Tibet in the Catskills: An unusual resort combines Tibetan Buddhism, a world-class spa, and a breathtaking upstate setting.
Don’t be surprised if you think you made a wrong turn as you close in on Menla Mountain Retreat. The final leg of the two-hour trip from lower Westchester puts you on a secluded road seemingly headed straight for a dead-end. But then the vista broadens into a mountainous landscape and the yellow exterior of the modest main building known as Delos Inn appears. No, you’re not lost—in fact, you’ve found one of the Catskills’ best-kept secrets.
Owned and operated by Tibet House US, the 325-acre Menla retreat is difficult to characterize, as it’s partly a spa, partly a healing center, and partly a small-scale resort offering accommodations, meals, and activities. Under the spiritual leadership of Robert Thurman, a Columbia University professor and acclaimed authority on Tibetan Buddhism (who is also, incidentally, the father of actress Uma Thurman), Menla sponsors an assortment of programs throughout the year devoted to health and spiritual topics. It is also open to groups and individuals looking for some Tibetan-tinged R&R.
A workshop on healing and wellbeing was in progress during our stay, so after checking in, we made our way up a scenic path to the modern and spacious conference center. There, we were treated to a fascinating talk on the effects of herbs, spices, and essential oils on immunity, digestion, and mood. The light but filling buffet dinner that followed included lentils, baba ganoush, and plenty of salad fixings. There were individual fruit tarts and scrumptious cookies for dessert.
After dinner, we toured the compact yet highly efficient kitchen with Executive Chef Curt Robair, who explained that he largely sources ingredients from Menla’s own gardens, supplemented with foods from other local farms. Later, we returned to the conference center for a talk on Buddhist teachings headlined by Thurman, who is an amusing and charismatic speaker. For those considering a visit, I would highly recommend choosing a weekend when Thurman is in residence.
Sunday morning found us up bright and early for yoga followed by a delicious breakfast of cereals, grains, eggs, yogurt, and fruits, and then a hike around the property. Our guide was Menla’s administrative director, Michael G. Burbank, a slim young man who explained that he had been a student of Thurman’s at Columbia 12 years ago, when he was invited to join Menla’s staff. He started his career washing dishes and performing maintenance, and still does anything necessary to keep the place going. In fact, he had literally blazed the trail on which we were hiking.
At this point in our trek, a light rain started to fall, but thanks to the overhead canopy, we didn’t feel a thing. We stopped talking, and instead just listened to the gentle “shuuush” of the droplets as they showered the leaves overhead.
The trip culminated with a massage at Menla’s 4,000-square-foot spa, an imaginative two-story space sporting spherical lanterns and stunning tapestries and artwork inspired by Tibetan Buddhism. The spa was conceived under the direction of international designer Clodagh, whom we met during our stay. “It’s a profoundly spiritual space,” she told me. “A little slice of Tibet right in the middle of nowhere.”
Driving back to Westchester, we agreed that Menla may not be for everyone. It’s small and remote, and doesn’t have the breadth of activities or amenities that a more commercial spa might boast. Still, the appeal of this beautiful, contemplative place was impossible to deny. I won’t feel lost on the road the next time I come back to Menla—but I will make every effort to lose myself once again in its charms.
Details: A two-night R&R weekend including meals is $875 for a single; $730 per person for a double room (Spa services extra); www.menlamountain.org.