Heaven Sent

Unwind, Rejuvenate at San Damiano

Ginny Prior

In the shadow of Mount Diablo, with an eye-popping view of the San Ramon Valley, sits an extraordinary villa and gardens. It’s sweet irony that this heavenly refuge shares such a dramatic landscape with the “devil mountain.”
    Since 1961, people have been making retreats to San Damiano. The colorful gardens and mission-style buildings offer the perfect place for quiet reflection, long healing hikes and surprisingly good meals. Set on 55 acres of tree-studded hills, San Damiano is the antidote to the toxic stress of Bay Area living. Its chapel, fountains and meandering footpaths allow visitors to do something almost unheard of in this day and age—spend deep, restorative time alone.
    It took turning 50 for me to completely understand the power of this place. As I drove through the quaint town of Danville past lush green lawns and million dollar homes, I hoped to find peace with this sudden advancement in age. The gray hair, the wrinkles and the constant barrage of AARP invitations in my mailbox were a powerful catalyst for a mid-life meditation.
     I had no idea that soul-searching could be so much fun. After spending the morning browsing through dozens of spiritual and self-help books in the library and gift shop, I took a hike in the golden hills surrounding San Damiano. A courtyard of fountains and flowers gave way to oak-covered trails that eventually led me to the adjacent Las Trampas Regional Park. Here, I was completely rapt in nature—lost in the soaring canopies of the surrounding forest, barely noticing the occasional hiker and horseback rider who passed me. Las Trampas is Spanish for “the traps,” which were once used to catch elk in the hills. Deer and antelope were bountiful as well, but these days you’re more likely to see raccoons and foxes, with the occasional skunk and opossum. Birdwatchers know Las Trampas as a place to see several species of hawks, and on a really good day, a golden eagle or two. With 3,500 acres, you could spend weeks exploring the rolling hills and rocky ridges that are bisected by the meandering Bollinger Creek.
    But hiking triggers hunger, and while meditation may call for a fast, my stomach was growling like a mountain lion’s mating call. I returned to the retreat center just as the mission bell tolled noon, signaling lunch in the dining room. The conversation was lively, and the food was as good as any café in town. I couldn’t refuse seconds on the savory pork loin and giant homemade cookie. Perhaps the devil made me do it.
    After lunch, I did what any pleasantly full, middle-aged birthday girl would do: I napped. Having booked an overnight stay at the retreat center, I had only to walk a few steps to my room. It was quiet and comfortable, with fresh linens and a ceiling fan that kept me cool while I slipped into a delicious, dream-laced sleep.
    San Damiano is a little-known treasure. For less than the price of a dinner and movie, ($70) you can spend 24 hours at this idyllic retreat. Your stay includes three exceptional meals and the use of the chapel, gardens, library and grounds. Just a word of warning—the solitude can be addicting. 


From north Oakland, take state Highway 24 east toward Walnut Creek. Exit south on Interstate 680 toward San Jose. Take I-680 to Diablo Road in Danville. Turn west, or right, on Diablo Road, continuing to Hartz Avenue. At Hartz, turn south, or left, and continue for a short block to Prospect Avenue and turn southwest, or right, on Prospect. Follow the signs to San Damiano, bearing left at both forks in the road (the second fork becomes Highland Drive). The retreat center is at the top of the hill at 710 Highland Drive. For a schedule of group retreats or to book a private retreat, call (925) 837-9141, or visit

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