Green cycling and hiking adventures
Slovenia’s landscape of mountains and lakes lends itself to outdoor adventure: nearly 60% of the country is covered in forests, and there are more than 40 parks and reserves. Some areas, such as Lake Bled, have seen an influx of tourists over recent years but much remains off the beaten track – and the government has a strategy for sustainable tourism growth.
Opened last year, the 270km Juliana Trail, a hiking route through the Julian Alps, takes walkers away from some of the most-visited parts of Triglav national park in a bid to combat overtourism. The circular trail, which starts at Kranjska Gora near the Italian border, is divided into 16 stages, with most of the daily routes starting at a railway station or bus stop. Bike Slovenia Green offers another way of exploring a multi-stage itinerary through the Julian Alps, around Lake Bohinj and Lake Bled and on to the Adriatic coast. The series of one-day cycling loops visit places that have a Slovenia Green certificates, such as the karst village of Komen, known for fresh cheese ravioli, fresh herbs, and prosciutto. Designed by sustainable travel agency Visit GoodPlace, and funded by the EU, the bike routes go through three wine regions and take cyclists to family-run hotels via quiet roads and cycle paths.
Also new for 2020 is a Best of Slovenia By Train trip from Inntravel. Traveling via Vienna and Venice, it makes use of Slovenia’s charming, old-fashioned rail network and takes in highlights from alpine Bohinj to capital Ljubljana and Piran on the Adriatic coast. (from £1,045 for seven nights, inntravel.co.uk).
Explore Sweden’s eco-certified city
Almost everything you can do in Gothenburg, you can do with a clean conscience. For the past three years, Sweden’s industrial second city has topped the Global Destination Sustainability Index, thanks to its efforts to “minimize any negative impact on people and the environment”. All major venues are eco-certified and 92% of hotel rooms hold an official eco-certification, making Gothenburg one of the world’s greenest hotel cities. Even the Opera House, Concert Hall, and Liseberg amusement park are eco-certified, and restaurants have good access to local and organic produce.
Step off the train at the central station – you took the train, right? –and walk five minutes to the ferry stop opposite the Opera House. The Älvsnabben ferry plies a gentle loop up and down the river and it is going electric in 2020. Gothenburg is a small big city, or maybe a big small city, with a cultural scene that includes Way Out West, a three-day summer music festival that is 100% vegetarian and has reduced its carbon footprint year on year. And, in half an hour, you can be deep in the Bohuslän countryside, or kayaking upriver to picturesque Jonsered, with its sustainable hotel Le Mat.
The Hagabion cafe and bar in the central Linné area is renowned for a vegetarian menu that changes daily. People gather here, too, for a drink before moving on to the many other restaurants, bars and venues nearby. At the heart of the city is the Gothia Towers hotel, the biggest hotel in Europe to be certified according to the Breeam standard for environmental certification. Out of season, rooms can be had for £100, though a luxury room with access to the spa and glass-bottomed pool on the 19th floor will cost (much) more.
The kitchen garden on the roof boasts Sweden’s highest apiary, with 150,000 bees. The garden produce is Krav-certified for sustainability and, like the herbs and spices grown here, the honey is used in the dishes of the Upper House restaurant, and in its own beer (brewed in-house).
For the energetic, Gothenburg hosts the world’s largest half marathon, with more than 60,000 runners. It also has many events for cyclists and swimmers, including the world’s biggest annual swim-run event (1 August). Hire a bike to see the city and explore further afield. Put the bikes on the train for the 20-minute trip to the town of Kungsbacka, and cycle around Lygnern lake. Alternatively, stick to the southern coastal path from the centre to Särö island.
There is no shortage of spots for wild swimming at lakes in and around Gothenburg. A short bus ride away is Gunnebo Slott manor house and gardens, with its organic restaurant – and lakes nearby. Typing badplats (bathing spot) into Google Maps will bring up a wealth of places with wooden quays and ladders into the water. There’s canoe hire on Surtesjön lake and nearby waters on the northern edge of the city, and sea-bathing to the south at Näset. On the island of Tjörn, further north, the Pilane outdoor sculpture park is breathtaking. For unwinding afterwards, there’s a free public sauna at Frihamnen, across the river from central Gothenburg.
Italy’s ‘greenest’ valley
The rolling Vara valley in north-west Italy is not unusual in suffering a haemorrhage of young people from rural communities but it is unusual in its response: going greener. At the turn of the century, thanks to an enlightened mayor, farmers up and down the valley, which runs parallel to the coast between Genoa and La Spezia, started switching to organic production. The idea spread to hotels and restaurants, artisanal producers and tourist initiatives and led, in 2013, to the creation of the Val di Vara Biodistrict, to represent the businesses and run community events.
Today, 55% of the valley’s 345 sq km of hilly terrain is under organic cultivation – compared with 11% in Italy as a whole (which in itself puts the UK’s 2.9% to shame). And more than 100 business have organic certification. Farmers around San Pietro Vara are raising “wild” Limousin cattle with barely any human input and the Val di Vara dairy co-op makes cheeses to ancient recipes.
