Religious conversions: Renovated monastery resorts and more

By Michael Luongo, Special to CNN

updated 5:40 AM EDT, Tue October 2, 2012

(CNN) — 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.

Ratna Ling Spiritual Retreat on California’s Sonoma Coast

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