 508/528-7727, Web site: stbarth.com St. Thomas Condos, U.S. Virgin Islands (800/524-2038 or 340/779-1540) offers properties ranging from air-conditioned studios to one-to-three bedroom bungalows and villas, some with spacious decks and maid service. Tennis, pools, and watersports are always nearby. Private villas/homes rentals in St. Croix, are made through Island Villas (877/788-0361 or or 340/778-0361, Web site: vacationstcroix.com). Villas and Apartments Abroad (800/433-3020, or 212/213-6435, Web site: vaanyc.com) of New York, represents rental villas in Jamaica, Barbados, St. Martin, both the U.S. and British Virgin Islands, and Mustique. All About Vacation Rentals (800/321-3134) works with rental villas in the Caribbean and Mexico, as well as the U.S. and Europe. For vacation and villa rentals in a variety of Caribbean destinations (Antigua, Barbuda, St. Barts, U.S. Virgin Islands, Turcs and Caicos, the British Virgin Islands, St. Martin, St. Thomas, the Bahamas, St. Lucia, Dominica and St. John), go to caribbean-on-line.com/villas. At Home Abroad of New York City managed by Claire Packman, represents a number of exclusive, upscale homes in the Caribbean, Europe, and other parts of the globe. The company's Web site (athomeabroadinc.com) lists a small sampling of properties it rents. Call 212/421-9165 with inquiries. For luxury condos, villas, estates, weekly, monthly, throughout the Caribbean and Bahamas, with a large number in Jamaica, phone Villa Website.com at 800/722-0452 or 954/783-6605 or visit villawebsite.com. For Costa Rica For homestays in and around San Jose, contact Bells' Home Hospitality (011-506-225-4752 or homestay.thebells.org with the mailing address of Dept. 1432, P.O. Box, 02516, Miami, FL, 33102. For France Home Abroad (22 Railroad Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts 01230, phone 800/533-5405 or 413/528-6610, homeabroad.com) represents many carefully chosen properties in France. Send $6 for a catalogue, refunded if you then make the rental through it. The greatest number of French cottages for rental are known as "gites" because they participate in a government-approved program for designating and rating "gites." There are many hundreds, perhaps thousands, of these throughout France, of widely varying categories and prices, but almost always pleasant, comfortable, and located in authentic French settings of great charm. The U.S. expert on "gites" is Provence West, Ltd. (P.O. Box 272884, Fort Collins, CO, 80527, phone 970/226-5444, Web site: provencewest.com). Provence West is an excellent source of information and bookings, and should be contacted by persons considering a vacation rental in France. Rental prices start as low as $605/week. "Ville et Village" (of Berkeley, California, phone 510/559-8080, villeetvillage.com) offers nearly 1000 holiday rentals of bungalows and cottages in every part of France, on either a weekly or monthly basis. "Experience la vraie France in your own chateau," they say. For apartments in Paris, contact Paris Sejours Reservation (312/587-7707, psrparis.com), which rents studios for as little as $75 per night.Rentals France offers apartments and villas starting at $300 and topping out at $5,000 for a property that sleeps 14. Go to rentalsfrance.com/accomodation for more details. At Home Abroad of New York City managed by Claire Packman, represents a number of exclusive, upscale homes in France as well as other countries around the globe. The company's Web site (athomeabroadinc.com) lists a small sampling of properties it rents. Call 212/421-9165 with inquiries. LaCure is even more upscale in its listings for France. Call 800-387-2726, visit lacure.com/english for information. Villas throughout France and Paris apartment rentals in all price ranges can be had from the Barclay International Group of New York, 800/845-6636 or 516/364-0064. Or visit barclayweb.com. Finally, check out the offerings of Chez Nous, a listing service of over 3,000 privately owned villas, chateaux, apartments and houses. Chez Nous, Spring Mill, Earby, Barnoldswick, BB94 0AA, U.K (phone 011-44-870-444-6600). Go to the Internet site at cheznous.com. For Greece For villas and condos on the mainland or in the Greek Islands, visit International Rentals at internationalrentals.com. For Ireland Cottage Net UK (cottage-net.ndirect.co.uk) promotes itself as the largest database of self-catering accommodation in Ireland and the United Kingdom. Direct phone numbers are listed for various apartment and home rentals. British Travel International in Elkton, VA, also rents town-and-country cottages and villas in Ireland. Call 800/327-6097 or visit britishtravel.com For Israel For every sort of apartment in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, phone Hometours International (1108 Scottie Lane, Knoxville, TN 37919) at 866/367-4668 or 865/690-8484. For Italy Vacanze in Italia (22 Railroad Street, Great Barrington, Massachusetts 01230, phone 413/528-6610, fax 413/528-6222, Web site: homeabroad.com) is a leading source of Italian villa rentals in all price ranges, and is operated by Carl I. Stewart, whom we have known personally throughout the two decades he has been acting as an international rental broker; he is a consummate gentleman, with stunning knowledge of all aspects of Italian vacation homes. Vacanze in Italia is his main company (although he also operates firms that deal with France and England as well; see the discussion under the appropriate headings in this section of our Web site.) His weekly rentals range in the low end from about $700 a week, to a top of $25,000 a week in the deluxe area; but most of them--in fact, the great majority--fall into a "mid-range," namely a villa of three to four bedrooms, with two baths, renting for about $3,000 a week in high season, half that in low season. Mr. Stewart, who represents over 500 properties, will send you literature, but also suggests a phone conversation/interview in which he ascertains your exact needs, and then suggests a property. Another leader in finding both apartment and villa rentals in Italy--perhaps in a slightly higher price range--is Home Base Abroad of (29 Mary's Lane, Sciuate, MA 02066, phone 781/545-5112, fax 781/545-1808) We've heard a number of favorable comments on its services and it recently acquired International Services (another brokerage), doubling the number of properties it represents. Director of the company is Mara Solomon, who promises "charming, distinctive, personally-selected villas" serving "modern tastes and conveniences without sacrificing authenticity or style." Visit its Web site at: Interhome (305/940-2299 or 800/882-6864; interhome.com) in business for over 30 years and now under the direction of Tony Haeusler, is also active in Italian villa rentals, and might also be "shopped." They publish a comprehensive, illustrated catalogue, for which there may be a charge at the time of your call. At Home Abroad of New York City managed by Claire Packman, represents a number of exclusive, upscale homes in the Caribbean, Europe, and other parts of the globe. The company's Web site (athomeabroad.com) lists a small sampling of properties it rents. Call 212/421-9165. Most of its rentals are upscale and therefore expensive. Travel Italy (888/28-ITALY or 573/256-4105) lists 1,200 rental villas, farmhouses, castles, and apartments in nearly all parts of Italy. Visit its Web site at http://www.travel-italy.com/. Villas and Apartments Abroad (212/213-6453, vaanyc.com) of New York lists various upscale villa and apartment rentals throughout Italy, though primarily in Tuscany, Umbria, and the Amalfi Coast. Ville et Village represents over 2,000 individually owned farmhouses, cottages, mills, villas, manor houses and chateaux (about 600 of which are in Italy). Rentals in Italy are mainly in Tuscany, Umbria and in the Amalfi Coast, and a few other select locations. Call 510/559-8080 or visit villeetvillage.com For Mexico All About Vacation Rentals (800/321-3134) works mainly with villa rentals in Mexico and the Caribbean, though it rents some properties in Europe and the U.S. also. Casa Helga Villas (800/418-3322, fax 203/372-6222), in business for over two decades, represents vacation villas in and near Puerto Vallarta and other spots on the Pacific Coast of Mexico. See its Web site at casahelga.com For Spain and Portugal Villa Plus is a specialist villa tour operator and has been arranging villa holidays in the Algarve, Portugal and Costa Del Sol, Spain since 1986. Call 011-44-172-783-6686 or visit villaplus.co.uk. International Lodging Corporation (300 First Avenue, Suite 7C, New York 10009, phone 212/228-5900 or 800/SPAIN-44, fax 212/677-1815, Web address: ilcweb.com) is a major source of vacation home rentals in Spain, supplying everything from one-bedroom apartments to six-bedroom deluxe villas in dozens of cities and locations--and they've done so since 1983. For golfers in particular, it represents several properties alongside the Mijas Golf Course on the Costa del Sol. For travelers seeking kitchenette apartments in Barcelona, it represents the Duques de Bergara in the heart of the shopping and business district. Interhome (305/940-2299 or 800/882-6864, interhome.com) is a major source for Spain, publishing a large catalogue of four-color photographs of individual properties. We've used its services, and find them reliable. For the United States Interhome has 20,000 homes, condos, and apartments for rent in Florida and 14 European countries. Check out interhome.com or call either 305/940-2299 or 800/882-6864. Villa Net, a big firm of Seattle, Washington (phone 800/964-1891) claims to represent rental homes in Western Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States. For information online, go to rentavilla.com. For renting a condo on popular Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, the company to call is Resort Rentals of Hilton Head Island at 800/845-7017. With over 40 years of experience, it offers rentals of nearly 300 homes and villas in every part of Hilton Head. Visit its Web site at hhivacations.com. The Vacation Villa Referral Center offers rental vacation properties in several states, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Visit ifb.com/vvrc/view.htm for details and pictures of the properties for rent. Alternately you can call 540/721-9915. If you're looking for a listing of properties available all over the world (though primarily in the U.S. and the Caribbean), try one of the following Web-based companies: Reservations Direct (reservationsdirect.com or 727/738-1737) direct rentals from private owners worldwide); Condo Vacation World (condoworld.com or 888/391-6766; specializing in areas like Hawaii, Arizona, California, Florida, and Canada, but with additional global listings); and Condo Concepts (condoconcepts.com or 888/CONDO-53; global listing including a frequently updated "specials" page). For almost everywhere The "E-bay" of condo rental sites, Vacation Rental by Owner, better known as VRBO (vrbo.com) has perhaps the most extensive list of properties of any site out there. Looking for an apartment in Recife, Brazil or Cape Town, South Africa? You'll find it at this site, as you will homes in all 50 US States, throught the Caribbean, Asia, Australia, New Zealand and Europe. The downside? As the name states, these are all being rented by the owner, so there is no outside agency to inspect properties or guarantee quality or even price. Mike Thiel's Hideaways International 767 Islington Street, Portsmouth, NH 03801 (800/843-4433 or 603/430-4433 or visit its Web site at hideaways.com ) is a fascinating and popular organization, in business for many years, representing rental villas, apartments, condos, throughout the world, ranging from Cape Cod to Upper Captiva in Florida, from the California Coast to Provence and Tuscany. Instead of acting as a "broker," Mike operates a referral service. He issues a twice-a-year catalogue containing color photographs of hundreds of homes for rental, but without listing their street addresses and phones. If you see something that interests you, and if you have become a member of Hideaways, you phone them and they provide you with the details. You then contact the owner of the home or condo directly, and make your arrangements without involving (or paying a fee to) Hideaways. Membership is $185 a year for two issues per year of the 150-page "Hideaways Guide." Paying the membership fee enables you to rent, say, a private home in the Bahamas for four people for $1200 a week, a big, multi-bedded condo on the Florida coast for $900 a week in winter. You save, according to Thiel, by renting direct. 1001 Villas promises beautiful holiday villas and vacation rentals booked directly from their owners. It rents properties in 28 countries. Go to 1001-villa-holidaylets.com for a complete listing. For apartment rentals in several major European cities, visit europeapartments.com or call 800/327-6097. Rent-a-Villa, a big firm of Seattle, Washington (phone 800/488-RENT) claims to represent rental homes in Western Europe, the Caribbean, Mexico and the United States. For information online, go to rentavilla.com. For vacation rentals and non-hosted lodging throughout the U.S., Canada, Europe, Mexico, and the Caribbean, visit virtualcities.com. The company has an extensive selection of properties to rent. The Vacation Villa Referral Center offers rental vacation properties in several states, Canada, Hawaii, and the Caribbean. Visit ifb.com/vvrc/view.htm for details and pictures of the properties for rent. Alternately you can call 540/721-9915. Holiday-rentals.com advertises over 10,000 private vacation homes to rent worldwide, including several properties across the U.S. Costs are reduced because you book directly from the owners via the Internet. Reach Holiday-rentals.com at e-mail email@example.com, phone 011-44-20 8743-5577, fax: 4 (0)20 8740-3863, mailing address 1st Floor, Westpoint, 33/34 Warple Way, Acton, London W3 0RG, United Kingdom. The absurdly studious-sounding Canadian Condominium Institute is actually an independent, non-profit organization formed in 1982. It's the only national association that serves as a clearinghouse on condominium issues and activities across Canada. Phone 416/491-6216, Fax: 416/491-1670 or cci.ca. Mailing address: 2175 Sheppard Avenue East, Ste. 310, Toronto, ON M2J 1W8.
The Religious Retreat Vacation
The religious retreat is a form of vacation activity that most professional travel observers seem to have overlooked. Yet more than a million Americans each year--the figure could amount to 1,500,000--devote large portions of their leisure time to sojourns in retreat houses. And while the greater part of them limit the stays to weekends, and to locations close at hand, a large number go for a week or two and many hundreds of miles away, to centers whose broad range of subject matter and activities go well beyond the normal conception of a personal retreat. What to expect when you go More than 2,000 monasteries, abbeys, and spiritual retreat centers are scattered throughout the United States and Canada. About 80 percent are linked to a religious order. But most take a more ecumenical, interfaith approach to accommodate this increased interest. "In the old days if you were a Catholic retreat center, you advertised yourself that way. Now most of them want everybody to come," Stone says. Many places offer yoga, Buddhist thought, prayers of all sorts. This article focuses on religious retreat centers, as distinct from those that are simply spiritual. Even if you're not actively religious, Anne Luther says, "It can be good to start where you're most familiar, your own religion." (We will do a separate article on Buddhist retreat centers in a later issue of Budget Travel. As for Muslim retreat centers in the United States, none of the retreat listmakers we interviewed is aware of any.) While the centers are as unique in their personalities as snowflakes, they do share common elements. Many welcome both individuals and groups. The two most popular approaches are directed retreats, where you spend the time on your own, checking in with a spiritual guide perhaps once a day; and thematic retreats, where there are often speakers and discussion groups centered around a theme. Couples' retreats are also increasingly common. Most centers interweave periods of silence with group interaction. The accommodations range from a bare-bones "hotel" room (religious imagery displacing third-rate landscapes on the walls) to spartan monks' quarters. Nearly all are clean, well-lighted places, going for anywhere from $25 to $100 per night (often presented only as a suggested donation). The charge usually includes three meals a day and a shared bathroom. At the end of your stay you may be asked to strip the bed and perhaps even put on fresh sheets for the next seeker. The retreats we have selected are priced right--and placed right, too. We have looked not only for a warm and welcoming environment and good value, but for retreats located in settings of such natural beauty that even if you are not inspired to leaps of faith, you will at least be impressed with the handiwork of nature. Christian Retreats As best as I can determine, there exist slightly more than 500 Catholic retreat centers and houses in the U.S. and Canada, about 150 Protestant centers, a few Quaker ones, a dozen or so Jewish centers, and an emerging handful of Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu retreats. For a near-comprehensive listing of the Christian retreats, send $30 to Retreats International, P.O. Box 1067, Notre Dame, IN 46556 (phone 574/247-4443, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org), for the most recent edition of its extensive "Directory of Retreat Centers," which lists several hundred such locations, of which the great majority are Catholic retreats, others Protestant, all set forth state-by-state in pared-down fashion: addresses and phone numbers, name of director, months of operation, number of rooms, heavily abbreviated references to basic approaches and programs. To determine which centers best meet your needs, view the website retreatsintl.org/. For a list of Protestant retreat houses (totaling about 150 in North America), contact the North American Retreat Directors Association (NARDA). While it offers simply a mailing list, not a directory with descriptions, it furnishes copies for free (after which you can phone the individual properties for more details). Despite that kind offer, it would be a nice gesture to enclose $2 for postage and handling. Many of the retreat houses on the mailing list can also be accessed at the Website: nardacenters.org/. Upward of a hundred retreat houses have from 50 to 100 or more rooms apiece, while the remainder average 20 to 40 rooms. At the smaller houses, you obviously can't expect a complete activities program. Rather, in the monastic tradition of some (especially Catholic) retreats, the experience is largely a personal one, and guests take advantage of the stress-free atmosphere and freedom from business and family pressures to ponder the eternal verities. For people of all religions, and of none, it is a refreshing interlude that places more petty concerns into perspective. The larger retreats have elaborate programs, often on major religious, social, or political issues. Probably the most extensive program (35 separate instructors, including widely known theologians, therapists, and authors) is the month-long summer institute conducted every July on the campus of Notre Dame University by the before-mentioned Retreats International. Here, in the casual setting of summertime, nearly 400 people (teachers, counselors, clergy, nurses, social workers, and other concerned adults) are in attendance each week (and one week is all you need stay), auditing courses and seminars in spiritual and other church-related issues, but also dealing with family and youth problems, intimate relationships, morality and self-healing, community needs. Courses average $300 to $400/week for housing and instruction. Meals and registration fees are extra. Write for literature to the address given earlier, or view the website retreatsintl.org/, or call 574/277-4443. Genesis Spiritual Life Center, in the Berkshire Mountains of western