So much depends upon a red poison dart frog.
We have been in Panama only a few days, but already we're wise to the promise and peril a little jungle bling can bring. It's no secret that the country longs to tap its abundant natural resources to compete with neighboring Costa Rica on the toucan tour circuit, but Panama's campaign to become the next eco-Eden still feels a little unpolished.
On our first night, my wife, Ruth, and I find true conservation visionaries, like Raúl Arias de Para, the gracious bankerturned bird-watcher, whose radical Canopy Tower guesthouse (see No. 10), which sits above the Canal near Panama City, is a converted U.S. Air Force radar station. And yet a few nights later, at Gamboa Rainforest Resort, a $28 million hotel selling itself as the ultimate luxe bio-reserve, we're issued green wristbands (a tag-and-release program, if you will) that let us indulge in Jungle Burgers ("broiled for the predator") from the 24-hour room-service menu in our air-conditioned suite. While watching HBO. If we want nature, I'm sure the guest-relations manager will have a bellman whisk it to our room.
Related: U.S. + Canada Travel Guide
For several years, I've been researching a book on the world's most inventive earth-friendly getaways, and I keep running into the same sticky mix. One hotel's idea of ecotourism is another's ploy to cash in on conscience. Some eco-sensitive retreats ask guests to reuse towels and insist they've saved the world. Others can't seem to do enough to serve the three-tiered mission of responsible tourism: positive impact on the environment, on the local culture, and on the traveler.
The great joy of treading lightly, even as I shoo scorpions in Belize, clink across glaciers in Canada, and brave puddle jumpers through the Australian outback, comes from eschewing the conveniences we usually take for granted only to discover how rich life can be without them.
Make that rich and eclectic. No two eco-hotels are exactly alike, and of the hundreds around the world, the following 25 stand apart not only because they engage in responsible tourism, but also because they merit distinction in one of four categories. Some are unusually stylish, others pay special respect to the local wildlife, some are pillars of a threatened culture, and a few are remarkable merely for their existence at the far reaches of the world. And they all help solve the Zen-like riddle every conscientious pleasure-seeker must unravel: How can you indulge without being self-indulgent?
Which brings us finally to that intriguing little red frog. It's our last night in the jungle, and Ruth and I are gazing eye-to-beady-eye with the tiny critter. Small as a quarter, it is a curious thing with shiny strawberry-colored skin. Its poison secretions are so rich and novel, a host of biochemists are trying to figure out whether they can be useful as medicine.
And that makes our stay at the nearby ecolodge nothing short of magical. Because not only is Al Natural a glorious place to sleep (see No. 20), but it's also providing jobs to the local Ngobe-Bugle Indians, which in turn benefits the economy, which thereby keeps resort developers at bay (at least for the moment). All of which helps protect the fragile Central American ecosystem for the hoppy red frog. And that's good news for all of us, because this particular amphibian isn't found anywhere else on earth.
Architectural gems so sleek or sophisticated, it's easy to forget that they're good for the environment.
1 Couran Cove Island Resort, Australia
THE LOOK Luxury beach condos with a mind for conservation.
GREEN FACTOR All 351 rooms on the sandy island are wired for conveniences such as refrigerators and Internet access, yet the hotel reaps planetary gains with the latest eco-gadgetry. Mosquitoes are lured away with patented UV traps. The property hired colorists to blend the buildings against the bottle-blue sky and tawny melaleucas. And the TV's let guests monitor their personal usage of water, gas, and electricity and the resulting greenhouse-gas emissions.
South Stradbroke Island, Queensland; 61-7/5597-9000; www.couran.com; doubles from $141, including some meals and activities (three-night minimum).
2 Ecolodge Shimanto, Japan
THE LOOK Ecotourism's answer to the Japanese bullet train.
GREEN FACTOR The lustrous concrete-and-glass walls and cantilevered photovoltaic panels lend an air of industrial chic to this 30-room retreat owned by a rail company. Hundred-year-old shipping barrels are used to collect rainwater, and the nature walkways are paved with old railroad ties. Guests can park their cabooses in one of the outdoor cast-iron hot baths or meditate alongside the aquamarine Shimanto River, one of the purest in Japan.
Shikoku Island, Kochi; 81-8803/31600; doubles from $220, including meals and spa access.
