Ecotravel Hot Spots
Have an indulgent vacation and be a conscious traveler at these four earth-friendly destinations

Want to take a trip you'll remember for a lifetime? Next time you're planning a vacation, think about going to a place where you'll interact more with crowds of sea turtles and stingrays than with hordes of camera-clicking tourists. A place where learning about the country and its people means lacing up your boots and going for a hike with a local nature guide. And a place where you can relax and enjoy an enlightening experience knowing that the owners of the lodge at which you're staying have done everything they can to minimize its impact on the environment. Consider taking an ecotourism vacation.

What's in a name?
As defined by The International Ecotourism Society, ecotourism is "responsible travel to natural areas that conserves the environment and sustains the well-being of local people." A buzzword for exploration and adventure travel during the last decade or so, ecotourism is fast becoming a mainstream trend. The United Nations even declared 2002 the International Year of Ecotourism, stressing the importance of integrating tourism development with cultural and environmental awareness and protection. With the cold winter months not far ahead, now is the time to plan a warm-weather getaway. Take some time to investigate these four ecotourism headliners. All are close to the United States, offer plenty of sunshine, and boast lots of low-impact adventure and educational opportunities. So pack your swimsuit, T-shirts, shorts, hiking boots, and camera—you're going on an adventure.

Location: Central America; borders Guatemala to the west and the south, Mexico to the north, and the Caribbean Sea to the east.

Size: Approximately 9,000 square miles.

Best Time To Travel: November through May, Belize's dry season.

Climate: Subtropical; annual mean temperature is 79 degrees.

Language: English is the official spoken language (Belize was known as British Honduras until 1973 and became fully independent of the United Kingdom in 1981); other languages include Spanish, Maya Ketchi and Mopan, creole, and Garifuna.

Currency: Belize dollar, though the U.S. dollar is widely accepted.

Getting There: Direct connections from Miami, Houston, and Dallas via American Airlines, Continental, and U.S. Airways. In Belize, Tropic Air and Maya Island Air offer short plane hops throughout the country.

Tell friends and coworkers you're going to Belize, and you'll most likely hear the response, "That'll be amazing. Now ... where is that exactly?" Although this peaceful Central American country offers so much to those who seek it out—the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, the world's only jaguar preserve, and a vast number of ancient Mayan sites—Belize is still relatively unknown. But there's plenty to discover, with 40 percent of the country protected as parks and reserves (a greater percentage than that of any other country in the world).

Most tourists flying into the tiny airport in Belize City hop right on a puddle jumper or a skiff and head to Belize's offshore islands. The draw is considerable: The barrier reef parallels the mainland for some 185 miles, offering incredible diving and snorkeling opportunities. More than 100 islands—including the more popular Ambergris Caye (pronounced "key") and Caye Caulker—lie waiting to be explored. But don't spend all your time at sea, or you'll miss out on Belize's mainland charms.

Once home to a million Mayan Indians, Belize's population is now a mere 240,000, just 11 percent of them Mayan. The dramatic population decline seems to have occurred about A.D. 900 to 1200. Its cause is still a mystery, but the vast number of ruins scattered throughout the country lead some experts to believe that Belize was once the heart of the Mayan civilization. Sites abound, including Xunantunich, Altun Ha, and the remote Caracol. Walk the trails with a local guide, climb to the top of a pyramid and imagine a ceremonial ritual taking place in the plaza below, and take in the many jungle-covered mounds yet to be unearthed.

If jaguars and jungle treks set your ecotourist's heart a-thumping, head to the southeastern part of the country and the Stann Creek District. Here's where you find the Cockscomb Basin Wildlife Sanctuary, a 160-square-mile jaguar preserve in the foothills of the Maya Mountains. Thanks to preservation efforts, jaguars thrive here, though you probably won't spot this elusive nocturnal cat (but be on the lookout for paw prints). You can hear the haunting sounds of the howler monkeys overhead while learning about flora and fauna from one of the many knowledgeable local guides.

