A Californian monastery
A travel writer’s life is not easy, or lucrative. Which is a roundabout way of saying that, at the age of 55, when many of my friends are considering retirement, I don’t have anything like a second home to holiday in. In fact, I don’t even have a first: for the past 20 years my wife and I have been living in a two-room flat in the depths of rural Japan, which we rent for about £500 a month.
Yet when I do want to get away from everything – not an easy thing for a travel writer, of course, for whom holidays are business – I’ve found the ideal getaway, to which I’ve been retreating several times a year for 21 straight years. It’s cheap, it’s less than four hours’ drive from my mother’s house and, wonderfully, it involves no visas, no inoculations, no forced sightseeing and very few preparations. Best of all, in this age when weekends have disappeared and bosses can get us wherever we happen to be, it offers the ultimate freedom, from mobile phones, laptops and TVs. As soon as I get there, something in me opens up and a single day seems to last 100 hours.
My honorary second home is, of all unlikely things, a Catholic hermitage (though I’m not Catholic, and not entirely a hermit). It sits, better still, 400m above the great blue expanse of the Pacific Ocean, in that already otherworldly and radiant stretch of California coastline that surrounds the tiny settlement of Big Sur. It contains nine small but comfortable rooms with private gardens, overlooking the sea, that the 15 or so Benedictine monks in residence open to visitors, and there are also five self-sufficient trailers across the hillside that come with their own private kitchens and showers.
Although I’ve been lucky enough to visit holiday homes from Jamaica to Corfu, and Bali to Cannes, I really can’t imagine a more idyllic place in which to catch my breath and forget the world. I come home visibly refreshed.
Meals are set out in a kitchen three times a day, and there is an elegant bookstore, and a beautiful chapel if you want it. A suggested donation for every night comes to less than even the smallest motel in the area that overlooks the ocean. The monks – former professional psychologists, coastguard workers, scholars and musicians – are unusually gregarious souls, always ready to talk about the latest John Cleese movie or what to do with your marriage. And, most unusually for any holiday, perhaps, the other people taking a break there couldn’t be more quiet, open and congenial – in part because they’ve all come for silence, too.
Such places exist on every continent, of course, and I’ve stayed happily in a convent on the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem, a Benedictine monastery in western Australia, a retreat-house in Kent in the UK and a Japanese temple on Koyasan. But all of us have our special loves, and the New Camaldoli Hermitage in Big Sur is the only place I know from which I always emerge alive, excited and ready to take on the world again, revived.
For details of retreats at the New Camaldoli hermitage, see www.contemplation.com
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