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The Religious Retreat Vacation

January 12, 2022
Monastery in Kostroma, Russia
Courtesy <a href="http://mybt.budgettravel.com/_Uspenskii-Monastary-Kostroma-Russia/photo/8180675/21864.html" target="_blank"> amichka/myBudgetTravel</a>
Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist retreat centers across the United States

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 retreats@nd.edu), 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 genesis@genesiscenter.us). 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 bobbi@pendlehill.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 mail@quakercenter.org). 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 info@thebbi.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: memberinfo@hadassah.org), 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 osrui@urj.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 info@arshavidya.org). 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

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Inspiration

My Paris Is Better Than Yours

What you'll find in this story: Paris restaurants, Paris culture, Paris attractions, Paris neighborhoods, Paris bistros, Paris markets When I left Paris to live and work in the San Francisco Bay Area at the height of the Internet euphoria, there were some things that I expected--sunshine, freeways, a cool job in a start-up company--and some that I didn't. Among the latter was that I'd develop a passionate interest in food and cooking, discovering at age 21 how much fun could be had in the kitchen and how much pleasure at the table. It was also from this new perspective, one continent and one ocean away, that I really saw the beauty, charm, and wealth of my birth city, which had all but eluded me when they were my daily bread. I came home after two years in California, and my love for Paris and gastronomy only burned brighter as I settled in again with intense happiness, hungrily catching up with the City of Light (and Good Food), this time with fresh eyes and alert taste buds. This passion prompted me to create a food blog, Chocolate &amp; Zucchini (chocolateandzucchini.com), where I could share my culinary joys with like-minded readers. I enjoy nothing more than spreading the word about the gems I find, recommending them excitedly and relishing the description of this shop or that restaurant. Of course, there's always a measure of risk in directing someone to go somewhere. When they come back to tell me about it I always get a flutter in my stomach (did they like it?), usually replaced by a sweet tide of relief (the food was fabulous and the service super-kind). What follows is a reflection of my Paris, the one I love so dearly. I can only hope you'll make it yours. Eat One of my greatest pleasures is to walk around with no particular purpose, breezing into shops, exploring little streets, and going just a step farther to see what's beyond the next corner. A welcome side effect of all this walking is that you build up quite an appetite, and it is of utmost importance to know where to stop for a quick and tasty lunch. Cojean is the epitome of hip and healthy fast food in Paris. The tempting menu at the six Paris locations features the three S's (sandwiches, salads, and soups) and changes seasonally, to focus on the freshest products. The toasted veggie and provolone sandwich ($7.75) is bound to win you over. Opened by Alain Ducasse and Eric Kayser, Boulangépicier (a.k.a. Be) is right at the crossroads of a bakery, restaurant, and gourmet store; Kayser's famed bread is baked on the premises and gastronomic goods line the shelves. The sandwiches are among the city's best, and I'll go out of my way for the mini-sandwich skewer ($11), which allows you to sample three sandwiches: pesto and tomato on basil bread, duck fillet on tomato bread, and goat cheese and tapenade on olive bread. Another example of the restaurant/grocery formula, Les Vivres is a cozy, bright room where you can load up your plate with different preparations of seasonal vegetables or choose the daily combination of starter, main course, and dessert. Rose Bakery is owned by an English/French couple, and it offers fabulous salads, cute square quiches, and quality goods from the U.K., including sumptuous cheese. It's enough to make you change your mind about British food. This is the ideal spot for tea and a dessert; I say try the sticky toffee pudding ($5). While you're shopping at Le Bon Marché department store, take a look at Delicabar and its bubblegum interior design on the second floor. The creative menu features savory twists on standard French patisseries (vegetable mille-feuilles with salad, $16) and hard-to-resist pastries. The concept of brunch has taken off here only in recent years. The first to get it right was Le Pain Quotidien . At wooden communal tables, barely awake Parisians are served café au lait, soft-boiled eggs, cheese, and charcuterie (from $25.50). Large trays carry the signature chocolate and praline spreads, to be sampled on artisanal bread. More upscale, A Priori Thé is nested in the Galerie Vivienne, one of the 19th-century shopping passages that drill through whole blocks. This salon de thé, or tea salon, serves a weekend brunch of warm sandwiches, egg dishes, and fruit tarts (from $30). Sit at the indoor terrace and bask in the sunlight shining through the glass arcade. Although frequented mostly during the day, R'Aliment is where I go for dinner with the girls. The menu leans toward organic products and always offers at least one vegetarian option. I recently delighted in a beet and lime soup ($8) followed by a mushroom and chestnut tart ($15.75). La Cave de l'Os à Moëlle started out as an annex to L'Os à Moëlle, across the