Tourists can camp overnight here—or treat themselves to a stay at the nearby Kanantik Reef and Jungle Resort. Set on more than 300 acres, Kanantik is one of several low-impact, sustainable ecolodges that dot the landscape. At Kanantik, you can sip delicious limeade or Belikin beer by the gorgeous seafront pool or walk the grounds to view the resident crocodiles and iguanas. Kanantik is the Maya Mopan word for "to take care"—and the proprietors take care of not only their guests, but also the land. Vegetation located where the 25 thatched-roof cabanas now sit was relocated, trimmed, or used to build the cabanas and their organic furniture. You find a note in your room reminding you that wildlife in the area is plentiful thanks to these efforts, which is why a few friendly callers might visit your cabana during the night (think harmless giant grasshoppers and adorable chirping geckos).

To escape the heat of the jungle, head to the northwestern Mountain Pine Ridge Forest Reserve, a magical area that is home to several rustic ecoresorts. Sitting on 7,200 acres of private land, the sublime Hidden Valley Inn boasts 12 individual guest cabanas and 90 miles of trails leading to pristine waterfalls. One drops a thousand feet to the jungle floor, another attracts white king vultures, which hover overhead, and one is newly discovered. Just don't forget your bug repellent to keep the small but powerful blackflies at bay. Then again, who minds a few bug bites when you're swimming under your own private waterfall?

—Jena Hofstedt

Location: Netherlands Antilles, 50 miles north of Venezuela; about a three-hour flight from Miami.

Size: 112 square miles.

Best Time To Travel: Anytime, since Bonaire is located outside the Caribbean hurricane belt.

Climate: Year-round average temperature is 82 degrees; scant rainfall, so underwater visibility is always exceptional.

Language: Primarily Dutch and local Papiamento; English and Spanish also.

Currency: Netherlands Antilles florin or guilder, though the dollar is widely accepted.

Getting There: American Airlines offers daily flights to Bonaire from San Juan, Puerto Rico; Dutch Caribbean Airlines offers daily flights from Miami via Curaçao; Air Jamaica offers weekly service from some U.S. cities.

Ask committed scuba divers their top-of-the-list destinations, and most will mention Bonaire. The flippered set discovered long ago what appeals to ecotravelers today: Bonaire's untouched wilderness is an ideal setting for an active, environmentally responsible vacation.

More than 30 years ago, island planners laid the groundwork for protecting their paradise from overdevelopment. First, in 1969, they set aside 13,500 acres on the northwest tip as Washington-Slagbaai National Park. Ten years later, the government designated the waters surrounding Bonaire a marine sanctuary, sparing its reef by banning spearfishing, anchoring, and coral collecting. The result is a pristine playground, both above and below the water, hosted by a savvy native population; all Bonaire high school students must take a course in tourism before they graduate.

While diving is the most popular tourist draw, the island offers numerous ways to have low-impact fun. Snorkelers have easy shore access to Bonaire's deeply sloping reefs. An average annual rainfall of only 22 inches allows exceptional underwater visibility year-round. Even people who've snorkeled all over the world say they've experienced their best snorkeling here.

Fifteen- to 25-knot winds on Bonaire's western side make it an ideal place for expert sailboarders. Beginners can safely learn on the opposite side of the island in the gentler waters of landlocked Lac Bay, where the water is warm and so shallow (no more than three feet) that many of the instructors' children have learned to sailboard before learning to swim. As you navigate your sailboard during your first lesson, just be careful not to drift too far south before changing directions; you may end up surfing past the private digs of the island's only clothing-optional hotel.

Kayaking in the mangroves at Lac Cai is equally intriguing. Your kayak barely fits between the banks of the narrow, densely foliaged canals as you paddle through the maze. The thick and tangled mangroves give the sensation that you've entered an enchanted forest. Baby barracuda and other species hide out inside the grove, but only island natives may fish in this dramatic sanctuary. Preservation efforts limit access, so visitors have to sign on with one of the many guided tour groups on the island.