The area’s Bio Festival, launched in 2018, is now an annual event, with streetfood, games, livestock shows and music. And last summer the Biodistrict started running full-day bus tours of the valley from Levanto on the coast (€47 adult, €25 child, family 2+2 €141, including lunch and tastings).
In the past few years, young locals have opened five farms to the public and started 13 agriturismos, offering rustic rooms and farmhouse meals, plus jams, liqueurs, olive oil or meat to buy. Try Il Risveglio Naturale or Il Filo di Paglia. Local cycling enthusiast Marco runs five-hour e-bike tours of the valley – in Italian and English – from agriturismo L’Antico Cornio, with tastings of focaccia, cured meats, cheeses and wine (€60pp, book at foodyexperience.com).
The capital of Val di Vara is Varese Ligure, a walled town dating from 1161, with a castle, medieval churches and a 16th-century stone bridge. On a small riverside square, Pietro Picetti, who is in his 70s, hand-carves wooden moulds for stamping corzetti (or croxetti), the local, disc-shaped pasta – once with prominent families’ coat of arms; now often just with pleasing patterns, or your initials! Visitors can have an organic lunch of corzetti pasta with walnut sauce at Albergo Amici in Varese Ligure, before stocking up on foodie gifts from, say, honey and fruit farm Cascina le Bosche or herb and saffron producer Le Piccole Erbe. Dinner could be at the equally organic Antica Locanda Luigina in Mattarana.
To work up an appetite for all this bounty, the Vara river and its tributaries offer kayaking, rafting and canyoning (valdivara.it) and the area is crisscrossed by footpaths including the Alta Via dei Monti Liguri – a 400km ridgetop cycling/hiking route. There’s more adrenaline action on the high ropes and zipwires of Parco Avventura Val Di Vara.
Eco-snow sports, Swiss-style
The Flims Laax Falera region in eastern Switzerland’s Graubünden canton is well-endowed with natural beauty but there’s a particularly primeval air to the landscape here. For starters there’s the Rhine Gorge, known in the local Romansh language as Ruinaulta and more commonly as the Swiss grand canyon. After a huge landslide thousands of years ago, the Rhine scoured a path through the debris, creating what is now a dramatic summer playground for hikers, rafters and bikers. Hikers can also explore the Unesco site of Sardona, where tectonic plates once crunched together, pushing the rock upwards and leaving a distinct limestone line across the mountains.
Winter offers snowy walking trails, pro-standard snowparks and 224km of slopes in three linked ski areas. With the highest piste topping 3,000 metres, snow is reliable, yet as in many other Swiss resorts, Flims Laax Falera has recently seen its snowline creep upwards and its ski season shorten. Its plans to tackle the climate crisis are more ambitious than most.
In 2010 the Weisse Arena Gruppe, which operates the ski resort, introduced a Greenstyle project, aiming to gradually transform itself into the world’s first self-sufficient, carbon-neutral alpine resort. Energy consumption has fallen by 15% over seven years, and all its electricity now comes from carbon-neutral sources. Ski lifts generate power through photovoltaic panels and waste energy is recovered and reused; piste bashers groom slopes at optimum energy efficiency; and the Rocksresort has twice been named best green ski hotel at the World Ski Awards.
The three villages all have water refill fountains, recycling stations and charging points for electric cars, while an e-shuttle is bookable on the resort’s app, with proceeds going to the Greenstyle Foundation. And this winter, a new weekly repair service at the Riders Hotel will mend ski clothing for free. Test out your rejuvenated gear on the slopes before stopping for a drink at the piste-hopping Travelling Bar, which is also doing its bit – 10% of turnover goes to Greenstyle.
A vision of the urban future
Rotterdam is a city that’s not afraid to experiment. From the architecture of Rem Koolhaas, one of its most famous sons, to the annual Rooftops Festival, which in 2019 saw 65 rooftops repurposed to host events, Europe’s largest port is a fascinating living laboratory for anyone interested in what urban living might look like in the coming years. There’s even a Sponge Garden for studying how best urban green spaces can be used to capture and hold rainwater and return it to the natural environment.
Many of the city’s innovations are focused on a waste-free circular economy. It’s home to the world’s first floating farm, where 32 cows are fed on scraps from local hotels and restaurants, and produce milk for city residents and manure for Rotterdam’s flowerbeds. And at Blue City, a former indoor subtropical swimming complex has been repurposed to provide workspace for more than 30 startups working in the circular economy. “Waste” coffee granules from the Aloha Bar-Restaurant become soil for the mushrooms grown by a neighbouring startup; another is fashioning fruit peelings into leather.
From 1 May, visitors wanting to immerse themselves in the city’s vision can stay in one of Culture Campsite’s spaces in the riverside Delfshaven district, with choices of upcycled “sleeping objects” including a greenhouse, a silo and a cattle shelter.
Although Rotterdam’s main attractions tend to look to the future, it has not forgotten where its citizens came from. With around 180 nationalities calling the city home, it has a claim to be one of the most multicultural in the world. A great place to understand this richness is the Story House Belvédère. This community-run enterprise in the Katendrecht district is part-cafe, part-gallery and part-events space. Headphones lining the walls play recordings gathered from around Rotterdam, sharing the voices of the many cultures that give the city its character, and there are exhibitions by its annual immigrant artist in residence.
