Stressed about work, the kids or the bad economy? You need a vacation! But you're not like everyone else, so why not consider a great trip that takes care not to spoil the magical spots for everyone else, including wildlife?
Yes, "staycations" are cheap and inherently green (since we don't burn fuel and we don't normally consume much when we stick around our neighborhoods). But there's also a tremendous amount to gain from experiencing different ecosystems and cultures. Plus, we certainly enjoy daydreaming about fantasy adventures! If you are still flush, wow your loved one with the romantic experience of a lifetime. Or if you're like many of us, at least you can dream, and maybe plan, together.
Take advantage of the growing area called ecotourism, which is about 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.
But beware: it's also true that 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 try and fight greenwashing 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).
Here's some ideas for the fab eco-trip of a lifetime, offering fantastic experiences with real green credentials. Where do you want to go?
Few places seem as exotic 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.
Natural 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!Related Links:
10 Romantic Eco-Adventure Trips
10 Spectactular Places to See Before They Disappear
11 Fun and Rewarding Volunteer Vacations
10 Surprising Uses for Vodka
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Reprinted with permission of Hearst Communications, Inc.
Photos: Courtesy Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort; Courtesy Jean-Michel Cousteau Fiji Islands Resort; Stephanie Schrauth/Adventure Life; Courtesy of Country Walkers; Stewart Cohen/Lindblad Expeditions; Courtesy of Ora Ora Resort