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A Writing Retreat with Food, Focus, and Art Time: Highlights in PA

Have you been longing for TIME to write, read, or do art without being interrupted??? Chances are that if you’re a parent — especially a mother — the answer may be a resounding: “YES.”

Read on to learn about the affordable Personal Writing Retreat at the Highlights Foundation in the rolling green hills of northeastern Pennsylvania. There, you’ll get MUCH-needed individual focus time — supported by three delicious home-cooked meals a day — all in a picturesque, comfortable setting full of great people… who you can choose to chat with, or not!

The Farmhouse in PA where Highlights Magazine started.
The Farmhouse in PA where Highlights magazine started.

About the Highlights Foundation Retreats

Did you read Highlights as a kid? The educational magazine was established back in 1946, so if you’re like me, memories if the “Goofus and Gallant” cartoon strip still evoke a smile! Despite these vivid memories, it wasn’t until recently that I found out that the family who puts out the magazine created an organization called the Highlights Foundation to support the development of writers and artists who “inspire children to become their best selves.”

As part of this mission, the Highlights Foundation offers in-person children’s book classes and workshops (scholarships available), as well as online offerings. I’m not going to be talking about those classes, however, because I believe the crown jewel of the Highlights offerings is their Personal Retreat option: the unstructured, self-guided bliss where you have uninterrupted time to work on whatever you want (no one is checking if you’re a children’s book author), with fabulous meals and lodging provided.

A beautiful writing retreat sunset.
My sunset view at the Highlights writing retreat.

Why Trust this Write-Up and Review?

I was NOT paid or sponsored to do the Highlights Foundation Personal Retreat, so I can be completely honest in this write-up review. In fact, I applied for one of their many scholarships and was soundly rejected. (It’s ok — I know that there are plenty of deserving folks out there, and I’m just glad to know the scholarships exist.)

How Much Does this Writing Retreat Cost?

After a few weeks of internally grumbling about not getting the scholarship, I took a second look at the Highlights writing retreat prices. At the time of this writing, the cost was $575 for 3 days (which is the minimum stay duration), and $150 for each additional day. Now think about that for a moment: that $150 a day includes three luscious, farm-to-table meals a day, plus extremely comfortable private lodging — not to mention the priceless networking opportunity, and access to nature.

Frankly, it’s possible to spend $150 on just one meal of that caliber in a restaurant, and certainly easy enough to blow that much on a hotel room with no food included. Given those calculations, once I found a cheap way to get to Highlights in Pennsylvania (credit card points for a free flight) it was a no-brainer to register. I arranged childcare with much-appreciated grandparents, booked a 6-night stay — and am SO glad I did.

Salmon served for dinner at Highlights.
Salmon served for dinner at Highlights.

Where is the Highlights Retreat?

The Highlights writing retreat is surprisingly easy to get to, given how rural it is. You can drive in less than 3 hours from New York City, Philadelphia, or the Berkshires, MA. Alternately, you can fly into Scranton, PA and Highlights provides a free shuttle driver for the hour journey to The Barn at Boyds Mills. I chose that latter option, and delighted in chatting with the kindly driver. If you opt for flying, know that Scranton’s airport is small, and many of its planes are, too.

The Highlights writing retreat has fresh COOKIES!
The Highlights writing retreat has fresh COOKIES!

Writing Retreat Lodging

There are three quite different options for lodging at the Highlights writing retreat: private cabins, rooms in the Lodge, and rooms in the Farmhouse. Each category is wonderful in its own way, and costs the same, so if more than one option is available (should you choose to register), think about which is the best match for your personal aims.

Private cabins at the writing retreat.
Relaxing private cabins at the writing retreat.

Private Cabins at Highlights

The private cabins at Highlights are scattered throughout the campus, and each has its own bathroom inside, as well as a pleasant bed and writing desk. You can see from my photo above that each has a porch and rocking chair.

Since so many famous writers and children’s book authors have collaborated with Highlights, many of the cabins have been dedicated in their name. For example, Floyd Cooper and Nikki Grimes each have a cabin named for them.