Marine protection and sustainability to savour
Menorcans realised early that a sustainable approach to tourism was essential for avoiding the overdevelopment that has spoiled so much of the Mediterranean coast in Spain. A Unesco biosphere reserve since 1993, the island has crystal-clear waters, a thriving local culture and unique gastronomy.
The best way to access the white sandy beaches of the south and rocky coves of the north is via the Camí de Cavalls, an ancient path for mounted soldiers connecting defensive lookouts that encircles the island. Thanks to pressure from a local NGO, it was reopened as a public right of way in 2010 and is now much-loved by Menorcans and visitors alike for walking, cycling or horse-riding.
Since 2016, the Balearic Islands has collected a sustainable tourism tax and used it to fund local conservation initiatives such as the Underwater Atlas project, which maps the seagrass beds essential to the marine ecosystem so that they are not disturbed by boat anchors. Snorkelling around the coves to the east of Binimel-là beach you’ll find waters bursting with life – look out for octopus and even the odd Moray eel. Last year, some 20 sq km of coastal waters was added to the existing Unesco biosphere reserve, making it the largest protected marine environment in the Mediterranean.
The ferry from Barcelona arrives in the second largest town, Ciutadella, at the western end of the island. There, on 23-24 June each year, the Fiestas de Sant Joan brings parades of Menorcan horses, jousting and fireworks. Enjoy the festivities with a pomada – a mix of lemonade and distinctive Menorcan gin – legacy of a century of British rule. The British also left a taste for butter, which features in many local recipes.
Stay at Ses Sucreres (doubles from €95 B&B) in the pretty, whitewashed village of Ferreries in the centre of the island, and visit the homemade produce market in Plaça Espanya, held on Saturday mornings, to sample the Mahón-Menorca cheese, with its distinctive sharp, salty flavour. Seafood also plays a huge role in local cuisine – Es Cranc restaurant in the tiny northern port of Fornells is known for its outstanding caldereta (lobster stew). Menorca is currently in the running for European Region of Gastronomy 2022.
Shopping, sightseeing and museums are the mainstays of most city breaks. Copenhagen has all these – but where else could you go skiing in the city centre, or float in the clear water of open-air harbour baths? CopenHill, a huge new urban ski slope, was built atop a renewable waste-to-energy power plant. As well as skiing and snowboarding, it has running and hiking trails, and the world’s highest outdoor climbing wall.
Copenhagen has pledged to become the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. It is well on the way to reaching its goal, so is already a great place for a sustainable stay. It’s one of the most bike-friendly cities in the world, so explore it on two wheels – there are many hire points, 375km of cycle tracks and several pedestrian/bike bridges over the harbour.
Public transport is excellent, and expanding: the metro’s new City Circle line now links the center with the neighborhoods of Østerbro, Nørrebro, Frederiksberg and Vesterbro, and another new line opens this year, connecting the northern harbor.
Noma put the Copenhagen food scene on the map with its use of ultra-local ingredients and innovative takes on traditional techniques but there are plenty of other restaurants with great food and low carbon footprints. Gro Spiseri is a rooftop farm-cum-restaurant where diners eat in the greenhouses, and Baest has its own microdairy producing cheese from biodynamic Danish milk.
More than two-thirds of the city’s hotels hold an eco-certificate. One of the newest is the industrial-chic Hotel Ottilia (doubles from £120 B&B), converted from two former brewery buildings in the emerging Carlsberg City district. It serves an organic breakfast, has a free “wine hour” from 5pm-6pm and the rooftop restaurant has views over the city.
To get to Copenhagen from the UK without flying, take the Eurostar and onward trains to Brussels, Cologne or Hamburg, stay overnight, then continue to Copenhagen the next morning. (Stopping at one city on the way there and another on the way back adds to the fun.) Details at seat61.com
Hikes, bikes – and affordable public transport
Austria’s capital and the “world’s most livable city for 10 consecutive years”, is surrounded by vineyards and woods, and dotted with gardens and parks, which together make up around 50% of the urban area. Former imperial parks are incorporated into the Lainz game reserve, the Lobau Unesco biosphere reserve in the Donau-Auen national park, and the well-known Prater park, whose grounds accompany a famed funfair. The city has 240km of signposted hiking trails through the Vienna Woods and other recreational areas, all accessible by public transport.
The public rental bike system, Citybike Vienna, allows you to crisscross cobblestone streets to canalside avenues and sample the 300km of paths on the Wienerwald Cycle Route and the extensive Danube Cycle Path.
The city has spent €8m on tree planting as part of initiatives to redesign parks and streets. Zieglergasse in the 7th district is Vienna’s first climate-adapted street, completed in December 2019. With drinking fountains, cooling arches, garden, and shaded areas, alongside more space for bikes, it has been dubbed the “Cool Mile”. Nearby Neubaugasse, in the same district, will unveil a similar redesign in mid-January, for planned completion by autumn. Construction of a “Cooling Park” in the adjacent 6th district’s Esterházypark is due in spring 2020, and will include two “climate trees” made of three-meter-high mist showers within an expanded shaded, green space.
