Browsing the arts and crafts galleries of downtown Berea, Kentucky, may not feel like a typical church retreat. But when your group needs a getaway, a trip to the quaint Appalachian town can be just the ticket.
For decades, churches around the country have made annual retreat trips to Christian camps and conference centers, where they sleep in cabins and eat in cafeteria-style dining halls. And although those facilities have their strengths, they often lack the character, charm and activity options available in Berea and other quiet locales.
For a new twist on church retreats, try visiting some of America’s distinctive small towns, where tourists return over and over again to enjoy shopping, local restaurants and outdoor scenery. Those same elements can breathe new life into your retreats, giving participants opportunities to get away from retreat centers and enjoy the best of what those places have to offer.
Home to Berea College, a school founded by a minister to help bring higher education to Appalachia, Berea has become one of Kentucky’s hot spots for all things artistic. Much of the arts and crafts practiced there can be traced back to the historic trades of the mountain people.
“If you want to see glassblowing, woodworking or blacksmithing, all of those are within a few easy steps of the Main Street area called College Square,” said Belle Jackson, executive director of the Berea Tourism and Convention Commission. “There’s the Old Town area, with a large concentration of working artists. You can go to their studios and see the workshops where they operate.”
Retreat participants can visit the Kentucky Artisan Center in town, where work by more than 700 Kentucky artists is on display and available for purchase. Group leaders can also arrange for a hands-on experience with local artisans, who can teach groups how to make quilts or blow their own glass Christmas ornaments.
In addition to enjoying the artistic community and the many wooded walking trails in the area, guests will love staying at the Boone Tavern, a historic downtown hotel property that recently underwent an extensive renovation and achieved gold certification as a LEED green property.
In the Texas hill country between San Antonio and Austin, the town of Fredericksburg celebrates a German heritage that dates back more than 150 years. The town of 12,000 was founded by German immigrants in 1846 and retains much of the historic architecture that gives the town a distinctive German quality.
“One of the charms that folks really enjoy about Fredericksburg is that you can still get a real sense of place and history,” said Daryl Whitworth, assistant director of the Fredericksburg Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The Germans learned how to work with the native limestone here and built these strong homes out of limestone. There was never a real destruction of these buildings, so we have a lot of buildings that are over 120 years old.”
Among interesting historic structures are “Sunday houses,” small one-room cottages built downtown by families who maintained ranches outside of Fredericksburg. Groups can see these homes and other aspects of German history at the Pioneer Museum, a 3.5-acre living-history site.
Aside from its history, Fredericksburg has become quite the tourist destination, with more than 350 bed-and-breakfasts in the area. Retreats in the area often include some shopping time in the historic downtown district along with visits to area wineries or a music show at the Rockbox Theater.
Nature is the star of the show in Stowe, Vermont, a New England town that has become popular with tourists year round.
“The No. 1 reason that people come here is for our abundant outdoor recreational opportunities,” said Jasmine McLeane, marketing director for the Stowe Area Association. “In the winter, it’s skiing, snowshoeing and sleigh rides. In summer, we have amazing fish, great swimming holes, lots of hiking and a huge network of mountain biking trails.”
The town of 4,700 residents has abundant choices for groups in terms of shopping, dining and accommodations, with some 40 restaurants and 70 locally owned shops. Retreat groups can rent a bed-and-breakfast for their event, stay in large rental condos and cabins, or avail themselves of full-service resorts in the area.
When they’re not hiking or shopping, visitors to Stowe often spend their time enjoying the town’s arts scene. There are about 15 art galleries in town, in addition to a community arts center that offers exhibitions, workshops and special events throughout the year.
Groups can also take advantage of popular attractions nearby, such as the Ben and Jerry’s ice cream factory or the Cold Hollow Cider Mill, both in Waterbury, Vermont.
In the heart of Big Sky Country, Whitefish, Montana, offers guests access to a pair of wonderful attractions: the Whitefish Mountain Resort, a 3,000-acre ski area, and Glacier National Park, one of the most spectacular natural areas in the West.
“This is a very active place for people,” said Jan Metzmaker, director of the Whitefish Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We offer a lot of kayaking, fishing or floating. At the ski area in the summer, they have a zip line, an alpine slide and a thing called Walk in the Treetops. It’s a boardwalk that you’re clipped into.”
Summer and fall are ideal times to hold a retreat at the ski area, as plenty of accommodation and meeting space is available to groups at off-season rates. Groups can also plan retreats at numerous lodges and guest ranches in the vicinity, where they can have private catering and guided horseback trail rides, among other activities.
When your group isn’t having fun in the park or on the mountain, they can spend an afternoon visiting picturesque downtown Whitefish, which features boutique and souvenir stores, creative local restaurants and even a day spa. Downtown also has a number of walking trails, public parks and a beach on Whitefish Lake.
It’s not the first Nashville you’ve heard of, but Nashville, Indiana, and surrounding Brown County are known throughout the Hoosier State for apple butter, eclectic shopping and a beautiful state park.
“The things that people know us for are our fall foliage and our shopping,” said Jane Ellis, executive director of the Brown County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “There are about 200 shops in our downtown area and no chains. There’s a big focus on handmade things, and there are lots of studios, galleries and places in town where you can actually see things being made.”
Many groups that spend time in Nashville will take in a show at Coachlight Musical Theatre or the Nashville Palace, where they can enjoy a performance by an Elvis impersonator and by other local musicians. A number of restaurants in town serve fried biscuits and apple butter, a Brown County tradition.
Aside from the downtown shopping, the biggest draw in the area is Brown County State Park, the largest state park in Indiana. The park’s Abe Martin Lodge makes a great venue for retreat groups, and guides in the park can take participants out on nature hikes, horseback rides or other excursions.