street, but the wine bar has surpassed the restaurant in popularity. Pick a bottle from the wall compartments and sit with other diners to share a family-style meal of delicious country food. It's as close to an all-you-can-eat buffet as Parisian style will allow and one of the best deals around ($26.25). If you haven't yet explored the Butte-aux-Cailles and its quiet hilltop streets, Café Fusion is the perfect excuse. The bright, modern bistro serves French classics side by side with Asian or Mediterranean dishes--and the beef tartare ($15.75) cohabits beautifully with the salmon grilled in a banana leaf ($14.50). It also boasts an exquisite terrace for warm summer nights. Almost a century after Henri Androuët opened his first cheese shop, his name is emblazoned on some 10 fromageries and, more recently, two casual restaurants named Androuët Sur le Pouce (eating on the run--literally, on the thumb). In addition to marvelous tartines (from $13.75), these cheese bars serve tasting platters (also from $13.75). At dinner, it's quieter, and the knowledgeable staff is more available. Bistros and gastronomy have been a happy couple for more than a decade, and a new adjective--bistronomique--has been coined for restaurants offering expert dishes in a casual atmosphere at a reasonable price. Among the newer ones, perhaps the most interesting is L'Ourcine, joining L'Avant-Goût in the oft-neglected 13th arrondissement. Other favorites are Bistro Vivienne and the bustling Velly. If you're willing to climb a notch on the gastronomical (and price) scale, I recommend the authentic Aux Lyonnais, for its brilliant take on Lyon specialties, and Chez Jean, for the creative simplicity of its dishes and its warm ambience. Superstar dining isn't out of reach! Most high-class restaurants have special lunch menus: same sophisticated food, same fabulous service, in a less intimidating atmosphere and at a gentler price. Lunch at Les Ambassadeurs will cost you $92, plus wine, but it's an experience you will never forget. 10 place de la Concorde, 8th arr., 011-33/1-44-71-16-16.   Cojean 6 rue de Sèze, 9th arr., 011-33/1-40-06-08-80   Boulangépicier 73 bd de Courcelles, 8th arr., 011-33/1-46-22-20-20   Les Vivres 28 rue Pétrelle, 9th arr., 011-33/1-42-80-26-10, lamb $18   Rose Bakery 46 rue des Martyrs, 9th arr., 011-33/1-42-82-12-80   Delicabar 26-38 rue de Sèvres, 7th arr., 011-33/1-42-22-10-12   Le Pain Quotidien 18 place du Marché St-Honoré, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-96-31-70   A Priori Thé 35-37 Galerie Vivienne, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-97-48-75   R'Aliment 57 rue Charlot, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-48-04-88-28   La Cave de l'Os à Moëlle 181 rue de Lourmel, 15th arr., 011-33/1-45-57-28-28   Café Fusion 12 rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, 13th arr., 011-33/1-45-80-12-02   Androuët sur le Pouce 49 rue St-Roch, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-97-57-39   L'Ourcine 92 rue Broca, 13th arr., 011-33/1-47-07-13-65, prix fixe $37   L'Avant-Goût 26 rue Bobillot, 13th arr., 011-33/1-53-80-24-00, prix fixe $41   Bistro Vivienne 4 rue des Petits Champs, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-49-27-00-50, veal blanquette $20   Velly 52 rue Lamartine, 9th arr., 011-33/1-48-78-60-05, prix fixe $41   Aux Lyonnais 32 rue St-Marc, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-96-65-04, prix fixe $37   Chez Jean 8 rue St-Lazare, 9th arr., 011-33/1-48-78-62-73, prix fixe $45   ShopIf the idea of purchasing professional-quality pots and pans sends your heart aflutter, an expedition to Les Halles is in order. It was historically Paris's main food market (before it was moved to the outskirts in 1969), and a few age-old stores remain, selling cooking gear at reasonable prices to professionals and amateurs alike. The renowned E. Dehillerin is a must, but so are A. Simon, a block away (the restaurant tableware is simple and affordable) and Mora, selling more baking tools than you and I will ever know how to use. Everyone needs a chocolate-dipping fork, no?   Once your kitchen is fully re-equipped, hop to the nearby G. Detou for supplies. The small shop, which my grandmother recommended to me, has shelves upon shelves of bargain-priced cooking ingredients in bulk (nuts, chocolate, spices-- some impossible to find anywhere else) and a number of gourmet items (jams, condiments, and did I mention chocolate?) that make great gifts for the foodies you love--including yourself.For more of these fine products (and a few more euros), the two temples for the fancy-food hunter are Lafayette Gourmet and La Grande Epicerie de Paris, which carry a dizzying array of the latest in fine- food fashions. If you prefer small stores with someone to advise you, check out the spices and exotic products at Izrael in the Marais and Le Comptoir Colonial in Montmartre.Tea lovers, rejoice: Le Palais des Thés is the place for a wide selection of quality blends from all over the world--including a selection of thés rares--as well as stylish accessories. Perched on top of the Butte-aux-Cailles, Les Abeilles is a tiny shop specializing in beekeeping gear and honey-based products. You'll find everything you need to please your inner bear, including a stupendous honey cake ($7.75 per pound).   