By: Sarah Miller
It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment when ecotravel became mainstream, but as global warming and the dwindling of fossil fuels have become crucial issues, travelers have turned more and more to environmentally conscious options when planning their vacations. It's no surprise, then, that hotels, airlines, and pretty much everybody else in the travel business have been rushing to declare themselves "green."
Plenty of luxury properties call themselves green just for asking guests to take it easy on the towel turnover, but Katie Maschman, of the International Ecotourism Society, a nonprofit group promoting sustainable travel, explains, "The "eco" in ecolodge doesn't just stand for ecology. To be considered an ecolodge, a place must be beneficial to the environment and the local community and economy."
Five high-end ecolodges, from Montana to Queensland, Australia, prioritize sustainable business and service techniques while also offering extremely comfortable accommodations, access to pristine locations, and the opportunity to not only leave the environment undisturbed, but to give something back as well.
Rift Valley Province, Kenya
Vibe: Overlooking the Great Rift Valley in southern Kenya, Shompole offers stunning, safari-inspired accommodations amid a private wilderness. The tented rooms have hand-carved furniture, quartz floors, and "cool-pools," for lounging. Safaris are available, but many guests prefer to relax by the pools and take leisurely nature walks.
Green Highlights: Along with solar power, recycling, and low-impact building practices, Shompole maintains the Asali Community Trust to assist development in surrounding rural communities, and works on wildlife conservation efforts with local Maasai, who share in the lodge's profits.
Eco/Luxe Index: More pampering than tree-hugging. The environmental and social programs are outstanding, but most guests come for the exquisite rooms and property. Rooms from $365/night (all-inclusive); www.shompole.com
DAINTREE ECOLODGE AND SPA
Vibe: Located in the heart of the vast, ancient Daintree Rainforest, this 15-room lodge is surrounded by lush jungle and waterways, home to the largest number of endangered and rare species anywhere in the world. The spa features Vichy showers and elaborate treatments using locally made botanicals, such as the Lillypilly berry facial and coffee-and-wild-ginger body scrub.
Green Highlights: Built on stilts to leave adjacent habitats undisturbed, the lodge treats its own wastewater, hosts recycling and composting programs, and works to preserve aboriginal culture in a collaborative effort with the Kuku Yalanji tribe, who provides guided rainforest walks, art classes, and performances.
Eco/Luxe Index: More pampering than tree-hugging. The big draws here are the spa, the decked out private bungalows (all rooms have TVs, phones, and Internet access), and proximity to rare wildlife and gorgeous scenery. Rooms from $414/night; www.daintree-ecolodge.com.au
South Andros island, Bahamas
Vibe: This resort sits on the nearly untouched island of South Andros, reachable only by a short boat ride via the Southern Bight channel. Unlike the more developed nearby island resorts, Tiamo is focused on quiet, serene comfort. Deserted beaches, unspoiled mangrove forests, and excellent bone- and fly-fishing are just some of the attractions.
Green Highlights: The resort is 100 percent solar-powered and employs creative methods of reducing, reusing, and recycling refuse. Breezy private bungalows, made from sustainable pine, sit on stilts to minimize site and habitat impact and provide natural cooling. Rooms feature low-flush, composting toilets and biodegradable, phosphorous-free soaps.
Eco/Luxe Index: More tree-hugging than pampering. The luxury is getting away from it all (i.e. TV and modern conveniences). Their environmental initiatives coincide nicely with the demands of running a resort on an off-the-grid island. Rooms from $285/night (all-inclusive); www.tiamoresorts.com
PAPOOSE CREEK LODGE
Madison River Valley, Montana
Vibe: Located in the foothills of the Rockies, just 40 minutes from Yellowstone, Papoose Creek is one of the West's only true ecolodges. The main log cabin has five guest rooms, with three private cabins nearby. Most rooms have wraparound terraces, heated tile floors, stone fireplaces, and deluxe linens. Guests flock to it for world-renowned fly-fishing, but hiking and birding are also popular. Canoe trips with local guides are a great way to experience local wildlife, and the staff-arranged picnics are especially memorable.
Green Highlights: Focused on local wildlife and the Yellowstone ecosystem, Papoose Creek supports wolf and elk studies, cutthroat-trout reintroduction via the lodge's own fish hatchery, and the use of animal-friendly fencing, all overseen by the on-staff naturalist. The owners plant 10 trees for each visitor in partnership with Trees for Travel. The kitchen uses only small-herd, grass-fed, naturally-raised meats along with veggies from local organic farms.
