The school year is ending, and many families will soon begin their summer vacation plans (if they haven’t already!). Travel is a therapeutic and educational experience, and I’m a firm believer that the more you get away from what’s familiar, the more well-rounded a person you’ll be.
Here’s the catch: long-distance travel isn’t cheap and usually comes with a hefty carbon footprint. We like to “go all out” when on vacation, which usually means taking the consumption up a notch. Our daily green habits, like recycling, conserving energy and buying local go out the window when, well, we’re not local.
Vacation doesn’t have to be a consumption-fest. In fact, there are plenty of destinations that offer relatively low-impact yet high quality experiences. You can still enjoy all the pleasure of “toes in the sand” without tossing all your eco-friendly principles out the window.
If you’re still trying to decide where to head this summer, here (in no particular order) are a few earth-friendly destinations to get you started.
1. Yucatan, Mexico
Want to enjoy Mexico without all the drunk college students and souvenir-hungry cruise ship tourists? Head to Yucatan. The region is steeped in cultural history and Mayan archaeology. The Riviera Maya offers miles of virgin, white sand Caribbean beaches where you can catch some rays, and the region is home to several eco-friendly resorts where you can lay your head in good conscience.
Who says summer vacations must occur at the beach? Summer is the perfect time to visit America’s northernmost state, which is actually quite temperate during the warmer months. If you’re interested in seeing some of the last truly wild places on earth, a wide variety of ecotours are available throughout Alaska. See glaciers, amazing wildlife, explore Denali National Park or Kenai Fjords National Park, or try your hand at sea kayaking, and fishing.
3. Costa Rica
Costa Rica is en route to becoming the first carbon neutral country by 2021. Choosing this beautiful island nation as your vacation destination will give you a chance to see what that means up close and personal. Over 20 percent of Costa Rica’s national territory is protected land, so you’ll notice the incredible diversity of flora and fauna as soon as you arrive. Stay at the family-owned La Leona Eco Lodge, and get involved in the conservation, recycling and the preservation of Costa Rica’s natural resources.
4. Nova Scotia
Perhaps instead of sparkling white beaches or jagged mountain peaks, you dream of rolling green hills and melodic bagpipes. If so, Nova Scotia might be the destination to consider. The region offers a unique look at whales as they make their migratory swim along the shores of the Atlantic Ocean. For accommodations, consider the Trout Point Lodge, which was awarded a 5 Green Key rating by Canada’s ECOmmodation program. The Lodge does everything from on-site vegetable, fruit and cheese production to on-site waste treatment.
5. Big Sur, California
If you love food, breathtaking sunsets, and the most dramatic coastline in the continental United States, look no further than Big Sur. Home to some of the nicest weather and best earth-friendly restaurants in the world, your days here will be remembered long after you return home. Consider staying at the Post Ranch Inn, named one of “Top Ten ‘Greenest’ Accommodations in the World” by TripAdvisor in 2007 and 2008. Among other green practices, the Inn uses solar energy and hosts the first commercial gray water system approved in Monterey County.
If you’ve always wanted to experience the muggy heat and wild sounds that exist only in the rainforest, Ecuador is your eco-friendly destination. Besides being a way to experience an extreme variety of plants and wildlife, eco-tourism is also a way to help native Ecuadorian tribes protect their ancestral lands from oil extraction. Many of the eco-friendly hotels and lodges, like Kapawi Eco-lodge, provide jobs for tribes-people that have limited resources to provide for their families and fight encroachment on their land.
7. South Africa
Who says vacations are only about sleeping late and working on your tan? Time off can also be put to use doing important work. If you’re ready for an exotic challenge, consider the Siyafunda Bush Experience trip in South Africa. Run by Enkosini Eco Experience, attendees learn survival skills, such as animal tracking and plant identification, and get the opportunity to help researchers gather data on the amazing animals that live only in Africa.
Call me biased, but I think Colorado is one of the most beautiful places in the entire country. We’ve got bigger sky and mountains than just about anyone else, and it doesn’t hurt that our state is seriously committed to renewable energy and offers plenty of locally grown goodness. If you want to camp among some of the most spectacular scenery in the world, think about Rocky Mountain National Park which offers the chance to get personal with elk, big horn sheep, mule deer and moose. They also offer special activities for children. You can also visit the natural Red Rocks Ampitheater, Denver Botanical Gardens, or on the eastern side of the state, the amazing Great Sand Dunes National Park and Preserve.
9. Santa Cruz Island, California
At over 96 square miles in size, Santa Cruz is on of the Channel Islands — eight small islands often referred to as America’s own Galapagos. Santa Cruz is the largest, home to ”two rugged mountain ranges; the highest peaks on the islands (rising above 2,000 feet); a large central valley/fault system; deep canyons with year-round springs and streams; and 77 miles of craggy coastline cliffs, giant sea caves, pristine tidepools, and expansive beaches,” according to the National Park Service. This terrain makes the island ideal for hiking, kayaking and snorkeling. There aren’t any hotels on the island, so plan to camp or make it a day trip!
10. Florida Keys
The Florida Keys are a chance to experience an ecosystem unlike any other place in the world. The region is home to a comprehensive park system, a plethora of museums dedicated to conservation and cultural preservation, and the only two frost-free botanical gardens in the country: The Botanic Gardens at Kona Kai Resort and The Key West Tropical Forest & Botanical Garden, which house many species of endangered and threatened flora and fauna. For a green place to stay, check out the Florida Green Lodging Program.