The common room in the Lodge at Highlights.
The common room in the Lodge at Highlights.

Staying at the Highlights Lodge

During my July stay, I opted to stay in the Lodge at Highlights, and I really enjoyed it. There’s an inviting common living room pictured above, and then a short hallway of rooms, each with its own private bathroom. My room is pictured below, replete with the ergonomic chair and wooden desk at which I did countless hours of writing! Oh, and there is adjustable air conditioning, which was key during the hot July I was there, plus free laundry and snacks right down the hall.

Two notes: First, the rooms vary quite a bit, so if you are placed in one that is not feeling good to you, the kindhearted staff may allow you to switch if you request it. Second, the walls are quite thin, so keep that in mind. I was lucky to have quiet neighbors (and I suspect most visitors are respectful) but if you’re worried about noise, the cabins might be a better fit.

My private room at the Highlights writing retreat.
My private room at the Highlights writing retreat.

The highlight (haha) for me of staying in the Lodge was the shared grand porch that looks out upon the meadow. I spent each evening there after dinner watching the sun set over the flowers — sometimes in peaceful solitude, and sometimes in the company of an engaging new writer or artist friend.

A perfect writing retreat porch at the Highlights Lodge.
A perfect writing retreat porch at the Highlights Lodge.

This epitomizes for me why I so enjoyed staying in the Lodge at Highlights: I haven’t had that many opportunities to meet new people since my cozy Brown University college dorm, or staying in hostels during travel! There is a certain energy that comes from sharing a building for rest and work. (Keep reading for a list of some of the published authors I met…)

Sunset over the Lodge at Highlights.
Sunset over the Lodge at Highlights.

The Farmhouse at Highlights

The third lodging option for the Highlights writing retreat is the historic Farmhouse (pictured in my first photo of this article) which was the birthplace of Highlights magazine over 70 years ago. The Farmhouse has more of an old-fashioned Bed and Breakfast feel which appealed to me less than the more modernized Lodge or cabins, but the staff say the Farmhouse is a popular lodging choice for many.

A writing retreat is YOUR time.
A writing retreat is YOUR time.

3 Delicious Meals a Day, Included?!

Now, the moment you’ve been waiting for: a detailed, drool-inducing description of the food included in the Highlights writing retreat package. Let me preface this by saying that as a tired mother of two, who is chiefly responsible for cooking and cleaning for the household, I literally wept upon seeing the first buffet spread of food at Highlights that had been lovingly prepared for us by the culinary staff.

Every meal at the writing retreat has a spread of food.
Every meal at the writing retreat has a home-style spread of food.

Luscious Food to Support Creativity

To be taken care of by someone else for three meals a day — extremely high quality meals at that — is a rare, rare treasure for 40-year-old moms like me. So many of the great male writers of history were able to do what they did because they had someone else doing the meal prep and dishwashing. Highlights Personal Retreats bring that luxury affordably to the rest of us, so we can finally let go of the constant worry about preparing nourishment and just focus on CREATIVITY.

In the words of my friend, the food served at the Highlights Foundation writing retreat is “High Energy Food.” By this I mean, it is so freshly-grown and home-cooked that you feel energized and vibrant after each meal — not bloated or lethargic. This was an impressive characteristic, given how much I scarfed down at every buffet serving!

Inside the Barn at Boyds Mills.
Inside the Barn at Boyds Mills, where meals are served.

Dietary Preferences Accommodated

Every detail has been taken into consideration with the food at Highlights. Each meal has a wide variety of options to suit every dietary preference, and allergens are clearly labeled. The culinary staff also emphasizes that any additional food needs can be accommodated upon communication.

Don’t want to socialize during meals? To support those at the retreat who just want to silently focus on their writing or art, the Highlights Foundation provides cardboard “To Go” boxes at every meal so you can simply scoop up the fresh food and scamper back to your quarters to eat in silence.

Fresh Cobb Salad at Highlights retreat.
Fresh Cobb Salad at Highlights retreat from local produce.

