#Special Focus* Sense and sensibility

A 2008 study commissioned by the World Tourism Organisation, the United Nations Environmental Programme and the World Meteorological Organisation shows that tourism accounts for 5% of the world's carbon dioxide emissions. Of this, 75% is attributed to transport, 21% to accommodation and the rest to tourist activities.

While how their jet-setting guests choose to travel is beyond the control of hotels and resorts, the eco-friendly establishments spare no expense in ensuring their guests have a luxurious stay, without sacrificing the environment.

All of these places strive to appeal to the conscience and the senses. Some are literally built around nature, while others use their profits to promote sustainability.

1. Al Maha Desert Resort and Spa, United Arab Emirates

Named for the elusive desert oryx that led nomadic tribes to lush oases, the desert resort is a sprawling Bedouin-inspired five-star encampment that comprises 42 opulent suites in the dunes.

The Starwood group resort is in the heart of the 225 sq km Al Maha Dubai Desert Conservation Reserve. Funded by Emirates Airline and proceeds from the resort, and managed by the government of Dubai, the reserve has helped rehabilitate the local environment through programmes such as propagating over 6,000 indigenous plants and reintroducing free-roaming herds and other desert wildlife to the area.

Besides rehabilitating the desert, the reserve also protects three borewells underground, representing one of the largest aquifers in the desert. The water, which has retained its purity since the reserve was founded in 1999, is supplied to the resort. Up to 94% of this is recycled on site and used for irrigation.

The resort also minimises its carbon footprint and preserves local culture by buying local artwork, craft, furniture and antiques, so that they stay within the country. In addition, guests can participate in Bedouin activities such as camel safaris, traditional archery and horse riding in the desert.

2. Whitepod, Switzerland

This one-of-a-kind high-tech ski resort lies in the alpine village of Les Cerniers. At 1,700m above sea level, the resort comprises 15 geodesic dome tents atop wooden platforms, a main chalet, 25km of trails and a 7km private ski run with three lifts — the resort's only motorised component. In summer, the white pods are covered with green canvases to match their verdant environment.

The futuristic domes come with traditional furnishings and high-quality insulation, with a wood stove for warmth and lanterns for light. Each pod can house upto four people and comprises a fully-equipped shower, toilet and sink that are directly connected to a private water source.

Hungry guests can dine at the main chalet, which serves up traditional hearty Swiss fare such as raclette and fondue (melted cheese dishes), and lighter dishes crafted from locally-sourced ingredients. The chalet also houses spa facilities, such as a sauna. Whitepod runs a grocery, serving local villagers as a way to integrate with the community.

3. Alila Villas Uluwatu, Indonesia

The 86 villas in this resort are contemporary in design, with hints of Bali's culture and environment — flat lava rocks on the roof, bamboo ceilings, batu palimanan (local volcanic rock) walls, rattan furnishing and wood recycled from railway sleepers and telephone poles. "We are not starting from scratch, but helping the soul of the place to come alive," explains landscaper Lim Swe Ting.

Each villa comes with a private pool, cabana, garden and pavilion. The layout of the villas opens out to a view of the Indian Ocean from a 100m vantage point, atop a cliff in Bukit Peninsula. Despite its idyllic location, the hotel is only 30 minutes from the Ngurah Rai International Airport and 15 minutes from Jimbaran Bay, near Uluwatu Temple.

Besides using traditional materials, the resort also embraces sustainable practices such as water conservation, recycling and energy saving.

4. Magic Mountain Lodge, Chile

What looks like a hill with windows is actually a stone conical structure blanketed by vegetation, that is watered by a spout at the top of the building. A mythical magic mountain that grants wishes inspired the lodge's name and design.

The lodge consists of 13 rooms, 11 cabins, a convention centre, a "magic corner" for children and a spa. Tubs in ancient tree trunks with naturally-heated water are a special feature.

Magic Mountain Lodge is one of several hotels in the privately-held 100,000ha Hulio Hulio nature reserve in Chile, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site that boasts temperate rainforests with plains and steppes at one end and dense jungles and glacial lakes at the other.

