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5 getaways that reinvent ecotourism

MAPLE GROVE / NEW YORK TIMES
                                At the Maple Grove Hot Springs & Retreat Center, in Thatcher, Idaho, guests can sign up for tree planting or invasive-plant removal.
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MAPLE GROVE / NEW YORK TIMES

At the Maple Grove Hot Springs & Retreat Center, in Thatcher, Idaho, guests can sign up for tree planting or invasive-plant removal.

HIKE CLERB / NEW YORK TIMES
                                Evelynn Escobar, a Black and Indigenous second-generation Guatemalan American, created Hike Clerb in 2017. Participants meet up to volunteer for land restoration projects and enjoy outdoor activities.
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HIKE CLERB / NEW YORK TIMES

Evelynn Escobar, a Black and Indigenous second-generation Guatemalan American, created Hike Clerb in 2017. Participants meet up to volunteer for land restoration projects and enjoy outdoor activities.

KATE THOMPSON / NEW YORK TIMES
                                The Tides Inn boardwalk in Irvington, Va., curves around 13,000 feet of shoreline, and was designed as an outdoor nature museum, in Irvington, Va.
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KATE THOMPSON / NEW YORK TIMES

The Tides Inn boardwalk in Irvington, Va., curves around 13,000 feet of shoreline, and was designed as an outdoor nature museum, in Irvington, Va.

MAPLE GROVE / NEW YORK TIMES
                                At the Maple Grove Hot Springs & Retreat Center, in Thatcher, Idaho, guests can sign up for tree planting or invasive-plant removal.
HIKE CLERB / NEW YORK TIMES
                                Evelynn Escobar, a Black and Indigenous second-generation Guatemalan American, created Hike Clerb in 2017. Participants meet up to volunteer for land restoration projects and enjoy outdoor activities.
KATE THOMPSON / NEW YORK TIMES
                                The Tides Inn boardwalk in Irvington, Va., curves around 13,000 feet of shoreline, and was designed as an outdoor nature museum, in Irvington, Va.

Hotels and glamping sites touting sustainability practices and nature-based activities have proliferated throughout the United States in the past decade, finding financial success by offering guests a let-nature-nurture-you wellness experience.

But many of these destinations have targeted only luxury travelers and focused on an ethos of self-­improvement. Now, a growing number of hospitality entrepreneurs are working with or employing naturalists and scientists to reinvent ecotourism by championing an outward, altruistic kind of outdoor therapy as well as climate-change education.

“Having sustainability or ‘eco’ experiences perceived as ‘cool’ may help shift cultural perspectives in the long run,” said Leah Thomas, a climate justice activist and the author of “The Intersectional Environmentalist.” Thomas said engaging travelers just one time in habitat restoration work or an environmental class can teach them to care about the planet.

Here are five affordable retreats.

Maple Grove Hot Springs & Retreat Center

Thatcher, Idaho

At the Maple Grove Hot Springs & Retreat Center in southeast Idaho, guests can enjoy a soak in one of six thermal pools, but many also sign up for invasive-plant removal, trail development or tree planting.

“We want guests from all walks of life to strike that perfect balance of rest, work, learning, thinking, sharing, laughing and exploring. The marriage of those creates a very transformative experience,” said founder Jordan Menzel.

Powered by solar and hydro sources, the off-grid, 45-acre Maple Grove is currently working to become the world’s first B Corporation-­certified hot springs, Menzel said. (The designation requires a certification of social and environmental performance.) The retreat, opened in 2019, has stone shelters, yurts and cabins (nightly rates from $170), as well as walk-in tents and camper-van sites ($45). The center provides kayaks and river tubes at the beach, and concerts and outdoor movies by the pool, as well as foraging hikes, workshops on composting and managing a home garden, and cold plunges in the river.

To honor the Northwestern Band of Shoshone people who made their winter home on the Bear River, Maple Grove hosts a quarterly storytelling event led by a Shoshone tribal elder.

Hike Clerb

Multiple locations

In 2017, after feeling ostracized at several national parks, Evelynn Escobar, a Black and Indigenous second-­generation Guatemalan American, created Hike Clerb, an intersectional women’s hiking club and nonprofit committed to equitable access in the outdoors. (Clerb, she said, is slang referring to any type of club.) Escobar designs day and overnight experiences that balance healing in nature with land-restoration projects and activities that encompass cultural heritage and decolonization education.

