I have a soft spot for luxury country house hotels. A couple of years ago I was fortunate enough to stay in the Linen Suite at Devon’s Combe House Hotel, which boasted a beguiling combination of neutral, calming colours, gorgeous original features including a dramatic Victorian drying rack on the ceiling, and a huge restored round copper bath tub. The next 48 hours were bliss. Despite local draws such as country pubs and rolling hills, there was no need to go anywhere. Combe House’s grand living rooms, roaring fire places, cosy bar, elegant restaurant and pretty gardens were more than enough to entertain. And the chef’s seasonally inspired dishes – think scallops, herrings, beef, venison, wild mushrooms, fennel – made it difficult to summon up the willpower to go elsewhere.
But my penchant for extravagant weekend breaks doesn’t quite tally with the eco-friendly persona I aspire to. Harmonising the two has proved quite a challenge. But thankfully, things are changing. It’s not that country house hotels have downgraded: quite the opposite. The world of luxury travel is now, more than ever embracing its environmental responsibilities, and, by and large, the results are fantastic. What made the Combe House Hotel experience that bit better was discovering that the hotel’s unobtrusive environmental efforts had won it a Green Tourism Business Scheme certification and the ‘Most Excellent Innovation in Sustainable Hospitality’ award from Conde Nast Johansens. Yes, I discovered, you really can have your luxury cake and eat it.
Gone are the days when eco travel was reserved for frumpy hessian-wearing worthy types and revolved around bamboo huts and compost toilets (although it’s worth mentioning that the latter have improved a lot). Sustainable, responsible, eco hotels, tour operators and transport companies are becoming increasingly mainstream. What’s more, attitudes are changing too. In 2011, 58% of Conde Nast Traveller readers said that their hotel choice was directly influenced by the support the hotel gives to a local community and, according to a Trip Advisor survey in 2012, 71% planned to make more eco-friendly travel choices in the next 12 months,compared to 65% the year before.
But let’s be honest; holidays are for indulging, relaxing, letting someone else take care of things or inspiring the mind with new and interesting sights, sounds and experiences. While we all know that we should minimise our impact on the world when travelling, it’s rare that that’s the main consideration when booking a trip. Although the feelgood element of an eco holiday has significant value, what people are increasingly turning to eco travel for is its ability to innovate and provide richer and more novel experiences. Low impact and environmentally sensitive accommodation (aka glamping) gets you closer to nature and allows you to experience a destination without the paraphernalia of large-scale resorts and is often as romantic as it gets.
Canopy & Stars exemplify this sort of experience, and they’re not just about tents. ’We’re taking 50% more bookings this year than last,’ reveals marketing manager, Nada Matti. ‘It’s just growing and growing. We’re amazed and inspired by all the new places that keep popping up and I think this is what’s driving things forward. People are coming up with quirkier, more creative types of spaces and that’s what people are looking for. We’re on the constant search for more unusual places and have recently added a boat with a thatched roof, as well as a more ‘normal’ converted fishing boat, to go with our Iron Age roundhouse, wheat silo, horse-truck and army fire truck conversions… People are looking for an experience that’s completely immersive. So the space, the setting, the food, everything needs to be special.’
And Canopy and Stars aren’t alone. Nestled in the mountains above Lake Geneva is White Pod, one of the world’s first luxe eco resorts, which offers white dome tents, complete with Scandinavian furnishings, wood burners and organic luxury bedding. Similar are tree house suites, the accommodation of choice for the coolest glampers. Head to Chewton Glen’s enormous treehouse suite for the ultimate luxury tree-top experience, including your own private hot tub, huge terrace and a breakfast hamper delivery every morning.
Along with the chance to sleep in an igloo or a wigwam, an eco resort or travel company is much more likely to take part in efforts to conserve destinations, whether Marrakech’s crumbling old Medina or Kenya’s Masai Mara. ‘Isla Palenque was an uninhabited island, when we arrived,’ remembers Ben Loomis, founder of the 400-acre Isla Palenque eco resort off the coast of Panama. ‘This is what we’ve worked to preserve for guests and for future generations by maintaining the island’s ecosystems in their wild, undisturbed state’.
Bespoke travel and honeymoon specialists Sally & Alice, have also noticed a growing trend for high-end properties that focus on conservation. ‘We work with lodges and camps who support their local community and protect their wildlife and natural surroundings,’ says Sally. ‘People often ask us why safari is so expensive. Well, in order for these wildlife areas to be protected, revenue has to come from park and conservation fees and a percentage of profits from accommodation income. People are increasingly aware, and pleased, that some of this cost goes towards anti-poaching, protecting natural habitats and educating locals to do the same.’
If a resort or trip has eco and responsible credentials, the chances are it will be more interesting and authentic – usually without sacrificing an ounce of comfort or style. These days, it’s the eco holidays that have the strongest brag potential: natural products result in lovelier interiors, locally sourced, organic foods are always tastier and being at one with a beautiful natural environment is one of the best detoxifiers out there. But don’t take my word for it, get out there and experience it for yourself.