The word ecotourism has been bandied about in a variety of ways, with many hotels, properties, and packages green-washing themselves in an attempt to come across as ecologically friendly. But what exactly is an eco-vacation? The shades of green vary, but generally anything that pays homage to nature falls under the eco umbrella, though hard-core environmentalists might argue that a genuine green vacation involves sustainable and responsible tourism (that is, staying at resorts that don’t exploit local cultures or resources) and conservation-minded practices. Renting a hybrid car and reusing your towel by hanging it on the rack, for instance, are nice eco-gestures but low in eco-merit, as opposed to lowering your carbon footprint by going car-free and staying in a hotel that uses solar power. That being said, you don’t need to live a carbon-neutral existence with howler monkeys in the Costa Rican canopy in order to have a bona fide eco-holiday. This is your vacation, after all. The first rule of eco-travel is figuring out just how green you want your trip to be.
My first eco-trip was a magazine assignment to the mecca of all green destinations -- the Galapagos -- on a boutique gay cruise. The small, 100-passenger ship wasn’t your typical party boat. The photographer and I, both in our early 30s at the time, were the youngest two lads on deck, which often made us feel like another exotic species on display as we dove among penguins and sea lions with our elders, who could more easily afford the pricey vacation. Still, we made lifelong friends during the cruise’s multiple excursions. And nobody has truly lived who hasn’t sat through a slide show presentation on reproductive evolution with 100 tipsy gay men. Surreal.
At the other extreme of eco was a kayaking and camping trip to Alaska that I booked through the Out in Alaska website (OutInAlaska.com). The excursion took me and two other gay (and very patient) campers deep into the Kenai Fjord Peninsula’s subarctic elements to observe killer whales, grizzly bears, and puffins amid calving icebergs. I thought of it as Outward Bound for grown gay men. And although the gentle and lovely tour organizer fluffed my pillow, hauled my kayak when we went aground near a whirling eddy, and prepared fantastic meals (blueberry pancakes with maple syrup, curried veggies, and roast salmon), the trip was a tad out of my comfort zone and was perhaps a bit too “eco” for me. Here I discovered rule number 2 of eco-travel: Know your comfort level. There’s nothing worse than realizing on day 1 of a two-week sojourn that maybe you do need iPhone access and hot water.
These two trips were at opposite ends of the eco-spectrum, and I needed something in between. In order to hit the bull’s-eye, I ditched the gay element. Staying at the Inkaterra eco-resort in Peru (Inkaterra.com) was just right: super comfy tree house–style accommodations in the cloud forest of Aguas Calientes near Machu Picchu, Wi-Fi access, a stocked fireplace, and Pisco sours everywhere I looked. It may sound more vacation than eco, but the property is entirely carbon-neutral and Peruvian-owned, and it supports many forward-thinking sustainability programs, such as the Andean Spectacled Bear Rescue Project. Ditto for And Beyond Africa’s newest properties, Xudum and Xaranna (AndBeyondAfrica.com), in Botswana’s Okavango Delta. The company (formerly CC Africa) gets an A-plus for its socially and ecologically progressive plans like spearheading HIV/AIDS initiatives and opening a skills and health center near its Phinda Private Game Reserve in South Africa, but vacationing at one of its resorts will cost you from several hundred dollars to $1,375 (fully inclusive) a night. Still, the luxury and intimate interaction I got with elephants, lions, giraffes, and crocs was priceless. I also convinced my eco-ranger Mompati to bring me across the border to Zambia, which was slightly illegal but a great way to get a glimpse of the real world (I witnessed a wine-smuggling operation on the Zambezi River) outside the luxury property’s eco-plushness. After all, the world outside a resort is the path to understanding the eco-sociological aspects of any given area, and a true eco-resort shouldn’t protect or separate you from it entirely.
Top Green Getaways
“Ecotravel” can mean many things to people, but we’ve defined our top ten eco-tourism in terms of immersing oneself in overwhelming environmental beauty, be it trekking through a towering rainforest or listening to crickets chirp atop a windswept mountain. And of course, when traveling, we like to keep the lavender mixed with the green.
