When Mitch Thomson began searching on the Internet for a vacation rental this summer, he never imagined his stay at Kaweah Cottage, a two-bedroom retreat in the western foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, would end up changing his family's lifestyle.
"It was a work of serendipity," said Thomson, who was not specifically looking for a green home, though he happened to be taking a green building class at the time. "We wanted a week of peace and quiet and hiking with the kids, so I Googled 'Sequoia Cabins,' and then this house popped up that looked fantastic with close proximity to a river. In fact, you can hear the river from the house."
Thomson, his wife, Cheryl, and their two daughters and a son (ages 14, 11 and 8) ended up spending four days hiking in the mountains, swimming in the nearby ancient rock holes, and practicing what he called "off-the-grid living."
"We all unplugged," he explained. At night instead of watching television (there was no TV, only a video monitor with a DVD and VHS player) or surfing the Web (there was Wi-Fi but no computer), they played the board games provided at the house and sat under the stars talking as a family. "Since the trip we have decided to spend one week each month not using electronic devices," said Thomson, who lives in Orange County, California "It will be our attempt to relive the vibe from Kaweah."
Kaweah Cottage (www.KaweahCottage.com), with its American clay interior walls, formaldehyde-free plywood, dual-pane glazing and sustainably harvested wood, is just one of a growing number of green homes around the world now available for vacation rentals. Just as Kaweah Cottage is situated on a hillside near the Kaweah River with views of the Sierra peaks, most eco homes are built into breathtakingly natural settings, so guests can enjoy both an indoor and outdoor green experience. Kaweah Cottage even has an organic garden where guests can pick fresh arugula, squash and tomatoes.
James and Kathleen Seligman, with their now grown daughter, have lived on the property for the past 20 years in a house about 150 feet from Kaweah Cottage (a yurt stands in between). The couple built the cottage in 2006 as a two-bedroom overflow for family and friends but then decided to rent it out to offset some of the costs.
Dana Mayer, the owner with her husband, Stephen Carroll, of two eco-friendly vacation homes (one in Sedona, Arizona, and one in St. Augustine, Florida) and the founder of Ecoluxurylodging.com, a Web site that bills its properties as "healthy alternatives to big box condos and hotel gift shops," said clients get a "bigger space with a smaller footprint" when they rent a green home. Yet she does not want to market her properties only to what she calls "devotees" — hard-core green activists. "That's like preaching to the choir," said Mayer, a Florida resident.
"I offer a great place at the right price and the value added is that it is also eco-friendly," she said, adding that she will have another green rental available in 2009 — in Norway.
To educate her guests, Mayer stocks her houses with a library of green books, videos and resource information, just in case they did not sufficiently check out her Web site, which explains that both properties are solar powered, furnished with organic and natural materials, landscaped with local plants and completely hypoallergenic. In addition, all appliances and fixtures are designed to reduce energy, waste and water use.
Linda Moss, the author of "Organic Places to Stay in the U.K.," in 1999 founded a Web site, www.organicholidays.co.uk, with links to green rental homes and small inns in nearly 60 countries from Bali to Bulgaria. She said she has seen a huge increase in her Web traffic this past year. "I think people are becoming nostalgic in this crazy age of technology," she said, "searching for life as it used to be — more simple, more thoughtful about the way we treat the land we live on and more sensitive about the food we eat."
One simple but stunning property on her Web site is Ravens Havens in Paradise Valley, British Columbia (www.ravenshavens.com), a 40-minute drive from Whistler in what is called the Sea to Sky Corridor, an area that includes two historic routes, the Pemberton Trail and the Gold Rush Heritage Trail. The two-bedroom cabin with salvaged hardwood floors and hand-hewn timbers has both modern amenities and rustic features: a gas oven as well as a woodstove, a shower and a claw-foot tub.
Claudia Annett and her husband, Ian (not coincidentally in the timber-framing business), along with their daughter, Tanisha, began homesteading the heavily forested land the cottage now sits on in 1992. They created a number of vegetable, herb and flower gardens, as well as the cottage, on the property adjacent to her father's farm. Below is a river within hiking distance and a forest path where guests can join Annett, who has two horses, on evening rides. "People come here to connect to nature and eat better," she said. "We offer them fresh eggs, free-range chicken and produce from the garden, all organically farmed."
Those looking for a more boutique eco experience might want to check out Natural Retreats, 18 luxurious yet environmentally sensitive homes that have just been built within the Yorkshire Dales National Park in England (www.naturalretreats.com).
"In the U.K. there is a back-to-basics trend occurring," said Ewan Kearney, one of the directors of Natural Retreats, which plans in 2009 to have more residences open in the Lake District, Snowdonia and the North York Moors. "People want to go walking in beautiful landscapes rather than lie on a beach boiling in the Mediterranean."
"My background is in the luxury travel industry," he said, "and these residences, because they are all made with natural materials, are very high quality."
A portion of the rental proceeds goes toward supporting the local Wildlife Trust, he said, and the "Welcome Hamper" of cheeses and vegetables all comes from nearby farms. "But," Kearney said, "our goal is not to rub guests down with all the sustainability issues. Better for them to just come and enjoy it and see the difference."
Dana Mayer agreed, and said she thought the whole green marketing movement could become too aggressive. "The truth is," she said, "who doesn't want to be green, breathing clean air, eating fresh food and sleeping in a non-toxic environment? Once they are here, they learn about it and see the added benefit."