Urban gardening is common, on organic city farms and private allotments, aided by some of the city’s 200 million bees in beehives atop the Vienna State Opera, the Burgtheater and the Old General Hospital. Some districts hold weekly local farmers’ markets, although the main central markets of Naschmarkt, Karmelitermarkt and Brunnenmarkt at Yppenplatz all feature local vendors selling organic produce. Access to fresh mountain water is the norm, with 1,000 free drinking fountains throughout the city.
Vienna is proud of its affordable and accessible transport system: the annual inner-city transport card costs €1 a day. With a focus on lowering car usage, the Friday Nightskating event invites people to take to the streets on skates and bikes, as a way to encourage people to see the city without noise or pollution. A push to get more people to use the extensive rail network is backed by Austria’s train operator, OBB. The addition of services to Brussels and northern Romania, on top of routes to neighboring countries, will establish Vienna as the best-connected city by rail in Europe in 2020.
Bears, bison and biodiversity
You don’t have to fly to southern Africa to go on safari – Romania is one of the best places in Europe to see large mammals in the wild. The country has seven million hectares of forests – a significant proportion is ancient virgin woodland – and is home to the continent’s largest populations of brown bears, as well as wolves and lynx.
Among organisations working to protect the wilderness is Foundation Conservation Carpathia (FCC), which has ambitious plans to create the largest forested national park in Europe. Focusing on restoring degraded forests and the wider ecosystem, FCC recently launched an ecotourism programme, including bear tracking. It has built four wildlife hides and trains specialised guides for one- and multi-day trips. FCC is also rolling out a four-year bison reintroduction programme in the region’s Făgăraș mountains, in partnership with the ProPark Foundation for Protected Areas and Conservation Capital. The first animals will be released into the wild this spring.
Besides benefiting local communities through wildlife tourism, the reintroduction of bison – which disappeared from Romania 200 years ago – will also increase biodiversity. In a separate venture by Rewilding Europe and WWF Romania, the European commission-funded Life Bison project has already released 60 animals in Carpathia’s Tarcu and Poiana Ruscă mountains, with more to come this year. Bison-tracking holidays in the area are offered by the European Safari Company (part of Rewilding Europe). A two-night experience costs from €299, including guiding and meals. The Bison Hillock Association, also involved in the project, offers a choice of trips, too, with hiking, cycling and homestay options.
While the country faces issues with extensive illegal logging (two rangers were killed last autumn trying to protect the forests, and protesters took to the streets in November demanding more government action), ecotourism is increasing steadily.
“There are challenges but ecotourism is growing organically here and lots of small-scale ethical businesses are opening, using local guides and produce, with the money staying in the community,” said Andrei Blumer, president of the Association of Eco-Tourism in Romania.
In the Danube Delta, new conservation projects include the reintroduction of water buffalo on Ermakov island. “We have amazing nature and wildlife and offer something unique in Europe,” said Blumer.
Native culture and natural beauty
It may not come as a surprise that a country led by a 34-year-old female prime minister and an all-female coalition is also a world leader in progressive environmental policies. Among the Finnish coalition’s key policies is a pledge to become a carbon-neutral country by 2035. Tourism is playing its part, with a rigorous sustainability policy that puts protection of the country’s natural environment first.
In Helsinki, where nature trails and clean coastal waters are part of the fabric of everyday life, more than 75% of hotel rooms are certified as environment-friendly. Some even feature a carbon calculator so guests can measure the impact of their stay and get tips on reducing it. The city’s Think Sustainably initiative encourages attractions to use green energy sources, compensate visitor emissions and incorporate social responsibility into their business practise, through their recruitment policies and by donating part of their profits to good causes. The flagship and architecturally striking Art museum, Amos Rex, uses renewable energy supplier Ekosähkö; while urban sauna Loyly – built from sustainably-sourced wood – serves organic food in its restaurant and plans to offer leftover meals for sale at a discount to cut back on waste. Helsinki is also at the forefront of responsible fashion with stores selling upcycled or secondhand clothes and several fashion “libraries” that have clothes for loan.
But a commitment to protect nature – and people – runs the length and breadth of the country. In Utsjoki, the northernmost municipality, the 1,200-strong community is reinventing its tourism, after new regulations put an end to salmon fishing, once its largest source of income. Now Utsjoki is promoting its wilderness and Sami culture through mountain biking, kayaking, snow-shoeing and visiting the three villages to experience modern Sami culture, where reindeer husbandry is still a significant part of life.
In the east, local company Äksyt Ämmät runs small-group tours of the forest, rivers and lakes of North Karelia. These are hosted by local guides and offer stays in small, family-run guesthouses: from a two-hour snow-shoeing tour through Koli national park (adults from €30; children €15) to a week on an island on Lake Saimaa (from €1,328pp) cross-country skiing and snow-shoeing and meeting villagers.