1. The Cloud Forests of Costa Rica
The Eco-Adventure: The Monteverde Biological Cloud Forest Reserve is perhaps the most famous wilderness spot in Costa Rica—a country that is at the forefront of protecting its more than 10,000 identified species of plants, 850 species of birds, and 800 species of butterflies, among others. This reserve in the north-central part of the country is made up of about 26,000 steep, cool, misty acres that harbor jaguars, pumas, monkeys, the legendary quetzal bird, and the golden toad, a species only known to exist in the Monteverde reserve.
Do It Gaily: Gay operator Hermes Tours (HermesTours.com; 877-486-4335) teams up with Global Volunteers in offering a weeklong volunteer vacation in Monteverde, where travelers help to build various community projects like health care centers and additions to schools. There’s also plenty of free time to explore local butterfly gardens, orchid nurseries, horseback trails, and coffee cooperatives. The trip is even tax deductible. Add on a side trip to the gay-popular Manuel Antonio and Quepos region on the Pacific Coast for some R&R at a mellow gay beachside B&B like La Posada Casa & Bungalows (LaposadaJungle.com; +506-2777-1446) or Hotel del Mar (GoHotelDelMar.com; +506-2777-0543).
2. Gorilla Tracking in Rwanda
The Eco-Adventure: Original eco-activist Dian Fossey first introduced the magnificent silverback gorillas that inhabit the bamboo-covered slopes of Rwanda’s Virunga Volcanoes, later chronicled in Gorillas in the Mist. Some of their closest genetic relatives, the chimpanzees (also our closest relatives in the animal kingdom), make their home in the 247,000-acre Nyungwe Forest, which dates further back than the last Ice Age and also supports 100 different species of orchids, close to 300 bird species, and 12 other species of primates. Herds of elephants, giraffes, and other big game animals wander the savannah of Akagera National Park.
Do It Gaily: This 14-day safari through Rwanda organized by Coda Tours (Coda-Tours.com; 888-677-2632) includes visits with the magical gorillas, both chimpanzee and colubus-monkey tracking, two nights at a game lodge, and a final flourish on the sandy shores of Lake Kivu. You can also milk a cow, make your own ghee, visit a coffee plantation, and share a traditional meal in the reconciliation village, where perpetrators and survivors of the Rwandan troubles live together in a unique way.
3. The Daintree Rainforest of Queensland
The Eco-Adventure: Most tourists head to the Cairns area of Queensland, Australia, solely for the Great Barrier Reef offshore, but another World Heritage site beckons inland: The dense, 110-million-year-old Daintree Rainforest made up of mangroves, eucalyptus woodlands, and tropical rainforest that have remained unaffected by ice ages. It’s home to many primitive species of plants and animals—including 20% of Australia’s bird species and 65% of its butterfly and bat species.
Do It Gaily: Gay Australia specialists Above and Beyond Tours (AboveBeyondTours.com; 800-397-2681) can customize a trip to Cairns and the Daintree that includes rafting, bungee jumping, and aerial tours of the rainforest. The region is also full of gay resorts like the beachside clothing-optional Turtle Cove Resort and Spa (TurtleCove.com; +61-7-4059-1969), and the Balinese-style mountain retreat Mai Tai Resort (MaiTai-Resort.com.au; +61-7-4098-4956).
4. The Okavango Delta of Botswana
The Eco-Adventure: This 9,000 square-mile inland river delta (the world’s largest) is where the Okavango River seeps into the Kalahari’s roasting sands. More than 250 bird species teem in the delta’s massive maze of inlets and islands, not to mention unwieldy hippos, furtive crocodiles, trumpeting elephants, and lily pads that appear to stretch on forever. The traditional safari through this sunny, aquatic paradise is taken via a mokoro or dugout canoe with a local guide.