Massachusetts, is a far less typical example of the large retreat center, in that it is purposefully ecumenical in nature, appealing to people of all religious beliefs, even though it is administered by the Sisters of Providence, a Catholic order. "We believe," says their credo, "that when persons of differing lifestyles and spiritualities connect, God's creative and healing energies are released...We give preference to those who often feel alienated from their church or society." Heavily influenced by theories of the "New Age," the center's weeklong theme retreats include courses ranging from "Meditation Techniques" to "Celtic Spirituality" to "Watercolor Painting" to "A Jungian Look at the Christian Message," as taught by an equally ecumenical faculty that at times has included Lutherans, followers of Joseph Campbell, massage therapists and psychoanalysts. Programs are offered throughout the year (a $250 to $345 fee covers room, board and program fees for a week), as are "private retreats". All this in a peaceful wooded setting dotted with flower and vegetable gardens, an old restored carriage house dating back to 1889, a chapel, a library, and two dining rooms. For their fascinating literature, contact Genesis Spiritual Life Center, 53 Mill Street, Westfield, MA 01085 (phone 413/562-3627, e-mail email@example.com). See its Website at: westfield-ma.comgenesis/. On the West Coast, but much smaller and radically different in atmosphere, is the highly regarded, Anglican-run Mount Calvary Retreat House near Santa Barbara, California, overlooking the Pacific from a high vantage point. In the quiet atmosphere of this Protestant monastic community, in a large Spanish home with a well-stocked library, individuals enjoy the essence of the retreat experience for a suggested daily donation of $70 for room and board each night of stay. A deposit of $50 is required to reserve a room. Write or phone Mount Calvary Retreat House, P.O. Box 1296, Santa Barbara, CA 93102 (phone 805/962-9855, ext. 10). Visit its Web site at mount-calvary.org/. Catholic Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center (passionist order), North Palm Beach, FL at the front door is Route 1, an American Main Street leading from Key West to the northern tip of Maine. But as you walk along the quarter mile of waterfront at the back of this retreat just eight miles north of Palm Beach, where shimmering Lake Worth empties into the Atlantic Ocean, there's no sound except for the water lapping and the distant clanging of the rigging of million-dollar sailboats moored next door. Here, in the spirit of "active contemplation" dating back to the order's founding in 1720, a tiny band of Passionist priests opens their beautiful home (an architectural-award-winning building) to individual and group retreatants. "Each weekend we have programs, sometimes married couple retreats, mixtures of lectures, prayer, and private conferences," says Father Damian Towey, who has been here for ten years. "The first year I felt awkward. I wondered if I was giving them anything valuable. But so many people say at the end that it was more than a vacation and that it felt like it was over too soon." Individual retreatants are welcome midweek as well, even when there are no programs scheduled. You can attend mass (as many in the community do), held every morning in the gorgeous adjoining chapel with the sun streaming through 116 rectangles of stained-glass windows. You sleep in single rooms with a single bed, bare walls, a window facing the water, and a terrace that allows you to step out and watch the sun rise on the water (highly recommended). "Remember that George Carlin routine about stuff? How we work all our lives to acquire stuff, then we find out in the end it's just stuff?" laughs John Kosak, administrator of the center. "Here's where we get rid of that stuff that's a hindrance to any spiritual awakening." Our Lady of Florida Spiritual Center, 1300 U.S. Highway 1, North Palm Beach, FL 33408; 561/626-1300, ourladyofflorida.org/. Costs: Weekend: Suggested donation $160 for a weekend, three meals a day. "We offer a sense of quiet in the midst of an urban scene," says Peter Irmiter, marketing director of the Jesuit Retreat House on 57 acres just south of Cleveland, OH. Silence is big here and begins with breakfast, carrying through all meals. "Silence is key to all retreats," says Imiter. There's a hands-on approach here. If you're on an individually directed retreat, you are assigned a retreat director with whom you'll confer once or twice a day to read scripture and talk about any new thoughts that have occurred to you during the day. The Jesuits here have been handling retreats for 102 years, but they're making changes to their approach all the time to handle this new growing interest. "Retreats used to be geared to 30 days," says Imiter. Now, he says, "Weekends are our bread and butter - men's, women's, mixed retreats, for AA, young people preparing for marriage, covering everything from finance to sex." And they adapt retreats to individual needs and preferences. "We know older people are more used to pre-Vatican II where they get preached to. They're not into sharing, too shy," Imiter explains. "The baby boomers, they're looking for an interactive, sharing retreat with more give-and-take." And the younger folks, 25 to 40? "We're studying that market now," Imiter says. Jesuit Retreat House, 5629 State Rd., Parma, OH 44134; 440/884-9300, jrh-cleveland.org/. Houses 58. Costs: Weekend: $160 includes all meals, private single room, shared bath. Protestant (Presbyterian) "The scenery alone is spiritual and healing," says Nancy Early, a film producer in New York who has taken her two children to New Mexico's Ghost Ranch Conference Center in Abiquiu for several years. Ghost Ranch's 21,000 acres, 6,500 feet above sea level, are surrounded by red clay hills and sheer cliffs. "You walk outside at night and you're under a blanket of stars...breathtaking. We get up early and go horseback riding and see the sun rise." And the quality of the courses the adults take during the day matches the scenery, Early says. "I took courses on painting, watercolors, the five major religions of the world, journal writing, and photography. They attract superb people. Some of the courses fill up within weeks of the catalog's publication." But most of all, she says, it is quiet and removed. "There's one pay phone--the cell doesn't work. No television, no radio. You walk away from everything that controls your life. And I never heard the kids say, 'I'm bored.'" There's a library, open 24 hours a day, a museum of anthropology, and another of paleontology. The stone labyrinth and the hiking trails are open all year long. Guest rooms are simple cabins with bunk beds. And the dining is cafeteria-style in the main room (which can serve up to 300 people), using the ranch's own organic produce. Ghost Ranch, H77, Box 11, Abiquiu, NM 87510; 505/685-4333, ghostranch.org/. Cost: $300-$420 weekly, including three meals, tuition $185; Children under 14, half-price; under age 4, free. Summer visitors must be enrolled in courses. Christian-Evangelical After driving two hours north of Phoenix (speed limit, 75; it's the west, after all), you wind up at a series of simple brown buildings that blend into the dusty desert surroundings. It isn't until you walk the 22 acres that you notice there's a large pond on the Living Water Worship and Teaching Center in Cornville, AZ, fed by an artesian well, stocked with fish (catch-and-release is the rule here), and good for swimming in summer. And that gentle rushing noise you hear at the property's edge is not the wind, it's Oak Creek, a swiftly moving stream that flows into the Verde River. Belinda Schmitt says her parents, John and Barry French, searched for years before finding water in the desert and opening this Christian retreat in 1981. "People tell me they feel the Lord walking here with them," she says. Living Water offers no organized lectures or religious services. Church groups (of 20-120) bring their own preachers and programs. Individual retreatants are on their own, though they are given a thick handbook called Spiritual Journeys, which offers suggestions on how to proceed reflectively, a spiral notebook to begin a journal of their thoughts, and access to a library of inspirational books. "We're nondenominational, so we don't push anything--that appeals to a lot of people who don't want you to be too Catholic or too Baptist," says Lee Brownson, who vacationed at the retreat for years before becoming marketing director. But he does concede that they quietly discourage non-Christian seekers. "The focus is on Jesus," Brownson explains. And the stress is on comfort. The rooms for those on personal retreats (set off from the dormlike group facilities) are much like good motel accommodations: double bed, private bathroom, balcony from which you can see the stars in the big western sky. The food is home-cooked and plentiful, with a dessert at every meal. No busing your own dishes here. After all, as Brownson says, "You don't have to be uncomfortable to hear from the Lord." Two weeks before you arrive, the entire staff will start praying for the success of your retreat. (That is, if you book more than two weeks in advance - they're faithful, not psychic.) If you need a small assist toward inspiration, the Grand Canyon is 21/2 hours away. Or you can drive 20 minutes up the road to Sedona to catch the sunset against the backdrop of those famous craggy red-rock cliff formations. The Community of Living Water, 6702 E. Clinton St., Scottsdale, AZ 85254; 888/627-5631, sierranet.net/living. Costs: Individuals pay $65 per night for a private room and bath, three meals; Couples pay $110 per night, six meals; Groups are $84-$106 for weekends (includes meeting rooms and audiovisual equipment, plus meals). Quakers (The Religious Society of Friends) Quaker retreat centers appear to be few and far between, but we have located two, one on each coast, which offer similar atmospheres suitable for retreats and quiet contemplation. Pendle Hill, a "Quaker-led study center" near Philadelphia, was founded in 1930 