If claustrophobia makes the mangroves unappealing to you, birding is a more relaxing—and expansive—way to explore the island. Bonaire boasts more than 190 species, and Washington-Slagbaai National Park is an ideal place to find them. Or take off on a mountain bike and enjoy more than 300 kilometers of trails as you observe the island's birds, goats, lizards, donkeys, and iguanas. One favorite bike loop begins on the western shore, following trails and one-lane roads to Goto Lake, a shallow body of salt water. The numerous flamingos there are pinker than the plastic yard ornaments you have at home because of the carotene-rich shrimp they eat.

—Jean Weiss

U.S. Virgin Islands, St. John
Location: 70 miles east of Puerto Rico; about a two-hour flight from Miami. Borders the Atlantic Ocean to the north and the Caribbean Sea to the south.

Size: Approximately 19 square miles, two-thirds of it national park.

Best Time To Travel: December through May. Cheaper rates available June through November, but you might encounter stormy weather.

Climate: Average temperatures are 82 degrees in the summer and 77 degrees in the winter; surrounding waters hover around 80 degrees.

Language: Everyone speaks English, with a mixture of European, Middle Eastern, and calypso accents.

Currency: U.S. dollar.

Getting There: No airports on St. John, so you arrive in St. Thomas. Direct flights available from Atlanta, Baltimore, Miami, and New York via American Airlines, Continental, Delta, and US Airways. Ferries operate hourly between Red Hook, St. Thomas, and Cruz Bay, St. John ($3 one way). Less-frequent ferries run from Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, to Cruz Bay ($7 one way).

The first thing you notice is the air: warm and sweet and dewy, with a whisper of salt. You feel you could drink it in. Perhaps it was this airy elixir that inspired Columbus to claim these verdant lands, now known as the U.S. Virgin Islands, for Spain in 1493. After switching nationalities over the course of the next few centuries, three of the islands became U.S. territory in 1917. Today, bustling St. Thomas, historic St. Croix, and serene St. John constitute the U.S. Virgin Islands, a Caribbean trio that draws travelers who seek a tropical paradise with American conveniences (the U.S. dollar and the English language among them).

At 19 square miles, St. John, the smallest and least developed island, is an ecotourist's dream. Convenient, comfortable lodgings built and maintained using the latest environmentally sensitive techniques provide a base from which to explore pristine beaches and hiking trails through unspoiled forest. St. John enjoys its ecopioneer status largely due to the foresight of Laurance Rockefeller, who in 1954 bought and deeded significant portions of the island to the U.S. Park Service. Thanks to land acquisition spearheaded by the nonprofit Friends of the Virgin Islands National Park, the park now covers two-thirds of the island: 15,135 protected acres, one-third of it under water. Additionally, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, created in 2001 by presidential decree, protects more than 12,000 acres of St. John's submerged reef. Guided snorkel and kayak tours, nature hikes, and island-wide conservation efforts successfully educate thousands of tourists every year while protecting St. John's largely untouched charms.

Since its first tent-cottages opened their screen doors in 1976, St. John's Maho Bay properties—now including Maho Bay Camps, Harmony Studios, Concordia Eco-Tents, and Estate Concordia Studios—have employed cutting-edge environmental techniques with spectacular results. Recycled materials form many structures; sun and wind provide power; site-sensitive building practices ensure lush foliage and no hillside erosion. Impeccably clean bathrooms (some communal, others private) use modern, low-flush toilets and pull-chain showers, reducing water consumption by hundreds of gallons daily. "Gray" water, channeled through a recycling system, irrigates surrounding vegetation. Even trash is a renewable resource; Maho recycles 100 percent of its cans, bottles, and other glass, much of the material transformed into fine art at the on-site glassblowing and craft studios.

Maggie Day, Maho's general manager, says this low-impact approach perfectly suits travelers seeking a natural but comfortable vacation. "We call [Maho] luxury camping," she says. "The accommodations are simple, but they're just enough. The best word I have for it is that it's a genuine experience." Of course, where else can you "camp" with access to a private white-sand beach and a full-service restaurant featuring such specialties as steamed lemongrass snapper, or doze in your screened, wood-frame cabin, serenaded by chirping tree frogs?

