PORT MATILDA, Pa. — The walk down a hill at the St. Joseph Institute ends at the Forest Chapel, nestled in the woods between two streams. Only the sounds of chirping birds and a breeze blowing through leaves pierce the silence.
It's a serene setting where co-owner Michael Campbell hopes visitors experience a spiritual reawakening — regardless of whether one is seeking a religious retreat or a personal wellness break.
Frazzled Americans look to such destinations increasingly to decompress from their mile-a-minute lifestyles, redefining the concept of "spiritual travel." State tourism gurus in Pennsylvania in recent years have produced literature promoting what they called "growing interest in spiritually based retreat destinations."
In one sense, spiritual destinations may be one of the oldest forms of leisure travel known to man. Pilgrims have traveled to the Holy Land or the Hajj for centuries. The gravesites of saints in France and Spain have long been popular destinations for Christian travelers.
Places like the St. Joseph Institute attract religious retreaters as well as travelers like Denice Capitani, who two years ago sought a getaway from workplace stress that affected her so much she suffered from anxiety attacks.
Capitani, 50, said she tried the institute after growing unhappy with higher-end spas closer to her Burlington, Conn., home.
She also found the tranquility she sought at Forest Chapel — though the experience had little to do with religion.
"My husband and I are far from religious ... but it's a place you can go look at things to be grateful for what you are," said Capitani, who has since switched jobs and is now a consumer advocate. "That's probably where I was more reflective than any other place in my life."
There is no data to accurately track spiritual travel, though such journeys have grown in popularity since the 1950s and 1960s, said Dallen Timothy, associate professor of community resources and development at Arizona State University. He coins "spiritual tourism" as "travel undertaken to either be enlightened or to demonstrate devotion."
Church group travel remains strong in spite of the recession, said Brian Jewell, the editor of "Going on Faith," a publication for faith-based travel planners. "Because of the importance that people place in their faith, they come up with the means or make other sacrifices to take that trip once or twice a year," Jewell said. Jewell also said church groups tend to travel in larger numbers, allowing visitors to get better price discounts.
Still, retreats, like every other sector of the travel industry, are feeling the economic downturn. The St. Joseph Institute attracted about 2,000 to 3,000 visitors each year since opening in 2005, though Campbell said business had slowed for about five months before picking up again this spring.
"Some folks who have seen us twice a year, they say, 'Well, maybe we'll come back just once," he said.
Situated on 200 acres in rural central Pennsylvania, about 100-plus miles east of Pittsburgh, St. Joseph bills itself as a multifaceted wellness facility that also serves as a conference center. It offers massage and holistic studies, and calls itself a "nationally recognized center for alternative and complementary medicine."
Donna Snyder, 63, director of Christian education at a State College church, has visited St. Joseph with her church group and on her own.
"A nature vs. nurture kind of place ... to find God and be found by him," said Snyder about her personal visits.
A standard double room for the weekend runs $170. A popular two-night getaway package that includes five meals and five spa services costs $429 a night for a single, $369 if sharing a standard room with a companion. Details at http://www.stjosephinstitute.com or 814-692-4954 (134 Jacobs Way, Port Matilda, Pa.).
Several other Pennsylvania destinations fall into the spiritual travel category, with philosophies as varied as the locales they call home.
— The Himalayan Institute, in Honesdale in the Poconos, boasts on its Web site that its mission is "to discover and embrace the sacred link — the spirit of human heritage that unites East and West, spirituality and science, and ancient wisdom and modern technology."
Founded in 1971, the institute draws clients from around the world lured by programs in yoga, meditation, spirituality and holistic health.
The term spiritual travel "could have a different meaning for every person," executive director Matthew Douzart said. "From the most superficial sense, it's destination locations where people would go to grow spiritually."
One three-day program later this month teaches, among other things, "Lotus Sutra of Buddha," described as showing "how to relinquish attachment to one's ego and to the world, practice kindness and compassion and live without attachment or ill will." Cost: $250-$275. Details at http://www.himalayaninstitute.org/ or 800-822-4547 (952 Bethany Turnpike, Honesdale).
— Kirkridge Retreat and Study Center, Bangor, in northeastern Pennsylvania. Director Jean Richardson said the facility has been on the leading edge of civil rights, gay and lesbian rights and the women's movement, and has been outspoken in calling for peace in Iraq.
"A retreat center rooted in Christ close to the earth," its mission statement says. A typical weekend program costs about $325 per person. Details at http://www.kirkridge.org/ or 610-588-1793 (2495 Fox Gap Road, Bangor).
— Pendle Hill describes its facility in the Philadelphia suburb of Wallingford as a "Quaker center for study and contemplation" founded in 1930. Workshops are offered in areas such as peace, justice and sustainability; spiritual development; and Quakerism.
One introductory program to Quakerism costs between $200 for a commuter to $360 for someone who wants a private room.
The 23-acre facility also welcomes those on personal retreat, starting at $70 a night including breakfast. A big draw — a mile-long woodchip trail and 140 species of trees and flowering shrubs.
"We're more homey and slightly more rugged than a spa," spokeswoman Shirley Dodson said.
Details at http://www.pendlehill.org or 800-742-3150 (338 Plush Mill Road, Wallingford).