Thomas Larkin has visited more than 20 retreat centers around the world, in London, Madrid and Sedona, Ariz., but he said none can match the beauty of the Vikingsborg Guest House, a 12-room retreat inn on Long Island Sound in Darien, Conn.
"This is the most enchanting place I've ever seen," Mr. Larkin says. "It's got to be the best-kept secret of Connecticut." Mr. Larkin, a business consultant who runs training seminars, stayed at the inn recently to find peace and solitude on his 40th birthday.
The guest house is run by 10 nuns who live in a convent on the grounds and are members of the Sisters of St. Birgitta, a worldwide order of 500 sisters that was founded by St. Bridget of Sweden in the 14th century.
The convent, with nuns from Mexico, India and Italy, was founded in 1957 when a wealthy local woman who had converted to Roman Catholicism donated her home, built at the turn of the century, and a 9-acre parcel of land to the order. The order has 25 convents around the world, but the Darien convent is the only one in the United States.
"Some people come for a spiritual retreat, others just to rest and relax," says Mother Maria Elena, the mother superior. "Many of the people come back many, many times. They say they cannot find the peace that they find here anywhere else."
That is certainly what drew Mr. Larkin. "My work is very intense," he says. "I've got a wife and three kids at home, and I just wanted to spend this day being away from all the stresses of life, the phones, the faxes, the radio and the television." Mr. Larkin is a Roman Catholic, but he says it was much more than the religious atmosphere that made such a lasting impression.
"When you drive past the stone pillars on the road that leads in here, you could well be in Ireland, Switzerland or Sweden," he says.
Sister Christina Graziosi, the only one of the convent's four original nuns still there, says people visit the inn for the same reasons now that they did in 1957. "They come because it is so beautiful and so quiet," she says. "That never changes."
Julio Gasteiro of Stamford, Conn., says he and his wife have been going to the inn about once a month for 10 years. "The sisters are so sweet and the place is so tranquil, it's hard to stay away too long," Mr. Gasteiro says. "It's like you were part of a family, and guests are fascinating and come from everywhere imaginable."
Other than meals and the daily Mass, which is optional, there are no scheduled activities. Most of the guests find the retreat house through word of mouth.
"You never know whether you'll be eating dinner with someone from Damascus or from Queens," says Dana Pochna Jones, a Darien resident who frequently stays at the guest house. "Being here, it's as though time has stopped in the 14th century. You can't even hear any cars or the sounds of traffic."
The house has antique furniture, a grand piano, a library with books in half a dozen languages and sun porches, where guests say they sit and look at Long Island Sound for hours. Single guests stay in small rooms for $40 to $55 a night, while married couples can choose from larger rooms in the main guest house or nearby cottage, for about $90 a night. The price includes three meals a day, cooked by the sisters.
That was important to Helen Borona, 76, from Fairfield, Conn., who said that being served dinner was a treat after cooking meals every day for 55 years. She said she was spending the week because she needed a quiet place to grieve and find comfort after the death of her 97-year-old mother.
"I don't have to answer the phone or the door and keep telling people how I'm doing," Mrs. Borona says. "The truth is, I still can't imagine life without my mother, who lived with me the last 11 years. But being here has helped me greatly. The sisters are wonderful."
Many guests say they especially like the walking trails and the St. Francis Hermit Cottage, a small brick-and-stone prayer room with a window overlooking Long Island Sound. Even non-Catholics say they enjoyed attending the daily Mass in the ++ small, simple chapel, where the sisters play the organ and perform Gregorian chants.
"You just don't see this side of religious service anymore, with the nuns in full habit and chanting so beautifully," says one guest.