In the autumn, Finland went a step further in its mission to create a tourism industry built on the long-term preservation of the environment, by introducing a tourism pledge, and encouraging visitors to not just enjoy nature but to “respect and treasure” it, too.
Making tourism a force for good
Tourism has been a game-changer for Portugal, making Lisbon and, more recently, Porto into weekend hotspots with boutique hotels and hipster bars and restaurants. This has not been without a cost – one that’s been borne primarily by local residents and businesses, who find themselves forced out of neighbourhoods by rising rents. Acknowledging that this growth was too rapid, the government is determined that a planned increase in visitor numbers will be managed sustainably, spreading tourism across the country – and the seasons – and putting local people first.
It is three years into a 10-year sustainability strategy under which millions of euros has been invested in a variety of programmes aimed at boosting tourism beyond the honeypot destinations. One such programme is Revive, designed to breathe new life into abandoned or run-down heritage sites. One of the first – of 33 – to open was Vila Galé, a former convent converted into a hotel in Elvas, a Unesco-listed but overlooked town near the Spanish border. A similar scheme, Revive Natura, will do the same for rural sites, such as former rangers’ cottages.
In the southern Alentejo, the largest artificial lake in Europe, Alqueva, was once ignored even by locals but is now a destination with water sports, beach areas, boutique hotels and a dark sky reserve.
By 2027, 90% of tourism businesses will have to comply with rules governing water, waste and energy use, with help from government funding. Underpinning it all is a commitment to turn tourism into a force for good. A recent study found that just 30% of people in major cities are happy with tourism; the goal is to increase that to 90% by 2027.
Europe’s biggest gardening project
More than 700 volunteer gardeners have been busy in Salford, removing invasive species from a 154-acre site and planting more welcome ones, including 40,000 crocus bulbs for a dazzling spring display. They are not toiling alone: a small herd of rare-breed pigs has been clearing brambles and digging over the soil. Oh, and there are quite a few professional gardeners on board, too.
This is the new RHS Garden Bridgewater, the biggest gardening project in Europe. The £30m-plus site is due to open this summer on the site of Worsley New Hall, a 19th-century mansion on the edge of the city that was demolished in the 1940s. It is the RHS’s first new garden in 17 years and first urban garden, it has been designed by landscape architect Tom Stuart-Smith. A million annual visitors are expected to generate £13.8m a year for the local economy by 2029, with 140 jobs in the garden itself and 180 more in the surrounding area.
Community is at the heart of this garden. Richard Green, the head of Bridgewater, says: “There is no other garden like this in the north-west of England, not on this scale. It is a mix of stunning horticulture and a place for people.”
As well as the green-fingered volunteers, GPs are already referring patients to the garden through a “social prescribing” pilot scheme, whereby people struggling with isolation, mobility problems and other conditions are prescribed activities such as gardening. A dedicated therapeutic gardener, Ozichi Brewster, leads this programme, which has so far helped 40 people. Patients can plant hanging baskets, make bug hotels, go on woodland walks or join tai chi and yoga sessions in the wellbeing garden, a hub for community organisations such as dementia support groups and veterans.
Young people have also been helping in the garden under the National Citizen Service. Soon there will be classrooms and a learning garden – about 7,000 local schoolchildren will be invited every year – and apprenticeship schemes. Adults can garden in community allotments in the walled garden; four of the plots will be dedicated to growing produce for a local food bank. There are also demonstration areas to inspire visitors to transform their own gardens.
Other prominent features include a kitchen garden, providing fruit and vegetables for the cafe; a Chinese garden created with Greater Manchester’s Chinese community; and a calming “paradise garden” with a huge pond. A wild woodland play area with hobbit holes, a bug garden and a low ropes course is designed to help children of all ages get outside, connect with nature and socialise away from screens.
Those who can’t wait for the official opening in the summer can book a two-hour guided tour (£5, until April). Or why not join the green army? The garden is recruiting now for its next batch of volunteers.
Opens summer 2020. Free entry for RHS members, and for Salford residents every Tuesday for the first year. Everyone else can have two free visits a year.
Ambitious habitat restoration project
It’s easy to presume that the Cairngorms national park, with its ancient woodlands, peat bogs, untamed rivers and forbidding mountains, is faring well when it comes to conservation. But in fact, much of its native flora and fauna has been damaged by hundreds of years of poor management and a burgeoning deer population. One organisation is now helping turn the tide by putting together the most ambitious vision for habitat restoration Britain has ever seen.
Cairngorms Connect is a collaborative habitat restoration project launched in 2019, with funding from Endangered Landscapes Programme, covering 600 sq km (13% of the Cairngorms national park). The area contains some of the UK’s most prized ecosystems – from its only sub-Arctic montane plateau to forests that are home to pine martens, wild cats, eagles, capercaillie and rare tooth-fungi.
Committing to an ecological timeframe of 200 years (there’s no room for a short-term mentality here), neighbouring land managers — including Wildland, RSPB Scotland, Scottish Natural Heritage and Forestry and Land Scotland — will work together to restore native woodlands, peatlands, wetlands and rivers.
