Less Traveled 2012

Ernie Wiggins



Find a spiritual retreat at Diakonia in the Upcountry

Posted 9/25/2011 11:09:00 PM

The Diakonia Retreat Center is in the rolling hills at the foot of the Blue Ridge Mountains in the northeast corner of South Carolina. Its 200-plus acres of fields and trails under an unobstructed sky say “escape” and “serenity.”

Diakonia, the Greek word for “service” or “caring,” is a retreat compound supported by the Greek Orthodox district (or metropolis) that is headquartered in Atlanta. The center, which includes lodging, meeting, dining and recreation (basketball, canoeing, hiking), is used mainly by groups affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church but is available for rent by others. The center can house and feed groups of between 10 and 150 people.

As my travel companion/photographer and I entered the retreat center’s gate, we saw a crystal clear lake stretching out silently in front of us. Inverted canoes were lined up on its bank, waiting for the next group of recreational visitors to arrive. A vineyard had been been planted on the ridge just above the lake. Lodges curved around in a semi-circle to our left, and a dining/meeting hall, bursts of yellow and orange marigolds along its entrance, sat just below us on the right. Making our way down the short hill, we were greeted by the mottled hound Tiger and two companions, three of the center’s many animal residents.

Diakonia’s human residents -- Felix Buta, Rodica Chiper and Michael Strosnider -- were just finishing lunch inside the dining hall. Buta, the manager, Chiper, the officer administrator, and Strosnider, a seminarian just recently assigned to Diakonia, all live and work at the center. The three take care of guests and grounds but occasionally get assistance from volunteers with the Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Atlanta, which has owned the center for a dozen years. Though the center is affiliated with the Greek Orthodox Church and gives it priority scheduling, it is open to all.

The center can accommodate groups of about 150. Weekend visits (Friday evening through Sunday morning) cost between $50 and $80 per person, including lodging and five meals, which are overseen by Buta, who was trained as a chef in his native Romania.

A gregarious fellow, Buta hopped behind the wheel of one of the center’s carts for a quick tour around the lake that on some mornings is blanketed with Canada geese; the eco-friendly lodges and cabins; the aviary and its regal assortment of peacocks, pheasants, guinea fowl, chickens and canaries; the basketball courts and soccer fields. On the rise opposite the dining hall and across the lake, farm animals -- goats and donkeys -- milled about.

“The donkeys are good for keeping wild animals away,” Buta said.

“Really?” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “They have an odor that wild animals don’t like.”

The center is working toward self-sufficiency but currently receives financial support from the metropolis of Atlanta, which includes South Carolina, North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Alabama,
Mississippi, Louisiana and half of Tennessee.

If you’re going:

Salem is in the most northwest corner of South Carolina, just off scenic S.C. 11 between Walhalla and Pickens.

You'll find the Diakonia Retreat Center at 455 Quail Ridge Road, Salem; phone (864) 944-6775. Click here for more information. You can email the center at diakoniacenter@yahoo.com.