Open-air markets are certainly the most uplifting and fun places for food shopping. Saturday mornings often find me walking happily around the organic Marché des Batignolles, filling my basket with lush and uncommon fruits and veggies, not to mention terrific cheeses. It's in the 17th arrondissement, on the Boulevard des Batignolles, outside the Métro Rome. Just one district to the east, but on the opposite end of the social spectrum, the super-crowded Marché de Barbès is held on Wednesday and Saturday mornings (on Boulevard de la Chapelle, outside the Métro Barbès). Elbow through the colorful throngs and buy produce for a steal. You can even haggle if you're so inclined. The roundup of my favorite food shops wouldn't be complete if I didn't mention chocolate. I'd need countless pages to cover this subject, but let me share three current favorites: Jadis et Gourmande, for the tresse, a specialty chocolate with nuts and candied orange peel ($7 for 22 ounces); Cacao et Chocolat, for the hot chocolate bar, pastries, and Impériale line of ganaches ($9.75 for 22 ounces); and L'Atelier du Chocolat de Bayonne, for the rippled sheets of chocolate sold in pretty bouquets ($14.50 for 7.75 ounces). Of course, once you've welcomed all those goodies into your home, you'll need the proper accessories to present them. Head to Habitat for classy and modern tableware, then to Sentou Galerie for a look at the latest trends and designer items. If you yearn for previously loved country-house plates and bowls instead, L'Objet qui Parle, a tiny attic of a shop on rue des Martyrs, will be just your thing. And for a change of pace, consider the beautiful African tableware at L'Arbre du Voyageur . The handmade dishes and cutlery, as well as a wealth of other decorative objects, jewelry, and food products, were purchased under fair trade conditions directly from the artisans.There's no such thing as too many cookbooks--just too little shelf space. Located on the up-and-coming rue Charlot, a gallery and bookstore called Food carries a smart selection of titles in French, English, and Japanese. Didn't think a whole recipe book could be written about vegetable peelings? Think again!What do you drink with all of this? Start at Lavinia, a three-floor wine emporium (3 bd de la Madeleine, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-97-20-20). Rare bottles are in the basement; you may find yourself whispering out of respect. For an honest little wine, I turn to my no-frills neighborhood shop, La Cave des Abbesses (43 rue des Abbesses, 18th arr., 011-33/1-42-52-81-54).   E. Dehillerin 18 rue Coquillière, 1st arr., 011-33/1-42-36-53-13   Simon 48 rue Montmartre, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-33-71-65   Mora 13 rue Montmartre, 1st arr., 011-33/1-45-08-19-24   G. Detou 58 rue Tiquetonne, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-36-54-67   Lafayette Gourmet 48 bd Haussmann, 9th arr., 011-33/1-40-23-52-25   La Grande Epicerie 38 rue de Sèvres, 7th arr., 011-33/1-44-39-81-00   Izrael 30 rue François Miron, 4th arr., 011-33/1-42-72-66-23   Le Comptoir Colonial 22 rue Lepic, 18th arr., 011-33/1-42-58-44-84   Le Palais des Thés 64 rue Vieille du Temple, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-48-87-80-60   Les Abeilles 21 rue de la Butte-aux-Cailles, 13th arr., 011-33/1-45-81-43-48   Jadis et Gourmande 27 rue Boissy d'Anglas, 8th arr., 011-33/1-42-65-23-23   Cacao et Chocolat 36 rue Vieille du Temple, 4th arr., 011-33/1-42-71-50-06   L'Atelier du Chocolat de Bayonne 109 rue St-Lazare, 9th arr., 011-33/1-40-16-09-13   Habitat 10 place de la République, 11th arr., 011-33/1-48-07-13-14   Sentou Galerie 24 rue du Pont Louis-Philippe, 4th arr., 011-33/1-42-71-00-01   L'Objet qui Parle 86 rue des Martyrs, 18th arr., 011-33/6-09-67-05-30   L'Arbre du Voyageur 32 rue de l'Espérance, 13th arr., 011-33/1-53-80-16-10   Food 58 rue Charlot, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-42-72-68-97   PlayIf you're at all like me, you're much happier if there's a food aspect to the things you do and the places you visit. Luckily, a number of cultural establishments in Paris have made sure to feed your stomach as well as your mind. The Musée Jacquemart-André is a luxurious 19th-century mansion that presents the art collection of its former owners. The dining room is now a salon de thé, serving tea, lunch, and pastries. At the Palais de Tokyo, the controversial contemporary arts center, the Tokyo Eat restaurant and its postmodern decor is as much a part of the experience as the edgy gift shop and the art itself.The Théâtre Edouard VII kindly solves the dilemma of whether to eat before or after a play. The owner's wife, a best-selling cookbook author, recently opened Café Guitry inside the theater. Her cooking (featuring specialties like lamb tajine with prunes and grilled almonds, or lemon and rosemary roasted chicken) is so good that people eat there even when they're not staying for the performance.Selling food and drinks inside a movie theater isn't unusual, but no one does it with as much style as Studio 28 in Montmartre. This tiny cinema (just one auditorium, decorated by Jean Cocteau no less) has a small bar that serves refreshments--soft drinks, cocktails, and tarts--that you can enjoy in the winter garden. The Opéra Bastille has launched a series of events that it calls Casse-Croûte à l'Opéra (a snack at the opera). Every Thursday at lunchtime, stop in and listen to a concert by the orchestra or a talk/debate with an opera professional, and perhaps enjoy a light lunch from the bar. Entrance is free; the cost of a sandwich, drink, and dessert is about $9.25.The mix of food and art naturally leads us to Galerie Fraîch'Attitude, which specializes in "Eat Art," art that uses food as its inspiration, subject, or material. Some of the exhibitions are actually edible and are meant to disappear into visitors' stomachs, to be re-created the next day. Most Parisians are city kids who shudder at the thought of spending more than a day in the country, and yet the first ray of sun sends them hunting for a patch of green on which to picnic with friends. A popular spot is Le Pont des Arts, a wood and cast-iron footbridge across the Seine linking the 1st and 6th districts. If it's too crowded, go farther