by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) on a 23-acre arboretum in Wallingford, Pennsylvania. Although open to people of all faiths, the retreat center emphasizes its Quaker roots in its program offerings, which includes spirituality and art workshops, as well as discussions of political and social issues. Pendle Hill offers various conferences and retreats for $250-$630/person double, $295 to $680 single, which include room, board, and all program fees. Retreat topics range from "The Spirit in the Word," to "The Truth About Quaker History," to "The Status of Islamic Women in the Arab World," to "Experiencing Goodness in Ourselves." Lodging is also available for those individuals seeking time for private contemplation and solitude; bed and breakfast rates range from $70/night for singles and $100/night for couples. If you're looking for the opportunity for more intensive spiritual study, Pendle Hill offers an on-going resident study program consisting of three 10-week sessions from October to June. A library, community dining room, craft studio (summer only), and extensive wooded grounds are available to the private and program guests; families are welcomed, but the study center does not provide childcare. Write or phone Pendle Hill, 338 Plush Mill Road, Wallingford, PA 19086 (phone 800/742-3150, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org). The Web site at pendlehill.org/ provides extensive information on the study center and its programs, as well as allows you to register for conferences and retreats online. The Ben Lomond Quaker Center in Central California (two hours south of San Francisco) offers another opportunity for spiritual discovery. Situated on 80 acres of Redwood forest, the center aims to provide a place of "retreat and contemplation, of renewal and growth, for individuals, families, Friends Meetings and other organizations or groups who unite with the Quaker principles of simplicity, justice, peace and respect for 'that of God' in every person" for over 30 years. The center offers an average of one weekend retreat per month, which run on a sliding scale of about $160 per person, including program fees and room and board from Friday to Sunday. Programs for 2001 include "Alternatives to Violence," "Discovering Our Purpose for Being," and "The Annual Silent Retreat." All meals are vegetarian and participants share set-up and clean-up responsibilities. Like Pendle Hill, this center also offers accommodations for "sojourners," or those in search of personal respite; rates range from $17-$50/person/night, but additional donations are welcome. During the summer, Ben Lomond holds weeklong Quaker camps for "young friends," ranging in age from 8th graders to college students. Write or phone Ben Lomond Quaker Center, P.O. Box 686, Ben Lomond, CA 95005 (phone 831/336-8333, e-mail email@example.com). Its Web site at quakercenter.org/ provides a complete listing of program offerings, as well as rates and helpful features, such as "What to Expect" and "What to Bring." Powell House Conference and Retreat Center, Old Chatham, NY Friends (a.k.a., Quakers) are no strangers to silence--it's an integral part of their meetings. So it is not surprising that this center, set on 57 acres with two ponds in rural upstate New York, adjacent to a bird sanctuary, encourages calm and quiet. But what surprised Spee Braun when she, her husband, and their three children went there the first time was that people gathered regularly in the main hall to make music - something not allowed in the usual Quaker service. She liked that, and everything else about the place. "I'm a people-person. You meet new people there and you can have in-depth conversations that you can't get to over a cup of coffee at church," Braun says. Braun says she even found walking the new stone labyrinth "a moving experience, though I started out a skeptic." The lectures are enlightening. Her favorite events are the bargain work-weekends. "You do a job on the main building, like re-roof or rake leaves or paint the walls, and the low rates are even cheaper," she says. "You feel peace at Powell House, away from the busyness of the world." Powell House Conference and Retreat Center Under the care of New York Yearly Meeting of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), 524 Pitt Hall Rd., Old Chatham, NY 12136-3410; 518/794-8811, powellhouse.org/. Open year-round; three hours north of New York City, three hours west of Boston. Cost: Weekend: adults $170, includes two nights' lodging and six meals and all programming; $80 for kids under 18; $40 kids under 2. For individual retreatants (called "sojourners" here) who do not attend programs: $40 per night, includes self-serve breakfast. Reservations required. Seventh Day Adventists There's one thing at Camp Kulaqua in High Springs, FL you won't find at any other retreat center: the largest amateur zoo on the East Coast, with lions and tigers and bears (oh my) as well as cougars, monkeys, llamas, and coyotes. "Most of the animals have been confiscated from people who've abused them--we don't take them from the wild and put them behind bars," says Dave Speicher, camp manager. Camp Kulaqua is one of the largest of the Seventh-Day Adventists' 99 worldwide retreat centers and camps (67 in North America). The 650-acre facility, 20 miles north of Gainesville, provides all kinds of housing year-round, a natural spring to swim in, horses for trail rides, tennis, a gym, and meeting facilities that can seat up to 1,200. There are weekend programs (men's and women's retreats) for two to three months of the year; a singles' retreat over New Year's; four-day family camp with programs over Labor Day; and a seven-week summer camp for kids. But at other times, individual retreatants are on their own. No TV, no phones. "The main attraction is the quiet and security," says Speicher. "What we try to do is provide an atmosphere where the Holy Spirit dwells and you can get away from the cares of the world." Camp Kulaqua, 700 N.W. Cheeota Ave., High Springs, FL 32643; 386/454-1351, fax 386/454-4748, campkulaqua.com/. Located 20 miles north of Gainesville, 21/2 hours north of Orlando. Cost: Rooms for $28.50-$187 per night; meals run $6.95-$7.95. Jewish The available Jewish retreats are almost all long weekends in nature, and include, most prominently: The Brandeis-Bardin Institute, 1101 Peppertree Lane, Brandeis, CA 93064 (phone 805/582-4450, fax 805/526-1398, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org, or online at brandeis-bardin.org/), has cottages amid rolling hills 45 minutes from Los Angeles, and offers a wide variety of themed programs (family camps, singles weekends, arts festivals) on religious practices in the tradition of non-denominational Judaism. Cost varies according to the program, but averages between $170-$375 per person. Hadassah, the well-known Jewish women's organization, sponsors "Singles Retreat." Held across the country, the retreat is heavily patronized by persons seeking a mate of similar background and values, but has a strong religious and spiritual as well as social content, I am assured by Hadassah's national office. For the many dates, locations and prices, write or call Hadassah Membership Division, 50 West 58th Street, New York, NY 10019 (phone 800/664-5646, e-mail: email@example.com), which operates these programs for the public at large, and does not require that participants be members of Hadassah. More traditional retreats ("Kallahs"), for members only, are offered on summer weekends at locations around the country, and are led by distinguished biblical scholars. Write to Hadassah's Jewish Education Department at the above address or view the Web site at hadassah.org/. Jacobs Camp, in Mississippi, has periodic adult retreats each year, discussing Jewish issues in a countryside setting that now also contains an 8,000-square-foot Museum of the Southern Jewish Experience, operated by the Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Contact Jacobs Camp, P.O. Box 327, Utica, MS 39175 (phone 601 885-6042). See the organization's Web site at hsjacobscamp.org/. Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby, in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, hosts a variety of midweek and weekend retreats all year round-some for children, others for families or mature adults only--on themes such as: "Spirituality and the High Holidays" and "Jewish Literature and the Arts" as well as a "Jewish Writer's Workshop" and a "Songleading and Music Workshop." For non-program visits, the all-inclusive charge can be as low as $15 a day per person for lodgings and meals on a family camping trip, although most people visit with a large group. For information, write or phone Camp Olin-Sang-Ruby, winter address 555 Skokie Blvd., Suite 225, Northbrook, IL 60062 (phone 847/509-0990, ext. 25, fax 847/509-0970, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org); summer address: 600 Lac La Belle Drive, Oconomowoc, WI 53066 (phone 262/567-6277, fax 262/567-8885). Also online at http://osrui.urjcamps.org/. Elat Chayyim The Jewish Spiritual Retreat Center, 99 Mill Hook Rd., Accord, NY 12404 (two hours north of New York); 800/398-2630, elatchayyim.org/. Open year-round, but only during those weekends and weeks when programs are scheduled; accommodates 150. Costs: Weeklong programs in summer: Program fee $390-$485.Weekends: Program fee $150; rooms $125-$275 per weekend, includes three (vegetarian with fish option) meals a day. A typical day starts with yoga and prayer sessions, then classes taught by some of the leaders in the Jewish Renewal movement (emphasizing the integration of mind, body, soul, and spirit). Services are often held outdoors in a tent, amidst spirited chanting and swaying. There's a park nearby with lush hiking and biking trails. The day ends with discussion of the retreat experience in smaller family (mispacha) groups, sometimes outside under the stars. Muslim Islamic retreats are harder to come by, but we've found one site that offers several programs for those interested in an intensive education in Islamic studies. Each year the Dar al Islam site in Abiquiu, New