3 El Monte Sagrado Taos, New Mexico
THE LOOK Part desert oasis, part mad scientist's project.
GREEN FACTOR Tom Worrell's textured adobe-style villas are made of Gunnash, the ash from coal mines. Exotic fruits and organic herbs, grown in the hotel's "biolarium," show up (along with yak meat) on the spa menus conceived by Johnny Vinczencz, one of Florida's top young chefs. Although the 38 casitas have satellite TV and overstuffed couches, the (mostly) solar-powered sanctuary hints at the future of sustainable travel. If you're not convinced, consult the in-house psychic.
317 Kit Carson Rd., Taos; 505/758-3502; www.elmontesagrado.com; doubles from $300.
4 Hotelito Desconocido, Mexico
THE LOOK Twenty-nine thatched palafitos on a wildlife estuary between the Sierra Madre and the Pacific.
GREEN FACTOR Fireþies and tiki torches illuminate the paths to candlelit cabanas on stilts over a lagoon. Windmills pump water for spa treatments; organic produce is purified with herbal iodine. There are no phones (or any other electrical devices), but ordering a morning snackis as easy as raising a red flag from inside the room.
Playón de Mismaloya, 60 miles south of Puerto Vallarta; 800/851-1143 or 52-322/222-2526; www.hotelito.com; doubles from $230.
5 Pole Pole, Tanzania
THE LOOK Six bungalows with gauzy drapes and mahogany verandas.
GREEN FACTOR In Swahili, the name means "slowly, slowly," as if anyone needed a reminder of how to swing a hammock in this sumptuous hideaway on the Indian Ocean. Run by a young Italian couple (the bed linens are from Italy, too), the thatched bungalows have floors of tropical afrormosia wood and bathrooms with bidets. Worry not. Wastewater is treated in a phyto-purification system; hotel profits fund local education initiatives; and the resort launched the first recycling program in the 325,000-acre Mafia Island Marine Park, a protected coral reserve. Word is spreading quickly, quickly.
Mafia Island Marine Park; 255-22/260-1530; www.polepole.com; doubles from $320 (plus $20 park entrance fee), including all meals and activities.
6 Scandic Simonkenttä, Finland
THE LOOK A glass-and-steel tower with an emerald heart.
GREEN FACTOR Smack dab in the center of Helsinki, the new-millennium Simonkenttä is a gleaming example of what a big urban hotel can do for the environment. The 360 rooms incorporate earth-friendly materials throughout, from the parquet þoors made of specially cultivated Nordic trees to recycled rubber trash bins to organic bath products.
9 Simonkatu, Helsinki; 358-9/68380; www.scandic-hotels.com; doubles from $135, including breakfast.
7 Shompole, Kenya
THE LOOK A Masai masterpiece: pale thatch, private plunge pools, and fig-wood furnishings.
GREEN FACTOR Shompole seamlessly blends understated luxury and responsibility in its six soaring tent structures with their river-rock walls, in-room springs, and 180-degree big-game views. The natural fuelheated showers and composting toilets are impressive, but the real revolution is Shompole's partnership with the Masai community, which is training more than 40 tribespeople to assume majority ownership within 15 years.
22 miles southwest of Magadi; 254-2/884-135; www.shompole.com; doubles from $660 (plus a conservation fee of $20 a person per night), including all meals and activities.
Places where the primary emphasis is on protecting and conserving the flora and fauna.
8 Birch Pond Lodge, Alaska
THE SETTING Tucked away on 100 acres of paper birch and spruce forests, with views to Mount McKinley.
GREEN FACTOR The new Beaver Lodge was fashioned from trees felled by spruce-bark beetles. Fortunately, the logs are solid enough to keep in the cozy heat and keep out the nosy moose (not to mention the otters, lynx, loons, beavers, bald eagles, and grizzly bears). But the thrills here tend to be human-powered, including hand-cranking fresh ice cream and tapping the birches for the morning syrup.
Willow; 866/495-3820 or 907/495-3000; www.birchpondlodge.com; doubles from $440, including all meals and activities.
9 Bushmans Kloof Wilderness Reserve, South Africa
THE SETTING 18,000 acres in the foothills of the Cedar Mountains.