up to the Quai St-Bernard, on the south bank of the Seine in the 5th. Beyond the large grassy areas and beautiful river view, the main attraction is the dancing arenas, where professionals and amateurs dance the summer nights away in a whirlwind of salsa, tango, and samba. Another favorite is the Parc des Buttes-Chaumont in the 19th, an arrondissement of hidden treasures. The park offers breathtaking landscapes and happens to be the steepest in Paris. Some argue that this makes picnicking a challenge, but such is the spice of life. Paris is rediscovering a pleasure in cooking, prompting the creation of a number of classes that adopt a modern approach: The goal is to give you the basics so you can have fun in your kitchen and entertain without stress. Fred Chesneau, founder of L'Atelier de Fred, teaches small groups of up to six in a darling neo-rococo kitchen. The Bergerault brothers at L'Atelier des Chefs do it on a larger scale in a lofty glass-roof workshop, complete with bookstore and boutique. In both cases, you cook your meal and eat it, too. If it's wine you'd like to learn about, Lavinia has a free tasting every Saturday and gives tasting classes for all levels. (Prices range from $38 to $177.) At Legrand Filles et Fils, a wine store constructed in 1880, you can sign up for a series of courses or attend a single session to discover one region or producer. (All classes will work to accommodate English-speaking students upon request.)Le Fooding is a Parisian movement that promotes new ways to eat, cook, and even think about food (lefooding.com). Events are either free or very inexpensive and involve the hottest chefs and the trendiest locations: wandering wine tastings with nibbles, market stands serving delectable soups, giant picnics on the banks of the Seine.Paris is also home to a number of food shows, unique opportunities to meet producers, taste products, and possibly bring something home. The Salon Saveurs (held in May and December) showcases a great array of artisanal foods, while independent French vintners present their wines at the Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants (held in April and November). As for the Salon du Chocolat (in October), it is a chocoholic's dream come true.For the latest trends, restaurant reviews, shopping tips, and events, Parisians pick up the free weekly paper A Nous Paris (distributed on Tuesday mornings in the Métro) and the city magazine Zurban ($1.25, published on Wednesdays and sold at newsstands), which also includes listings for movies, concerts, plays, and art shows. In French only, bien sûr!   Musée Jacquemart-André 158 bd Haussmann, 8th arr., 011-33/1-45-62-11-59, musee-jacquemart-andre.com, admission $12, lunch $19   Palais de Tokyo 13 av du Président Wilson, 16th arr., 011-33/1-47-23-38-86, palaisdetokyo.com, exhibit admission $8, sea bream $23   Théâtre Edouard VII 10 place Edouard VII, 9th arr., tickets 011-33/1-47-42-59-92; Café Guitry, 011-33/1-40-07-00-77, theatreedouard7.com, lamb tajine $26   Studio 28 10 rue Tholozé, 18th arr., 011-33/1-46-06-36-07, cinemastudio28.com, tart $9.25   Opéra Bastille 120 rue de Lyon, 12th arr., 011-33/1-72-29-35-35, operadeparis.fr   Galerie Fraîch'Attitude 60 rue du Faubourg Poissonnière, 10th arr., 011-33/1-49-49-15-15, fraichattitude.com   L'Atelier de Fred 6 rue des Vertus, 3rd arr., 011-33/1-40-29-46-04, latelierdefred.com, two-hour classes $79   L'Atelier des Chefs 10 rue Penthièvre, 8th arr., 011-33/1-53-30-05-82, latelierdeschefs.com, classes from $20   Legrand Filles et Fils 1 rue de la Banque, 2nd arr., 011-33/1-42-60-07-12, caves-legrand.com, events from $13   Salon Saveurs 011-33/1-46-05-80-77, salonsaveurs@free.fr, admission $10.50   Salon des Vins des Vignerons Indépendants 011-33/1-53-02-05-10, vigneron-independant.com, admission $8   Salon du Chocolat chocoland.com, admission $15.75

Inspiration

Finding the Music in Ireland

What you'll find in this story: Ireland culture, Ireland attractions, Ireland neighborhoods, Dublin restaurants, Galway restaurants, Dublin hotels, Galway hotels, Dublin entertainment From the beginning, travel has been a big part of Kurtis and Heather Frank's relationship. The couple, who live in the Chicago suburb of Wheeling, Ill., met in 1999 while studying in Germany. They took advantage of their semester abroad, seeing an opera in Prague, touring the Louvre and Mus&#233;e d'Orsay in Paris, and downing more than a few d&ouml;ner kebabs in train stations all over Germany. (&quot;They put McDonald's and Burger King to shame,&quot; Kurtis says.) The couple got engaged on a trip to Boston, while overlooking the harbor just after a Red Sox game, and after they were married in 2002, went on their honeymoon to Hawaii. For their next adventure, the Franks asked us to help plan a 10-day trip to Ireland. They've never been and are hoping to visit Sarah Croke, a friend in Dublin who they went to school with in Germany, and take in some villages and gorgeous scenery on a road trip. Travel dates are based on a long shot: Toward the end of June, U2 is playing a couple of shows at Dublin's revamped Croke Park Stadium. &quot;My wife and I are huge fans, along with half the planet, I suppose,&quot; Kurtis wrote to us in February. &quot;It'd be fantastic to see U2 in their home country. Whether we'll be able to a) get tickets and b) afford going on the trip after purchasing said tickets remains to be seen.