In 2020, visitors will get a better sense of the project thanks to a newly refurbished visitor centre, interpretive walks and volunteering opportunities. Since 1959, when it was just a caravan parked on borrowed land, the Loch Garten Osprey Centre in Abernethy has grown into the RSPB’s second-largest and most diverse reserve, home to more than 5,000 species. Thanks to funding from European Structural Funds, the centre will in 2020 be renamed and refurbished with improved access, and open for eight months of the year: the Loch Garten Nature Centre will help explain Cairngorms Connect as part of a wider conservation story.
Beyond the centre, interpretive walks will be added to the Big Pines and Two Lochs trails to enhance understanding of the UK’s largest single remnant of ancient Caledonian pinewood.
While Cairngorms Connect’s focus for 2020 is getting local communities involved, visitors will get a look-in, too. Volunteers can join one-day projects from seed collecting to planting (once live, opportunities will be advertised on the Cairngorms Connect website).
Rewilding tour operator Scotland: The Big Picture has launched a four-day Wilderness Weekend: Cairngorms Connect (15-18 May, from £765pp), which takes visitors on a conservation-oriented journey through the diverse landscapes.
Also opening in the region next year, as part of the Cairngorms national park’s net zero by 2045 vision, is a Speyside Way extension and a Strathspey electric bike project.
Stargazing in the Sperrin mountains, County Tyrone
The Sperrin mountains, which straddle the counties of Derry and Tyrone, are often overlooked by visitors heading for the Giant’s Causeway on the Antrim coast, or various Game of Thrones locations. But the Sperrins are “Ulster’s wildest land”, according to Irish poet Mary Montague. “The thickest sheets of the last ice age scoured these mountains into smooth undulations that banner the skyline. But don’t be fooled by gentle curves – the Sperrins’ heart is vastly bleak,” she says.
The Sperrins area of outstanding natural beauty is a wild, untouched landscape of moorland and forest, punctuated with tarns and bogs. It also offers rare unspoiled views of the night sky. A scatter of neolithic monuments, such as the Beaghmore stone circle, bear testament to the fact that the constellations have long held sway over these parts.
In April, Northern Ireland’s first dark sky observatory will open in Davagh Forest, giving visitors the opportunity to experience the night sky away from light pollution.
This dense woodland, with miles of moss-covered conifers, has a fairytale quality, with sika deer roaming free and the odd sighting of rare pine martens. It sits in a small valley formed by the Davagh Water, one of the headstreams of the Owenreagh River, and is popular with hikers and mountain bikers. But the £1.2m Dark Sky Park will focus attention upwards, with a telescope trained on the solar system through a retractable roof.
A series of audio-visual shows with maps of the solar system will be specially created for night-time events and screened on to the buildings: visitors can watch from a viewing platform, and explore the universe via holographic installations and virtual reality headsets. There will also be exhibitions linking the landscape with the archaeological and astronomical heritage of the Sperrins, as well as a play planetarium for children.
And for those who want to extend their stay and sleep under the stars, like the ancients, five glamping pods are being built alongside the centre (from £100 a night for four people, sperrinviewglamping.com).
The Isle of Wight has long charmed holidaymakers with its retro seaside fun, 500-plus miles of footpaths and historic buildings such as Osborne House. Despite being visible from the mainland, this small, diamond-shaped island often feels worlds away, partly thanks to its unique relationship with nature. In 1963, half of the island was designated an area of outstanding natural beauty, and in 2013 it created its first wildlife superhighways. Last June, it stuck its eco neck out a little further by becoming the UK’s seventh Unesco biosphere reserve.
A biosphere reserve is not merely a landscape that’s been put aside for nature, but a place where communities have learned to live alongside natural habitats. The Isle of Wight has been awarded the accolade thanks to its rare wildlife — red squirrels in the woodlands, Glanville fritillaries on chalky cliffs, and the Ventnor wall lizard on sunny, beachfront walls — and sustainable economic development.
Collaboration between environmental organisations, charities, councils and local volunteers is improving the island for locals, visitors and nature alike. The Common Space, a non-profit, is working with local volunteers to revitalise the Bay area in the east of the island; a 2020 calendar of events includes British Science Week (6-15 March), when pop-up laboratories will showcase natural wonders from pond life to fossils.
In Sandown on the south coast, Browns Golf Course is getting a wildlife makeover thanks to a new footpath linking a previously overgrown woodland walk and reedbed wetland. Via the Lost Duver Project, the council and community are also restoring former dune stacks in Sandown by replanting native coastal flora such as ragged-robin and thrift.
From a commitment to green building (Tom’s Eco Lodge is powered by a solar field and biomass boiler) to supporting rewilding initiatives (Tiny Homes’ wildflower meadows), tourism is very much part of the island’s biosphere fame.
Also launched in 2019, Visit Isle of Wight’s Slow Travel Guide encourages visitors to leave cars at home, with eight car-free touring routes via bus, rail, bike or footpath. The island’s sustainable travel scheme also allows accommodation owners with the highest green ratings, including Nettlecombe Farm (from £370 for four people per week) and Seaview Hotel (from £95), to offer guests free bus travel.
