The intentional tourist

Going green means more than buying organic produce at the Co-op. It’s about minimizing environmental impact, supporting local economies, and keeping an open mind.

Green travel, or eco-travel, is becoming an increasingly popular way to see the world — or even just the next town. In fact, the United Nations designated 2002 as the “International Year of Eco-Tourism.”

The concept might summon automatic visions of rustic, outdoor adventures — but ultimately, eco-tourism is about conscious traveling. Partners in Responsible Tourism advocates “learn[ing] about the geography, history, culture, beliefs and some local language before you go; cultivat[ing] the habit of listening and observing; us[ing] local restaurants and hotels and buy[ing] local products [including not buying products made from endangered species]; traveling in small groups; and stay[ing] on trails when hiking or biking.”

Contributing to projects benefiting local environments (where possible) and keeping a journal of one’s trip are also important parts of responsible traveling.

Start local

You don’t have to trek halfway around the world to sniff out an eco-adventure. Even if you have only a half day, the Nantahala Outdoor Center, located an hour-and-a-half southwest of Asheville in Bryson City, offers a number of routine-breaking samplers. These mind-opening experiences teach folks how to relate to the environment while learning new skills. The man-made Alpine Tower challenges groups and individuals to test their limits as they strap on climbing ropes and ascend to the structure’s top platform. Twenty-six routes lead climbers through obstacles with names like the “corporate ladder” and the “diabolical seesaw.”

NOC is synonymous with “whitewater” in most locals’ minds, but the company also offers trips to Lake Fontana. NOC Head of Instruction Wayne Dickert calls the relaxed, guided trip “a hike in a kayak” where you can learn about natural history, check out wildflowers and otters, do a little bird watching, and take a dip in the lake.

For more intrepid weekend warriors, NOC offers Build Your Own Adventure packages ranging from day trips to weeklong ventures. Paddling programs encompass rafting, canoeing and whitewater kayaking. Those who prefer dry land can head out on a mountain-biking expedition, or, for the ultimate mountaineering experience, try a llama trek.

Nantahala Outdoor Center, (800) 232-7238, www.noc.com

Beyond Disneyworld

Sea kayaking is a natural, low-impact way to glide quietly into the mysteries of the Florida Everglades, a natural wonder whose delicate ecosystem is increasingly threatened by urban development.

One of the many longer trips offered by NOC, this excursion in southwest Florida is fit for boaters of all skill levels. Exploring backcountry wild lands — once home to the Caloosa and Seminole Indians — is part of an eight-day itinerary that also includes camping in three styles of native sites, viewing coastal wildlife, watching sunsets and building driftwood campfires.

It’s important to remember, however, that eco-tourism isn’t necessarily synonymous with roughing it: Urban centers sometimes offer the best insight into local flavor and history. Founded 42 years before Jamestown, St. Augustine — a coastal, northern-Florida locale situated about an hour south of Jacksonville — is the nation’s oldest city: “This is where Florida vacations started,” boasts the city’s official Web page. Classic Spanish architecture dominates the European-flavored downtown district; other St. Augustine attractions include the Colonial Spanish Quarter, the African frontier community of Fort Mose, the Timucua Indian Exhibit, and, for the requisite kitschy side trip, Ponce de Leon’s Fountain of Youth.

Another view from the bus

“I got on the bus for a week and stayed on for a month,” says Allie Barden from the Green Tortoise office. “After that first trip, I was hooked.”

The San Francisco-based travel company, started in 1974, outfits motor coaches for maximum travelocity and cruises overland to beautiful places. The buses all have names: In keeping with one of eco-tourism’s more-philosophical principles, the trip is as much about the journey as the destination (upholding another eco-travel tenet, Green Tortoise trips are remarkably economical). The coaches come equipped with bunk beds (with fitted sheets, no less) and relaxing music. Passengers ride while they sleep, then spend the day swimming, caving, hiking and rafting. Everyone shares in cooking vegetarian fare, and the food fund, included in the trip price, covers 70 percent of meals. (Stops along the road include a few restaurants here and there.)

Green Tortoise routes span the U.S. and venture into Central America. The two-week, cross-country adventure is a scenic way to see the States while bonding with other travelers. The “Sunny Southern” route runs in April, May, August and September and includes the following sites and stops: a drive through the Great Smoky Mountains, canoeing at Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, kayaking in the Gulf of Mexico, a day in New Orleans, ferrying across the Rio Grande to a tiny Mexican village, camping at Faywood Hot Springs in New Mexico, hiking at the Grand Canyon, and a scenic cruise through Arizona’s Red Rock State Park. The northern summer route, a 12-day journey, includes hiking in the Grand Tetons, exploring Yellowstone Park and the Badlands, and camping out in the Catskills.

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About Alli Marshall
Alli Marshall is the arts section editor at Mountain Xpress. She's lived in Asheville for more than 20 years and loves live music, visual art, fiction and friendly dogs. Alli is the winner of the 2016 Thomas Wolfe Fiction Prize and the author of the novel "How to Talk to Rockstars," published by Logosophia Books. Follow me @alli_marshall

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