The Great, Green Escape

Easy ways to lessen your impact on the environment when you travel. And 7 destination spots that’ll lessen your impact on the environment when you travel.
By Nicole Sprinkle

You use canvas totes to haul your groceries home, take public transportation, recycle, and maybe even compost. Yet when it comes to going on vacation, you tend to relax your standards, right? Hey, it’s vacation after all. Who wants to think about how many plastic water bottles get tossed or whether a snorkel site’s coral is in jeopardy? But as much as you deserve a carefree holiday—a time to rest, relax, and put aside your everyday concerns—sobering statistics may make you rethink the way you travel. For instance, on a flight from New York to London, just one passenger accounts for half a ton of carbon emissions. Thirst quenchers use 2 million plastic beverage bottles every five minutes—in the US alone. And by turning down your hotel’s air-conditioning to make your room just one degree cooler, you increase energy costs by 3 percent. But before you cancel that long-anticipated trip you’ve been saving for (and sorely deserve), take heart. Lots of hotels and resorts have taken steps to minimize their impact on the environment. And while an “eco-friendly” vacation may conjure up visions of sleeping in mosquito-infested rooms, you’ll find plenty of luxury choices that will let you rest your head on their pillows guilt-free. Whether you’re looking to trek through a jungle, chill out on a beach, or sightsee in a city, here are seven sustainable destination spots that top our list.

For Nature Buffs
The Lodge at Sun Ranch, Montana
Set near Yellowstone National Park, this former private residence now offers six guest rooms and two log cabins—all built from reclaimed timber and recycled Wyoming fencing. Though it sits on unspoiled land and is made from eco-friendly materials, you don’t miss out on luxury. River-rock fireplaces, plush furniture, and organic linens are a few of the pampering amenities offered here. Still, much of this lodge’s beauty lies in the outdoors—be it spying 3,000 migrating elk, hiking the many trailheads, taking an intimate birding excursion, or fly-fishing for the abundant trout population. From $300 a night; www.sunranchlodge.com.

Hotel Punta Islita, Costa Rica
This hotel is nestled in one of the world’s few tropical dry forests, a globally endangered ecosystem that’s home to more than 150 types of mammals, 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, rare trees, and tropical flowers. The high-ceiling, ocean cove-view casitas at this resort are truly breathtaking, but the Hotel Punta Islita is also deeply committed to preserving the area’s ecological wonders. A resident biologist plots conservation strategies and works to protect unique flora and fauna. Efforts include providing a safe haven for nesting sea turtles to protect them from poachers and conducting cultural tours that involve guests in projects like community art workshops. From $250 a night; www.hotelpuntaislita.com.

Maho Bay Camps, St. John
Eco-conscious travelers have long known about Maho Bay Camps on St. John, a US Virgin Island known for its unbeatable hiking and diving. The 18 Maho Bay tents in Virgin Islands National Park were built in the 1970s on platforms connected by elevated walkways—a design that prevents soil erosion and protects the fragile coral. But as admirable as they were ecologically, they weren’t particularly well suited for travelers looking for comfort. Now, thanks to the addition of Maho Bay Camps’ Concordia Eco-Tents, green is a lot more enjoyable. The new tents keep many of the earlier design elements, but they now boast private toilets, showers, solar energy, fully equipped kitchens, and a dining area. From $80 a night; www.maho.org.

For Beach Lovers
Molasses Reef, Turks and Caicos Islands
While the ultra-luxe Ritz-Carlton hotel brand may not conjure up an eco-friendly image at first, its latest venture on a tiny, uninhabited island in the Turks and Caicos Islands signals something of a new leaf. Set to open winter 2008, this 125-room boutique property on the secluded island of West Caicos can only be reached via small plane or boat, and allows only electric cars and bikes. Though the addition of a hotel on a protected wildlife sanctuary may raise eyebrows, 90 percent of the island’s total acreage will remain permanently undeveloped. Low-density oceanfront cottages will stretch over a half mile of beach and feature private plunge pools and spa bungalows. There will also be a marina on-site and three upscale restaurants. This kind of intimate seclusion doesn’t come cheap, though. Check www.ritzcarlton.com for prices.