Maho's earth-friendly vision now spreads beyond its own boundaries. "We're doing a recycled-art program in town as an after-school program for at-risk kids," Day says excitedly. "They gave us a class of 13-year-old boys—just picture that—and they love it! And our staff who volunteer, they're just energized by it. It's turned out to be so much more than we expected."

St. John epitomizes the best of ecotourism—everyone wins. While enjoying the Caribbean's natural splendors, visitors support local conservation efforts, gain valuable ecological information, and, ideally, bring home the conviction that vacationing needn't equal overconsumption. "We're astounded by the number of guests who write back and say, 'I didn't realize how much I didn't need, or how little I really needed, to have a good time,'" says Bob Carmody, Maho's chief financial officer. "'Less is more' is a way of life here."

—Elisa Bosley

Hawaii, The Big Island
Location: The Pacific Ocean. The Big Island is the largest of the eight major Hawaiian islands; it lies to the southeast of the other islands in the state.

Size: More than 4,000 square miles (about the size of Connecticut).Best Time To Travel: Average monthly temperatures vary by at most 9 degrees, so any time is good.Climate: Average temperatures range from 71 to 78 degrees in coastal regions; surrounding waters range from 75 to 82 degrees.Language: English and Hawaiian. Currency: U.S. dollar.Getting There: Three carriers, United Airlines, American Airlines, and Aloha Airlines, offer direct flights between mainland cities and Kona International Airport at Keahole (on the west side of the island). Only interisland airlines (Hawaiian and Aloha) fly direct to Hilo International Airport (on the east side).

Your first peek at the Big Island of Hawaii might not be what you expect of a tropical paradise. Because part of the Kona airport sits on a 200-year-old lava flow, your arrival is heralded by an expanse of barren black rock. Locals claim that some excited snowbirds hoping for a break from mainland monotony land but never step off the plane. "I didn't come here for this," island lore has them say as the plane lifts off for the return trip. Don't worry if some visitors don't stick around; it just means you'll have a little more of this remote and dynamic island to yourself.

Hawaii, the Big Island, is the biggest (bigger than all the other major Hawaiian islands combined ... and still growing, thanks to the erupting Kilauea Volcano), the youngest (formed by five volcanoes less than a million years ago), and perhaps the most diverse island in the state. Likened to a minicontinent because of its varied climate, geology, and biology, the Big Island will impress the ecotourist: pristine rain forests and cascading waterfalls on the Hilo side, lava deserts and world-class beaches along the Kona and Kohala coast, and Hawaii Volcanoes National Park in between. And that's even before you set toe into the ocean.

Legend has it that the fire goddess Pele and the weather demigod Kamapua'a battled and then struck a deal to make the west side dry and the east side wet. If you plan your time well and explore the entire island, you can experience ten of the world's 15 climate zones. The only ones missing are the cold continental climates, even though the Big Island does have two snowcapped mountains, Mauna Kea and Mauna Loa, each rising over 13,000 feet.

Although the island is relatively easy to get to and to get around on, mainlanders might forget they're still in the United States. Hawaiian culture is worlds away from that of the rest of the country, thanks to the islands' presumed discovery by a group sailing from the Marquesas Islands around A.D. 0 to 700. (Polynesians from Tahiti are thought to have arrived later.) Today, Hawaiians are rediscovering their roots. Interest in ancient Hawaiian language, religion, and customs is on the rebound and is evident in the many cultural events offered.

Yes, you can still laze around on the beach here. But if you're seeking more meaning from your vacation—if you want to walk right up to an active volcano, see birds and vegetation through the eyes of a native naturalist, dine at a traditional luau, or swim with the humuhumunukunukuapua'a (Hawaii's unofficial state fish)—the Big Island offers a refreshing change of pace.

—Pamela Emanoil