Sustainable And Mostly Comfortable

Accomodations at the 3 Rivers Eco Lodge include a bamboo treetop house and three cottages partially made of woven lemon grass.
Accomodations at the 3 Rivers Eco Lodge include a bamboo treetop house and three cottages partially made of woven lemon grass. (Jem Winston)
By Gary Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 10, 2007

At this 10-unit retreat bordered on three sides by the Stuarts, Browns and Cacao rivers, everything from the vegetable-oil-fueled delivery truck to the organically made cleaning products is designed to have as little impact as possible on the environment. Limehouse, the studio cottage where I stayed for two nights last month, was equipped with a solar water heater on the roof, low-fuel light bulbs, a filter to make the river water potable and recycling bins in the kitchenette.

Most important, the 6 1/2 -acre resort runs almost entirely on renewable energy. Jem Winston, 38, the owner and manager, happily demonstrated the three aspects of the energy supply. In the middle of the property, a small shed is covered with 10 solar panels. Hidden beneath a nearby clump of bushes is a micro hydropower system, rigged to use water power from the river. And a wind-power turbine whirred atop a 100-foot tree deep in the woods. Voltage from the three sources, collected in batteries, provides all of 3 Rivers Eco Lodge's electricity.

In early 2002, Winston, a wiry, affable Brit, arrived from London with solar panels in his luggage and began whacking away at the banana plantation that sprawled across this area. Later that year, he opened 3 Rivers. Some of the banana trees are still scattered across the property.

"The plan was always to do all we could to preserve this pristine piece of nature," said Winston, gesturing toward the sweep of mint-colored mountains that rise gently around the resort. Even when he had only one cabin, Winston said, he began recycling, composting and using only organic cleaning supplies. He retrofitted the pickup truck he brought from England to run on vegetable oil.

One non-renewable energy source 3 Rivers uses is the natural gas that fires the cooking stoves. A plan to produce biogas -- a fuel made from natural resources -- tops Winston's to-do list.

While other hotels promote their newfound "carbon neutrality" and "carbon offset" policies, Winston and the 3 Rivers staff aren't much for jargon. But for the past three years the property has earned a stamp of approval from Green Globe 21, an organization based in Australia that promotes sustainable tourism and certifies eco-hotels and other properties. In its latest assessment of the property, Green Globe gave 3 Rivers high marks in all of the categories it charts: sustainability policy, energy consumption, water consumption, waste production, paper products, cleaning products, pesticide products and community involvement.

Green Globe particularly applauded 3 Rivers' efforts to raise environmental awareness among the locals. The resort also offers guests the chance to engage with villagers. One popular excursion: a tour of an organic garden owned by a farmer in Grand Fonds, the nearest town.

Eager to pass on what he has learned, Winston hosts workshops on sustainable energy for folks from the village and for visiting groups. "You don't have to be able to afford sustainable energy," he told a group of schoolchildren on a tour. "In fact, it saves money. Nor do you have to sacrifice the things that make you comfortable."

Well, not many, anyway. The four main studio cottages -- the top of the resort's line -- were designed for travelers who want a certain level of comfort. My studio was roomy and the basics were all there: queen-size bed, private bath with hot water, kitchenette, dining table and chairs.

Still, some of the creature comforts travelers might reasonably expect were lacking: air conditioning, fan, television, radio, telephone and reading lamp. The mattress was a bit too sturdy. The sheets and towels were clean but basic. Lizards, common critters in this part of the world, occasionally skirted across the walls. Never mind. With the windows positioned to offer great cross-ventilation, mountain breezes made for cool sleeping. And the insect-eating lizards were harmless and fun to watch.

There are even more-rustic lodging options: a dormitory space suitable for backpackers, and a camping area. A backwoods retreat set in a secluded area a 15-minute walk from the main resort features a bamboo treetop house and three more cottages made of woven lemon grass and other sustainable materials. A wind turbine fuels the lights.

At the end of the day, 3 Rivers patrons gather for meals in the resort's open-air restaurant. On one evening in May, the guests included two professional couples from Florida in their 30s, a pair of French schoolteachers, also in their early 30s, and a 20-something Peace Corps volunteer from Kansas. A mix of Americans, Caribbeans and Europeans is typical of the clientele, Winston said.

Travelers come to Dominica -- and particularly this unsettled rustic side of it -- to escape into nature. A small but alluring stretch of beach is a half-hour walk from 3 Rivers; a refreshing watering hole is footsteps away from the cabins. But what folks seem to like most are the hiking trails carved along the mountains that sweep through this area. The friendly locals are also a big draw.

At dusk, the front porch of a cabin made a fine perch for watching the soft blue light of evening fall across the mountains. Fireflies flitted from bush to bush. Jasmine and hyacinths exuded sweet scents. The rivers bordering the resort provided a soothing background track. With this kind of entertainment, which nature provided without burning a single carbon molecule, who needed CNN?

3 Rivers Eco Lodge, Rosalie, Dominica, Cottages, which sleep three, are $77 a night; the Bamboo Tree House is slightly cheaper. American Airlines flies from Reagan National to Dominica, via New York's JFK Airport, for $738 round trip, plus restrictions. The lodge is a $70, 1 1/4 -hour taxi ride from the airport.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company