Movies about nuns and monks tend to focus on the Spartan nature of their living quarters: thin beds with lumpy mattresses, gloomy candlelit tables, a chair or two, all blessed by a cross nailed to a whitewashed plaster wall. No longer.
In recent years, many monasteries and convents have been reborn as hotels so luxuriously appointed that you might confess to feeling a little guilty about how their previous occupants had to live. But don't fret. Many properties still remain close to their roots, offering less worldly appointments, helping nurture your spiritual needs while you travel, remaining tied into their natural surroundings.
Whether at the high end or the budget end, staying in religious structures is a way to connect travelers with a destination's historical past.
"As we get more and more technologically advanced, we lose our connection to what is fundamentally who we are," said Mina Chow, an architect and professor at the University of Southern California's School of Architecture. "A lot of these buildings that are being converted maintain that connection to nature and to our humanity."
Their religious origin also "elevates the human spirit" for travelers, said Chow, who also serves as an architectural design consultant to the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.
A large number of the converted religious structures have Christian origins and show a progression from the Middle East to Europe to the New World and beyond. As Christianity spread throughout the world, religious instruction was needed along with places to house the burgeoning ranks of nuns and monks. The former Spanish empire in particular is full of such structures, many of which have taken a place among the most exclusive places to stay in Latin American colonial centers.
Whether choosing a luxurious setting or something more in line with what the monks of olden days were used to, the unique history, architecture and atmosphere of religious complexes adapted into modern accommodations will make for a memorable part of any vacation.
Here's our list of some choice and unusual properties to select from, but there are plenty of others you'll find in your own travels.
Argos in Cappadocia, Turkey
This region of Turkey is famous for its unusual fairy chimney rock formations. Their sharp peaks over stubby bases look a little like the seven dwarves turned to stone. In this remote region, early Christians formed underground cities in caves and tunnels stretching more than 5 kilometers under the rocks as early as the fifth century. Earl Starkey, one of America's top Turkey experts, recommends the Argos Hotel in Old Uçhisar Village for its ingenious reuse of the historical landscape and ancient dwellings.
"It's the most unusual landscape practically in the world," said Starkey, owner of Sophisticated Travel. "It's like a moonscape, and Uçhisar is the highest vantage point in Cappadocia, and from there, you look out over the whole valley," which stretches 150 square kilometers.
The Argos and its Bezirhane entertainment center form a sprawling 34-guest room hilltop hotel complex built into a series of caves, old structures and underground tunnels used by monks and other early Christians. The hotel has its own vineyard, featuring the production on the wine list.
Telephone: +90 384 219 31 30
The Zen Buddhist Shunkoin temple lodge is part of the Myoshin-ji temple complex in Japan's former capital, Kyoto. The site is also open to visitors who want to take meditation classes run by an English-speaking deputy head priest, the Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, a member of the cross-cultural U.S.-Japan Leadership Program.
Originally, the guest house had just five simple rooms. An addition is expected to open in October with eight rooms, each with its own private bathroom, a tatami floor and soundproofed walls to aid in the search for quiet.
The temple offers the opportunity for direct conversation about Buddhism and meditation in English, Kawakami said. His years of exchange with the United States help him explain Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism and its commonalities with other religions in an understandable way, he said. "Visitors can learn how to incorporate Zen Buddhism and meditation into their everyday lives." He also emphasized that the lodge is gay-friendly.
Telephone: +81.75.462.5488 (international) (075) 462-5488 (domestic)
One of the newest and most luxurious of the recent religious building conversions is the Monastero Santa Rosa on Italy's Amalfi Coast, which opened in May, 10 minutes from the town of Amalfi. The complex is a 17th-century monastery surrounded by garden paths leading to an even older 12th-century chapel. Now a 20-room hotel and spa, the structure is dramatically set into the vine-covered contours of a coastal cliff and topped with a disappearing-edge swimming pool. Every room has a view to the sea.
The highlight of the hotel is its spa, with several private sanctuaries and even an outdoor treatment garden, offering views of the Gulf of Salerno and the scent of lemons, mint, jasmine and the sea as you enjoy your massage.
"The spa designer believed that the building should be the guide as to the best design," hotel representative Colleen Joyce wrote in an e-mail. "She kept intact the original 17th century vaulted ceilings and many of its rustic walls in order to maintain the intriguing character of the original rooms." The entire hotel can also be rented out for destination weddings.
Telephone: +39 0898321199
Among the earliest conversions from a religious building to a hotel is Puerto Rico's El Convento, which is celebrating the 50th anniversary of its 1962 renovation and rebirth. The first renovation was a project of Frederic Woolworth, heir to the Woolworth family fortune. Upgrades have continued ever since, making the ancient structure comfortable and full of modern conveniences. The 58-room hotel is the oldest property in the Historic Hotels of America collection, its history dating to 1651 as the Monastery of Our Lady of Carmen of San Jose.
