Though I know conventional modes of vacation travel have their uses, this year in particular it seems silly to me to simply sit on a beach or tour an historic house. I want to come back from my summer vacation with more than just the same old thoughts and baggage. And given the especially stressful times in which we now live, healing retreat centers in the U.S., Canada and abroad are bound to be wonderfully pleasant places in which to pass time this coming season. So that's where I'm headed.

"Wellness" centers like the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies or the Esalen Institute in California are adult sleep-away camps where relaxation is offered as daily ritual, something to discuss and study, not something you hope to catch fleetingly like some elusive fish on the end of a fly. Each is set in a place of beauty and organized like a campus community, where you rise early for morning yoga or meditation, eat food that sustains and nourishes, then study your chosen subject with a soulful teacher who has found some answers. The following fabulous establishments aren't to be confused with spas--though bodywork and whole foods are abundantly available. These are spiritual campuses where enlightenment is imparted to visiting sojouners one stressed out person at a time.

For many, vacations are opportunities to gather new strategies for how the rest of the year might be made fruitful and restful. If that's an approach that appeals to you this year, you can change your life and find peace at the following places.

(The following retreats are best for those interested in a broad, multifaith approach to spirituality. For those seeking experiences centered around a particular faith tradition, click here.)

The Omega Institute for Holistic Studies is the New Age Mecca Omegaof the East coast hosting some three hundred seminars and workshops with internationally-known therapists, spiritual leaders, and artists of all varieties, including Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ram Dass, and Jane Fonda. This summer's workshops include "Dancing With the Devil, Singing With the Angels," "Sacred Sex: The Body, Heart & Soul of Intimacy," and "Trapeze: The Adventure of Self-Discovery." Occupying about eighty acres of the Hudson River Valley, Omega's thoughtful architecture and lush organic gardens provide a relaxed setting for your two- to seven-day visit. Choose cabin or camp site. Fabulous, healthy meals in communal dining hall included. Childcare and kids' camps too. 800-944-1001.

Esalen is the great old lady of spiritual retreat centers. It's been called "the Carnegie Hall of sites fostering the human potential movement." EsalenFounded by Michael Murphy and Richard Price forty years ago, and set on the edge of California's Big Sur coast, Esalen's gorgeous grounds have been roamed by Aldous Huxley, Joseph Campbell, Buckminster Fuller, Moshe Feldenkrais, Ida Rolf, and Alan Watts. Gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson once worked here as a caretaker/security guard. Approximately 10,000 people drive down the California coast annually to participate in Esalen's 400 year-round, stunningly varied workshops. Hot springs, nude pools, bodywork extraordinaire. Esalen's website can be slow and unreliable, so it's best to call 831-667-3000 ext. 7402 and order a catalog.

Abode of the Message
This 30-year-old Sufi retreat center and commune (the inspiration for the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies in Rhinebeck) provides retreats for individuals in simple but lovely eight-by-eight foot huts set on a hillside on the Berkshire hills of Western Massachusetts. Fruit, crackers, tea, water, and things that don't need refrigeration are provided for your morning and mid-day meals. A delicious, beautifully-presented warm dinner is delivered to your door at six by an individual who will respect your need for silence. A retreat leader trained in Sufi meditation and chant visits each morning not long after dawn to check in, bring you classical music, offer support and ideas. There are surprisingly sweet-smelling outhouses on the hill but you can use the bathrooms and showers at a meditation center two minutes down a wooden path. People of all religious persuasions have found the setting conducive to deepening spiritual practice and letting go. Fees are on a sliding scale but generally hover in the area of $100 a day. Call Khabira Hull at 518-794-7285.

Hollyhock is located on Cortes Island, 100 miles North of Vancouver, and was founded in 1982 as a retreat center for learning, well-being, and social change. HollyhockFramed by 200-year-old cedars and firs, the main lodge offers ocean side dining to lucky workshop participants. Rupert Fheldrake will lead a workshop called "Intuition and the Extended Mind" in August. Robert and Judith Gass present a workshop for couples. Later in the summer, Yvonne Kipp leads a workshop called "Classical Iyengar Yoga" and Stewart Cubley leads "Life, Paint and Passion." Swimming, beachcombing, tidal pool tours are available. Rowing, kayaking and sailing can be arranged. 800-933-6339.

Breitenbush Hot Springs is nestled in the Oregon Cascade Mountains and offers workshops, personal retreats, and "Daily Wellbeing Programs." Breitenbush Hot SpringsThe Breitenbush Hot Springs (in which, of course, you may bathe) and river allow the intentional community living there and running the center to use hydro-electric power and geothermal heat for all energy needs. Offerings include monthly sacred sweat lodges, yoga, meditation, outdoor explorations, healing music, impressive workshop titles, steam sauna, and three bountiful vegetarian meals per day. 503-854-3314

Rowe Camp and Conference Center. Founded as a center for religious education in the 1920's, Rowe continues to be true to its mission. The northwestern Massachusetts center is now affiliated with the Unitarian Universalist Association. Rowe provides opportunities for people to "explore diverse, far-reaching subjects in order to learn about themselves, each other, our cultures and the earth." Upcoming workshops include "Spirit Healing," "Intimacy as a Spiritual Path," "Jesus Seen With Fresh Eyes," and "Taking Heart in Tough Times." Cabin, dorm, or private accommodations available. Meals provided. Various camps for teens, plus two adult camps--one on women's spirituality and one based on the 12-step recovery program, throughout the summer. (413) 339-4954

Circles of Air and Stone Circles of Air and Stone offers eight Vision Quest programs through October, week-long "journey of the soul" retreats exploring personal and transpersonal issues, and pilgrimages to "awaken the unknown." You can choose experiences in either Vermont, California, or New Mexico. 802-387-6624

Healing Tao Retreat Center offers three different workshop programs, each lasting 10 weeks, on ancient Chinese methods of "chi training" on 63-acres of New York's Catskill Mountains. Great food, swimming pools, quality rooms. 888-999-0555

Two affiliated spiritual retreat centers in Scotland are devoted to "training world servers" and "transforming human consciousness." FindhornOn the Northern coast, the intentional community Findhorn offers courses as varied as "Biodanza: Dancing Our Life," "Awakening Heart Retreat," "Inner Movement: The Dance of Being," and "Creating Joyful Families." "Experience Weeks" are considered by the staff to be the best introduction to the famous Findhorn natural lifestyle and philosophy. The organic gardens there are world renowned for their beauty and size of vegetables. Twelve week "learning experiences" and other extended stays are available. (44-0-1309-690311) A little farther South, Newbold House offers conferences and workshops in spiritual development on the grounds of an old Scottish mansion. "Remembering the Body," "Music from the Heart," and "Women's Business, Man's Business" are among this year's many upcoming titles. (44-0-1309-672659)

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