I always thought of a writing retreat as a time you take to get away from every day life, maybe travel away from home, and either discuss writing or write your brains out.
The first time I went on a writer's retreat, I was the only writer in the group who didn't drink. This is never fun under normal circumstances -- many writers tend to drink a lot -- but I didn't realize that drinking, whining, and whining while drinking was the basic purpose of that particular retreat. I spent most of the time in my room working on my laptop while everyone went out clubbing. It was okay. Like being at home except I didn't have to cook and fold laundry.
The next retreat I attended was held during a high-brow literary conference. I checked first and was assured that it was all very serious and there would be no drinking. I arrived at the hotel to find my group in the bar getting loaded. It was eleven a.m. I spent a lot of time writing by myself in my room for that one, too.
The last time I went to a "proper" retreat was for a dinner/mini-retreat at a writer's residence. I thought for sure I'd be safe. Who would have the bad manners to get drunk at someone's home during a meal? (Yes. I was that stupid.) For that one I ended up in the kitchen washing the dishes while the others polished off eight bottles of expensive vino and bitched about the biz.
I know there is a certain glam attached to drinking authors, and God knows you certainly have the right to destroy your liver if that's what you want, but I got tired of being the designated writer at every retreat and get-together.
From that point I avoided the usual writer retreat opportunities and deliberately sought out other writers who weren't into the grain or the grape. One used to meet me monthly for a few hours at a Borders cafe and we'd bounce ideas back and forth and crit chapters from each other's WIPs. The wildest thing we drank was exotic tea. Another invited me to a gym where we worked out together while talking endlessly about story structure and great books.
I think the retreat I learned the most from was right here on the internet, spending three years moderating an online writers' think tank. A bunch of us would get together and troubleshoot writing-related problems every Friday night (a chatroom/group-style version of the Friday 20 here at the blog.) As a result, I've been mulling over some ideas on how to do a virtual weekend retreat of some sort on a discussion board or newsgroup this summer.
Have you participated in any unusual writing retreats? Tell us about them in comments.