Smack in the center of historic Old San Juan, it has elements the nuns could only dream of: swimming pools, a fitness and spa center, three restaurants and a veranda terrace for evening cocktails. "El Convento is designated by the government of Puerto Rico to be the official guest house for visiting heads of state and dignitaries and unofficially for celebrities including Ricky Martin, Marc Anthony and Gloria Vanderbilt, for whom the Vanderbilt Suite is named," hotel representative Amanda Schinder wrote in an e-mail.
Among the oldest of the religious buildings in the Americas adapted into a hotel is the Hotel Monasterio, a Spanish former monastery dating from 1592. It sits in the heart of Cuzco, the ancient capital of the Inca empire, off the city's central square.
Now an Orient Express hotel, the 126 rooms are awash in buttery, neutral tones, the walls adorned with religious colonial art. Many of the rooms overlook Cuzco's central square, just steps from other colonial and Inca monuments. At 11,000 feet above sea level, unique to the hotel are oxygen-enriched rooms to help visitors adjust to the thin air. Hotel staff can arrange Orient Express train transport to the Lost City of the Incas, Machu Picchu, where the company's sister property sits at the entrance to the historic ruins.
Hotel Direct: +51 84 60 4000
This Sofitel began its life as a monastery in 1621 in the Spanish colonial city of Cartagena de Indias, one of the best-preserved colonial cities on the South American continent. The city was declared a UNESCO monument in 1984. The monastery was part of the setting for Colombian author Gabriel Garcia Marquez's magical realism novel "Of Love and Other Demons."
Today, a new fantasy is born with 119 rooms, 17 of them suites, in the old monastery and the new extension. The décor mixes ancient walls with modern touches and conveniences. The interior courtyard houses an outdoor pool, and the spa is equipped with a hammam, Jacuzzi and solarium. During the renovation of the hotel, many colonial artifacts were uncovered, and they are now on view throughout the hotel. Colonial Cartagena is itself a living museum, all within walking distance of the hotel.
Telephone: (+57)5/6504700 - (+57)5/6648040
There's no need to leave the United States for a relaxing religious retreat. In Northern California's Sonoma County, you'll find the misty fog-covered Ratna Ling Buddhist retreat tucked away on a redwood-forested ridge just a few miles from the Pacific coast. Though not a monastery, the retreat follows the nyingma traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. All meals are strictly vegetarian.
Guests don't have to be Buddhist but simply seeking out "a quiet natural beautiful place to experience what it is like to be without distraction, and get a sense of your own breath, eating mindfully, applying attention to your own steps, applying attention to your own balance," retreat manager Chelsea Rappel said. With a printing press on site, guests can also learn ancient Tibetan book-binding processes.
The retreat is about a 2½-hour drive from the Golden Gate Bridge. Some visitors come for the day, but overnight visits are encouraged.
Telephone: 510-809-4987 or 510-809-4995
Medieval mystery and history are part of a vacation at the Park Hall Country House, a former monastery dating to 1360, though it's believed to have been built over an earlier structure. The recorded history of the land dates to 1016. During renovations of the property, false walls were uncovered that led to the discovery of Middle Age paintings, including one of the Virgin Mary surrounded by Latin prayers, seated on a throne. Other treasures on site include urns commissioned by King Henry VIII.
Today, the hotel is surrounded by extensive gardens and farmland, and only a few minutes drive from the Essex seacoast. It's about an hour and a half northeast of central London. Guests can stay in the main house in antique-filled spaces like the romantic Bishop's Room, a favorite of newlyweds, or in scattered cottages and buildings on the grounds. One of these buildings, the Cart Lodge and Hay Barn, features a soaring half-timbered loft space, giving a true medieval feel.
Telephone: +44 (0)1255 820922
Portions of the 100-room Hotel Klosterbräu date back more than 450 years to its former life as a monastery. A new five-star luxury hotel has been built within the grounds of the complex in a traditional Alpine style.
The town of Seefeld is one of Austria's most popular resorts, about a half-hour from the Innsbruck airport. The bucolic mountain setting gives the property a "Sound of Music" sensibility. The hotel can arrange tennis and golf outings at nearby venues, and for ski buffs, an adjacent ski resort is a five-minute walk away.
The newest part of the hotel is the 4,000-plus-square-meter Spiritual Spa, which takes cues from the site's history as a monastery and the rituals of the monks who once lived here.
The spa's themes are ruled by what the resort calls "10 pillars of contemplation" such as health through fire, which involves hot saunas and open fireplaces, or health through stone, using stones and crystals for massage therapy. Best of all is the Augustinian Beer Bath, where guests are doused in beer while drinking a glass.