Eco/Luxe Index: More pampering than tree-hugging. While the surrounding wildlands are rustic, the high-end cuisine and cozy accommodations are pure luxury. Rooms from $335/night (all-inclusive, minimum 3-night stay); www.papoosecreek.com
BEDWELL RIVER OUTPOST
Vancouver Island, British Columbia
Vibe: Bedwell (in the Clayoquat Sound Biosphere Reserve) is reachable only by boat or floatplane, but guests enjoy total luxury in tents perched along the river, at the edge of the temperate rainforest. The resort offers hiking, biking, horseback riding, kayaking, and backcountry fishing (Bedwell hosts the world's largest wild steelhead trout population). Tents have wood-burning stoves but also plush rugs and linens, antique furniture, and private showers. The spa-tent offers an array of treatments, including hot-stone massages and romantic cedar hot tubs.
Green Highlights: Guests can participate in intensive conservation projects including black bear habitat research and DNA mapping, Bedwell River basin restoration, raptor rehabilitation, winter feeding-ground enhancement for elk and black-tailed deer, and gray and orca whale research. Along with recycling and compost programs, gravity-fed turbines generate all electricity and hot water. It's all part of a $3 million initiative, funded entirely from the resort's proceeds.
Eco/Luxe Index: More tree-hugging than pampering. Though the accommodations are high-end (albeit rustic), the real attraction (and the reason for the steep rates) is the pristine wilderness and the chance to work beside scientists on research and restoration projects. Rooms from $788/night (all-inclusive, plus round-trip floatplane from Vancouver; minimum 3-night stay); www.wildretreat.com.
Airlines and even car companies are now seeking ways to neutralize the impact of greenhouse gas emissions. Book your next trip with any of the following agencies or airlines, and you'll be traveling greener.
CAR RENTALS: THE ROAD AHEAD
Late to the ecotravel game, car rental companies have now begun to offer customers green options.
EV Rental Cars (rentals from $25/day; 877/38-736825; evrental.com), operating out of airports in California, Arizona, and Nevada, offers hybrid vehicles exclusively.
Hertz (800/654-3131; hertz.com) introduced a Green Collection last fall with four models boasting an EPA rating of at least 28 miles/gallon. Available at 50 U.S. airports.
Avis Portugal (rentals from $75/day; avis.com.pt)is the first rental agency in Europe to offer hybrid vehicles. Available at three of the country's airports.
Ozocar(rentals from $50/hr; 800/696-5966; ozocar.com) This New York limo company bills itself as an eco-luxury private car service. Instead of town cars, it uses Toyota Priuses and small hybrid SUVs.
AIRLINES: FRIENDLIER SKIES
Carbon offsets are donations to environmental programs that "cancel out" the carbon dioxide emitted during a flight. Many travel organizations now offer the option of buying offsets through a third party, which calculates the dollar value of the offset and uses the money to plant trees, build wind-farms, or otherwise reduce or counteract carbon emissions.
Travelocity (travelocity.com/gozero) works with The Conservation Fund, providing offsets via a flat donation ($25 for a flight, 4-night hotel stay, and car rental) or by calculating the exact emissions of a trip. Funds go to plant seedlings and regenerate wetlands in the Mississippi River Valley.
Expedia (expedia.com/terrapass) works with TerraPass, a company that uses offset money to fund clean-energy projects across the country. Offsets run from $5.99 for a short flight (1,000 pounds of CO2 or 2,200 air-miles) to $29.99 for an international flight (up to 13,000 miles).
British Airways (britishairways.com/offsetyouremissions) has partnered with Climate Care to neutralize emissions, investing in renewable energy projects in India and South Africa. Travelers can calculate their offsets on the site (round-trip New York to London: 1.26 tons of CO2 or a $17.05 offset).
Silverjet (flysilverjet.com) is the first 100 percent carbon-neutral airline. Each ticket includes a mandatory carbon offset contribution to the Carbon Neutral Company. Passengers can choose precisely where their dollars will be used, whether in small-scale initiatives like wind power plants in India or through a portfolio of projects.
To learn more about ecolodges, sustainable travel options, and carbon offsets, check out the following websites: www.ecotourism.org; www.carbonoffsets.org; carbonneutral.com; and www.responsibletravel.com.