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Making your trip green

Bike-based agritourism, hybrid cruises, eco-volunteer opportunities, all reduce a traveler’s footprint

By Patricia Harris and David Lyon
Globe Correspondents / September 13, 2009

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Granted, the most environmentally responsible vacation you could take would be to stay home and read a library book. By daylight. With the air conditioner and the furnace off. But there’s no sense in saving the planet if you aren’t going to see the planet you’re saving. Just as you take small steps at home like recycling, walking instead of driving, or refusing to buy California produce trucked across the country, you can make environmentally responsible vacation choices, too. You can still go - just go green.

Stay green
Some of the greenest things happening in the travel industry are also some of the least sexy. Hotels, motels, and even bed-and-breakfasts are getting on the environmental bandwagon to reduce energy consumption and solid waste, even though it’s hard to attract customers by boasting about energy-efficient boilers and low-flow toilets. If you care about staying at places with the right stuff, take a look at Green Hotels in the Green Mountain State (www.vtgreenhotels.org), a project of Vermont’s Department of Environmental Conservation and the state’s Small Business Development Center. At this writing, 90 lodgings are certified as meeting or exceeding standards for resource conservation. The Swift House Inn (5 Stewart Lane, Middlebury, Vt., 866-388-9925 or 802-388-9925, www.swifthouseinn.com, doubles $110-$265), for example, installed three high-efficiency boilers and switched to compact fluorescent lights, among other actions.

The 1814 inn might make a good stop on a drive to Montreal, where you can check out the Alt Hotel Quartier Dix30 (6500 boulevard de Rome, Brossard, Quebec, 450-443-1030 or 877-343-1030, www.dix30.althotels.ca, doubles $120). Located in the suburbs but a reasonable bus ride from downtown, it’s part of the Alt chain of radically new hotels that are built from scratch to be super-efficient. Geothermal energy, for example, supplies the heating and cooling and the large windows have virtually no thermal leakage. It also features very hip design.

Trains, boats, and planes
While the US rail network is neither as fast nor as environmentally low-impact as the French electric bullet trains, Amtrak is still a good choice for green travel - and a relative bargain. The eight-day Jazz, Blues & Rock and Roll by Rail might be the coolest journey offered by Amtrak Vacations (www.amtrakvacations.com, 800-268-7852, from $1,045 per person). Featuring the musical sites of Chicago, Memphis, and New Orleans, the package includes train tickets, seven nights of accommodations, city tours, and several meals.

Europe is aggressively limiting greenhouse emissions, and the new Viking Legend river cruise ship, launched this summer by Viking River Cruises (www.vikingrivercruises.com, 800-304-9616, 15-day Amsterdam-to-Budapest cruise from $3,162 if purchased by Sept. 30), employs diesel-electric hybrid engines to cut fuel usage by 20 percent. If trimming fuel consumption isn’t enough to set your pulse racing, the early booking discount on the Grand European Tour (Amsterdam-Vienna-Bratislava-Budapest) cuts the price nearly in half.

The environmental catch-22, of course, is that you often have to fly to reach your green vacation. Although air travel emits fewer hydrocarbons than car travel, it still contributes about 3 percent of global carbon emissions. You can balance that extra CO2 by purchasing “carbon offsets’’ that invest in reforestation and other projects that either remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere or prevent new emissions. Most online travel agencies as well as several airlines (British Airways, Virgin, Continental) will calculate the emissions for your trip and give you the chance to purchase offsets when you buy your tickets. For example, a round trip between Boston and Amsterdam on Continental produces just over one ton of CO2 per person, which can be offset for $12-$30, depending on the program you choose. Other airlines (such as American) let you buy carbon offsets with loyalty program miles. Amtrak also sells carbon offsets.

Eco-volunteer expeditions
Carbon offsets too passive? Make your vacation part of the solution to global warming. A leader in volunteer expeditions assisting scientific research, Maynard-based Earthwatch (800-776-0188 or 978-461-0081, www.earthwatch.org) coordinates several climate change studies. It’s amazing, for example, what little caterpillars can reveal about global climate shifts. Programs aiding Lee Dyer’s research on caterpillar adaptation (minimum donation $2,350) operate in Arizona, near New Orleans, on the California-Nevada border, and in Costa Rica and Ecuador. Conditions are rustic and fitness requirements often high, but you’ll be making a difference.