Mexico, hosts retreats, informational sessions, and conferences for Muslims. There is a youth camp for one week in June, and a women-only weekend retreat in September, but the big event is the Abiquiu Al-Rihla Summer Program. "Students" age 18 and over study jurisprudence, spiritual excellence, the Koran, and Arabic, among other subjects. Accommodations are bunk beds in yurts (large tents) for the men, and dormitory-style lodgings for the women. No provisions are made for married couples, so they would have to sleep separately or arrange their own accommodations outside the complex. For general information about the Dar al Islam site in New Mexico, go to daralislam.org/, call 505/685-4515, or write to P.O. Box 180, Abiquiu, NM 85710. Hindu Finally, the following are two Hindu retreat centers, both highly popular and well respected in the Hindu community. The Shree Muktananda Ashram located in South Fallsburg, NY, calls itself a "spiritual University." The focus is on ancient Hindu teachings, although serious seekers of all faiths are welcome. The Ashram was founded in 1979 by Swami Muktananda, and is a modern representation of the traditional gurukula, the school of the Guru described in ancient Hindu texts, where students gather around a spiritual master to learn both scripture and the way to lead a life of righteousness (dharma). Students participate in a full daily schedule of meditation, chanting, contemplation, scriptural study and selfless service (which could include anything from chopping vegetables in the kitchen, to caring for the Ashram grounds). Classes cost between $150 and $475, and room and board cost from $57/night for dorms, $90 for twin accommodations, and $95/night for singles. Shree Muktananda is affiliated with the Gurudev Siddha Path Ashram in India, which was founded by Swami Muktananda in 1956. For information on either center, contact SYDA Foundation, Information Center, 371 Brickman Road, PO Box 600, South Fallsburg, NY 12779-0600 (phone 845/434 2000 ext. 2450) or view its Web site at siddhayoga.org/. For a more varied, camp-style, but still thoroughly spiritual approach to Hinduism, Arsha Vidya Gurukulam (AVG) in Saylorsburg, PA offers something for people of all ages. Located on 15 wooded acres in the foothills of the Pocono Mountains, AVC can provide for up to 200 students at once in a complex of 15 cottages, five residential complexes and nine "family residences." AVG's comprehensive brochure regularly lists more than a dozen programs for summer and fall (three of which are family retreats), as well as regular retreats on the first and third weekend of every month, focused on a variety of studies including the Upanishads, Bhagavatgita, Bramasutras and other classical Vedic texts as well as such topics as Vedic Astrology, Ayurveda, Meditation and Yoga. For more information, contact AVG, P.O. Box 1059, Saylorsburg PA 18353 (phone 570/992-2339, e-mail email@example.com). Also online at arshavidya.org/. Buddhist Retreats Here are my top seven retreats, with most preferring you to stay at least a couple of nights to soak it all in. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, Carmel Valley, California It's a good thing that Tassajara turns out to be one of the most beautiful and luxurious of retreats, because it is not exactly easy to get to. After driving about four hours south of San Francisco, climbing 5,000 feet in the Santa Lucia Range, and then clambering into the Tassajara's four-wheel drive "stagecoach" for the last 14 miles (one hour), half of which is straight downhill (they advise first-time visitors not to try this in their own automatic-shift vehicles lest they burn out the brakes completely), you arrive at the ancient geological wonder that is the Tassajara Creek Basin. Everywhere you go, from the pool past the dorms and cabins and yurts to the bathhouse, you'll hear the peaceful burble of the creek. From May to Labor Day, there's an eclectic mix of Buddhist teachings ("Wild Mind, Zen Mind," for example) along with yoga, wilderness walks, and a little silence. Here, however, you can just come and not do any of the formal training at all. "A lot of people are so stressed out they just come and sleep for the first day-and soak in the mineral hot springs," says Leslie James, Tassajara treasurer. "The place itself has a powerful spirit; it was where Indians came for healing before it became a resort." "We've been coming here since before I was born," says 14-year-old Kailyn McCord, sounding like a precocious Zen master (what's the sound of one hand clapping?) until her mother, Margaret, sitting at the dinner table across from her, adds context. "I've been coming since I was pregnant with Kailyn, and the family has been coming ever since." Though there are some wonderful hiking trails, up the mountains and alongside the powerful stream, there isn't much to appeal to most teenagers. Kailyn agrees, but still wouldn't miss coming every year. "I'm normally hyper and rambunctious," Kailyn explains. "This place opens up a quieter side of me that's wonderful and," she adds, taking a bite and beaming, "I come for the food." And so do many others. The meals are truly vegetarian gourmet quality-as beautiful to look at as to eat. Not surprisingly, as Tassajara is part of a group that includes Green Gulch, an organic farm and practice center, and The Greens, an haute gourmet vegetarian restaurant on San Francisco Bay (as well as at the San Francisco Zen Center in the city). Forget your cell phone-it just won't work. And there is only one pay phone for all of the 70-80 residents. No TV, no pressure, not even electricity in the residences. It's stunning to walk at night with kerosene lanterns the only light along the paths and in the rooms, like reading by the glow of a jarful of dedicated fireflies. Now doesn't that sound like Nirvana? Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, 39171 Tassajara Road, Carmel Valley, CA 93924 415/865-1899 sfzc.org/. Dorms: $84-$99 per person per night, including all meals. Otherwise, two people per room, private stone rooms, pine rooms, yurts, and tatami Japanese mountain cabins can run up to $291 per night, again including three meals, pool, hot spring baths, all facilities. Tuition for weeklong courses: $150-$300. Open May-August to public. Spirit Rock Meditation Center, Woodacre, California The low wooden buildings melt unobtrusively into the hills of the 400-acre nature preserve that forms the backdrop for this year-round retreat center less than an hour north of San Francisco. The meditation hall, where you spend most of your time, has walls of windows looking out on the hills and mountains. During the evening dharma talk (the teacher's lecture on an aspect of Buddhist philosophy), you can see deer prance by on the top of the hill. Vipassana, or insight, meditation (the practice of mindful awareness) informs all the retreats, which run from four days to several months. They are all completely silent. Though everyone has the luxury of a private room, each with a tiny modern sink, blond-wood bedside table, and a good single bed, it's a nofrills kind of place. There is time for little else besides the full daily schedule of sitting and walking meditation, movement class, meetings with your teacher, and dharma talks. The food is adequate, not gourmet, vegetarian. You are expected to do mindful cleaning and kitchen chores as well as clean your room, strip your bed, and wash the sink in your room before you go. And there are only a few hiking trails-though you shouldn't miss the one behind the meditation hall. It passes by a quite touching memorial place with bones and beads and Buddhas and photos of beloved friends and children who all passed along before those left behind were ready to let them go. One photo of a lone fireman atop the World Trade Center debris includes the names of three people, with the wish that by placing their memory "in this peaceful place" they will find peace from "the terror that surely must have filled the final moments of their lives." No frills-no matter. What you come here for is the high-quality teachers who seem to have as much wit as wisdom, along with the ability to translate Buddhist teachings (archaically referred to at more traditional Zen retreats as "the Buddha-way") into language that resonates meaningfully for an American audience. Spirit Rock was founded by Jack Kornfield and Sylvia Boorstein, among others, who are two of the best teachers and most prolific and funny authors writing on Buddhism. (They also helped found The Insight Meditation Society in Barre, Massachusetts.) Spirit Rock also offers many one-day workshops as well, with some of the biggest names in spirituality in the United States. To be surrounded on all sides by sloping hillsides and mountains makes you feel, as you walk from the dorm to the meditation hall, as if you are being gently cradled in the hollow of the earth's hand. It is oddly quieting and reassuring. Rooms and three meals a day run $55-$75 per night (on a sliding scale based on your ability to pay). It is also expected that you will make a donation to the teachers at the end of the retreat, as they are otherwise unpaid. Spirit Rock Meditation Center, P.O. Box 169, Woodacre, CA 94973 415/488-0164 spiritrock.org/ Zen Mountain Monastery, Mount Tremper, New York Is that a statue of Jesus on the outside of the beautiful, four-story stone-and-wood building that houses Zen Mountain Monastery? Is this a Zen paradox? As with most things Buddhist, the answer turns out to be simpler than one first supposes. This building in the foothills of the Catskill Mountains, bordered by two of New York's loveliest waterways, the Beaverkill and Esopus Rivers (about 100 miles north of New York City and 60 miles south of Albany), was once owned by the Catholic Church and has been appropriated (or is that recycled?) by the Buddhists. Inside the building, the Zen practice has not undergone much change from its origins. "On the landscape of American Buddhism, we carry the conservative' label: rigorous, intense, disciplined, structured are some adjectives that may come up," says one of the teachers, Ryushin, with a smile that