Recenlaketly, I spent a few days at an informal writing retreat with a great group of fellow writing mamas. Armed with laptops and notebooks, we abandoned our families and descended on Mount Madonna Center-–an idyllic 322-acre property in the hills outside Watsonville in Santa Cruz County–to hang with deer and some folks participating in a tantric yoga workshop. (Bet my husband wishes I’d signed up for that one!) Perched above Monterey Bay and surrounded by a forest of redwoods, it was the perfect place to escape the distractions of everyday life, get some serious writing done, and bond with other writers.Mount Madonna offers a variety of workshops and retreats, including personal retreats you can tailor to your needs. The center is also a nice spot for a low-key, affordable family getaway for outdoorsy types. I know a certain 12-year-old who’d have a blast swimming in the small lake, soaring on the secret swing in the woods, and chasing the wild turkeys that roam the grounds. Guess I’ll have to go back with her one day.

Take a Hike — Before hunkering down in my room to write each morning, I took a hike with a friend on one of the many trails that wind through the redwoods. One evening, we wandered up a path—sprinkled with Buddhist altars–that meanders past the lake and up a grassy hill to watch the spectacular sunset and take in the view.

Food and Caffeine— I loved not having to think about when, where or what to eat while at Mount Madonna. Vegetarian meals in the communal dining room are included with all retreats. The food’s not fancy. But it’s tasty, fresh and there’s plenty of it. Outside food and alcohol aren’t allowed on the premises.

I can live without booze. But take away my coffee, and things get ugly real fast. As a full-fledged addict, I was scared when I read on the center’s website that tea was available throughout the day, but there was no mention of coffee. Writing’s hard enough without trying to do it with a foggy, caffeine-deprived brain. I was relieved to find plenty of surprisingly decent instant organic coffee on hand. And I was over the moon when I discovered the small café where I could order a triple-shot latte from the most blissed out barista I’ve ever met.

Lodging — I stayed in a no frills but comfortable hotel-style room in the Conference Center. Most of the rooms share a bathroom. I’m a bit squeamish about shared bathrooms, so I splurged on a room with a private one ($165 per night). But my friends swore the communal restrooms were spotless and they never had to wait to use them. So maybe I’ll go the shared route next time.

Some of my friends stayed in rustic cabins set among pines on a hilltop. After visiting one of them, I developed a mild case of cabin envy. The snug, simply furnished, hardwood-floor abodes were more inviting than my somewhat dark, bland room. And at $80 a night, they were a bargain. Of course, you do have to walk outside to a shared bathroom…

temple2Quiet, Please— Babi Hari Dass, a yoga master and monk who took a vow of silence in 1952, founded Mount Madonna. So it’s no surprise that this place doesn’t mess around when it comes to quiet-time. Shoes aren’t allowed in most indoor spaces. And loud talking and other noise are verboten after 9 p.m. I confess, it wasn’t always easy for our chatty bunch to stick to this rule.

Chant, Massage, Soak– I didn’t get a chance to attend one of the daily chanting ceremonies at the beautiful Sankat Mochan Hanuman Temple. But I loved hearing the soft peal of the gong and joyful voices wafting through the grounds at sunrise and sunset. When I go back to Mount Madonna, I hope to join in this sweet ritual.

A massage will also be on the itinerary for my next visit. A couple of my friends were smart enough to book one. When they floated into the dining hall that evening looking radiant and serene, I wished I had, too. A few of us tossed around the idea of taking a starlit soak in the hot tub. But the thought of trekking back to our rooms–damp and cold– in the chilly night air, made it less appealing. We opted for bed instead.

Do Yoga – Mount Madonna offers daily complimentary yoga classes. I brought my mat, but as much as I like yoga, I couldn’t pry myself away from my writing to make it to class. Oh well—another thing to try next time.

Dorothy O’Donnell is a freelance writer from Marin, California. She used to think training for marathons and triathlons was hard. Then she became a mom in her forties. Although she’s written about travel, health and business, these days her main focus is writing essays and a memoir inspired by her toughest, and most rewarding, endurance event–motherhood. Her work has been featured in the Marin Independent Journal, Mothering and on KQED radio. She recently won a prestigious MAGGIE award for one of her GreatSchools essays.

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Dorothy O'Donnell
Dorothy O'Donnell

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