GREEN FACTOR When Bill McAdam purchased the vast tract of wilderness in 1991, the property was a virtual wasteland of overgrazed veld. Today, the Kloof blooms with 800 tree and plant species, down to rarities like the Clanwilliam cedar. Threatened wildlife has come thundering back, too, including red hartebeests, black wildebeests, bontebok, aardwolves, 150 rare birds, and one of the largest private herds of endangered Cape mountain zebras in the world. More than 130 ancient rock-art sites dating back 10,000 years are also safeguarded in their natural environment. After a day in the wild, it's nice to know that the 16-room Relais & Châteaux lodge has hand-sewn bed linens.
28 miles north of Clanwilliam; 800/735-2478 or 27-21/797-0990; www.bushmanskloof.co.za; doubles from $426, including all meals and activities.
10 Canopy Tower, Panama
THE SETTING Up among the howler monkeys and sloths on a verdant hill 630 feet above the Panama Canal.
GREEN FACTOR The geotangent dome emerges from the jungle canopy like a single-scoop ice cream cone on an endless summer lawn. The view is the cherry on top, as birds of every beak and bill (an astonishing 380 species, more than half of what's found in all of North America) perch in the nearby fig and palm trees. Of the 12 simple rooms down below, the best nest is the Blue Cotinga Suite, with its diaphanous canopy bed, plantation wood furniture, and outdoor veranda swing. Almost makes you forget that the showers are water-saving.
Gamboa, 25 miles north of Panama City; 800/854-2597 or 011-507/264-5720; www.canopytower.com; doubles from $250, including all meals and forest tours.
11 Concordia Eco-Tents, U.S. Virgin Islands
THE SETTING On a cliff above some of the finest snorkeling in the Caribbean.
GREEN FACTOR When Bronx-born engineer Stanley Selengut first welcomed guests to Maho Bay in November 1976, his 14 tents had the sort of canvas-and-cot ambience only a National Guardsman could love. These days, the resort's eco-centric founder, now 74, commandeers a kingdom of 125 space-age structures that epitomize off-the-grid R&R. Concordia, gently tucked into a hillside of palms that fronts the beach, has solar showers, translucent walls, heat-repelling roofs, futon beds, refrigerators, and an owner with enough Bronx moxie to power a small island nation.
2027 Estate Concordia, St. John; 800/392-9004; www.mahobay.com; doubles from $85.
12 Luna Lodge, Costa Rica
THE SETTING Teetering over the virgin Osa Peninsula rain forest.
GREEN FACTOR Owned by American expatriate Lana Wedmore, Luna has all the emerald-legged, furry-tailed, rufþe-feathered wildlife thrills—without the mania of toucan cams and laser lizard-finders. Prepare to share a trail with sloths, tapirs, kinkajous, anteaters, spider monkeys, and the occasional jaguar. Not natural enough?The eight stylish bungalows all have private tropical gardens.
Carate, Osa Peninsula; 888/409-8448 or 011-506/380-5036; www.lunalodge.com; doubles from $250, including all meals.
13 Valemount Lodge, British Columbia
THE SETTING The heart of wildflower country in the Columbia Mountains.
GREEN FACTOR Canadian Mountain Holidays, an early pioneer of helicopter skiing, has easy access to more than 2,000 square miles of salmon-hopping, goat-bleating wilderness; come summer, the company's high-flying taxi service lets heli-hikers discover vast tracts of off-piste alpine terrain. Biologist-led hikes follow rocky ridges and ancient herd paths rather than more fragile routes. Rest assured, treks end at the rustic-chic 10-room timber lodge, where plenty of biodegradable bathroom potions are on hand to soothe those weary soles.
Valemount; 800/661-0252 or 403/762-7100; www.cmhhike.com; two-night trips from $854 per person, including all meals, gear, and helicopter ride.
Where the guiding principle is to help an indigenous culture or a threatened economy preserve itself.
14 Abbey of San Pietro, Italy
THE SETTING The town of Ferentillo, in the forgotten medieval hill country of Umbria.
THE PAYBACK These days, the isolated 16-room, 10th-century stone cloister is one stop on an eco-pilgrimage that supports the region's rarely visited agrarian populations. ATG Oxford, a British tour company dedicated to conservation and sustainable tourism, oversees an eight-day "Unknown Umbria & Spoleto" walk that follows lesser-known routes through unspoiled countryside to remote mountain villages like Gavelli (population: 14). ATG income from the venture has restored centuries-old artidkgrey and environments, including a pre-fifth-century footpath and Renaissancefrescoes, while also keeping traditional village businesses going, even in a recession.