If caterpillars are too tame for you, consider snowshoeing the Tatras mountains of Slovakia with the wildlife conservation research group Biosphere Expeditions (011-44-0870-446-0801, www.biosphere-expeditions.org, about $1,390) to monitor wolves and lynx. It’s part of an effort to understand the habitats of some of Europe’s last remaining large predators.

Eco lodges
In efforts to ameliorate global climate change, the tropical forests are often considered the planet’s lungs because they suck up carbon dioxide and emit oxygen. It might be a splurge, but you can rationalize a rain forest idyll by reasoning that full immersion in a critical habitat is the best way to appreciate what stands to be lost without careful environmental stewardship. Costa Rica was one of the first countries to emphasize ecotourism over resource exploitation. Lapa Rios resort (www.laparios.com, 011-506-2735-5130 or 011-506-2735-5281, five days all-inclusive from $1,020) has received many awards for sustainable tourism. Spend your days in a rain forest on the edge of the sea with interpretive hikes, dolphin and whale watching, bird watching, kayaking, and even surfing.

It could be too much of a good thing, but in Belize you can get the rain forest experience and learn about chocolate from bean to bar at the same time at Cotton Tree Lodge (www.cottontreelodge.com, 866-480-4534, from $170 per day). The eco lodge on 100 acres along the Moho River works with a local organic cacao farmer and chocolate maker, even offering Chocolate Week (from $1,365) retreats that include hands-on workshops in making chocolate from scratch. Add-ons include ocean snorkeling and scuba diving.

Agritourism
Here in New England we have a longstanding tradition of agritourism. We call it apple-picking. Northern California has more crops and a longer growing season, so agritourism is a year-round phenomenon. Download or order a copy of the map and guide from Sonoma County Farm Trails (www.farmtrails.org, 800-207-9464) and start planning your drive from San Francisco to the fruit and vegetable growers (not to mention the wineries) of one of the country’s most edible landscapes.

Bicycle-based agritourism gets a new twist next month with a partnership between the Colavita olive oil and pasta people and Arlington-based Italian bicycle trip specialist Ciclismo Classico (www.ciclismoclassico.com, 800-866-7314, 2009 trip $3,495, 2010 trips $3,695). The Ciclismo Colavita Olive Harvest Tour spends a week pedaling the gentle terrain of Molise in south-central Italy to work up an appetite while experiencing an olive oil crush, hunting for black truffles, and visiting wineries.

The Emerald Isle
What could be more green than Ireland? Eco-friendly bicycling is a good way to tour the Emerald Isle, especially along the lacy network of little roads in the southwest. The Counties Cork and Kerry in the Southwest sojourn with Backroads (www.backroads.com, 800-462-2848, 2010 trips from $2,998) invariably includes some of the usual suspects of Irish tourism: tumble-down stone ruins, country graveyards with moss-encrusted Celtic crosses, warm pubs with cool pints and fiery shots of whiskey. But cycling also opens up sweeping ocean vistas, and the surprisingly wild and lusciously overgrown landscape. The guided trip proceeds from inn to inn.

To experience Ireland at an even slower pace, try trekking from guesthouse to guesthouse on Walking the Wicklow Way with Wonderful Ireland (www.walkingholiday.ie, 011-353-877-613-344, $640 for four days to $1,590 for nine days). Beginning just south of Dublin, the Wicklow Way trail extends 79 miles across Ireland’s largest mountainous area. Designed for self-reliant travelers, the package includes detailed guides and maps, overnight accommodations with full breakfast, and a packed lunch, and dinner on nights when no restaurant is near. The firm also gives you a cellphone to call them for backup. The hike includes Ireland’s highest waterfall and a trek through the 6th-century monastic city of Glendalough, in ruins now for six centuries.

Contact Patricia Harris and David Lyon at harris.lyon@verizon.net.