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The Recovery Olympics in Japan
The Tokyo Olympic Games of 1964 became a symbol of Japan’s economic rebirth after the second world war, when visitors were dazzled by the country’s ambition. This time around, the organisers of Tokyo 2020 are hoping the games will signal the regeneration of the Tohoku region, which was devastated by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, and open up a lesser-known part of the country to visitors.
The games are billed as the Recovery Olympics, and the Olympic torch – made of aluminium recycled from the temporary shelters used to house 500,000 displaced people – will begin its relay at the J-Village football stadium, just outside the 30km exclusion zone of the crippled Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant, before moving through the neighbouring prefectures of Miyagi and Iwate, also affected in 2011. The J-Village and Azuma baseball stadium in Fukushima City will host baseball, softball and football matches in the summer.
Almost a decade after the disaster this is not an exercise in dark tourism – though one operator has started running Chernobyl-style tours of the Fukushima exclusion zone. Rather, it is an opportunity to discover a more authentic side of Japan – away from the tourist-thronged shrines and temples of Kyoto.
The bullet train delivers passengers from Tokyo at warp speed – actually 90 minutes, though it feels like travelling back in time from the frenzy of the 21st-century capital – to what Richard Lloyd Parry describes in his book Ghosts of the Tsunami as a “slower, gentler” arcadia of mountains, lakes, rivers and “fields rich in grain and fruit”. (Tohoku is famous for its high-quality rice, peaches, grapes, Kitakata ramen and sake – though producers have struggled to overcome fears about contaminated food, despite it being exported once more.)
Aizu, in the west of Fukushima, is steeped in the history of the samurai, the hard men of the north, but it is also famous for its delicately detailed lacquerware dating back to the 16th century and flourishing in the Edo era (17th-19th centuries). Onsen villages, such as Tsuchiyu, have sprouted around hot springs in the mountains, and to the north, often wreathed in wisps of low-lying cloud like a Hokusai print, lies magnificent Mount Bandai.
This conical volcano in the Bandai-Asahi national park is surrounded by lakes, including the vividly cobalt pools of Goshiki-numa. When Olympian Tom Daley visited the region last summer, he stayed at the charming Bandai Lake Guesthouse and performed frontflips and backflips on the jetty by Lake Sohara. The ultimate irony is that this Lake District of Japan was formed by another natural disaster – when Mount Bandai blew its top in 1888.
Creating a vast nature reserve
Tens of millions of bison once thrived on the great plains of north America but by the late 1800s they had almost disappeared. Now the near-threatened species is grazing once again. Some 20,000 now live in America, mostly in small, often fenced-in, herds. But on the high plains of north-east Montana more than 800 beasts roam free. The conservation of this herd (or obstinacy) is just one of many wildlife projects run by American Prairie Reserve (APR), a non-profit that aims to preserve vast tracts of wilderness.
Using a similar model to the Tompkins Foundation in Chilean Patagonia, the APR makes strategic purchases of private land that it uses to stitch together tracts of existing public land. Since it started in 2004, APR has bought over 100,000 acres, which has been joined with public land to form 419,000 acres of rolling hills and grassy plateaux drained by the Missouri River. The goal is to form a prairie area of roughly 3.2 million acres, complete with migration corridors – the largest nature reserve in the continental US.
The APR’s activities have upset local ranchers and farmers. But founder Sean Gerrity, who made his fortune in Silicon Valley, is determined to create a vast ecosystem where wildlife large and small can roam free.
As well as bison, it runs projects to protect habitats and increase populations of at-risk animals, including prairie dogs, cougars, pronghorns (endemic deer) and grassland birds.
With no fences, the freedom-to-roam philosophy applies to visitors, too. It’s possible to walk, cycle or canoe for miles and see nothing manmade, except the odd signpost. Small-scale accommodation options include two campsites (from $15) with RV hookups; a safari-style lodge; and two pairs of large yurts – Founders Hut and John and Margaret Craighead Hut – each connected by a hallway and accommodating nine people in four bunk rooms. A third “hut” is due to open this year.
Under big Montana skies, visitors can wake up to scenery that has barely changed in centuries, and that will be protected for generations to come.
Birthplace of Greenpeace grows greener
Vancouver calls itself a 20-minute city: it takes 20 minutes to get to the beach, the mountains and the airport. But green space is not in short supply either. Downtown Stanley Park is bigger than Central Park in New York, and is surrounded by water on three sides. Visitors can cycle around it along part of the Seawall, a 28km path around the city’s waterfront. Nearby Vanier Park is a summer hotspot, with its Bard on the Beach Shakespeare festival and big attractions such as the Museum of Vancouver. A little further out, the Pacific Spirit regional park has a network of hiking routes in 1,850 acres of forest, while North Shore is the place to head for legendary mountain biking trails.
Now, Vancouver’s Greenest City Action Plan aims to drastically reduce carbon emissions, with 122,000 new trees planted since 2010. It is a fitting initiative for the birthplace of Greenpeace (the environmental group was founded here in 1971) and Vancouver continues to raise the bar: last month, the world’s first fully electric commercial aircraft took off from here, raising hopes of a new, guilt-free “electric aviation age”.
