For a long time, "green hotels" meant rustic eco-lodges deep in the Amazonian jungle or over-water bungalows set on the edge of some far-flung tropical island -- accommodations that seem to fit organically with their remote, pristine environments.
But now, hotels closer to home have caught on to the environmental lodging concept, pairing innovative eco-practices with stylish design and forward-thinking technologies. This school of green emphasizes equal parts comfort and conservation, bringing "earth-friendly" to new heights of fashion.
A prime example: San Francisco's chic new 86-room Orchard Garden Hotel, the first hotel in California and the fifth in the United States built to the LEED ("leadership in energy and environmental design") standards established by the U.S. Green Building Council. The Orchard Garden reduces heat emissions with highly reflective roof materials that deflect the sun's rays, lower surface temperatures, and reduce the amount of air-conditioning required in the building. Low-flow plumbing reduces water usage, and a dedicated basement recycling center sorts paper, cardboard, glass, plastics, and metal.
The piece de resistance? The room key controls everything from lighting to air-conditioning. Remove the card when you leave, and the power automatically shuts off. This innovation alone reduces energy consumption by about 20 percent.
Going green might seem tough for an establishment surrounded by asphalt, but the hotel's general manager, Stefan Muhle, asserts that city hotels can do plenty, including using recycled materials for the beds, carpets, and drapes. In fact, Orchard Garden's downtown location actually makes it even more environmentally friendly, says Melanie Lapointe, assistant project manager for Swinerton Builders, the hotel's contractor. "We're not cutting down trees in virgin land. We're using an existing site and contributing to urban redevelopment," she says. "By using the city's established recycling programs, we've also been able to divert 75 percent of the construction, demolition, and land-clearing wastes from landfill, something we couldn't do in a rural setting."
Of equal importance, Muhle's goal with the Orchard Garden "is to show everyone that being green and being luxurious aren't mutually exclusive." So each of the rooms, designed in a pale green-and-beige palette (using low-VOC paints, of course), exudes an air of spa tranquillity. Botanical-rich Aveda products line the bathroom's marble counter, while sleek, Japanese-inspired sliding doors and wooden headboards feature sustainably grown maple certified by the Forest Stewardship Council.
On the East Coast, Nantucket's 10-room Hotel Green, established last summer by shoe designer Vanessa Noel, showcases new possibilities by introducing a sophisticated version of green. Set in a historic 1838 building in Nantucket Town, the boutique hotel uses energy-efficient lightbulbs, all-natural organic flax bed linens, organic hemp towels, chemical-free cleaning supplies, and organic milk-based paint. Guests can indulge in organic wines and in-room treats. Even the toilet paper is made from recycled paper.
Next up, Noel plans to install solar panels and change from oil fuel to recycled cooking grease left over from the hotel's organic restaurant.
"You can be incredibly couture and organic," says Noel, who's also in the process of creating a new line of green-label shoes using vegetable-dyed Italian leather and fair-trade beading. "When people think organic in Nantucket, they think it's all hippie. But the 100 percent organic cotton and hemp robes at Hotel Green are even more luxurious than the Frette-brand robes we use at my other hotel down the street."
While it's no doubt easier to implement environmentally friendly measures in smaller properties like Noel's, that hasn't stopped mainstream chains from spearheading their own green initiatives in cities near and far. An early pioneer, the Canadian-based Fairmont Hotels & Resorts purchased renewable energy certificates that use wind power to offset emissions caused by its 249 check-in computers across North America.
Its San Jose, California, property has installed cutting-edge co-generation facilities, which capture waste energy from standard power generators and use it to heat water and buildings. Toronto's Fairmont Royal York hotel grows all its own herbs in on-site organic gardens for use in the kitchens. And the entire grounds (including the golf course) at the Fairmont Banff Springs in Alberta, Canada, are undergoing environmental certification by the Audubon Cooperative Sanctuary Program. In at least one case, Fairmont is also intent on helping the communities in which it resides: The Fairmont Hotel Vancouver donates its surplus food to the city's needy.
Kimpton Hotels, a chain of trendy boutique properties each with its own identity and style, recently formalized its EarthCare program, reinforcing two decades of the company's environmental and social responsibility efforts. The chain donates half-used amenity bottles to local charities, puts designer recycling bins in guest rooms, and has implemented the use of eco-friendly cleaning supplies, low-flow water systems, and organic minibars across the board.
Their efforts complement the already successful Kimpton Cares program, which has partnered with several nonprofits to offer guests the opportunity to make a $10 donation to either the Trust for Public Land's conservation efforts or Dress for Success, which provides career assistance to more than 45,000 low-income women each year.
The future of stylish city hotels is only looking greener. Starwood Hotels and Resorts, parent company of Sheraton, Westin, and W Hotels, has recently announced a new chain called Aloft, set to launch in 2008. A signature Aloft offering -- the "See Green" awareness program -- will incorporate eco-friendly shampoo, conditioner, and body-wash dispensers; recycled teak wood throughout; eco-friendly detergent for all laundry services; and parking spaces reserved for hybrid cars.
Also opening in 2008: The first of 15 outposts of "1" hotels from Starwood Capital (not to be confused with Starwood Resorts), which will meet LEED standards and donate 1 percent of revenue to local environmental organizations. And with talk of a green Ritz-Carlton in Lake Tahoe on the drawing board, it seems the trend of eco-luxury hotels is here to stay.
Text by Nonnie Tsui