44-1865/315-678; www.atg-oxford.co.uk; eight-day trip from $735 per person, including some meals.
15 Green Hotel, India
THE SETTING The temperate southern Indian town of Mysore.
THE PAYBACK From the vantage point of the lavish gardens or the velvet croquet lawn, the restored Chittaranjan Palace, built a century ago for the local princesses, has a certain aristocratic allure. But in fact, the mission of the 29-room hotel is quite humble, stained glass and elegant colonial-style rooms notwithstanding. The place operates partly on solar power, and all profits are distributed to environmental projects and health clinics in the area. The lodge employs widows and those from lower castes, ensuring that they earn more than they would from other local employers.
Chittaranjan Palace, Mysore; 91-821/512-536; www.greenhotelindia.com; doubles from $27.
16 Kapawi Ecolodge, Ecuador
THE SETTING On the edge of the Amazon, accessible only by plane; the closest town is a 10-day trek through dense jungle.
THE PAYBACK Ecuador's Achuar people, unknown outside the Amazon until the early seventies, are learning hotel management skills at the isolated outpost as a means of maintaining age-old rain-forest traditions, albeit with modern updates: the famous chicha brew, for example, is now made in a blender instead of masticated by tribal elders. Still, the 15 lagoon-front cabañas were built without a single metal nail. When ownership of the lodge returns to the Achuar in 2011, one of tourism's boldest recycling projects will have come full circle. Pastaza Province; 888/368-9929 or 593-4/228-5711; www.canodros.com; doubles from $1,616 for three nights, including all meals and activities and airfare from Quito.
17 Lisu Lodge, Thailand
THE SETTING Thirty miles north of Chiang Mai, in the so-called Golden Triangle.
THE PAYBACK Guests are extensively briefed on etiquette (never touch the carvings on the gates to an Akha village) and tribal customs before they venture into the extravagantly remote communities for a chat and a purchase. Modeled after a Thai mountain village but with Western conveniences like private bathrooms and comfortable beds, the rural lodge, which has carefully limited its capacity to 48 guests, puts a new spin on grassroots diplomacy.
Dton Loong;66-53/281-789; www.lisulodge.com; one-night stay with tour $120 per person, including all meals and activities.
18 Paperbark Camp, Australia
THE SETTING Along a sun-splashed creek in a grove of peeling eucalyptus.
THE PAYBACK The Aboriginal community of Wreck Bay is usually off-limits to outsiders, but guests at Paperbark Camp can hire an indigenous guide to take them on a traditional search for pipi, the local mussels, which tend to be found on pristine stretches of snow-white beachfront. Back at camp, 10 solar-powered safari tents, imported from Africa and retrofitted with open-air showers and handcrafted bush furniture, allow for romantic nights illuminated by solar lights.
Huskisson, three hours south of Sydney; 800/227-9246 or 61-2/4441-6066; www.paperbarkcamp.com.au; doubles from $220, including breakfast and dinner (two-night minimum); closed July and August.
Places so remote, they must reuse and recycle everything in order to survive—and they do it with style.
19 Adrere Amellal Oasis, Egypt
THE SETTING Near the famous Saharan oasis at Siwa, eight dusty hours from Cairo.
GREEN FACTOR Sand and stone, fire and sky, wind and water. Minimalism makes the maximum impact at this spectacular desert outpost. Inspired by the Berbers of yore, the 34 Casbah-style rooms are ingeniously fashioned from salt rock and clay, with stylish palm roofs shading guests from the blazing sun. Sans electricity, nights sparkle with candles and constellations. The flat-edged pool's water bubbles up from Roman springs. And with endless views of the dunes, visitors will want to stay a thousand and one nights.
10 miles north of Siwa; 20-2/738-1327; doubles from $400, including all meals and activities.
20 Al Natural Resort, Panama
THE SETTING An area of Bocas del Toro that hasn't changed much since Columbus sailed these waters 500 years ago.