Do It Gaily: Gay2Afrika (Gay2Afrika.com; 866-462-2374) is the only LGBT tour operator who can get you on a specialized weeklong safari of the region that includes gay-friendly guides, three nights in an upscale tented camp in the Okavango, three nights at the equally impressive Chobe National Park (known for its elephant herds), plus a tour of the majestic, 300-plus-foot Victoria Falls.
5. The Interior of Bali
The Eco-Adventure: Apart from the party-hearty beach scene of Kuta, Hindu-flavored Bali is an amazingly serene isle, rich in dense rainforest, active volcanoes, deep river gorges, arts and crafts villages, and ancient temples waiting to be explored. The mountainous far west of this approximately 2,000-square-mile island is little developed and mostly given over to national park land.
Do It Gaily: The tour company Spirit Journeys (SpiritJourneys.com; 800-754-1875) offers a two-week all-LGBT yoga retreat tour of Bali, which includes activities like whitewater rafting, elephant riding, and trekking in the rainforest to complement communing with the overwhelming tranquility of the isle through daily yoga and mediation sessions and visits to scared temples. You can also go au natural at two tasteful all-gay clothing-optional Balinese-style resorts on the island, Laki Uma Villa (UnseenBali.org; +62-361-736 568) and Umah Watu Villas (UmahWatu.com; + 62-361-731-006).
6. The Canadian Rockies of Alberta
The Eco-Adventure: With more than 700 peaks topping 6,000 feet, the Canadian Rockies make other ranges look like molehills. Four interconnected national parks—Banff, Kootenay, Yoho, and Jasper—cover more than 7,800 heavenly square miles that are one-stop shopping for mountain bikers, rock climbers, skiers, paragliders, and those who want to breathe in some of the purest air on earth. But the crown jewel of Canadian winter sports is heli-skiing, which was pioneered here in the 1960s.
Do It Gaily: With gay-friendly and gay-marketed Canadian Mountain Holidays (403-762-7100; CanadianMountainHolidays.com), you can heli-ski in winter or heli-hike in summer across more than 15,000 square miles of private wilderness—including glaciers covered in virgin powder in the spectacular Columbia Valley—with all meals and upscale lodging included. The oil boom city of Calgary is at the foothills of the Rockies, and is home to two gay-owned lodgings: Westways B&B (Westways.ab.ca; 403-229-1758), a 1912 Victorian home run by a friendly British gent; and the lesbian-owned Home Plate Comforts B&B (HomePlateComforts.ca; 403-263-2442), where women travelers are served gourmet meals in a cozy, upscale environment.
7. The Golden Triangle of Thailand
The Eco-Adventure: The Golden Triangle of northern Thailand is a lush teak-tree region where the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos converge. Travelers here visit lavishly dressed hill tribes with their distinct elongated neck pieces, see ornate shrines to Buddha, cruise the rivers in long boats, bask in hot springs, and soak up the natural southeast Asian environment far away from the metropolitan rush of Bangkok.
Do It Gaily: Gay tour operator Zoom Vacations (ZoomVacations.com; 866-966-6822) not only delves deeply into the cultures and ecological wonders of the Golden Triangle, they also take you to see Burmese temples across the border in Myanmar, and the friendly, earthy villages across the border in Laos. If you fall in love with the area and want to linger longer, check into PJ’s Place (PJs-Place.com; +66-5340-4894) a gay-owned luxury property near Chiang Mai.
8. The Black Hills of South Dakota
The Eco-Adventure: The Black Hills of South Dakota are much more than the home of the impressive profiles of Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt chiseled into Mount Rushmore. The area includes rock spires jutting out of thickly forested mountains, and the hills are also home to Wind Cave National Park, Jewel Cave National Monument, and Custer State Park. The latter is 73,000 acres and home to one of the largest bison herds in the world (1,500), not to mention pronghorn antelope, mountain goats, bighorn sheep, deer, elk, wild turkeys, and a band of friendly burros that often come right up to your car. A must for outdoor types is a hike up to the 7,242-foot Harney Peak, a sacred mountain for the Sioux, with incredible 360-degree views of the Black Hills from a stone watchtower on its summit.