So far, Escobar has hosted 77 free and low-cost meetups where participants have gathered not only to hike — and clean up trash along the trail — but to bike, surf, fish, farm and more. In California, the Hike Clerb community planted 100 oak trees in the Santa Monica Mountains Recreation Area and worked with Heal the Bay nonprofit to clean up the historically Black beach, Bruce’s Beach, now known as Manhattan Beach.

“The concept of these trips is bringing Black and brown facilitators and participants together to restore a place,” Escobar said. “As we are taking care of the land, it’s taking care of us.”

In the fall of 2022, Escobar created a two-night retreat called Night Clerb at Ace Hotel Palm Springs ($300). This year and next, Night Clerb events will take place in Puerto Rico, Alaska, Hawaii and Yosemite National Park.

“People are craving opportunities to visit places as stewards versus tourists,” Escobar said. “When you feel connected to a place and have respect for it, you respect yourselves in that place, too. In that way, it’s a luxury experience.”

The Tides Inn

Irvington, Va.

The Tides Inn sits on the Carter’s Creek tributary of Chesapeake Bay, which produces about 500 million pounds of seafood annually. Since before the hotel opened in 1947, pollution and overharvesting have been decimating the population of oysters, a keystone species for all marine life. In the summer of 2021, the inn completed a $3.6 million shoreline restoration project that has since allowed oyster reefs to make a comeback, with help from a steady stream of guests.

The inn’s resident ecologist, Will Smiley, has been leading volunteer experiences for the past three years, including a popular one that repopulates baby oysters.

“As of January 2024, we have grown and planted over 1 million oysters,” said Smiley, noting that sea horses are returning to the area, a great bio-indicator.

The 70-room resort (nightly rates from $249) offers activities on and off the water, from kayaking and paddleboard yoga to pickleball and a pool and spa. But the heart of the inn is its boardwalk, which curves around 13,000 feet of shoreline and was designed as an outdoor museum with signs about the restoration project, local species and native plants.

An off-site volunteer excursion ($200 per person), benefiting the river nonprofit Friends of Rappahannock, pairs a picnic with planting trees and wetland grasses.

Anupaya Cabin Co.

Deep River, Ontario

“I think the climate crisis can cause people to feel such paralysis, like it’s almost too little, too late,” said Shannon MacLaggan, who created Anupaya Cabin Co., with her husband, Pete, as a wilderness retreat and incubator for climate action in 2021. “There are massive esoteric concepts about how to tackle global warming, but this is something tangible and applicable.”

The 12-acre property (nightly rates from $232), along the upper Ottawa River, has a lodge, private beach and eight renovated cabins, each with a kitchen, grill, fire pit and porch views of the Laurentian Mountains. Anupaya invites every guest to join the environmental movement in whatever way they can.

That might mean participating in cleanups through the hotel’s One Pound Promise initiative (60,000 pounds of waste have been collected so far), foraging workshops, planting fruit trees and berry bushes, or learning to grow and harvest food in the garden, where guests are often found pulling invasive plants and picking salad ingredients.

Anupaya is introducing more formal volunteer opportunities this year. The Sustainable Saturdays initiative, to run from May to November, will offer free two-hour educational sessions on composting, starting a medicinal garden, raising chickens and more.

Fir Haven Retreats

Mosier, Ore.

This August, restoration ecologist Kieron Wilde plans to welcome the first guests to Fir Haven, a 20-acre, plastic-free property an hour outside Portland, on the eastern end of the Columbia River Gorge. Fir Haven will have A-frame cabins with kitchenettes (nightly rates from $115), platform tent sites ($50), electric-vehicle chargers and an informal educational lab for environmental stewardship.

Wilde aims to create experiences “for people to be immersed in conservation,” he said, such as planting Gerry Oak trees, both as a fire suppression tool and to support a rich native habitat.

Fir Haven will offer a menu of volunteer projects and field trips for guests, working with nonprofit partners such as Trail Keepers of Oregon.

Wilde said there will be plenty of traditional wellness activities, including yoga and forest bathing, as well as biking the Columbia River Gorge Scenic Highway or hiking at nearby Rowena Crest Viewpoint.

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