GREEN FACTOR The simple pleasures at Al Natural act as an antidote to the distant, digitized world. Inspired by the ancient craftsmanship of the nearby Ngobe-Bugle Indian village, the five spare wood-and-thatch bungalows are open to the seas yet private enough even for jungle greenhorns. Showers come from vats of collected rainwater, and a 12-volt solar energy system powers the ceiling fans and mood lighting. The calypso-loving Belgian owners-managers are Panama's hippest castaways. Old Point, Isla Bastimentos, Bocas del Toro; 888/995-0909 or 011-507/757-9004; doubles from $170, including all meals and activities.
21 Bathurst Inlet Lodge, Canada
THE SETTING On top of the world, almost literally, 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle.
GREEN FACTOR Since 1969, retired Mountie Glenn Warner and his wife, Trish, have co-owned the converted trading post and oblate mission with members of the local Kingaunmiot Inuit community, and together they guide 20 guests at a time across the rocky skeleton of the land. One day, it's a kayak ride along boreal forest rivers; the next, a quiet stroll among the caribou. The rooms, although utilitarian, with wood paneling and warm blankets, are the hotel equivalent of diner comfort food at the end of a long drive.
Bathurst Inlet, Nunavut; 867/873-2595; www.bathurstarctic.com; seven-day trip for two $5,580, including all meals and activities; open June 27August 1.
22 Bay of Fires Lodge, Australia
THE SETTING At the edge of Mount William National Park on Tasmania's rarely visited northwest shore.
GREEN FACTOR The only way in is to walk—12 miles for two days along squeaky white sand. Good thing the rare Forrester kangaroos know the way. Architect Ken Latona's spare shedlike design, complete with roof-water collection, gray-water treatment systems, composting toilets, and 100 percent solar power, has won every award in the book. Still, the greatest prize is spending an evening by the glow of the outdoor fire pits, waiting for those Tasmanian devils to whirl into view.
Mount William National Park; 61-3/6331-2006; www.bayoffires.com.au; $918 per person for three-night trip (with two nights at lodge), including all meals; open OctoberMay.
23 Blancaneaux Lodge, Belize
THE SETTING Part of the Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, a 300-square-mile national wildlife park in the Maya Mountains.
GREEN FACTOR Up in the pine-scented highlands of Belize, owner Francis Ford Coppola found that it made more sense to harvest hydropower than to run wires through the jungle (the director had already done that for one movie). Equally convenient was having an organic garden full of tropical fruits and Italian culinary staples like eggplant, basil, and tomatoes. Leave it to Coppola to add some drama to recycling, too. Around the seven thatched-roof cabanas, five palatial villas, and public areas are old family photographs and movie set relics—the whirling fan over the bar was pilfered from Apocalypse Now.
Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, Cayo District; 800/746-3743 or 011-501/824-3878; www.blancaneaux.com; doubles from $150, including breakfast.
24 Kaya Mawa, Malawi
THE SETTING On a lake in the most isolated corner of the most isolated country in Africa.
GREEN FACTOR No matter how you slice it, getting to Kaya Mawa is a serious commitment involving white-knuckle þights or an old-fashioned ferry crossing. That's why British eco-mavericks Andrew Came and William Sutton made their enchanted lakeside lodge entirely self-sustainable, with water-pumping windmills and solar panels that juice the computer, refrigerator, and satellite phone. Divers in Lake Malawi encounter more freshwater fish species than are found in Europe and North America combined. The artisan-built stone honeymoon cottage—with a seven-by-eight-foot four-poster bed—sits on its own weensy island.
Likoma Island; 871-761/684-670; www.kayamawa.com; doubles from $320, including all meals and activities.
25 Tiamo Resort, Bahamas
THE SETTING Sixty breezy miles off the coast of Cuba.
GREEN FACTOR Totally powered by the sun, Tiamo has the largest solar facility of any private hotel in the West Indies or Latin America. Employees vow not to serve overfished conch and lobster. Waste is converted to fertilizer; glass bottles are ground into cement. To save paper, Tiamo nixes brochures. And when guests leave the eight very private bungalows, they pack out their own plastic.
South Andros; 800/504-1794 or 242/357-2489; www.tiamoresorts.com; $245 a person per night, including all meals and activities.
DAVID HOCHMAN, a frequent contributor to Esquire and the New York Times, is writing a book on eco-hotels around the world.