Dinner at the Barn at Boyds Mill

The moment each day that emphasizes the beauty of the Highlights Foundation writing retreat food comes right before dinner. After appetizers are served, the chef for the night comes out and does a passionate verbal introduction to the evening’s meal.

Often they will name the local farm that provided the produce, tell a funny story about something that happened during the day’s cooking, and then end on a poetic note that connects the art of food with the craft of writing. I loved it!

The Barn at Boyds Mills at the Highlights Foundation.
The Barn at Boyds Mills at the Highlights Foundation.

5-Star Service from the Staff

Though breakfast and lunch are self-serve, many of the elements of the Highlights Foundation personal retreat dinner equal that of a quality restaurant. For example, every seat is already provided with a filled water glass, and when you’re finished, the staff removes your plate for you. Further, the nightly dessert (yes, every single lunch and dinner has a dessert) is delivered right to your seat, artfully plated. Swoon of happiness!

Personal Retreats vs. Renting a Hotel or AirBnB

Now, before I found Highlights Personal Retreats, I’d posted on social media, asking for recommendations for a place where I could just have time to write, with meals provided. Several guys suggested, “Why not just rent a hotel room or AirBnB and get UberEats delivered for every meal?”

Now, any mother will immediately see why the Highlights option is SUCH a better option than a la carte room renting and food ordering, and it can be summed up in two words: “Mental Load,” the constant, invisible planning, generating, and organizing energy which absolutely saps mothers.

Because Highlights takes the thinking piece out of meal planning, lodging, and cleaning (these elements are just magically provided), the Personal Retreats give the gift of actually BEING mothered — for which I am eternally grateful.

Peach cobbler for dessert.
Peach cobbler for dessert.

What to Do During a Writing Retreat

Got your fill of food for now? Let’s move on to the daily schedule to answer: what exactly does one DO during a self-structured writing retreat? Now what YOU would do during a personal writing retreat may vary completely from what I did — and you’re allowed to choose, since these are PERSONAL retreats (and frankly, no one is policing whether you do any writing or art at all) — but allow me now share my heavenly, self-made schedule from the six days I was at the Highlights Foundation, with the aim of inspiration.

Greeted by elderberry iced tea.
Exciting elderberry iced tea greeted my arrival.

Morning at the Writing Retreat

Each morning, I pulled up my giant To Do list on which I’d categorized the writing and drawing I wanted to do for my three websites during my time at Highlights, and prioritized goal tasks for the day. I did about an hour of work at my desk (overlooking the emerald green meadow), then took the pleasant walk down the hill to the Barn at Boyds Mill for breakfast.

At breakfast, I loaded my plate with all 15 options from the day (making sure not to skip the daily fresh-baked muffins or streusel), conversed with the inspiring writers who happened to be there that day, then did a jig of joy as I plopped my dirty dishes into the receptacle and didn’t have to wash them myself! Next, I headed back to my room to do more hours of writing before lunch.

I chose to stay in my room for my writing time, but participants in the Highlights Foundation Personal Retreat are encouraged to use any of the buildings or corners of the campus to work. For example, one wonderful professor I met did all her work in proofreading her new upcoming academic book while sitting on a rock in the middle of the river down the hill!

Flourless chocolate cake with Nutella whipped cream.
Flourless chocolate cake with Nutella whipped cream.

Afternoon at Highlights

After lunch (more mind-blowingly good food and scintillating conversations), I took a walk on the many nature trails around the Highlights Foundation campus. Often I’d chat on the phone with friends and family while doing so.

I’d then do a few more hours of work, then a workout (key, given that my workout reviews are a central part of my writing career). For your exercise needs, there is some workout equipment in the upstairs loft area of the Barn at Boyds Mill, including yoga mats, light-to-medium weights, and yoga blocks. I had brought my own equipment, so didn’t use those items, but several others I know did.

Me, feeling fulfilled at the Highlights writing retreat.
Me, feeling fulfilled at the Highlights personal retreat.

