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Ecotourism destinations that go the extra mile. (A Real Trip).

If you've ever wanted to try an eco-tour, this is the year to get up and get out. Never has there been a better opportunity to see nature up-close and personal while also giving something back to the communities you visit. This is not a "Best Of" list--there are far too many wonderful places for that--but simply a listing of ecotourist operations that are making outstanding efforts to leave a smaller footprint and ensure protected areas remain secure.

LINDBLAD EXPEDITIONS. Lars-Eric Lindblad opened up such then-exotic destinations as Antarctica, the Galapagos and the Amazon to tourism beginning in 1958. His son, Sven-Olof, founded Lindblad Expeditions, which added a green tinge to the adventure touring. The shipboard tours allow visitors to listen to the songs of whales on hydrophones or watch live undersea video. Away from the ship, tourists get close to nature in Zodiac landing craft, and are guided by naturalists and experts in local culture. "We seek to travel in an environmentally responsible way," says Lindblad, "leaving the places we visit as we found them, and working with local governments and individuals to preserve them for other." CONTACT: Lindblad Expeditions, (800)EXPEDITION, www.expeditions.com.

TROPICAL NATURE TRAVEL, SOUTH AMERICA. The U.S. arm of the Tropical Nature system of conservation organizations in Peru (InkaNatura, Selva Sur and Peru Verde), Brazil (Bio-Brasil Foundation) and Ecuador (Eco-Ecuador), Tropical Nature Travel conducts birding, cultural and natural history tours to its own Amazon rainforest lodges. In a trip to Peru's Manu Biosphere Reserve, for instance, guests stay in screened tents. There are hot showers and flush toilets, but it's not exactly luxury touring. Instead of indulging themselves, conservation-minded visitors look for the 10 species of local monkeys and take in the sights at a parrot and macaw lick. CONTACT: Tropical Nature Travel, (888)287-7186, www.tropicalnaturetravel.com.

VICTOR EMANUEL NATURE TOURS, USA. Victor Emanuel's company, known, as VENT, specializes in birding tours, with 140 to 100 destinations annually. Founded in 1974 when birding tours were in their infancy, VENT's early guides included nature writer Peter Matthiessen and bird authority Roger Tory Peterson. VENT arranges tours for such environmental groups as The Nature Conservancy, the World Wildlife Fund and the National Audubon Society. The company has worked to protect Mexico's El Triunfo Cloud Forest Reserve, and it donates profits to local green groups. CONTACT: Victor Emanuel Nature Tours, (800)328-8368, www.ventbird.com.

SIERRA CLUB OUTINGS DEPARTMENT. The Sierra Club specializes in membership-based wilderness trips, which are nonprofit and reasonably priced. A recent featured trip is a week-long, rim-to-rim family backpack around the Grand Canyon ($875 for adults). Kids over 12 are invited for $775, but they can't be complete couch potatoes. If that doesn't appeal, consider five days of rafting down Colorado's last undammed tributary, the Yampa, with the opportunity to see bighorn sheep and eagles ($795 for adults). The Club also conducts special group trips and nature tours for inner-city kids, and it operates a network of lodges and huts, including the Clair Tappaan Lodge at the Donner Pass (503-426-3632) And other places in California. CONTACT: Sierra Club Outings Department, (415) 977-5522, www.sierraclub. org/outings.

MAHO BAY CAMPS, ST. JOHN, VIRGIN ISLANDS. Hardly an upstart, Maho Bay is instead a pioneer in small-scale, tent-based ecotourism. As with Tropical Nature Travel, 16-foot square canvas cottages adjoin facilities with modern plumbing and a state-of-the-art graywater recycling system. Many of the 114 tents ($75 a night in the low season, $108 in the high season) offer sweeping views of a jewel-like Caribbean cove, which boasts kayaking, snorkeling and diving. Vegetarian food is available in the outdoor restaurant. Slightly more upscale accommodations are just a short distance away at Harmony Studios ($110/$185). One final hurdle for Maho Bay is hiring more local workers. CONTACT: Maho Bay, (800)392-9004, www.maho.org.

TURTLE ISLAND, FIJI. How close to paradise can you get? Turtle Island, purchased by American businessman Richard Evanson in 1972, was at first only a way for one man to get away from it all. In 1980, it began its transformation into an exclusive eco-resort (rates start at $1,090 per couple per day), with room for 28 guests, 160 staff, and an approximate beach-to-visitor ratio of one to two. According to investor Andrew Fairley, Turtle Island is working to raise the standard of living of local people on the 500-acre island, in part by using them as building work crews and staff. It is also helping to publicize locally owned tourist facilities in the region. Cataracts and diabetes are rampant among the native population, and Turtle Island brings in teams of international doctors to stay free while treating patients. Turtle Island also works with Coral Cay Conservation, which organized the Fiji Reef Conservation Project. Another eminently worthy operation is Rivers Fiji, which operates kayak-based tours on the main island, employing local people as guides and paying a users' fee to native land owners. CONTACT: Rivers Fiji, (800)446-2411, www.riverfiji.com; Turtle Island, (877)2-TURTLE, www.turtlefiji.com.