&quot; We told Kurtis and Heather to try and buy tickets at ticketmaster.ie when they went on sale, but no luck: All 160,000 tickets for the two concerts sold out in less than an hour. The Franks decided to go to Ireland anyway. (In turn, we decided to help them out in their quest to see Bono, the Edge, and the rest of the boys; see below for more details). Since June falls in high season, we advised them to book flights several months in advance. Aer Lingus offers its lowest fares online and had an O'Hare-Dublin round trip for $658, not including taxes and charges. This was $14 cheaper than the best fares from Travelocity and Expedia. We also suggested consulting The Irish Echo and Irish Voice--available at newsstands in Chicago, Boston, New York, and other Irish hubs--where Irish travel specialists such as Crystal Travel and O'Connor's Fairways regularly advertise deals. The booming Irish economy and a weak U.S. dollar mean that Dublin--and all of Ireland--is dramatically more expensive than a decade or two ago. The Franks aren't looking for anything luxurious in terms of lodging, and our vote for best budget choice goes to Jurys Inn Christchurch. Sure, it's got that chain-hotel feel (floral bedspreads and dark woods), but rooms are bright and relatively spacious. Plus, it's directly across from Christchurch Cathedral in the Old City and just a five-minute walk to the caf&#233;s and pubs of Temple Bar. Speaking of which, we also like the Temple Bar Hotel for its location in the heart of the action. Although Kurtis and Heather shy away from tourist traps, there are some blatantly touristy activities that intrigue them. One is Viking Splash Tours, an especially fun way to get oriented in Dublin. Forget double-deckers with canned commentary. This tour takes place aboard a &quot;duck&quot;--a reconditioned World War II amphibious craft similar to those that run tours in Boston and other cities. It starts on land and eventually splashes into the Grand Canal Basin; riders wear horned Viking helmets and issue war cries at appropriate moments. The Guinness Storehouse is another big tourist site that interests the Franks; we urged them to go for the last tour of the day (8 p.m. in July and August) and have a pint at the brewery's top-floor pub, where there's a particularly spectacular view of the city. &quot;We like to travel by rail, which is how we got around in Germany,&quot; Kurtis says. &quot;Neither of us has experience driving manual transmission cars, and we've never driven on the left side of the road, so I guess the train is the safest bet.&quot; This was a problem. After a little prodding, the Franks took our advice to rent a car: Driving is by far the easiest way to get around in Ireland (and the train system isn't all that extensive). But most rentals are stick shifts, and automatics are more expensive. We searched for a four-day automatic rental and the cheapest options for Avis and Hertz were $302 and $350, respectively. Instead, we steered the Franks to local operator Dooley Car Rentals, which rents an automatic Ford Fiesta for $244 for four days, including basic insurance coverage. (To be on the safe side, we told the Franks to get written confirmation specifying that the car will be an automatic.) Admirably, the Franks aren't the kind of travelers who are hell-bent on packing everything into one trip. &quot;We always try to view our vacations as if they will not necessarily be the last time we visit a place,&quot; Kurtis explains. &quot;Quality over quantity tends to be our mantra.&quot; The idea is to tackle a small territory at a leisurely pace over four or five days. For a dramatic antidote to the capital, we pointed the Franks toward the solitude of Connemara, a region on the west coast that comprises one of Ireland's largest Gaeltachts, or Irish-speaking areas. Oscar Wilde called it a &quot;savage beauty,&quot; and the remote landscape is a wild and woolly blend of heather-clad mountains, silent lakes, vast bog plains, and a smattering of appealing seaside villages. Ireland is so small--about the size of West Virginia--that the coast-to-coast drive from Dublin to the west coast takes just over three hours. There's something wonderfully exhilarating about traveling out of Dublin on the N4 motorway. Maybe it's how the road signs beckon to the west and galway with the promise of the great wide open. The N4 leads right into Galway City, a gateway to Connemara and as inviting a city as any. The narrow street layout in the city center remains unchanged since medieval times, yet the place manages to be vibrant and youthful. As the home of many art galleries, artisan workshops, and festivals, Galway has earned a reputation as the unofficial arts capital of Ireland. The city is also blessed with a location between Galway Bay and the grand expanse of Lough Corrib, which is said to have some of the world's best fishing and an island for every day of the year. Kurtis told us that he likes the Chieftains and Damien Rice, so we knew he'd be happy to learn that Galway is a terrific place to hear traditional and folk music. One of our favorite pubs for live sessions (Wednesdays through Sundays) in Galway is Tigh Neachtain, which positively exudes atmosphere thanks to a labyrinth of tiny &quot;snugs&quot; (small interconnected rooms) that haven't been changed since 1894. The Crane Bar, a rustic gem of a pub renowned for its nightly music sessions, is also worth the 15-minute walk or quick cab ride from central Galway to the seaside outskirts of the city. The combination of comfort and good price again led us to recommend a Jurys hotel in the heart of Galway. The Franks don't want to be tied to a strict itinerary, and we told them that their road trip can be as scheduled or as loose as they desired. Even in Ireland's more remote areas, it's rare to drive more than an hour without passing a B&B. In Galway they could hop a ferry bound for Inis M&oacute;r, the largest of the Aran Islands, for a day of scenic bike riding. Another possibility is the coastal drive (R336) that loops around Galway Bay to Roundstone and Clifden. Ensconced between mountains and the Atlantic, tiny Errisbeg Lodge, about a mile from Roundstone, is