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.