BINNA BURRA MOUNTAIN LODGE, AUSTRALIA. One of Australia's first nature-based resorts, the Green Globe- and Nature and Ecotourism Accreditation Program (NEAP)-certified Binna Burra was opened in Southeast Queensland in 1933. The resort offers easy access to a treasured World Heritage site, Lamington National Park, with its sub-tropical rainforest featuring ancient Antarctic Beech trees and mountain streams. The lodge itself employs energy-efficient compact fluorescent lights, recycles waste (and operates a worm farm to break down kitchen and paper materials), conserves water as much as possible and employs environmentally friendly cleaners. Guests stay in homey, hand-cut log cabins, with accommodations for 115. Activities include guided bushwalks and, for kids, the Discovery Forest. Prices range from $167 to $198 (Australian) a night. CONTACT: www.binnaburralodge.com.au.

LA MILPA FIELD STATION, BELIZE. Only three miles from ancient Mayan tombs, the La Milpa Field Station is home to two archaeological projects, run by Boston University and the University of Texas, that aim to help solve the mysteries of the highly evolved civilization's collapse. But you don't have to be interested in archaeology to visit La Milpa. Northwestern Belize teems with life, including hundreds of bird species (featuring multi-colored toucans and many varieties of hummingbirds), Belize's famous howler monkeys, peccaries, coatimundis, jaguars and many more. There are nine nature trails, three of them interpreted. Guests stay in private thatched-roof cabanas or a unique solar-powered dormitory with composting toilets and graywater recycling. Rates are $76.54 per person per day in the dormitory (includes meals and guided activities) and $92.59 per day in the cabanas. The field station is a project of the locally run Programme for Belize, which works to preserve the 260,000-acre Rio Bravo Conservation and Management Area. CONTACT: Programme for Belize, (501)2-75616, www.pfbelize.org.

PHINDA, SOUTH AFRICA. It's impossible to see all of South Africa in one trip, but the Phinda eco-resort in KwaZulu-Natal Province is a good place to start. The Mountain and Forest Lodges offer a unique opportunity to explore several distinct ecosystems, from scuba diving on the world's most southern coral reefs to touring colorful palm savannah and enjoying the vistas from the Ubombo Mountains. Phinda Mountain Lodge offers split-level accommodations in rock chalets with decks overlooking the bushveld. Phinda Forest Lodge's glass chalets were hand-built by people from the Zulu community. Rates, which include meals and guided tours, are $340 to $590 per day. CONTACT: CC Africa, (011)+27-21-425-0222, www.ccafrica.com.

SAINT LUCIA, CARIBBEAN. Located in the eastern Caribbean, Saint Lucia has created nature trails that are the foundation of a strategy to protect forest reserves by creating economic incentives for local people. With support from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and tour company Lindblad Expeditions, RARE and the Forestry Department opened the Des Cartier Trail in the mountainous rainforests of the Central Forest Reserve in 1996. The Des Cartier and En Bas Saut trails are not only profitable but generate more than $500,000 for the local economy each year. Before the trails were built, the island's tourism market was entirely dominated by foreign-owned beachfront resorts. The trails lure sunbathing tourists away from the beaches for a day, and their visits are supported by a network of Saint Lucians--including tour operators, taxi drivers, guides and the cooks who prepare box lunches. Similar trails have since been developed all around the Caribbean, including Nevis, Grand Cayman, the Turks and Caicos, Jamaica and Monserrat. CONTACT: (011) 758-450-2231, www.stlucia.org.

KUYIMA, MEXICO. An outfitter in San Ignacio Lagoon in Baja California Sur, Mexico, Kuyima is owned and operated by local people within the El Vizcaino Biosphere Reserve to promote sustainable economic development. By creating jobs for underemployed fishermen, promoting environmental education and assisting the reserve staff, as well as providing outstanding local-guided whale-watching tours, Kuyima shows how tourist development and conservation can work hand in hand. Rates for the adventure package are $150 per person per day, including food, camping and a boat trip to see the whales. When Mitsubishi wanted to build one of the world's largest salt factories in the heart of this World Heritage site--which is also one of the world's last birthing grounds for the Eastern Pacific Gray Whale--Kuyima staff helped lead local efforts to explain that ecotourism offers far more to local people than factory jobs. In the end, its vision prevailed, and Mitsubishi canceled its project in 2000. CONTACT: Ecoturismo Kuyima, (011) 52-615-154-00-70, www.kuyima.com.

(Thanks to Beth Trask and Jim Dion of the RARE Center, Abi Rome, Martha Honey of IPS and Costas Christ of Conservation International for suggestions.)
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