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Image: Eco-tourists disembark from a cruise ship in Belize
Kenneth Garrett  /  National Geographic - Getty Images
You may not be into eco-tourism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be eco-conscious. And luckily, today several forward-thinking hotel chains are paving the way to luxurious, eco-aware accommodation.
By
TODAY contributor
updated 12/23/2008 12:04:12 PM ET 2008-12-23T17:04:12

Winter has just made its official, blustery entrance into the Northeast — accompanied by its usual entourage of frosty annoyances: slush, black ice and a wind-chill factor in the single digits — and my mind is already wandering. As I delicately traverse the slippery patch of ice that has taken up residence on my front stoop, peel on my long underwear and scrape inches of crusty snow off of my windshield, one thought refuses to vacate my mind: I’ve got to get away.

When my toes are numb and my nose is red and running, I could be anywhere but here — as long as the sun is shining. Yesterday I fantasized about running away to Miami, Belize and Bali — all before nine in the morning. So my resolution this year is to put myself somewhere sunny before March 2009 (technically still winter in New York), but this time I’m determined to add an eco-element to my holiday. I’ve come to understand that whether I’m driving around the corner or flying across the globe, whether I’m bunking down in a motel or lounging in a five-star hotel, traveling is especially hard on the environment.

Collectively cars and planes emit massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the environment — which contributes to global warming — and conventional hotels are also hard on the planet, using massive amounts of energy and chemical-heavy cleaning supplies. But since I can’t ride my bike to the beaches of Mexico or stroll to Arizona’s red rocks — and pitching a tent has long ago lost its rugged appeal — I’ve been forced to find a way to satisfy my wanderlust without harming Mama Earth. Fortunately I didn’t have to look too hard.

Enlisting the services of an eco-conscious travel agency may be the easiest way to plan a planet-friendly vacation. A good agency will do the work for you — which includes not only booking flights and hotels and arranging interesting excursions, but also assessing the eco-commitment of each business and organization that you will encounter on your journey.

Take Manaca. The agency places each ecolodge in its roster through a rigorous eco-assessment — the goal is to have the lowest environmental impact possible while exercising the most social responsibility — which includes power, water disposal/use, construction, environment, food, education and outreach, community involvement and special projects. And environmentally friendly doesn’t mean frumpy. If you are so inclined, Manaca will guide you to a sumptuous lodge in Australia, the Caribbean or East Africa, among other exotic locales.

But what about getting there? You may not be able to skip the flight, but you can balance out its carbon emissions through TerraPass. The company’s carbon footprint calculator helps you figure out just how much CO2 your drive or flight is dumping into the environment — a roundtrip flight to Miami from New York puts 660 pounds of carbon into the atmosphere (yikes!). You can then purchase a carbon offset, which will channel your money into the development of clean energy projects (think wind farms) that balance out the damage inflicted by your travel.

And if your vacation requires wheels of the motorized variety, you’ve got green rental options. The next time you find yourself in Hawaii, check out Bio-Beetle, which rents biodiesel-fueled cars and jeeps on Maui. Scope out the island in a VW Beetle, Jetta or a Jeep Liberty powered by this clean-burning diesel made from natural renewable sources like vegetable oil. On the mainland, rental giant Hertz has moved into the green game with a selection of hybrids and fuel-efficient vehicles like the Toyota Prius or the Nissan Altima hybrid. Look for the “Green Collection.”

Sure, you’d happily trade the outdoor shower in a Peruvian eco-lodge for indoor plumbing in America, but it doesn’t mean that you want to disregard the planet in your vacation plans. You may not be into eco-tourism, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be eco-conscious. And today several forward-thinking hotel chains are paving the way to luxurious, eco-aware accommodation.

Kimpton Hotels’ EarthCare program has implemented a handful of environmental practices into each of its properties, including eco-friendly cleaning supplies, in-room recycle bins and water conservation, while the Saunders Group has pioneered green luxury lodging in an urban setting with Boston’s Lenox Hotel and Copley Square Hotel, which both feature water-conserving toilets and showerheads, thermopane windows and pump dispensers for soap, lotion, shampoo and conditioner (no more disposable plastic bottles) among other eco-initiatives. Find other green hotels through the Green Hotels Association.

Marisa Belger is a writer and editor with more than 10 years of experience covering health and wellness. She was a founding editor of Lime.com, a multiplatform media company specializing in health, wellness and sustainable living. Marisa also collaborated with Josh Dorfman on “The Lazy Environmentalist” (Stewart, Tabori, and Chang), a comprehensive guide to easy, stylish green living.

Please note: Neither Marisa Belger nor TODAYshow.com has been compensated by the manufacturers or their representatives for her comments or selection of products or companies reviewed in this column.

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