5. Bangkok Tree House

Just minutes from the Thai capital city's hustle and bustle is the Bangkok Tree House, a 12-room boutique hotel on Bang Krachao — an island in the Chao Phraya river. The place is only accessible by boat and is a haven for nature and biking enthusiasts who want to escape the city.

The 11-room lodge is made out of bamboo, reinforced metal, and recycled trash — such as reclaimed wood, plastic drums and juice cartons. It has too many green practices to note, but a noteworthy one is a pledge by the operators to clear 1kg of trash from the river, each time a booking is made with the hotel.

Bangkok Tree House also does not fumigate the premises, so squeamish guests will have to be mindful of native insects and animals sharing space with them.

With the city at just a stone's throw, guests can hop on a boat, then the skytrain, into the heart of Bangkok. Those in search of an idyll can cycle around the automobile-free island.

6. Hotel Costa Verde, Costa Rica

Don't be alarmed. This is not a plane crash, but part of the 727 Fuselage suites at Hotel Costa Verde, in the coastal jungles of Manuel Antonio, Costa Rica. This refurbished airplane frame of a vintage 1965 Boeing 727 was rescued from a San Jose airport, before it was painstakingly restored on a 50ft pedestal.

The fuselage houses two bedrooms outfitted with teak panelling sourced locally, Javanese hand-carved teak furniture, air conditioning, queen-sized beds, private bath, flat-screen televisions, kitchenettes, dining area foyer, ocean view terraces, spiral staircases and gardens.

The suites are not the only part of Hotel Costa Verde that is made of recycled materials. The pub at its El Avión restaurant is a converted C-123 Fairchild fuselage, while its La Cantina and El Wagon restaurants are housed in old train cars.

The hotel's furniture, lighting fixtures and construction materials are made in-house from naturally-felled trees or upcycled from glass bottles, while wood scraps are either turned to mulch or used to fire the barbecue and pizza ovens.

Besides recycling, Costa Verde also grows 10,000 plants and trees each year and propagates thousands more from its nurseries.

7. Kasbah du Toubkal, Morocco

This rustic mountain retreat overlooks the Toubkal National Park from its site at the foot of the High Atlas Mountains. Formerly a kasbah (local chieftain's dwelling), the property was acquired by brothers Chris and Mike McHugo in the early 1990s.

The government gave the deal the green light to prevent the kasbah from becoming a private home or luxury hotel.

Indeed, the operators describe the lodge as a Berber hospitality centre, rather than a hotel. This is evident in its simplicity. The hotel is decorated and staffed by friendly Berbers from nearby villages.

Guests arrive on foot with donkeys carrying their luggage, after a half-hour trek from Imlil village. After this, they may admire the magnificent views from the comfort of the lodge's terraces, or hike up the mountains — including North Africa's highest point Jbel Toubkal (4,167m).

A 5% surcharge is added to all the bills at the resort, to fund the construction of common facilities such as schools, a trout farm, a café and a boarding house for the local secondary school, in the villages.

8. Treehotel Sweden, Harad

Dubbed "treerooms" by the operator, the structures are whimsical (a giant bird's nest, UFO, mirrored walls), sleek (a capsule-like cabin) and vintage (an old-fashioned wooden house). They are anything but ordinary.

Local contractors carefully built these houses on trees using environmentally-friendly materials. For example, outdoor wood floors are treated with heat, instead of chemicals.

The units are also outfitted with resource-efficient systems, such as low-energy LEDs, green hydroelectricity and combustion toilets that incinerate waste at 600°C. These high-tech toilets are powered by electricity and are odourless. One of the tree houses uses a freezing toilet that also runs on electricity and has no smell. It helps to heat up the unit in winter.

Meals are prepared and served at Britta's Pensionat — a building straight out of 1930s to 1950s Sweden. It houses the restaurant, bar, sauna and relaxation area, TV and Internet facilities.

This story first appeared in The Edge weekly edition of Aug 19-25, 2013.

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