The 100-mile diet – eating only food grown within 100 miles of your home –originated in Vancouver in 2005. Restaurants that have embraced this include Forage, whose executive chef hunts, fishes and keeps bees; Chambar, which has been carbon-neutral since 2011; the Acorn, an award-winning “vegetable-forward” restaurant; and Edible Canada, which promotes sustainable, seasonal food and stocks an enormous range of Canadian produce for diners to take home.
The central Listel hotel (doubles from £90), has a five-Green Key eco-rating and is full of original work by Canadian artists.
Sustainable recovery after terror attack
In the past 10 years, Sri Lanka has flourished as a tourist destination. Opening up to visitors since the end of the civil war has meant a growth in accommodation, from tea plantation bungalows and surfer hostels to mountain-view hotels and treehouses among the lush lowland rainforests. The number of tour companies has also increased, with more of them travelling to remote, lesser-visited regions such as the national parks of Gal Oya and Wilpattu, and the coastal areas of Kalpitiya and Kalkudah, benefiting smaller businesses including tuk-tuk drivers, souvenir sellers and family-run restaurants.
The country’s thriving tourism industry came to a halt with the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019. Visitor numbers were down 71% year-on-year to May, and 57% to June. And according to figuress presented to the Foreign Office by British-based tour operators, up to 80% of hotel bookings were cancelled. In recent months, arrivals have been creeping up, particularly since most countries relaxed their travel restrictions, including the UK in June. Overall, however, figures are still down almost 20% – which is significant for the millions of people in Sri Lanka who rely on tourism, directly and indirectly.
As the country looks ahead, there are projects to be celebrated. The Sri Lanka Ecotourism Foundation, running since 1998, supports social and economic development of rural communities. Its work ranges from renewable energy projects, such as small-scale wind-solar farm training programmes, to empowering women through ecotourism roles, including a new lagoon-side campsite and activity centre, the Hikkaduwa Women-Centric Ecotourism Project. It also launched a new national sustainable tourism certification for hotels in April 2019.
Beyond this, there are compelling sustainability and community-based tourism projects all over the country. Mangrove replanting has been taking place since the 2004 tsunami – including at Kitesurfing Lanka in Kalpitiya. Mangroves are not only an effective defence against the sea, but also help boost wildlife and act as long-term carbon sinks.
Waste Less Arugam Bay is a partnership aiming to educate tourists and local communities about plastic – through, for example, reliable waste collection, creating souvenirs from recycled plastic, and providing water bottle refills. Fairtrade homeware and clothing brand Selyn uses a female-led workforce, traditional techniques and maintains a cottage industry via regional producers, which welcome visitors.
Joining local families in the lesser-travelled inland part of Tangalle in the south, Experience Travel runs tours to support rural crafts and practices, such as producers of handcrafted buffalo curd, served as a delicious sweet dessert in clay pots called mee-kiri, topped with sticky kithul palm syrup.
Community tourism begins on new Route of Parks
Few countries on Earth have allocated more land for environmental protection in recent years than Chile, which in 2018 set aside 10 million acres of Patagonia to be preserved in five national parks. This was due in no small part to the conservation work of American philanthropist Kristine McDivitt Tompkins (ex-CEO of outdoors company Patagonia) and her late husband Doug (co-founder of North Face), who donated a large chunk of the land. In 2020, it will be easier than ever to visit these remote reserves, thanks to the new Route of Parks. Launched last year, the route consolidates a haphazard tourist circuit spanning 1,700 miles (and 17 national parks), from the volcano-dotted forests of Chile’s Lake District to the fjords at the southern tip of the continent.
Locals in the 60 communities along the route have responded to the Tompkins’ vision by taking ownership of the wilderness and starting tourism projects that will help protect the parks in the long term (as well as create sustainable incomes). Chaitén-based Ruta Patagonia 7 runs tours along the famed Carretera Austral (Southern Highway) to the newly designated Pumalín national park, a rainforest reserve in remote northern Patagonia. Further south, Patagonian Fjords has opened up the previously inaccessible – and newly created – Kawésqar national park to tourism for the first time, with trips through its fog-draped fjords departing from the resort town of Puerto Natales.
New hotels have also popped up along the route, including Estancia Caleta Josefina (rooms from £135), on a sheep farm in Tierra del Fuego. And in 2018 Patagonia national park (home to one of the most ambitious rewilding efforts in the Americas) opened a new museum, Patagonia Park Museum, which explores local history and the current extinction crisis. Another museum dedicated to the Anglo-Argentine pioneer Lucas Bridges (author of Uttermost Part of the Earth, the 1947 landmark book on Tierra del Fuego) will open here in 2020.
Connectivity, long a barrier to regional development, has improved alongside the new route. There is no land connection between the northern and southern sections of Chilean Patagonia, but a ferry service now links the end of the Carretera Austral with Puerto Natales, making it easier for tourists to travel along a unified path without detouring into Argentina. A road under construction in a remote stretch of Tierra del Fuego will finally open up little-visited Yendegaia national park, which protects the ice fields of the Cordillera Darwin mountain range.