Hix Island House, Puerto Rico
Vieques Island, off the coast of Puerto Rico, is a 21 mile-long nature haven that was closed to the public after World War II and used as a US Navy base. The military cleared out in 2003, finally giving travelers access to the island’s untrammeled white-sand beaches and the largest wildlife refuge in the Caribbean. Book one of 13 loft apartments at the high-concept Hix Island House and you’ll get an amazing view of the sea and the palm-lined beaches from your private terrace, as well as a skylit room to meditate in and a kitchen stocked with homemade breads, local fruits, juices, and Puerto Rican coffee. This hotel truly reveres its 12-acre natural refuge, full of native trees and tall grasses, and does more than its share to keep the island protected. Solar panels augment electricity and hot water, and as you enjoy your private outdoor shower, you can take comfort knowing that the water you use will also quench the guavas, bananas, papayas, and lemons that grow nearby. Though the vibe here is laid-back, the concierge will set up all sorts of excursions for you, from sailing and kayaking on the bioluminescent bay—filled with plankton that glow and light up the waters at night like a sky full of fireflies—to horseback riding and mountain biking. From $255 a night; www.hixislandhouse.com.

For Urban Culture Vultures
Orchard Garden Hotel, San Francisco
Just blocks from Union Square and the gates to Chinatown sits the sparkling facade of this relatively new luxury boutique hotel—one that prides itself as much on its eco-friendliness as its beauty. LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design)-certified, the Orchard Garden Hotel uses chemical-free cleaning products, compact fluorescent light bulbs, and low-flow water faucets and toilets. Most importantly, the building is so well insulated, it uses considerably less energy for heating and air conditioning. It also features an in-room paper recycling system, and its restaurant and bar serve locally grown and raised food. From $199 a night; www.theorchardhotel.com.

Hotel Helix, Washington, DC
As part of Kimpton Hotels—one of the first boutique hotel chains to offer stylish digs for less—it’s no surprise that the Hotel Helix in Washington, DC, is also leading the way in green practices. All property-wide printing is done on recycled paper, rooms are cleaned with environmentally friendly products, unused amenity bottles are donated to local charities, and all of the toilets, sinks, and showers use low-flow water systems. But this hotel’s focus on sustainability hasn’t impacted its emphasis on luxury. The 178 rooms offer Pucci-print carpets and red ottomans, flat-screen TVs, and platform beds that can be closed off with sheer drapes to create a romantic alcove. Couple all that with its location in hip Dupont Circle, and you may never want to leave this eco-friendly palace. From $139 a night; www.hotelhelix.com.

 

How to Green Your Next Vacation
Already planned a getaway at a hotel or resort that isn’t so conscious? There’s still plenty you can do to minimize your carbon footprint while you’re away. Some ideas:

Fly smart.
Use a carbon calculator and make a donation to off set your miles (One we trust: www.sustainabletravelinternational.org) • Skip stopovers (takeoffs and landings produce more carbon emissions) • Choose an environmentally friendly airline

Pack what you can.
Bring reusable, nonplastic water bottles so you don’t have to buy water • Stash shopping bags in your suitcase • Use your own shampoos and toiletries

Tour with a conscience.
Take public transportation or bike rather than renting a car • Use local tour guides in foreign countries instead of organized guides from US companies • Don’t buy or collect souvenirs made from endangered materials such as hardwoods, artifacts, shells, or coral; check with the hotel concierge before you shop

Reuse and recycle while you relax.
Let the maid service know you don’t need fresh sheets and towels daily • Use water sparingly (be conscious of how long you shower and bathe) • If there are no in-room recycling bins, take any old brochures, newspapers, and maps to the front desk for recycling

 

How To Choose A Sustainable Hotel
Start by reading a destination’s website or its marketing materials if they’re available. If you like what you read, go the extra step and quiz the property manager on the hotel’s claims. Ask pointed questions, such as: “Do you have systems in place to manage greenhouse gas emissions?” • “How do you handle waste management?” • “How do you support the local economy?” • “How do you treat waste water?” (In the Caribbean, coral and other wildlife are endangered because of poor water treatment practices) • “What percentage of your food and services are sourced within 15 miles of the property?” • “How do you measure your conservation efforts?