Need to Relax and Explore?
Stressed about the bad economy? Sick of trudging over ice and through biting winds? You need a vacation!
Yes, staycations are cheap and inherently green (since we don't normally consume much when we stick around our neighborhoods). But we also enjoy daydreaming about fantasy adventures. If you are still flush, wow your valentine with the experience of a lifetime. If you're like the rest of us, at least you can hope, and maybe plan, together.
Ecotourism is about going lighter on the Earth, by protecting local and global resources, reducing pollution and cultural impact, and supporting local economies and people, especially indigenous populations. It's about enriching your own life through learning and fun, while raising support and awareness for protecting the planet's glorious places.
Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands
Few places seem as exotic to Westerners as Fiji, the quintessential island paradise. So make like the famous ocean-exploring family, and check into Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort, on the island of Vanua Levu. Set on 17 beautiful acres, the resort consists of 25 authentic Fijian-style thatched-roof bures (pronounced "boo-ray"), decorated with native hardwood floors and rattan furnishings.
Enjoy a romantic rainforest hike with the resident naturalist/marine biologist, visit a native Fijian village, and tour a magical mangrove lagoon. There are ample opportunities for fantastic diving, snorkeling and boating, as well as swimming, tennis, volleyball and more.
Jean-Michel Cousteau resort has won numerous awards for culturally sensitive and eco-friendly tourism. A five-night romantic package starts at $2,215 per person.
Discover Local Culture
Good ecotourism should bring visitors in close contact with native people, both to enrich the experience of guests and to facilitate meaningful cross-cultural exchange. Local people are inexorably tied to the fabric of a place, and no authentic experience can be had if guests are completely walled off from the surrounding neighborhoods. Plus, communities in tourist areas need to benefit from employment and visitor dollars, which can all too often be siphoned off to developed countries by multinational operating companies.
On Fiji, Jean-Michel Cousteau resort guests have numerous opportunities to mix with local people. If you are seeking more complete integration with local neighborhoods, check out intensive community-based tourism opportunities, which often host visitors with local families.
Explore a Private Island
Few things say romance like playing around on a private island! You don't have to be Richard Branson or Dean Kamen to visit the exclusive Glover's Reef Atoll off Belize, operated by Slickrock Adventures. Learn to sea kayak, surf, windsurf, snorkel, scuba dive, go bonefishing and more.
The beautiful, rustic place has only fifteen cabanas, as well as solar-powered water pumps, a composting toilet, and wind power. There is no maid service, air conditioners or flush toilets (although there is cold beer and soda). Local chefs cook delicious meals, then sit down with you to eat and chat. Learn about the Caribbean's unique island ecology, and take optional side trips to visit Mayan ruins.
Belize via Slickrock Adventures
Belize is a great place to visit from the U.S. because the locals speak English, and the distance isn't too great (typical flights are under $500.) The diverse wildlife is spectacular. Book a nine-night stay on Slickrock's island for $1,777/person, with current specials.
Ecotourism offers the chance to mingle with spiny lobsters, sea turtles and sea horses -- all while minimizing harm and supporting conservation efforts. The sad news is many of the world's reefs are critically endangered, including in U.S. waters. Reefs are fundamental pillars of the entire ocean ecosystem, and they need all the help they can get to weather human-induced climate change, pollution, over harvesting and destruction.
Rustic Island Living
In Belize you can go on island time, living more simply, unplugging, and soaking up surf and sun. Why not stay somewhere more remote and intimate, versus jam-packed high rise hotels on the popular islands?
In fact, it's true some destinations call themselves green because they offer their guests the chance to save water by not laundering linens every day. That's nice, but one or two skin-deep changes does not a true ecotourism site make. To address the problem numerous green travel certifications have sprung up around the world (some estimates put the total at more than 100 systems). Some of the more prominent ones include Green Globe and ECOTEL (for hotels).
Antarctica, the Ultimate Adventure
Antarctica -- the coldest, driest, most remote continent -- offers breathtaking beauty and dramatic challenges that only a lucky few ever experience. A good way to go is with Lindblad Expeditions, a name known for small group sizes and care for the environment since the 1950s.
There's nothing like kayaking through icebergs, or viewing king and Adelie penguins up close in their natural habitats. Lindblad partners with National Geographic, which means you can team up with true experts, and observe or even assist scientists as they study the region's fauna, climate and geology.
Sail with Lindblad on the famed National Geographic Explorer, and you'll see parts of the world most only catch on the Discovery Channel. Packages start at around $10,000 and range up to nearly $40,000.
The Magic of Costa Rica
Practically synonymous with "ecotourism" or even "adventure tourism" is Costa Rica. The friendly, stable Central American country is host to some of the world's most diverse wildlife and spectacular rain and cloud forests, as well as sparkling beaches, an active volcano, picturesque countryside and affordable, comfortable accommodations. There's even a budding industry of carbon neutral tourism there.
Whitewater Rafting with Adventure Life
In addition to hiking, biking, bird watching, wildlife viewing, exploring, cultural activities and chillaxing, Costa Rica offers world class whitewater rafting. One great way to go is with Adventure Life, which says it is committed to small group tours that have a positive impact on the local culture and environment, as well as foster better understanding between travelers and local hosts.
Adventure Life runs tours through much of Latin America (as well as Antarctica), and works with the nonprofit group Rainforest Alliance on its Best Management Practices in Sustainable Tourism Program. An eight-day trek can start as low as $1,250.
Enjoy Scenic Wonders
Costa Rica's beauty is legendary. Frolic under pristine waterfalls, lounge on gorgeous beaches, and scan the tree tops for the elusive -- and breathtaking -- resplendent quetzal.
