A stone Buddha, Wat Florida Dhammaram.
Faith tourism is a booming billion-dollar industry, yet humans have sought refuge from the mundane drudgery of their daily lives and taken "holidays" in remote sanctuaries from the beginning of time in order to revive their connection with nature and their deity, as well as to simply relax and play.
Although the Holy Land and Eastern temples have called religious pilgrims to take up the staff for millennia, today’s soul trekker need not travel abroad. Beginning with Miami’s historic Spanish cloisters at the Hearst-preserved St. Bernard de Clairvaux Monastery, the “In God We Trust” state offers ample opportunity for pilgrimages seeking retreat from the modern bustle along the high road to personal transformation and self realization – if only for a weekend.
St. Bernard de Clairvaux Monastery
A five-hour direct flight from San Diego, the Cistercian monastery first erected in Spain in 1141 but relocated, brick by brick, to the United States by Hearst prior to his bankruptcy in the mid 1920s, St. Bernard’s is now an active Episcopal church. The 12th-century structure that includes three chapels, the loggia, prayer well, gothic cloisters, artifacts and 20 acres of rare palms, Spanish moss–cloaked oaks and Banyan trees is understandably popular among those seeking locations for destination nuptials. So it’s advised that visitors call ahead in order to ensure that their planned arrival doesn’t coincide with a prescheduled special event.
Ticket price is $8 for those between the ages of 5 and 55, with student, senior and military discounts available.
Wat Florida Dhammaram Buddhist Monastery in Kissimmee is a campus set beneath ancient oaks and surrounded by landscaped gardens. Rather than a single mammoth ornately decorated structure like many of those found throughout the state, the Kissimmee monastery is complete with small replicas of famous Indian temples and stupas, an ornate Thai teak house and a bell tower with carved wooden wall panels.
Like many monasteries, there is art infused into the design and landscape throughout the compound. Some of the buildings are adorned with as many as 50 colorful murals depicting the life of Buddha, and the grounds are home to numerous sculptures, including 16-foot-tall Yakkha giants and golden Nagas (serpents).
Temple serpents guarding the Buddhagaya Pagoda.
Those interested in learning more about Buddhism are invited to attend their chanting and meditation services held at 6 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday–Friday or the Saturday afternoon meditation service beginning at 3 p.m.
Built by three artisans between 1984 and 1991, ornamental landscape sculpture Castle Otttis was modeled after medieval Irish castles. It was intended to serve as a “place of peace on Earth.” As such, the privately owned castle, whose interior reflects the décor of the Irish abbeys of that era, is available on Sundays mornings for meditation and prayer upon request and hosts interdenominational Christian services at 11 a.m.
The Castle, located north of St. Augustine and built on the same latitudinal alignment as the great pyramids, welcomes those of all beliefs. However, children under age nine are not permitted.
Private tours may be arranged for any day other than Sunday. (Note: The castle was not built as a public building, and therefore is not handicap-accessible. Also, there is no glass in any of the 88 windows, so visitors are advised to dress according to the weather.)
Bok Tower, with its huge brass door depicting images from the Book of Genesis and shining like gilded gold, was built by Ladies Home Journal editor, Pulitzer Prize winner and peace activist Edward Bok.
Encircled by a reflecting pool, the 205-foot art deco, neo-Gothic carillon bell tower (left) is set amidst a 50-acre sanctuary of old growth moss-cloaked oak groves and landscaped gardens designed by conservationist Frederick Law Olmsted Jr. that had surrounded Bok’s 1930s Mediterranean-style mansion, Pinewood Estate.
The Bok Tower gardens.
Bok had intended to create a place that would "touch the soul with its beauty and quiet." The sanctuary, originally called the Mountain Lake Sanctuary and Singing Tower, offers visitors meandering trails and cloistered reflective spaces tucked back among ferns, azaleas, camellias and magnolia and besides a swan-graced reflective pond.
Daily concerts are held beneath the oaks at 1 and again at 3 p.m. at the Lake Wales National Historic Landmark. Adult admission is $12; Children’s tickets sell for $3.