often pops up on his face and on those of the other monks and teachers. But people are coming here in droves. The Introduction to Zen retreat, offered the first weekend of every month for 22 years, never used to be full. "Now we're completely full and booked months in advance," says Ryushin. What brings them here? "People come in for a variety of reasons-often they are in pain, someone close has suffered or died," Ryushin explains. "I think lately the shit has hit the fan and people see they can no longer look to someone else to solve what is not right in the world, in their lives. The intimacy of the suffering of the world is more palpable and inescapable," continues Ryushin. "That's where Buddhism begins-when we come to grips with the reality of suffering and our role in it and in putting it to rest." The Introduction to Zen retreat begins with patient and occasionally humorous instruction on zazen, sitting meditation, from the proper posture to how to tame your Monkey Mind, which will inevitably leap from thought to thought instead of letting you focus on "the still and clear mind." The daily schedule begins with a drum at 5:15 a.m. and includes alternating sitting meditation with walking meditation (carried out at a speedy clip, like a quiet conga line weaving around the zendo), along with an hour of light work in the kitchen or in the gardens on the 230 acres of nature preserve-in mindful silence. In addition you'll sit (quietly and respectfully) for one or more instructional talks from a teacher. There is also the opportunity for a private interview with a head monk to pose any question, personal or philosophical in your little Monkey Mind. Many say they experience in those few minutes with the master the most unusual intensity of focused attention and heartfelt compassion they have ever felt emanating from another person or not all depends on the karma. About $50 per night; four-day retreats: $350; weekend retreats: $195; includes dorm room, three meals a day, tuition. A month of residential training costs $650. Zen Mountain Monastery, P.O. Box 197, Mount Tremper, NY 12457 845/688-2228, mro.org/. Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center, Wood Valley, Ka'u, on the Big Island of Hawaii This is one of the best-kept local secrets. You would never happen upon it because it's tucked away in a lush, green valley, far from the normal tourist path-but still within driving distance of Hilo and Volcanoes National Park, which are two attractions on the Big Island. This tiny Tibetan (the more relaxed branch of Buddhism) center, established in 1977 by the Venerable Nechung Rinpoche, was visited by the Dalai Lama twice: He dedicated the center in 1980 and visited again in 1994, drawing a crowd of several thousand to a facility that can only sleep 25. Throughout the year, you'll find some formal retreats with guidance from teachers and lamas; the center is also open to groups for any spiritual, social, cultural, or health activities. Private individuals can stay at any time of year and simply join in with the two resident monks during morning and evening prayers and chanting or just kick back (easygoing Buddhism practiced here). "We've preserved the original main shrine, built in 1902, which was the first Nichiren Shu Buddhist temple in Hawaii to service the Japanese immigrants who worked on the sugar plantations," explains Marya Schwabe, codirector. "But we've added modern Tibetan colors, the bright Crayola colors, which are beautiful." If you feel you must leave the compound, ten minutes away you'll find a black-sand beach where the green sea turtles come in to rest and feed. For groups of over 15, directors Marya and Michael Schwabe will cook your meals; otherwise you are free to use their big modern kitchen. "It's very heavenly," says Ione ("I don't use a last name"), a psychotherapist and author in New York City and Kingston, New York, who has just come back. "We sit on the veranda of our second-floor room [furnished in modern, simple Hawaiian style, with single or double beds] looking out on the most luscious flowers [red ginger, bird of paradise, spider lilies, and cup of gold flowering vines thrive there] and palms, listening to the sound of the peacocks on the grounds. You can go down and pick an avocado from the trees for your lunch. They raise coffee there, picked by the monks, which is fantastic at breakfast," Ione says, her voice softening at the memory. "I've traveled a lot in the world," Ione says, "and this is one of those places with a special feeling, a great feeling of peacefulness, beauty, and simplicity that calls you to return." When there's no formal retreat, rooms are $75, not including meals; $50 for a single person, $35 in a dorm. When there's a formal retreat, $75-$125 per night includes three meals, tuition, and taxes. (Discounts for groups of 15 or more.) Wood Valley Temple and Retreat Center (a.k.a. Nechung Dorje Drayang Ling, which means small, immutable island of melodious sound), P.O. Box 250, Pahala, HI 96777 808/928-8539 nechung.org/. Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, Castle Rock, Washington In the midst of a lush, brilliant-green rain forest (60 miles north of Portland and 125 miles south of Seattle), you'll find a small lake, a gas-fired sauna, an organic garden and greenhouse, a fish pond, loads of wildlife (birds, black-tail deer, fish, raccoons), and a very intimate retreat center. "Our point of view is that bigger is not necessarily better," says Laura Hauer, Cloud Mountain's business director. "Other centers are growing, but we are keeping our maximum retreat group size at about 45." Retreats, ranging from one day to a month or more, are almost all held in silence. Those attending are expected to follow the retreat schedule of sitting and walking meditation and attend the sessions of yoga and movement and discourses by the teacher. The two meditation halls and the eating and sleeping quarters (simple bunk beds) are simple and well maintained. Attractive bare-wood construction abounds and tea and snacks are always available. "The food is excellent-vegetarian and organic, with much of it from the gardens on the property," says Jo Marie Thompson, a nurse at Harborview Trauma Center in Seattle, Washington, and a regular at Cloud Mountain since 1994. "All the staff and teachers I've encountered there are the epitome of pure-hearted spiritual seeking-humble, low-key, unassuming, but filled with great wisdom and kindness," Thompson says. "The founders bring the cream of the crop of Western Buddhist teachers to the center." As with many retreat centers, guests are asked to assist with daily chores such as chopping vegetables, washing dishes, and cleaning their own rooms at the end of their stay. "I've practiced at centers all over the world and in several states-Christian, Buddhist, and nondenominational-and there are none I would recommend more highly than Cloud Mountain," says Jo Marie Thompson. "It shifts my ideas of what we're here for and what's important in this life and in my work as a nurse," Thompson says. "I see it's not about saving lives as much as the smallest gestures of compassion we can show for one another." The average daily cost is $50 per person, including meals and lodging. If there is a teaching retreat, teachers receive additional voluntary payment (as this is their only source of remuneration) on what is called a dana basis: spontaneous generosity of the heart. Toilets and hot shower facilities are in a separate building. There is shuttle service available from Portland International Airport. Cloud Mountain Retreat Center, 373 Agren Road, Castle Rock, WA 98611 888/465-9118 or 360/274-4859, cloudmountain.org/. Karme Choling, Barnet, Vermont "It's a cheerful yet relaxed atmosphere; I come away feeling completely refreshed even if my schedule is busy," says Arthur Borden, direct mail manager at the Vermont Teddy Bear Company in Burlington, Vermont. Karmê Choling, located on 540 acres of Vermont farmland and forest, has 13 shrine rooms, an organic vegetable garden, dining room (meals are not silent), dorms, seven cabins (for experienced, solitary retreatants only), a gift shop, and one additional feature that you won't see at many other centers: an azuchi (traditional Japanese archery range), where you learn Zen archery (kyudo). Zen archery? If you're wondering how that is different from the regular bow-and-arrow-and-bull's-eye variety, it turns out that the point isn't really about hitting the target. Not about the target at all. In fact, even the masters sometimes miss it completely. "You follow a form, going through seven different steps, focusing on your connection to the earth and to your body and to the form," says Eric Ballou, a retreat assistant. "You don't really aim at the target. Where the arrow flies is not as important; it's more of a dance." Hmmmmm. If that's a bit too Zen to comprehend, you'll also find occasional programs in other traditional Japanese arts such as ikebana (flower arranging), chado (tea ceremony), and shodo (calligraphy), as well as Buddhist psychology and family programs. There is also Family Week once every summer. Parents have time to do meditation, and the staff takes care of the kids, though older children can practice meditation, too. It's more of a family vacation than a strict schedule of meditation, with barbecues (yes, there is even meat) and a big party at the end. There are not many recreational facilities, but the setting of rolling green hills is very picturesque Vermont, complete with barns in the distance, 200 acres with trails, a creek, and a pond stocked with koi and goldfish. "I meet people from all over the world-the people drawn to this place are interesting and interested in exploring the world," says Borden. "It's delightful." The $30 a day per person cost can include everything-three meals, tuition-if you sleep in a tent and bring your own bedding or sleep on a foam mattress on the shrine floor; dorm and private rooms are $10-$50 a night extra. All shared bathrooms. Shuttle service from Amtrak and airports provided for additional fees Karmê Chooling, 369 Patneaude Lane, Barnet, VT 05821, 