Great Ways to Build Eco Awareness into Your Vacation
Last summer, a group of Dartmouth College
students took off across the country and back, in a bus whose diesel engine runs on waste vegetable oil. Their “Big Green Bus” tour was more than a summer-vacation lark: their goal was to provide an example of, and education about, sustainable technologies. For those past college age, the close quarters, camp-out accommodations, and frequent mechanical breakdowns the group endured may not add up to a dream holiday. But fast-growing concern about how what we do affects the environment is creating many green travel opportunities where comfort is still abundant. Here are some of the best ideas for greening your group trip. Down on the Farm
“Agritourism,” a travel concept that originated in Italy, is spreading fast across the rural U.S. It includes everything from visits to farmers markets, wineries and agricultural fairs, to lodgings on working family farms and ranches where you can help with the chores. The green benefits? Visitors learn about farming practices and traditions, sample local agricultural products, and get in touch with where food really comes from. Meanwhile farmers get an important new source of revenue and support.
Many state tourism and agriculture departments have web sites promoting agritourism. Colorado’s
, for example, will lead you to farms like Miller Farms, in Platteville, where your group could arrange for an educational tour or hayride, help harvest vegetables, and stock up at the farm stand on local jams and salsas. The state Web site will also point you to working ranches like 103,000-acre Zapata Ranch, owned by the Nature Conservancy, where daily activities center on working with cattle and bison – typically, from horseback – and where the mountain-ringed landscape is spectacular. Tennessee, Oklahoma, Kentucky and New Jersey are among the other states with official Web sites listing agritourism options.
Another way to make agriculture the theme of your trip is to visit the The Silos & Smokestacks National Heritage Area. Encompassing the northeast quarter of Iowa, this is a consortium of attractions that together tell the story of American farming and its global significance. The area is rich in local museums – such as the Froelich General Store and Tractor Museum, the Hardin County Farm Museum (which depicts a family farm dating from the 1880’s, when this region was settled) and the National Farm Toy Museum. There are wineries, a working blacksmith’s forge and nature preserves to visit, scenic drives to take, and of course working farms. A variety of group tour itineraries is offered, and the organization can customize those. 319-234-4567; silosandsmokestacks.org
. Guided Tours of the Great Outdoors
Guided boat and bus tours are no longer just for watching pretty scenery go by. These days, many incorporate educational and interactive programs that help visitors understand and feel connected to nature.
Hines Tours’ bus trips explore natural areas in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountain regions of New York. One itinerary, for example, stops at a historic zinc mine in New Jersey, where a remarkable 340 different minerals have been found and there is a museum of fluorescent minerals. Then the day trip continues to Bushkill Falls, “the Niagara of Pennsylvania,” where a nature guide leads a two-mile hike. For planning custom trips, Hines’ Web site features an interactive map locating and describing the places where they can take you. 646-403-5653; hinestours.com
Sailing from Calabash, North Carolina (just north of Myrtle Beach) the Hurricane Fleet offers a dolphin tour by boat through coastal Carolina inlets and bays where wildlife abounds, narrated by a marine biologist. Besides dolphins, you might also see herons, bald eagles, gopher tortoises and alligators. Using traps and nets, you’ll bring up harder-to-view sea life including crabs, sea urchins, whelks, sponges and sand dollars. There’s time for fishing, too. 800-373-2004; hurricanefleet.com/ecotours.html
Many other ecotours explore watery regions of the South such as Louisiana’s bayous, Florida’s Everglades, and the marsh-and-barrier-island landscapes along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts. Some go by tour boat, but if your group wants to invest a little muscle, these places can also be toured by kayak. Similarly physical are Woods and Water Ecotours’ trips by kayak, bike, foot, snowshoe or ski in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, a place where minimal development has left much pristine habitat. You might visit fossil-studded shoreline limestone ledges; boreal forest and fen environments; or a naturally stunted aspen forest frequented by bears, wolves and loons – all in the company of well-informed guides. 906-484-4157; woodswaterecotours.com
. Resorts with Soft Footprints
The term ecoresort can suggest thatched huts, rope hammocks and cold water showers, deep in some tropical jungle. But a new kind of destination resort, where virtually everything is planned with the environment and sustainability in mind, is emerging in the U.S. You might not find a golf course, for instance, if the quantities of fertilizer and water required to maintain its turf are deemed inappropriate, but there will always be plenty of nature-oriented activities to keep everybody happy.
Near Austin, Texas, at Canyon of the Eagles Lodge and Nature Park, the diversions include river trips, hiking, fishing, swimming, birding, stargazing – and entertainment by cowboy poets and local musicians. Guest rooms are in rustic modern buildings patterned after traditional Hill Country cottages, built of native stone and board-and-batten siding with corrugated metal roofs, while the glass-walled dining room has a view over a lake. 800-977-0081; canyonoftheeagles.com
Far more luxurious is Bardessono, a new 62-room hotel in California’s agricultural Napa Valley that is winning awards for its sustainable design. Walls in the contemporary structure are of rammed earth, while the doors, desks, floors and ceilings were made of recycled cypress. An underground geothermal system provides heat for the spa, and many other forward-looking technologies were incorporated. The restaurant relies on local produce, guests get complementary and emission-free bikes to use during their stays, and the hotel can design custom nature explorations in the surrounding area. 707-204-6000; bardessono.com
Gardens of Education, if Not Quite of Eden
Visiting a nature center, park or botanical garden is another way to get your family in touch with the environment. Such facilities increasingly offer interpretive tours and other educational programs. For example:
• Named after an important early-20th-century conservation writer, the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, Wisconsin, offers group visit options including land-restoration work projects, and a “Learn Like Leopold” guided tour.
• South of Atlanta, and most famous for its glorious springtime azaleas, Callaway Gardens also has a daily live raptor show, a conservatory where 1,000 tropical butterflies, representing more than 50 different species, flutter freely, horticulture exhibits and easy interpretive walking trails.
• Near Phoenix, the Boyce Thompson Arboretum encompasses a segment of the uplands Sonoran desert. Along its trails are thousands of water-efficient plants not just native to Arizona but also representing arid and semi-arid parts of the Americas, the Near East, Africa, Central Asia and Australia.
• The Huntsville Botanical Garden, in Alabama, has woodland trails, a children’s garden, and herb and vegetable demonstration gardens. As at many other botanical gardens, special guided tours can be arranged for your family.