Vacationing With Big Sur's Monks
I can't remember what a cell phone sounds like. I haven't sat, jangled, before a screen in days. The cars, far below on the coastal highway, belong to a different universe. I step into my private garden and see slopes of pampas grass and eucalyptus trees running all the way down to the great blue plate of the Pacific, 1,300 feet below. I look up, and golden poppies and purple lupine smother the hills that lead up and up toward the radiant blue. The world is so silent, I can hear a rabbit in the underbrush.
I step back into my room and realize I don't have to do a thing. Which means I can take a 15-minute walk down to the last bench on the road, above the sea where it foams blue-green against a rocky beach. I can practice yoga or pick up a book or not do anything at all. In the bookstore, a two-minute stroll away, are all the volumes on poetry, social justice and enlightenment I could want -- not to mention slices of the celebrated fruitcake on offer here. In the little building next door, there's a small candle in a glass that's become my portable image of the sacred.
In 30 years of constant travel, I've never found anywhere more sensuous, luxurious and liberating than the monastery I visit several times a year. Even the most exciting places -- Venice or Havana or Easter Island -- never leave me feeling clarified, stimulated and refreshed as this retreat house does. There are no airport security machines or visas or itineraries to worry about; I don't need injections or anti-malaria pills. I've been here when I'm tired, jetlagged, sick and exultant, and every time, in any mood, I drive back down into the world feeling like a new being, with a fresh sense of direction and all the energy I could want. Ready, in fact, for a new life.
It all began when a schoolteacher friend in Santa Barbara told me that he took his classes up to New Camaldoli, a Benedictine hermitage along California's Big Sur coastline, every spring. My friend wasn't Catholic -- and neither were most of his students -- but somehow, he said, even the most raucous and irreverent teenager, after two days in the silence, began looking at the sea through tears and then announced that he never wanted to leave. Startled (and impressed) by my friend's testimony, I decided to give the monastery a try, and 20 years ago this month, I drove three hours north of Santa Barbara to a small cluster of buildings that sits two miles up a winding private road, overlooking the great expanse of the Pacific.
I wondered at first if I was an impostor: a non-Catholic journalist who did not intend to attend many -- even any -- of the four services held each day in the chapel. I quickly found that the gregarious, warm and strikingly talented monks in residence were much more open-minded than I was, and realized that everyone, given a freedom from distraction, will find what's deepest in him, whatever terms he may use for it. The majority of the retreatants in the eight other small rooms and five self-sufficient cabins scattered across the hillside were women; some were devout Catholics; others seemed to be Buddhists or Sufis and even people without a faith. Many, I also found, were lawyers, corporate executives, real estate saleswomen -- as well as poets, dancers and mothers -- who had just found that the key to sanity is clearing your head for a few days every few months.
Monks don't want to be uncomfortable -- that itself would be a distraction -- so there are hot showers for visitors, a little library and often surprisingly good lunches served in a communal kitchen (you collect your food there and then eat it in your "cell," or anywhere around the gorgeous sea-viewing property). If you want someone to talk to, a kindly monk is always nearby. But what I quickly found was how little conversation I really need. Freed of chatter, I walked out under a bowl of stars at night and felt I could sit and do nothing all night long, as the taillights of cars far below disappeared around the headlands to the south.
Big Sur is one of the most magical places on the planet, of course, but in the years since that first visit, I've walked through the door the hermitage has opened to me and stayed in other monasteries in Japan, Australia and England. I've also come back to New Camaldoli more than 50 times, sometimes for two days, sometimes for three weeks. In every case, I've had the sensation of climbing up to a peak from which, suddenly, I can see my life (and the lives of my friends) laid out transparently before me. I can hardly remember the things that made me feel agitated or scattered days before.
I've been lucky enough to enjoy plenty of trips to Paris and Santorini and Tibet, and each has excited me in its way. But I never feel washed clean and opened up as I do after coming back from what I now presumptuously call "my hermitage." As the rush of e-mails, blinking screens, beeping cell phones and text messages in our lives increases, the beauty of such stillness and spaciousness increases everyday. A retreat house, I realized early on -- and this applies to every one I've visited, in every tradition -- is the one place where all your tangles disappear and you can attain what most of us most deeply need, an absolute sense of self-trust.
Info: The New Camaldoli Hermitage
Location: The Big Sur Coast, 170 miles south of San Francisco, along U.S. Highway 1. The nearest airport is at Monterey, 50 miles to the north. Those driving to the hermitage will find it a half-mile south of the tiny settlement of Lucia, about 20 miles south of the center of Big Sur.
Costs:The monks at New Camaldoli recently raised their rates and suggest a donation of $95 per night for a single room and $105 for a trailer with private shower and kitchen. Two rooms are now available to couples.
Reservations: Rooms fill up six months in advance, though there are often cancellations; reservations can only be made by phone.
SecondAct contributor Pico Iyer is the author of nine books, among them Video Night in Kathmandu, The Global Soul and The Open Road. His previous story offered The 10 Best Travel Books for Your Second Act.