From the summer issue of Virtuoso Life Magazine
by Melissa Gaskill
New York City resident Krista Krieger recently participated in rhino research while on safari at South Africa’s andBeyond Phinda Private Game Reserve, a collection of lodges discreetly placed among 56,800 acres of abundant wildlife and magnificent scenery. Rangers at the reserve notch each rhino’s ears for easy identification and insert a microchip in their horns to help track their whereabouts. Krieger’s group patrolled the bush by jeep, searching for an unmarked rhino, which the preserve veterinarian shot with a sedative dart. “Darting the rhino was very exciting,” she says. “I got to touch the rhino and inject it with antibiotics.” Krieger, veteran of a number of safaris, cites Phinda’s program as a good example of how effective management can bring back a devastated population of animals.
It’s also a good example of an emerging travel trend: volunteering on vacation. In 2007, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service, more than 3.7 million Americans volunteered away from home. Even more telling, in an MSNBC poll, 95 percent of those who volunteered on vacation said they’ll do it again.
“The opportunities for volunteering on vacation have probably increased a hundredfold in the past five years,” says David Clemmons, founder of VolunTourism.org.
“Participating in a volunteer experience can make a trip personally enriching and much more meaningful,” says Sue Stephenson, vice president of Ritz-Carlton Hotel Company’s Community Footprints program, which offers volunteering through Give Back Getaways at many of its properties. “It deepens the experience of visiting a unique place. Our guests describe it as inspirational and educational, and say they never felt so appreciated.”
Here are a few of the growing number of hotels offering the opportunity to combine good times with good works.
Mandarin Oriental, Miami
The Mandarin Oriental, Miami on Brickell Key works closely with Everglades National Park, a UNESCO World Heritage site – and so can you. Hotel guests can grab a box lunch and hop in a hybrid vehicle to drive to the park, about an hour away, where they spend the morning helping park staff restore Everglades habitat, perhaps planting native South Florida trees in areas affected by invasive plants or removing those invasive species. After lunch, a ranger leads a tour of the park, pointing out alligators, herons, and other wildlife, and showing participants how to “slog,” or wade through shallow waters like the locals. Doubles from $245, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit (Everglades transfers and box lunches extra).
King Pacific Lodge, British Columbia
A Whale of a Time
A luxury eco-lodge floating off Princess Royal Island in British Columbia’s Great Bear Rainforest, this hotel offers educational programs about the area’s orca and humpback whales through a partnership with the North Coast Cetacean Society (NCCS). Now guests can serve as research assistants on NCCS outings, helping scientists photograph individual whales for identification and gathering data on whale location and movement. After their departure, participants receive regular reports detailing sightings and progress of the whales they studied during their visit. “The lodge has long supported our work on the complex social and physical relationships of humpback whales,” says NCCS’s Janie Wray. “This new program forges an enduring association between these animals and guests.” Doubles from $3,841 for three nights, including all meals and beverages and a welcome sake set.
The Fairmont Acapulco Princess
Sea Turtle Sanctuary
From August to January, several species of endangered sea turtles nest on beaches near this iconic 15-story pyramid rising from the lush tropical landscape. The hotel collects and protects turtle eggs, and to date has released more than 150,000 hatchlings into the Pacific Ocean, often with the help of guests. Ecologist Vincente Batalla explains the sea turtle’s life cycle and threats to its survival, then lets guests select a turtle from among 50 or so hatchlings, release it on the sand, and shepherd it safely into the water. Without assistance, Batalla says, many hatchlings would not make it past hazards that include tourists and lights, which can disorient the turtles. Guests name their hatchling and receive a certificate and a turtle cookie created by the hotel chef. Doubles from $193, including breakfast and a $100 spa credit.
Four Seasons Resort
Saving the Sonoran
From this complex of Southwestern-style casitas and serene pools high in the dramatic Sonoran Desert landscape, take a hike – a desert preservation hike, that is. The guided walk in adjacent Pinnacle Peak Park concludes with guests planting a buckhorn cholla cactus, Fairy Duster, or other native plant. On the hike John Loleit, coordinator for the city park, shares his wealth of knowledge about the area’s signature plants, animals, archaeology, and geology, pointing out, for example, edible plants and those used by Native Americans for medicinal purposes. “People see the desert in a different light after the hike,” he says. “And because most plants here are long-lived, people can come back in five or ten years and see the one they planted. It gives them a nice connection with this place, a feeling that they helped out.” Doubles from $195, including breakfast.