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.
Argos in Cappadocia, Turkey
This region of Turkey is famous for its unusual fairy chimney rock formations. Their sharp peaks over stubby bases look a little like the seven dwarves turned to stone. In this remote region, early Christians formed underground cities in caves and tunnels stretching more than 5 kilometers under the rocks as early as the fifth century. Earl Starkey, one of America's top Turkey experts, recommends the Argos Hotel in Old Uçhisar Village for its ingenious reuse of the historical landscape and ancient dwellings.
"It's the most unusual landscape practically in the world," said Starkey, owner of Sophisticated Travel. "It's like a moonscape, and Uçhisar is the highest vantage point in Cappadocia, and from there, you look out over the whole valley," which stretches 150 square kilometers.
The Argos and its Bezirhane entertainment center form a sprawling 34-guest room hilltop hotel complex built into a series of caves, old structures and underground tunnels used by monks and other early Christians. The hotel has its own vineyard, featuring the production on the wine list.
Telephone: +90 384 219 31 30
Shunkoin Temple in the Myoshin-ji temple complex, Kyoto, Japan
The Zen Buddhist Shunkoin temple lodge is part of the Myoshin-ji temple complex in Japan's former capital, Kyoto. The site is also open to visitors who want to take meditation classes run by an English-speaking deputy head priest, the Rev. Takafumi Kawakami, a member of the cross-cultural U.S.-Japan Leadership Program.
Originally, the guest house had just five simple rooms. An addition is expected to open in October with eight rooms, each with its own private bathroom, a tatami floor and soundproofed walls to aid in the search for quiet.
The temple offers the opportunity for direct conversation about Buddhism and meditation in English, Kawakami said. His years of exchange with the United States help him explain Japanese culture, Zen Buddhism and its commonalities with other religions in an understandable way, he said. "Visitors can learn how to incorporate Zen Buddhism and meditation into their everyday lives." He also emphasized that the lodge is gay-friendly.
Telephone: +81.75.462.5488 (international) (075) 462-5488 (domestic)
Hotel Monastero Santa Rosa in Salerno, Amalfi Coast, Italy
One of the newest and most luxurious of the recent religious building conversions is the Monastero Santa Rosa on Italy's Amalfi Coast, which opened in May, 10 minutes from the town of Amalfi. The complex is a 17th-century monastery surrounded by garden paths leading to an even older 12th-century chapel. Now a 20-room hotel and spa, the structure is dramatically set into the vine-covered contours of a coastal cliff and topped with a disappearing-edge swimming pool. Every room has a view to the sea.
The highlight of the hotel is its spa, with several private sanctuaries and even an outdoor treatment garden, offering views of the Gulf of Salerno and the scent of lemons, mint, jasmine and the sea as you enjoy your massage.
"The spa designer believed that the building should be the guide as to the best design," hotel representative Colleen Joyce wrote in an email. "She kept intact the original 17th century vaulted ceilings and many of its rustic walls in order to maintain the intriguing character of the original rooms." The entire hotel can also be rented out for destination weddings.
Telephone: +39 0898321199