802/633-2384, shambhala.org/ Bhavana Society, High View, West Virginia What best captures the informal spirit here is Bhavana's explanation about the fees: "There are no fixed charges; we operate on dana, which is money given freely from the heart," explains Lee Halfpenny, the executive director. Most other retreats say that as well, but they have some clearly defined fees for their room and board as guidelines, if not the additional dana one gives the teachers. At this Theravada ministry on 42 forested acres in West Virginia, just two hours from Washington, D.C., and one hour from Dulles International Airport, you'll find few frills. Days are spent alternating sitting meditation (beginning at 5:30 a.m.) with walking meditation. Unlike the fast walking you will find practiced at the Zen Mountain Monastery in New York, "at the Bhavana Society we walk with excruciating slowness it takes roughly five full minutes to cross the 25-foot width of the meditation hall. "We look like big wading birds poking through a swamp," writes Dinty Moore in his book, The Accidental Buddhist. Bhavana has one unusual practice regarding its meals (simple vegetarian fare): Lunch is the last meal of the day, so instead of dinner there is yoga. But even self-confessed hearty eaters, such as Dinty Moore, say the trade-off is worth it. "By the end of the 30-minute yoga class, I feel warm and tingly virtually all across my sedentary, middle-aged, overweight body, and it is a fantastic sensation," writes Moore in his amusing account of his search for the essence of American Buddhism. "By the end of the second full day, I feel light as a small ball of cotton. All of the deep breathing has brought oxygen to corners of my brain and bloodflow to places in my body I had forgotten existed," the usually more cynical Moore admits. Bhavana Society, a monastery as well as a retreat center, is headed by Abbot Bhante Gunaratana, author of one of the classic meditation manuals, Mindfulness in Plain English, and is open all year for retreats of varying lengths. "At the end of my first retreat I felt that if I had gone to the most distant corner of the world, I could not have been farther away," writes artist Libby Reid about her experience at the Bhavana Society retreat, in The Complete Guide to Buddhist America. "The practice of meditation has changed the way I experience the world I laugh more. I see more joy." And she goes back to Bhavana every year. Here's what they say when you ask, "How much?": "We are frequently asked what is the suggested donation for retreats at Bhavana Society Meditation Center. We cannot answer that question because that would be like setting a price. The Buddha's teachings are priceless so we offer our service here for dana." I guess they hope you'll remember that the essence of dana is generosity. The Web site also lists some items besides money that you might donate as well-pots and pans, office chairs; the list is quite specific. Bhavana Society, Rte. 1 Box 218-3, High View, WV 26808 304/856-3241, bhavanasociety.org/. RESOURCES ON RETREATS Find the Divine: findthedivine.com/; Listings and descriptions of over 1,100 retreat centers in the United States and about 150 in Canada. Retreats International: retreatsintl.org/; Lists 340 retreat centers in the United States and Canada. (Book version available for $30.) NARDA: nardacenters.org/; NARDA, Ecumenical Christian Association of Retreat and Renewal Centers and Leaders in North America, lists a few hundred Christian centers in the United States and Canada. BLURBCORRECTIONCLARIFICATION
The Spas of Bohemia
Today I am king--for 40 minutes, anyway, soaking under frescoed ceilings in the very tub that once held England's Edward VII. Gas bubbles dance in the warm spring water, soothing my skin (and, I'm told, lowering my blood pressure) as I doze off, happy as a clam: this regal indulgence, this rococo chamber worthy of a museum, is mine for all of 20 bucks. Welcome to Marienbad (Marianske Lazne in the tongue-twisting local language), one of three-dozen Czech spa towns where a day of Old World pampering, medical treatments, and three hearty meals can cost as little as 1,750 Czech crowns ($50) per person per day in low season (generally October through April)--less than a standard hotel room in most of western Europe (in high season, prices run from $71 to $95, still a decent deal if you don't mind the crowds). Granted, some of these medical treatments might raise your own doctor's eyebrow. Traditionally, the spa experience centered around "taking the waters" (via soaking or drinking), and all sorts of claims have been made for their powers, from treating gout to infertility, even cancer. Think what you will, generations of Europeans have sworn by these methods, and many national health insurance programs even cover spa visits. These are not, after all, New Agey fad-farms, but long-established, traditional European health care institutions, though admittedly, time and tech have expanded the offerings to the likes of magnetotherapy, supposedly relieving pain by creating magnetic fields around the body, or the alarmingly named pneumopuncture, which injects gas into acupuncture points--clearly not for everyone. Not all treatments, though, are so out there, and plenty are bona-fide boons, including massage, physical therapy, and wonderful mineral water baths. Here's how it works: you check into a spa facility and meet with a "balneologist" (doctor of spa medicine), who prescribes a course of treatment based on your afflictions (ideally three weeks or more, but they cater to Americans with one-week programs); this includes baths, therapy sessions, water-drinking regimens, whatever your condition calls for. An individualized diet plan is also forwarded to the kitchen (though, interestingly, in Eastern Europe the "diet" dishes are often soaked in butter). Special or additional treatments (such as my decadent soak in the King's Chamber) are payable on a per-item basis. Alternatively, you may also stay at a non-spa hotel, eat in excellent (and inexpensive) restaurants around town, and visit the spa as an outpatient. Depending on the chemical composition of their springs and muds, different towns focus on different conditions; thus, while Trebon and Bechyne specialize in joints and muscles, Podebrady is for the heart, and Frantiskovy Lazne focuses on gynecology. For the first-timer, though, the best and most versatile introduction to the spa experience centers around two famous West Bohemian towns: Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary in Czech), the largest and most popular of all, and the quieter, more genteel Marienbad. The easiest (albeit most expensive) way to do it is an all-inclusive package--airfare, lodging, treatments, and three meals a day--from the tour-operator arm of CSA, the Czech national airline; these run around $1,499 per person (double occupancy) for seven nights at the posh Hotel Imperial Spa in Karlsbad. You can save big, however, by calling local tour operators, such as Prague International and Helios.Via (see box), or contacting the spa directly and then buying your airfare through a consolidator (roughly $700 from the East Coast in high season). Once you arrive in Prague, a bus ticket to Karlsbad is only $2.65 for an air-conditioned two-hour ride, and the three-hour-plus train to Marienbad costs $3.35. Karlsbad (Karlovy Vary) Fizzy Water & Summer Hoopla: Surrounded by steep hills 100 miles west of Prague, this town's picturesque 600-year-old spa district has played host to aristocrats and celebrities from Russia's Czar Peter the Great to Beethoven to Karl Marx. Today it's a merry jumble of nineteenth-century extravagance, its facades shining once more after extensive restoration. Up and down the banks of the Tepla river, Germans, Czechs, and hordes of nouveau riche Russians take their constitutional walks, stopping at the 12 mineral springs to fill their lazensky poharek, a china mug with a built-in drinking straw (to be honest, the hot fizzy water tastes vile). Karlsbad also aims to treat the soul, and so it hosts a variety of concerts, balls, and jazz and film festivals. Summertime, in fact, can seem anything but relaxing, with teeming crowds serenaded by oompah chestnuts like "Roll Out the Barrel" at every turn. Fortunately, you can head for the hills along the many hiking paths on the outskirts, offering pine-fresh air and contemplative quiet. Karlsbad Spas/Hotels: If quiet is important, the best local spa may be the Jadran, an intimate villa built in 1937 on a hill above town. With only 12 rooms, its recently renovated premises sparkle with luxurious furnishings, gorgeous private baths, stereo equipment, TV, fridge, and phone; there is also an in-house doctor and treatment facilities, all at a cost - including full board - of $119 based on double occupancy. The drawbacks: no elevator, and a longish walk uphill from town. Almost as plush, the art nouveau Astoria offers a much better location smack in the center of town. The lobby wows visitors with its marble, brass, and fresh flowers, and many rooms have been upgraded to light wood furniture, lace curtains, new bathrooms, and all the expected amenities; there is also a brand-new sauna and indoor pool adorned with classical tilework and pillars. The all-inclusive cost here ranges from a high of 154 euros per room in season to a low of 112 euros. Strangely, the priciest place in Karlsbad (204 euros to 240 euros per room) is also the ugliest. The Thermal, a 15-story concrete eyesore in the center of the pedestrian-only spa district, has one of those cavernous lobbies so typical of hotels in the former Soviet bloc. Still, it attracts a significant clientele who appreciate its large medical staff, complete range of spa treatments, outdoor pool with naturally hot spring and thermal water, and recently renovated rooms with fabulous balcony views of the town and surrounding hills. For those who prefer a simpler, non-spa hotel, the Jiskra is the best bet: a fabulous townhouse just across from the posh Grand Hotel Pupp and dripping with crystal chandeliers and swirly Belle Epoque moldings. A grand staircase (and elevator) lead up to three suites