an especially beautiful place to linger for a night. From Clifden, the N59 skirts past the entrance to Connemara National Park, where herds of ponies and red deer roam free. The Franks could zip through Connemara in a few hours, but it's far more rewarding to stop often and hang out in the colorful fishing villages along the way. Before heading back to Dublin, they may want to spend the night at Breaffy House Hotel. Just outside of Castlebar, in County Mayo, a long driveway leads to an honest-to-goodness, trumpets-blaring, grand castle hotel at an affordable price. Even if the weather doesn't cooperate (and in Ireland it rarely does), the warmth and kindness of the people will make for great travel memories for Kurtis and Heather. To paraphrase an Irish blessing, may the road rise up to meet them. Surprise! Call us a bunch of softies, but after hearing that the Franks couldn't get tickets for U2 in Dublin at the end of June, we used our resources to score two seats. &quot;I'm in total shock,&quot; Kurtis said after we gave him the news. &quot;And I think that Heather just passed out. But I'm sure she'll be fine by concert time. Thanks so much!&quot; Just remember to tell us how it was. How was your trip? Sean Sullivan served in the Peace Corps in Africa three decades ago, and we coached him--along with his wife, Rita, and friends Michael and Michele McMurray, pictured here at the Cape of Good Hope--on a return trip in February. &quot;What made the biggest impact on me was the relations between the races in South Africa,&quot; Sean says. &quot;The spirit of oppression, defeat, and hopelessness that existed 30 years ago has been replaced by a good-natured, positive spirit. We saw young blacks and whites strolling together easily. I was also impressed by the lively jazz scene in Cape Town, and, of course, we enjoyed Kruger National Park. We saw all the big game--lion, buffalo, leopard, even a cheetah calling her cubs.&quot; Transportation Aer Lingus 800/474-7424, aerlingus.com Crystal Travel 800/327-3780, crystal-travel.net O'Connor's Fairways Travel 800/662-0550, oconnors.com Dooley Car Rentals 800/331-9301, dooleycarrentals.com Aran Island Ferries 011-353/91-568-903, aranislandferries.com, Galway to the Aran Islands $26 round trip, bus ride to the docks $6.75 Lodgings Jurys Inn Christchurch Christchurch Place, Dublin, 011-353/1-454-0000, jurysdoyle.com, $151 Temple Bar Hotel Fleet St., Dublin, 011-353/1-677-3333, templebarhotel.com, from $162 Jurys Inn Galway Quay St., Galway, 011-353/91-566-444, jurysdoyle.com, $139 Errisbeg Lodge Roundstone, Connemara, County Galway, 011-353/95-35807, errisbeglodge.com, from $94 Breaffy House Hotel Castlebar, County Mayo, 011-353/94-902-2033, from $173 Attractions Tigh Neachtain 17 Cross St., Galway, 011-353/91-568-820 The Crane Bar 2 Sea Rd., Galway, 011-353/91-587-419 Viking Splash Tours 64-65 Patrick St., Dublin, 011-353/1-707-6000, vikingsplashtours.com, from $24 Guinness Storehouse St. James Gate Brewery, Dublin, 011-353/1-408-4800, guinness-storehouse.com, tour admission $18.75 Connemara National Park 011-353/95-41054, heritageireland.ie The Automobile Association of Ireland aaroadwatch.ie (click Route Planning for directions) Entertainment Ireland entertainment.ie, for music and arts listings

Inspiration

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; balnea@anet.cz Helios.Via Dlazdena 5, 11000 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2421-3136, fax 011-420-2/266-140; helios@ms.anet.cz; tours.cz/helios Prague International Travel Agency Senovazne namesti 23, 11282 Prague 1; 011-420-2/2414-2752, fax 011-420-2/2421-1524; check-in@pragueinternational.cz, 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.

Inspiration

The Mining Towns of Southern West Virginia

John Denver immortalized West Virginia's country roads with the song that's become the de facto state anthem, one that even visitors know by heart. My colleague Moira, who's riding shotgun and taking photographs, and I belt out the lyrics repeatedly during the course of our trip. South of Charleston, country roads crisscross raging rivers, bisect towns too small to show up on a map, and roll over the foothills of the Appalachian mountains. The triangle between Charleston, Beckley, and Lewisburg is almost heaven (as Denver croons and the state's license plates advertise), and not just because of the pleasant driving. There's also enough history to keep us intrigued, enough adventure to keep us active, and enough kitsch to keep us entertained every mile of the way. Day 1: Charleston to Beckley After landing in Charleston midmorning, we head straight for Beckley, home to Tamarack, a 60,000-square-foot circular mall dedicated to West Virginia arts and crafts. Though architecturally bizarre--its roofline resembles the Statue of Liberty's crown, painted fire-engine red--half a million visitors a year come to buy crafts (blown glass, quilts, and wood carvings), listen to musicians, and watch the artists-in-residence work in their glass-walled studios. Our loop through the building ends at the buffet restaurant, where Moira and I fill up on fried-green-tomato sandwiches and pan-seared locally farmed trout before hitting Coal Country. By the 1880s, the completion of the Chesapeake &amp; Ohio and the Norfolk &amp; Western railroads had brought thousands of miners to southern West Virginia. Beckley is the gateway to what's now known as the Coal Heritage Trail, a 100-mile stretch of boom-and-bust towns reaching south to the Virginia border. At the Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine museum--a working mine from 1890 to 1910--we hop a battery-powered tram and venture 1,500 dark feet into the mountain, past mossy walls and under a dripping ceiling. Our guide, Joe Norkevitz, who worked for various