Holidays that touch the soul

High-pressure lifestyles sometimes need a low-key antidote. looks at alternative ways of getting away from it all

In need of a spiritual lift? Or a spot of inner development? In these days of job insecurity and fractured families, getting away for a couple of weeks in the sun is not always enough to soothe our injured souls.

Fortunately, there are alternatives to the traditional holiday that make a positive contribution to your inner self. The growing list of options includes staying in a monastery or holy place, taking a specially tailored "community and learning" trip or spending a few days in a New Age Retreat or Meditation Centre. And forget the hippy image, nowadays upmarket options with expert "facilitators" to guide you to spiritual sanity are a booming part of the holiday market.

Skyros, Greece

The Skyros Centre and Atsitsa are two alternative holiday resorts designed to change your attitudes and promote a holistic approach to life. Participants can choose from the mundane (windsurfing, dance) to the cerebral (writing, music, theatre) to the spiritual (yoga, health and healing, dreamwork). You can also enjoy the regular delights of a sunny, scented Greek Island in your spare time. Two-week holidays cost from pounds 450 to pounds 750 (excluding flights).

Mount Athos, Greece

A beautiful peninsula dotted with historic Greek Orthodox monasteries. Males only (with permits) can trek from place to place, staying in the monasteries free of charge in Spartan dormitories. Two simple, vegetarian meals are served daily and on Sunday you get wine and fish.

Athos still uses the Julian calender which means they are 13 days behind the outside world. Strict decorum is observed, with no smoking or loud voices and modest attire. For a permit to enter, obtain a Letter of Recommendation from your embassy in Greece, then take it to the Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace in Thessaloniki.

Goa, India

The kind of people who made Goa famous as a hippy hangout are still drawn to the area, though they have been pushed out of their original haunts by mass tourism. These days the holy Hindu places attracting the mellow crowd include Hampi, a riverside settlement 200km inland, and Gokarn, on the coast to the south. Gokarn, blessed with holy connotations, white sand and palm trees, is a great place to spend a low-budget and very alternative winter.

Pondicherry, India

The Ashram (holy site) of local hero Sri Aurobindo Ghose, in Tamil Nadu, attracts spiritual tourists who can stay in special Ashram guesthouses. The most "New Age" place in India, though, is probably Auroville, just 10km north of Pondicherry, which was founded in 1968 by "The Mother", a disciple of Sri Aurobindo. With a communal existence, experimental architecture and a rural landscape, the place is a magnet for long-stay westerners.

Daramsala, India

A big Buddhist pilgrimage centre, famous as the home of the Dalai Lama for the last 30 years. A great place for hanging around with Tibetan exiles, and sitting and chatting in restaurants surrounded by vast mountain panoramas. It's 12 hours bus ride north of Delhi.

Cortigo Romero, Spain

A centre offering a range of spiritually therapeutic activities in a rural setting in the Alpujarras mountains south of Granada. They offer all-inclusive packages (not courses, they insist, but holidays), led by experienced facilitators in music and writing therapy as well as yoga and meditation. A week costs pounds 345.

Ibiza, Spain

This may not be the first place to spring to mind for a spiritual retreat, but there is some very serious, energetic yoga going on in the interior of the island courtesy of Windfire Yoga. In a marvellous old Spanish farmhouse between Sant Miquel and Sant Mateu, you can exert yourself on a macrobiotic diet with one of the leading British yoga teachers, Godfrey Devereux. After dark you drink in the scent of surrounding orange groves.

Mallorca, Spain

The Monastery of Lluc, close to Pollenca, is the largest monastic complex on the island. Accommodation is very organised, with self-contained apartment- cells including kitchen and dining room. In summer you may need to book in advance and you'll pay around pounds 15 a night. There is also excellent scenery and Gaud architecture.

Findhorn, UK

The Findhorn Foundation, about 10 miles west of Elgin, is a former caravan site converted into a community with homes and facilities, including a flashy arts centre, for hundreds of people. The emphasis is on sustainable living, spiritual therapies and holistic healing arts. Thousands of people visit each year. You can camp or bring your caravan, and B&B accommodation is available.

Gaia House, UK

This non-profit-making meditation centre requires complete silence for the duration of your stay (there is no talking even in the corridors and dining halls, and reading and writing are discouraged). Teacher- led retreats range from a weekend to 10 days. The diet is simple and vegetarian. Fees are pounds 15 a day (plus one hour of housework).

The US

New Mexico is the most popular area for those wishing to detoxify the system and find natural harmonies to the rhythm of the native American. Taos in particular is a centre for artists and writers and there are several retreats dotted around.

However, one of the most famous retreats is Esalen, near Santa Cruz in California. It's hard to imagine finding greater expertise on personal development, yoga or alternative therapies. Weekends, including housing, food and tuition cost $425; five-day sessions cost $795 If you are in the States, check out the listings in Transformative Adventures, Vacations and Retreats, published by New Millennium.

FACT FILE

lThe Skyros Centre and Atsitsa: 0171-2674424. lThe Ministry of Macedonia and Thrace, Plata Dhikitirou, Room 218, Thessaloniki (Mon- Fri 11am-1.45pm). lCortigo Romero: 01494 782720. lWindfire Yoga: fax 003471 333254. lThe Monastery of Lluc: 003471 517025. lFindhorn: 01309 690203/690311. lGaia House: 01626 333613. lEsalen: 001408 667 3000.

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