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Lifted to a luxury level, eco-tourism re-invents itself for a discerning audience.

Walk on the wild side in the lap of luxury


Sleeping in cotton-draped, air-conditioned tent at the edge of a tiger reserve in India, looking out your window over a waterfall at snow-capped peaks in Patagonia, receiving a massage beneath a palm tree in the Seychelles—the face of environmentally-friendly travel has certainly changed!

Seeking out the beauty of nature without sacrificing the right to luxurious pampering is an increasingly important niche area of eco-tourism— finding the most unique, beautiful and often isolated places in the middle of nature and increasing the impact of the visitor's experience with the best design, architecture, activities and comforts that can be provided.

In this way the joys of eco-tourism—unspoilt landscapes, close proximity to rare flora and fauna, and to wondrous natural resources and geographical features—are no longer the preserve of those willing to don weather-resistant outerwear and trek through miles of wilderness to a remote location lacking basic creature comforts.

The fusion of nature and luxury travel have provided an interesting challenge to hotel owners and the results are as individual as the places around the world in which they can be found.

Not all hoteliers have taken the hard-sell approach when it comes to promoting the pro-environmental traits of their respective establishments. Some, like Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn, hugging a cliff-top high above the Pacific on California's coast, are content enough to simply tout the location and let the nature the visitor discovers speak for itself. The one thing all share in common is a minor negative impact on the environment. In fact some, such as North Island in the Seychelles, which has rehabilitated natural habitats and reintroduced and nurtured endangered flora and fauna, have been nothing but a positive boon to their chosen region.

Far from being the preserve of tofu-eating hippies, the new breed of eco-resort is increasingly the property of a chain such as Amanresorts or Banyan Tree, or even Four Seasons. The latter, with the recently opened Tented Camp Golden Triangle in the jungle of northern Thailand, is accessible only by riverboat, and to a maximum of 30 guests at a time, a far cry from the normal Four Seasons lodging experience. Recycled teak floors, outdoor showers, and traditional Thai massages amid the bamboo forests are the more visible aspects of a holistic ethos that has populated the property with elephants rescued from lives of labor on the Thai streets.

Banyan Tree's creed is that luxury need not come at the expense of the environment, and at its two resorts in China—one near the multiethnic, UNESCO World Heritage Site town of Lijiang, the other consisting of painstakingly reconstructed farmhouses high in the mountains of Greater Tibet—an appreciation and dedication to local culture permeates the richly accented air.

Similarly, Amanresorts' dedication to capturing the best of the local environment without damaging it is evident from its newest resort, Amanyara, in the Turks and Caicos, where low-built pavilions hug the landscape between numerous ponds and mature, indigenous trees. The group's imprint in Rajasthan has been even more imperceptible, formed as it is at Aman-i-Khas by ten luxury Mughal-inspired tents in a rural area bordering an exceptional tiger reserve, and open in accordance with the wildlife-viewing season. To gain the best from the close affinity with nature, the camp proposes gentle treks through the wilderness, followed by traditional Indian meditation by a tranquil lake.

In spite of the arrival of large hotel groups on the scene, the movement was spearheaded, and continues to be so, by some pioneering hoteliers with singular visions and strong conviction. One of the most impressive, environmentalist Mounir Neamatalla, has created an eco-lodge called Adrere Amellal at Siwa, an oasis in the middle of the Egyptian desert, an eight-hour drive from Cairo and 200 miles from the nearest town. His focus has been on bringing sustainable development to the indigenous population of Bedouin but employing their skills to create the lodge's mud architecture and furniture, including beds made from palm fronds, and developing previously latent embroidery traditions.

Amid the noble purity of honorable intentions is a place in which electricity and telephones are absent, the only light coming from candles, allowing the liberating experience of being removed from the pressures of urban life with nothing to stop the starlight shining down from far above the still and quiet desert.

The Adrere Amellal's eco-minded philosophy regarding air conditioning—specially-created shaded areas suffice during the day, desert breezes do the job at night—is shared by North Island, whose locally-crafted villas are raised off the ground to catch the cooling sea breezes.

Sometimes the notion of roughing it is rather relative. Some resorts require a certain amount of ingenuity to get to, such as Pemba's Fundu Lagoon (in the Indian Ocean near Zanzibar), where visitors can either depend on the undependable local ferry service or charter their own private plane to get to the secluded outpost. The owners have taken it upon themselves to foster a spirit of sustainable development in the local community without impinging on the traditional way of life.

Frequently a topic of much divisiveness on luxury vacations, children are not allowed at the Post Ranch Inn, but are actively encouraged at the Explora Hotel Salto Chico in the wilds of Patagonia, where the never-to-be-forgotten sight of icebergs, mountains, and a roaring waterfall are literally steps away.

In the Singita Private Game Reserve on the edge of South Africa's Kruger National Park, the group of lodges under the Sabi Sands banner has repeatedly outweighed tony competition in major metropolises to be named best hotel in the world by a raft of influential publications. Encapsulating the desire to bring luxury to the great outdoors, Sabi Sands stands as the lodestar in offering exceptional travel experiences with an environmentally aware thesis. After a day spent watching roaming wildlife on the plains, and a freshly prepared breakfast under the shade of an acacia tree, luxury-minded travelers return to the lodge for a gourmet dinner around a crackling fire to the dulcet tones of a local choir.

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