Do It Gaily: There isn’t much gay in this part of the world except a couple of down-home queer bars in nearby Rapid City, but you can check into the lesbian-owned Rustlin Pines B&B (RustlinPines.com; 605-255-4681), a log cabin at the base of the Black Hills with a hot tub, fireplace, and king-sized log bed.
9. The Loire Valley of France
The Eco-Adventure: The winding Loire Valley cuts through France’s heart in a deep green swath, sprinkled liberally with castles and vineyards. Some of Europe’s most opulent châteaux are tucked within the natural beauty of the region, which overflows with rolling hills and medieval, Renaissance, and Gothic architecture. There’s even Chateau d’Usse, the castle that inspired the book Sleeping Beauty.
Do It Gaily: The best way to get up close and personal to the lush region is via a bike tour. Alyson Adventures (AlysonAdventures.com; 800-825-9766) runs a five-day all-LGBT trip that includes peddling along pastoral roads to tiny hamlets where townsfolk live in hobbit-style caves, enormous chateaux with meticulous gardens, and little-known historical outpost villages. If you want to soak in the region longer, check into the gay-owned La Grande Maison D’Arthenay (LaGrandeMaison.net; +33-2-4140-3506) surrounded by vineyards, or the lesbian-owned Le Chateau des Ormeaux (ChateauDesOrmeaux.fr, +33-2-4723-2651), a virtual castle unto itself.
10. The Napa Valley of Northern California
The Eco-Adventure: Hundreds of wineries are nestled in the sunbaked, oak-filled, golden Napa Valley (a couple hours’ drive north of San Francisco), a region that includes bubbling mud hot spring spas and forested state parks. Gay life is centered on the nearby redwood-shaded village of Guerneville, in a resort area better known as the Russian River.
Do It Gaily: Gay Napa Getaways (GayNapaGetaways.com; 707-927-5115) is a local tour and concierge service that helps you live out your wine region fantasies with creative and exclusive excursions like lunch on a 300-acre horse ranch, an elegant dinner in a wine cave, and special tours of winery owners’ private estates. Added bonus: They can coordinate legal same-sex marriages in gorgeous outdoor settings. You can also check into gay-owned Napa lodges like the Chateau de Vie (CDVNapaValley.com; 877-558-2513) on two acres of vineyards with a 40-foot heated lap pool and hot tub, or the Meadowlark Country House (MeadowLarkInn.com; 800-942-5651), on 20 gently sloping acres with a mineral pool, covered bridge, red barn, and grassy fields for picnics.
Bonus trip (but hurry it's happening spring 2009)South African Bush Tracking
The Eco-Adventure: African lions are all about pride. The most social members of the biological cat family (which also includes the house kitty), they travel in prides—or tribes—of up to thirty lions, and usually hunt at night. They share Kruger National Park with 517 species of birds and more species of mammals (147) than any other African Game Reserve. The hot, dryness of the bush is a perfect complement for Victoria Falls; at nearly a mile wide, it’s the largest curtain of water in the world, plummeting more than 350 splendid feet into the Zambezi Gorge.
Do It Gaily: There are no set trails through Kruger, so you’ll definitely appreciate the guidance of Hermes Tours (HermesTours.com; 877-486-4335) in tracking—on foot—a pride of lions returning from their night hunt in the bush. You’ll also thrill to afternoon game drives, a full day of tasting among the 106 Stellenbosch region wineries, and a tour of the Cape Peninsula and Robben Island. Luxurious accommodations are four- and five-star, and your trip could culminate in the gay hub of Cape Town, but you wouldn’t want to miss the optional extension to Victoria Falls.
Tips to green up your trip
Both travelers and tour operators tend to get confused on what exactly is meant by “ecotourism,” so here are some questions to ask to find out how green your trip actually is.