local coal companies for 40 years, explains that Beckley miners spent their 16-hour shifts on their knees or backs, as the average coal deposits were only waist high. I start to feel claustrophobic, and it only gets worse as he goes on to explain the dangers of collapses and methane gas explosions. Above ground, a walk through the museum and coal camp provides a look at the stark life miners lived outside of the mountain. A simple stove, desk, and a narrow single bed somehow fit in a tiny shanty, no more than six feet wide by nine feet long. At the Country Inn &amp; Suites nearby, Moira and I have a renewed appreciation for our standard room's size. Day One Lodging Country Inn &amp; Suites2120 Harper Rd., Beckley, 800/456-4000, countryinns.com, from $75 Attractions Tamarack OneTamarack Place, Beckley, 888/262-7225 Beckley Coal MineNew River Park, Beckley, 304/256-1747, open April-October, $15 Resources Southern West VirginiaCVB 221 George St., Beckley, 304/252-2244, visitwv.com Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg Today's plan is to take scenic Route 3 toward Lewisburg. At White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays, in Shady Spring, manager Joe Clinebell shows us the proper handling of a 12-gauge shotgun. Shooting clay targets is the fastest growing gun sport in the country, says Clinebell, who describes it as "golf with a shotgun." We walk through the woods from station to station, firing at targets that, depending on how they're launched, simulate the movement of rabbits, ducks, or pheasant. Moira has never picked up a gun before but still manages to hit a few. I don't do much better even though I've shot skeet several times recently. Clinebell suggests that keeping my eyes open as I pull the trigger would help my aim. Using up our 50 rounds takes about two hours. By then, we're good and ready to move on to Hinton, a railroad town founded in 1873 at the point where the Greenbrier, Bluestone, and New Rivers meet. On the outskirts, we stop for lunch at Kirk's. The restaurant proper isn't much to look at, but the view from the back deck--it juts out over the New River--is spectacular. Ducks float by below us, and the water churns near the rocky shore. I've heard that Kirk's has the best hot dogs around, and I'm not disappointed--the bun is perfectly toasted, and there's a heap of fries on the side. On Temple Street, the Railroad Museum--which displays old signals, pieces of track, and Pullman uniforms--doubles as a vistors center. We pick up a map and explore the many Victorian buildings that have put Hinton on the National Register of Historic Places. Ten miles past Hinton, we drive over the 6,500-foot Big Bend Tunnel, which John Henry helped construct in the early 1870s. There's an eight-foot bronze statue of him--bare-chested, with a steel-driving hammer in hand--at a turnoff just before Route 3 dives into Talcott. The road continues to meander through the Greenbrier Valley, famous in the early 1900s for its natural mineral springs and exclusive spas. The sulfur-rich water was thought to cure tuberculosis, and trains brought the wealthy and ailing from as far as New York City. We drive past the Pence Springs Resort, formerly the Grand Hotel, which was once one of the area's most luxurious spas. Following the Depression, the place did time as a girls' school and then as a women's prison before reopening in 1987 as a hotel. We cruise into Lewisburg by late afternoon. During the Civil War, the city was a Confederate stronghold until Union forces defeated the Confederate Army here in 1862. A walking tour of the historic district leads us from the Confederate Cemetery to the boutiques and antiques shops on Washington Street. That night, a well-known Lewisburg band called the Manhattan Jazz Quartet is playing at the Sweet Shoppe, a bar where the beer is cheap and there's never a cover. Moira and I listen to the final set before we call it a night at the Hampton Inn. Day Two Lodging Hampton Inn30 Coleman Dr., Lewisburg, 800/426-7866, hamptoninn.com, from $84 Food Kirk's Family RestaurantRte. 3, Hinton, 304/466-4600, hot dog $1.75 Sweet Shoppe125 W. Washington St., Lewisburg, 304/645-3214, beer $2 Attractions White Oak Mountain Sporting Clays2350 Hinton Rd. (Rte. 3), Shady Spring, 304/763-5266, $50 for gun rental and 50 target rounds Hinton Railroad Museum206 Temple St., Hinton, 304/466-5420, summerscvb.com, free Resources Greenbrier CountyCVB 540 N. Jefferson St., Lewisburg, 800/833-2068, greenbrierwv.com Day 3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville We're on the road early because we have to get to Class VI River Runners by 10 a.m. First-timers probably aren't inclined to choose a run that includes Class V rapids, but Moira and I have only one shot at the New River so we decide to make the most of it. (Actually, I insist we make the most of it.) An old school bus takes us the 15 miles to the put-in. As we switchback down a sickeningly steep mountainside to the river's edge, trip leader Eric Cormack goes over his safety spiel. I feel Moira's increasingly nervous glare burning a hole into the side of my face. "If you fall out of the raft, and some of you will," Eric warns, "don't panic, remember to face downriver, and keep your feet up." There are thousands of submerged boulders (the very things that create the white water). "You don't want to get stuck up under there," Eric says succinctly. As it turns out, the bus ride is the scariest part of the day. Our five-hour run along 13 miles of river includes stops for swimming and a picnic lunch. The rapids--with names like Surprise, Pinball, and (ahem) Bloody Nose--are exhilarating, but there's plenty of gentle drifting, too. Just before the pick-up spot, we pass underneath the New River Gorge Bridge, the world's second-longest