fit for royalty, along with ten simpler rooms with TV, phone, and shared baths (41 euros per room in low season and 78 euros in high). Karlsbad Cuisine: Restaurant prices in the Czech Republic can still amaze after a decade of capitalism, and Karlsbad is no exception. At the pleasant Bodam Rybi Restaurace, seafood's the specialty, served outdoors under chestnut trees or indoors in a cozy dining room lined with fish tanks. An entree of fried calamari goes for $2.50, and a generous portion of paella with shrimp, mussels, and sepia for $3.25. Game is served, too: roast duck with cabbage and dumplings costs $3, and venison steak with mushrooms, $3.85. Rather more elegant, the Regina Restaurace (in the Regina Hotel) is a grand affair with elaborate ceilings, soaring columns, chandeliers, and . . . clunky Soviet-era furniture. Two prix-fixe menus offer the likes of soup, roast pork with potato dumplings and cabbage, apple strudel, and coffee for $3.35; ... la carte, a fried filet of fish is $1.75 and palacinky (Czech-style crepes) with fruit and cream just 75[cents]. Just off the main drag along a quiet lane of fairytale fin-de-siecle villas stop for lunch or dinner at the excellent Sadova Kavarna Restaurace, a plainish dining room with outdoor tables overlooking an onion-domed Russian orthodox church. Lively music and dancing on weekend nights accompany great values like the trout baked in butter and lemon for $2.50. Sides, like the ubiquitous potato croquettes, run 42[cents], as do various small desserts, and the Prazdroj or Purkmistr beer is 53[cents] a glass. To eat like a true Czech on a budget, though, head for Linie Rychle Obcerstveni. Just west of the Thermal Hotel, it remains a Soviet-style fast-food joint with modern touches like bright display cases. The thing here is gloppy salads heavy on the mayonnaise served with a rohlik (roll); the karlovarsky salat, for example, costs just 42[cents] for a filling 150g (five-ounce) portion of chopped salami, raw onions, and diced pickles in a runny white sauce. It's deeply satisfying in the way that only something utterly bad for you can be; ditto for desserts like the 33[cents] "spa cake," a sort of Napoleon overloaded with frosting. This is truly as Czech as it gets, and a great place for a quick and very cheap meal. Marienbad (Marianske Lazne) A Gracious, Low-Key Alternative: Eighty miles southwest of Prague, Marienbad offers a different kind of spa experience: quieter, more intimate--even genteel. It was, after all, founded in the nineteenth century and specifically designed for strolling, its paths winding amid landscapes that would honor an Impressionist painting. To walk here is to revel in the architectural grandeur of the Austro-Hungarian empire; indeed, one might almost expect to bump into Goethe or Chopin taking a constitutional or listening to the spooky canned melodies of the "Singing Fountain," the focus of the delightful spa district. Expect, in short, nothing of the gloomy atmosphere of the pretentious, old French film Last Year at Marienbad. Marienbad Spas/Hotels: Hvezda means "star," and that's what this luxurious gem is among the local offerings. All rooms are appointed with stylish furniture and all the modern conveniences - save air conditioning, absent all over town. The meals in the plush dining room are top-notch, and a broad range of treatments is available, from hydromassage to gas injections to magnetotherapy; more complex procedures are referred to the nearby Nove Lazne, a grand old outpatient facility (see below). The daily cost, including all meals and treatments, is an amazing $93 per person in high season and $79 in low. For less expensive rates (5040 CZK- 5360 CZK), the Pacific offers clean, recently refurbished quarters that don't look quite as sharp but still do the trick. A more limited range of cures is offered here, with patients going to the Nove Lazne as well. A major highlight of the Pacific, though, is the restaurant (open to the public), a splendid affair in art nouveau plaster and gilt. The much plainer Vltava Hotel offers oddly similar prices (3530 CZK-3910 CZK) and specializes in musculoskeletal problems such as the knees and the neck--all of which will appreciate the beautiful indoor heated pool, whirlpool, and dry sauna. Rooms are clean and perfectly serviceable, with TV, phone, and sometimes a fridge; there is a daily choice of six set meals. If you opt to stay in a regular hotel, however, the Polonia is an excellent choice, right on the main street and a short stroll to the Singing Fountain and the main colonnade (covered walkway housing several springs). While the facade is awash in friezes and caryatids, the interior is rather functional; rooms are bright and cheerful, however, with furniture of recent vintage, most with TV, and telephone. All the baths boast new tilework and fixtures, too, though some rooms share a bath; the price range here is 55 to 73 euros. Whether or not you stay in a spa hotel, sooner or later you will end up at the Nove Lazne, a twin-towered structure offering the widest range of cures in town. Built in 1896, by the following year it welcomed England's Edward VII to the above-mentioned King's Chamber. All the area spas send their patients here for advanced treatment at no extra cost--like the "Maria's gas" wrap, essentially a plastic sleeping bag full of natural CO(sub)2. Otto, an older German from Bremen, walked with a cane, he tells me; but now, after two weeks of gas wraps, no more cane - and his wife is happier, he winks (an alternative to Viagra, the wraps supposedly dilate all the blood vessels). There are other fun treatments like colon irrigations, hydrotherapy, underwater massage, and the like. You may also come with no referral and take only those procedures you wish; that $20 mineral water bath in the King's Chamber costs $10 in a regular tub; an underwater spray massage is $16, and Otto's arousing gas wrap goes for a mere $7. Meals in Marienbad: Even if you have a full-board plan, it would be a crime not to broaden your gastronomic horizons, given local restaurant prices. The Classic Restaurant and Cafe, for example, is classic indeed, with candles, crystal, and an upscale crowd. Meals here range from $1.65 for a vegetarian asparagus with peaches au gratin to a whopping $4.95 for smoked salmon with potato pancakes in a horseradish cream sauce and salad; a glass of Moravian wine is 64[cents]. For dessert, superb, paper-thin palacinky are just 80[cent]. Just up a short ways on Hlavni trida, the main drag, is the aforementioned dining room of the Pacific Hotel, where stucco-frosted ceilings loom over elegant tables. Here, 83[cents] buys an appetizer of sardines in cod liver oil with onions, and the chef's specialty, the "Pacific" sirloin steak with peaches and roquefort cheese, will set you back only $4.75. To eat outdoors, try the Cesky Dvur, serving traditional Czech cuisine in a neoclassical courtyard just off Hlavni. The service is quick and the svickova na smetane (sauerbraten in cream sauce with cranberries and bread dumplings, practically the national dish) is heavenly-- and only $3.60. The same price gets you a hearty beef goulash, also with dumplings; desserts, like (what else?) palacinky, run $1.65. The best deal, though, is the "Czech platter," a generous assortment of roast pork, smoked meats, and duck served with cabbage and dumplings--for all of $6.35. Economize even further at Restaurace Franz Josef, named after the Austro-Hungarian emperor who ruled from 1848 until World War I; a cartoon cutout of the old chap presides over the entrance to this rustic tavern with bench seating and lace curtains. Here, a bowl of cesnecka (garlic soup) is a mere 53[cents], while breaded carp with fries costs $2.25; ditto for the so-called "Tramp" pork steak, served with roasted potatoes and a side. Finally, the pink-and-white Cafe de Paris in the Nove Lazne is a perfect spot to recover from your treatments--as I did following my kingly soak in Eddie's tub. As I savored a yummy wedge of fruit tart (97[cents]) and a cup of strong coffee (67[cents]), a Czech language disco-rap version of "Red River Valley" played on the radio--a perversely fitting comment on the state of this beautiful country, poised between its communist past and its westernized future, and still offering--for now--amazing bargains, spa and otherwise. Sleeps Amid Springs To phone the Czech Republic from the U.S., first dial 011-420. KARLSBAD Sanatorium Astoria Vridelni 23; 17/322-8224, fax 17/322-4368 Thermal Hotel Sanatorium I.P. Pavlova 11; 17/321-1111, fax 17/322-6992 Jadran Spa House Balbinova 4; 17/322-5613, fax 17/322-1684 Hotel Jiskra Marianskolazenska 1; 17/322-6994, fax 17/322-6149 MARIENBAD Hvezda Goethovo namesti 7; 165/631-111, fax 165/631-200 Vltava Anglicka 475; 165/641-111, fax 165/641-200 Pacific Spa Hotel Mirove namesti 84; 165/651-111, fax 165/651-200 Hotel Polonia Hlavni trida 50; 165/622-4512, fax 165/624-785 Nove Lazne Reitenbergerova 53; 165/644-111 Info & Tour Operators The Czech Tourist Authority (212/288-0830; czechcenter.com/) has helpful spa information. For packages, contact: Czech Vacations/CSA Czech Airlines in the U.S., 877/293-4225 Balnea Praha Spa & Travel Service Narodni trida 28, 10000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2110-5314, fax 011-420-2/2110-5307; firstname.lastname@example.org Helios.Via Dlazdena 5, 11000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2421-3136, fax 011-420-2/266-140; email@example.com; tours.cz/helios Prague International Travel Agency Senovazne namesti 23, 11282 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2414-2752, fax 011-420-2/2421-1524; firstname.lastname@example.org, pragueinternational.cz/ Feasts Amid Fountains KARLSBAD Rybi Restaurace Bodam T.G. Masaryka 10; 17/322-2473 Regina Restaurace Nuva Louka 3; 17/322-3241 Sadova Kavarna-Restaurace Sadova 51; 17/323-5132 Linie Rychle Obcerstveni Nabrezi Jana Palacha 2 MARIENBAD Classic Restaurant-Cafe Hlavni trida 131; 165/622-807 Restaurace Franz-Josef Hlavni trida 161; 165/5746 Pacific Mirov, namesti 84; 165/651-111 Cesky Dvour Hlavni trida 650; 165/626-273 Cafe de Paris Reitenbergerova 53; 165/644-040.