Personal Retreat Dinner Delights

I luxuriated in dinner, having in-depth conversations with other writers and artists as we ate the splendid food. After dinner, the summer heat had subsided, so I usually spent the evening on the Lodge porch (pictured below) working on my sketches for (my educational art site) then watching the sun set. Documented below is me creating the drawings for my new “In Case or Incase” article, surrounded by butterflies and the sweet songs of birds.

Me drawing my cartoons on the Highlights porch.
Me drawing my cartoons on the Highlights porch.

After the sunset, I updated my “To Do” list to reflect the work accomplished during the day, chatted with friends and family by phone, then headed to sleep by 10pm so I could be bright-eyed and bushy-tailed for maximum productivity the next day.

I must say, gazing at my completed “Accomplishments” or “Done” list at the end of my 6 days at the Highlights Foundation Personal Retreat makes me feel mighty… accomplished! Actually having time to focus really makes a difference in productivity. Who’d have guessed? Hehe.

The walk from the Lodge to the Barn at Highlights.
The walk from the Lodge to the Barn at Highlights.

Famous Writers at the Highlights Foundation

I got endless thrills getting to interact with so many published authors and artists during my time at the Highlights Foundation. What follows are blurbs of just a few of the folks I met during my 6 days there. I was particularly happy that Highlights is proactively working to create a safe space for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion. (Note: Some of the links to their books are affiliates which provide a small commission if you choose to purchase their books, at no extra cost to you.)

Torrey Maldonado was the first person I met at Highlights, thanks to the magic of sharing a hallway at the Lodge! (Each room has a name plate, and each person wears a name tag, so it’s easy to connect.) Torrey is a beloved Middle Grade author whose book Tight is particularly popular. He’s also a very nice guy!

Traci Sorell is a Cherokee Nation citizen whose award-winning picture books include We are Still Here! Native American Truths Everyone Should Know. She was extremely generous in sharing her knowledge about the children’s book publishing world, and her family (who joined her during her time at Highlights) was charming.

Great care is taken to accommodate food allergies and preferences at this retreat.
Great care is taken to accommodate food allergies and preferences at this retreat.

Sara Gomez Woolley (@SaritaJeanine on Instagram) is an illustrator who also was the Artist in Residence at the Highlights Foundation when I was there. She’s in the process of writing a book with her mother about her mother’s immigration from Colombia, and it was an honor getting to meet her mom as well. Do check out Sara’s stunning illustrations in the book Pirate Queens!

Meg Leta Jones was one of several academics at Highlights during my week there, proving you don’t need to be a children’s book author to use the space! She is an expert on internet privacy, and is currently finishing a follow-up to her popular book, Ctrl+Z: The Right to Be Forgotten.

Nicole Valentine is the Young Adult author of A Time Traveler’s Theory of Relativity. She was helping lead a reunion group from a Vermont writing program. (Highlights is an excellent place to bring a group or run a reunion.)

Morning mist over the solar panels at Highlights.
Morning mist over the solar panels at Highlights.

A Wonderful Writing Retreat

This summer has been so much about finding places around the world that feel like a second home. The Spanish immersion program I did with my son in Merida, Mexico earlier this summer was one such place I know for sure I’ll return to again and again — and the Highlights Foundation Personal Writing Retreat is another. I’m already searching my calendar for when I can go back!

So what about you? Does this writing retreat seem like a good match for what you’re looking for? Do those three lovingly-prepared meals a day — paired with the focused time to write, read, or do art — make you drool? Do share!

Even butterflies love a writing retreat.
Even butterflies love a writing retreat.

Want more about Pennsylvania? Check out my articles on the Laurel Highlands, PA, the Fallingwater house, Things to Do in Pittsburgh, Laurel Caverns, and luxury cabins in PA.


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Dean Simpson

Thursday 25th of August 2022

Thanks for sharing your experience! I've been thinking about something like this for myself and will definitely check it out. Always enjoy reading about your experiences and seeing the beautiful photography that goes along with it. Cheers!

Lillie Marshall

Thursday 25th of August 2022

So wonderful, Dean! For readers who don't know, Dean works at the Touchstone Center for Crafts in southwestern Pennsylvania -- another excellent choice for artists and aspiring artists. In-depth article here:

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