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Retreats, off the beaten path

Courtesy Alisal Guest Ranch

How would you feel about climbing an ice wall on your next church group retreat? What about going for a horseback ride, sailing in a regatta or settling in for a Swedish massage?

Sometimes the perfect retreat destinations aren’t traditional retreat destinations at all, but one-of-a-kind facilities that offer distinctive activities or accommodations for groups. Planners who “think outside the box” will find an array of retreat options in resorts, state and national parks, dude ranches and other properties that go beyond the typical camp or retreat center.

There are hundreds of places around the country that would be a great fit for a nontraditional retreat. We’ve picked six that offer not only meeting space and accommodations for groups, but also memorable experiences, from snowshoeing in Yellowstone National Park to airboating through the Florida Everglades.

Alisal Guest Ranch
Solvang, Calif.

Southern California’s Alisal Guest Ranch gives groups the opportunity to experience the rugged aesthetic of the Old West on horseback.

“It’s still a working cattle ranch,” said Sherrie Fitzgerald, director of marketing at the ranch. “We have about 700 head of cattle on the ranch right now, and you see them roaming when you’re up at the lake or going on a horseback ride.”

Horseback riding is a big part of the activity package offered at the ranch, but numerous other activities are available as well. Guests can participate in fishing derbies or sailing regattas on the 100-acre lake, play a round of golf on the 18-hole course or visit the range to try their hand at archery and target shooting.

One of the most popular group activities is an outdoor breakfast that takes place at an old adobe home on the ranch.

“Guests can ride their horses up to the adobe, and we cook breakfast for everyone outdoors,” Fitzgerald said. “The adobe was an old building that some of the wranglers used during the roundup time. The insides and the kitchen look the same as they did back then.”

Billie Swamp Safari
Clewiston, Fla.

The beauty of the Everglades and the rich history of the Seminole people make Billie Swamp Safari a distinctive retreat destination for groups. The property is located on the Big Cypress Seminole Indian Reservation, where visitors can experience Native American tradition firsthand.

Courtesy Billie Swamp Safari

“Some of our groups meet in our council house, a thatched-roof dwelling like the Seminoles used,” said director of marketing Cindy Malin. “We have chickees for people to sleep in, which are thatched-roof huts with no electricity, no running water and no bathrooms.”

During the day, groups can take advantage of a number of swamp experiences on the 2,200-acre property. Airboat rides across the water take participants to see the snakes, alligators, birds and fish that make their home in the Everglades. Another vehicle called a swamp buggy traverses the marshland as guides point out plants, trees and wildlife that the Seminoles historically used in their daily lives.

In the evenings, groups can learn more about Seminole culture with campfire storytellers.
“It can be religious-themed or scary stories or old Seminole tales,” Malin said. “We have some Seminole storytellers that will open up and share their religious thoughts.”

Yellowstone Association
Garner, Mont.

For groups interested in visiting America’s most famous national park, the Yellowstone Association offers accommodations, activities and educational programs.

“We teach just about every topic you can imagine related to Yellowstone,” said Nick Derene, the association’s institute program manager. “Everything from grizzly bears and geysers to Native American history.”

The association’s instructors offer a variety of programs in the park that change with the seasons. In the summer, groups might go out on a day hike in the park to see wildlife or study the area’s geology. In winter, guides take participants out on wolf-watching excursions on skis or snowshoes.

“We also have the ability to customize some of these programs,” Derene said. “If we have groups that are interested in a very specific topic, we can develop a customized itinerary for them.”

Groups that choose a retreat with the Yellowstone Association will stay in a number of cabins located on an 80-acre plot that borders the park to the north. The cabins have full kitchens for groups that want to prepare their own food, or the association can provide catering for meals.

Northern Lights Rock and Ice
Essex Junction, Vt.

You may have gone rock climbing during a retreat, but Northern Lights Rock and Ice takes the experience to a new extreme.

Courtesy Northern Lights Rock and Ice

“We have a 17,000-gallon frozen waterfall that creates a 25-foot-tall ice wall,” said general manager Frank Hasslers. “We provide all the gear and instruction that you need for ice climbing. It’s an amazing way to experience the sport in a very controlled environment and still be close to the hot chocolate.”

During the summer, the staff coats the wall with a special foam product that creates the feel of  ice, allowing guests to experience the climbing with the same crampons, ice axes and climbing boots that they would use in winter.

Northern Lights also puts a twist on the popular ropes-course concept.

“Most ropes courses tend to have most of the group standing on the ground watching a couple members doing something up top and then coming down,” Hasslers said. “We can take your entire team up on the course at 40 feet in the air, doing these various challenges all at the same time. It creates a shared experience.”

The company operates at the Essex Resort, which can provide meals and accommodations for groups.

Tennessee Fitness Spa
Waynesboro, Tenn.

Situated in the woods 95 miles southwest of Nashville, Tennessee Fitness Spa specializes in helping guests lose weight with a variety of activity programs and specially planned meals. Church groups can stay in chalets at the property and take advantage of any of the spa’s offerings for their retreat.

“We walk every morning, and we have a stretch class, water aerobics and weight training every day,” said general manager Rachel Manley. “We have a bingo night, a movie night with popcorn, and a jewelry-making night. We do self-defense, belly dancing and a gardening program.”

Visitors can take advantage of massages and other therapies at the spa, or join their groups to explore the natural bridge, caves and duck pond on the property. And meals are healthier than what you would encounter at an average retreat center.

“People can choose from a standard or vegetarian meal plan,” Manley said. “It’s 1,200 to 1,400 calories per day. We have guests pick up their meals to go for breakfast and lunch, and then we have a sit-down dinner.”

Honey Creek Resort State Park
Moravia, Iowa

Unlike the spartan state parks of yesteryear, Iowa’s Honey Creek Resort State Park is serving up a full menu of amenities and activities to groups.

“We’re a new property, open one year,” said general manager Andy Woodrick. “We have a beautiful lodge with 105 guest rooms, and 28 cottages. We have all flat-screen TVs and wireless Internet everywhere. You won’t find a better equipped resort.”

Situated on 800 acres along the banks of Lake Rathbun, the resort features a championship golf course, water sports rentals, a 50-slip marina and an indoor water park. On-site meeting space can accommodate meetings of up to 300 people, and groups can choose to have their meetings catered or eat in the park’s indoor/outdoor restaurant.

For more simple activities, groups can take advantage of the natural beauty of the lake and its surroundings.

“There’s no development on the shoreline,” Woodrick said. “We have a great number of interpretive programs and outdoor activities, like hikes, kayaking trips and birding. You can even do a program on how to fly-fish.”


For more meditative retreat centers:

Religious retreats: Still waters and tall timbers
WEB EXCLUSIVE: Ten more relaxing retreats

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.