single-span steel arch. Back at Class VI headquarters, everyone goes to Chetty's Pub to watch the video footage from our trip. (A videographer paddled alongside us in a kayak, taping every scream, spill, and high five.) I catch a glimpse of my face as our raft dropped over one of the more challenging rapids: I look positively deranged--scared out of my mind and loving every minute of it. I happily shell out $14 for a still photo of the moment. Moira and I go back over the bridge to Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit. Co-owner Connie Taylor tells us Dirty Ernie was the foul-mouthed, hard-drinking original owner. Crunching across peanut shells customers have tossed on the cement floor, we head to a booth near the jukebox. A plate of barbecued pork ribs and a cold beer is the perfect end to the day. Day Three Operators Class VI River Runnersoff U.S. 19, near Fayetteville, 800/252-7784, classvi.com, from $89 Food Chetty's Pubabove Class VI River Runners, Fayetteville, 800/252-7784 Dirty Ernie's Rib Pit310 Keller Ave., Fayetteville, 304/574-4822, open late April--mid Oct., ribs from $12 Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston Leaving Fayetteville, we drive south to a small part of the 70,000-acre New River Gorge National River park. The town of Thurmond--or what's left of it--consists of a couple of abandoned storefronts and a railroad depot. It's hard to picture it as one of the busiest places around at the turn of the century, when there were 26 mines in the area. But Prohibition, competing rail lines, and the Depression took their toll, and by 1940, it was well on its way to becoming a ghost town. The restored Thurmond Depot is now a visitors center and museum, and it's here that we learn one of the town's most colorful tales. The Dunglen Hotel, also known as "Little Monte Carlo," hosted the world's longest continually running poker game. It lasted 14 years and ended only when neighbors from the other side of the river lost their patience and burned the place to the ground in 1930. If Thurmond is the New River's past, Fayetteville is its future. It's become a mecca for outdoor enthusiasts. Every third Saturday in October, a quarter of a million people flock to the area for Bridge Day, when hundreds of base jumpers parachute off the New River Gorge Bridge. In town, we walk down Church Street to the Cathedral Café, in a deconsecrated Methodist church. Sunlight streams in through stained-glass windows as we eat grilled panini--smoked turkey and avocado for me, three cheese for Moira. Back on the Midland Trail, the road clings to the mountain high above the gorge in a series of stomach-wrenching turns. Just past the entrance to Hawk's Nest State Park, one of the turns reveals a wildly painted Volkswagen beetle crashed into the side of a rusty corrugated trailer. It's called the Mystery Hole. Owner Will Morrison makes us promise not to tell what we see on the 10-minute underground tour, and he's the kind of guy you don't cross. Moira gets so discombobulated by the strange happenings (and perhaps my driving) that she ditches me for the parking lot. On our way to the airport, we give our favorite song another go: "Drivin' down the road, I get a feelin' that I should have been home yesterday." But as I look back and catch my last glimpse of the Kanawha River, I can't help wishing we had another day. Day Four Food Cathedral Café134 S. Court St., Fayetteville, 304/574-0202, panini $6.25 Attractions Thurmond Depot Visitor CenterRte. 25 past Glen Jean, 304/465-0508 Mystery HoleU.S. 60, at mile marker 44, 304/658-9101, mysteryhole.com, $4 Resources New River Gorge National River304/465-0508, nps.gov/neri Fayetteville CVB310 N. Court St., Fayetteville, 888/574-1500, visitfayettevillewv.com Finding Your Way Continental, Delta, and US Airways all fly into Charleston's Yeager Airport. For a midsize car, expect to pay about $100 for four days. Before you leave home, pick up a copy of Far Appalachia, in which Noah Adams (former host of NPR's All Things Considered) recounts his journey by jeep, bike, foot, and raft from the New River's source in North Carolina to its mouth at the Gauley Bridge. Day 1: Charleston to Beckley, 60 miles Yeager Airport Road becomes Greenbrier Street/Route 114. Follow signs for I-64 east/I-77 south (also called the West Virginia Turnpike). There are two $1.25 tolls. Take exit 45 for Tamarack; it's visible from the interstate. The Beckley Exhibition Coal Mine is off exit 44. Head east on Route 3 (Harper Road) for a mile and a half and make a left onto Ewart Avenue. After about a mile, you'll see the New River Park entrance on the right. Day 2: Beckley to Lewisburg, 58 miles Follow Route 19 south from Beckley to Shady Spring, then Route 3 east toward Hinton. White Oak Mountain is four miles up on the right. Continue east on Route 3 through Hinton, Talcott, and Pence Springs. At Alderson turn onto Route 63, and at Roncevert, take U.S. 219 four miles into Lewisburg. Day3: Lewisburg to Fayetteville, 57 miles Take I-64 west from Lewisburg and exit at U.S. 60 west, also known as the Midland Trail. At the junction with U.S. 19, head south toward the New River Gorge Bridge. Exit right at Ames Heights Road for Class VI River Runners. If you actually cross the bridge, you've gone too far. Warning: There are lots of cops on U.S. 19; observe the speed limit carefully. After rafting, get back on U.S. 19 south and cross the bridge. Fayetteville is on the other side of the New River. Day 4: Fayetteville to Charleston, 60 miles To reach Thurmond, take U.S. 19 south 12 miles to the Glen Jean exit. Follow the signs about seven miles down narrow Route 25 (no RVs). Backtrack to Fayetteville on U.S. 19. Cross the New River Gorge Bridge one last time and take U.S. 60/Midland Trail heading west to Charleston.