Zip Line Canopy Tours
A classic Costa Rica activity is a canopy tour, complete with rope ladders and zip lines. Much of the vibrant life of the forest is active in the tree tops, from sloths to brilliantly colored birds, snakes and butterflies. Enter their world, and challenge yourself at the same time.
Canopy tours have made such an impression on many visitors there that the technology has been widely copied and imported to many other places.
Aid Sea Turtle Researchers
Savor the Romance of Tuscany
For a unique and eco-friendly way to see the sights, consider Vermont-based Country Walkers. Amble with a loved one through some of God's most romantic country: Tuscany. Trek along worn paths and rustic roads through picturesque fields and hills. Stop over in classic European villages, learn about the region's Etruscan and Roman past, and sample some of the world's finest artisanal foods and wines.
Country Walkers: Visit Italy on Foot
Not only is hiking eco-friendly, but it is a great way to get a feel for the flavor, sights, sounds and smells of a place.
When in Rome....
Country Walkers leads unique trips in many exciting destinations, all over Europe, Latin America, Southeast and Central Asia, and even in America. Want to explore the ancient temples and lush greenery of Laos and Vietnam? Or follow the footsteps of Medieval pilgrims in Croatia? Do it with style and comfort.
Prices start at around $3,000.
Take a Green Luxury Safari
Ever want to take an African safari? Get an elephant-back tour of a private South African game sanctuary by staying at Camp Jabulani. Get close-up photographs of the preserve's protected cheetahs, or stay in a thatched-roof (but air conditioned) five-star luxury safari lodge, complete with stone swimming pool.
The owners of Camp Jabulani have discovered that working with local people and providing employment have helped decrease the poaching that plagues Africa's remaining big game.
Camp Jabulani: Rustic Luxury
Camp Jabulani is designed to welcome some of the world's most discerning travelers, yet provide up-close interactions with wildlife, including the "Big Five" (Lion, Leopard, Rhino, Buffalo and Elephant). In fact, the reserve was originally set up to provide a safe haven for orphaned elephants who otherwise would not have survived. Today a conservation center on the reserve is working to preserve endangered species.
A Civilized Way to See the Bush
Rates at award-winning Camp Jabulani start at around $1,180, double occupancy per night, with meals. A portion of the funds go directly to the support of endangered animals.
Mountain Travel Sobek and the Mighty Himalayas
Another company with a long history of adventure travel (40 years) is Mountain Travel Sobek, which is known for high-altitude experiences, leading small groups through the Himalayas in Central Asia, the Alps, Alaska, Machu Picchu, the iconic Kilimanjaro, Patagonia and elsewhere (including Costa Rica). According to a Sobek spokesperson, "We run all of our trips and internal operations as green as possible." This includes low-energy lighting, paper recycling and composting, as well as offsets of other administrative carbon emissions through Sustainable Travel International.
Mountain Travel Sobek tries to have as little negative impact on destinations as possible, while respecting local cultures, and promoting meaningful cross-cultural exchange. Several giving back experiences are also offered, including helping save tigers in Asia and working with Audubon Alaska. Travelers can also sign up for "private adventures," which are group free, and a great way to get your own customized experience particularly romantic.
The Hospitality of Central Asia
Go off the beaten path, and get an authentic local experience. Share a hot cup of tea with a man from Tajikistan.
Ora Ora Eco Resort New Zealand
Visit New Zealand's subtropical northern coast and pamper yourself in the Ora Ora Resort Eco Spa. Enjoy rejuvenating spa and massage treatments and stay in luxurious private villas, all in a charming setting surrounded by the Kerikeri Nature Reserve and overlooking a picturesque harbor and New Zealand's oldest buildings -- the Mission House and the Stone Store.
Ora Ora serves up gourmet organic food, from the on-site garden and orchard, as well as local farms. Rainwater is collected and reused, and scraps are composted (there are even two little worm "farms"!). The grounds are cared for according to biodynamic principles.
But there are also rules: recycle your waste and use eco-friendly cleaning products. There's also some kind of "switch-off policy" to save energy. Sounds good to us!
One of the most established names in birding-based ecotourism is Victor Emanuel Nature Tours (VENT). The company visits more than 100 destinations all around the world, and has been advised by such birding heavyweights as Roger Tory Peterson and Peter Matthiessen. VENT is also well known for helping protect forests and partnering with various environmental groups, from the World Wildlife Fund to the National Audubon Society.
Set sail with VENT on Le Ponant, and explore the fabulous Seychelles off the east coast of Africa. Enjoy spectacular coral reefs, idyllic beaches and thriving wildlife (including gentle land tortoises) on the islands sometimes called "the Galapagos of the Indian Ocean." You'll travel with a staff marine biologist and ornithologists, who will point out enormous colonies of frigatebirds, noddies, boobies, tropicbirds and so many more.
Sail with VENT, the Birding Experts
It's true we can't all fit on board the graceful Le Ponant. But we can all try to minimize our environmental impact while at sea. If you are thinking about taking a cruise, consider these five questions.
The Galapagos, Land of Mystery
Darwin's laboratory for the theory of evolution, the Galapagos Islands are among the most unique and storied places on Earth. Home to giant tortoises and iguanas, as well as hundreds of endemic species found nowhere else, even the craggy landscape itself looks like no other place.
Unfortunately, the water-stressed, small ecosystem is also highly threatened, from global warming, invasive species and other human impacts. Even sensitive ecotourism has taken a toll as the islands have gained in popularity, which is why some have called for a lottery to limit the number of visitors. If you do go, be as careful as you can. A number of operators can ease your way, from Lindblad to Adventure Life, Mountain Travel Sobek and others.