The owners turned the bare farmland on which the camp is located, into a verdant forest. Meals are served at different locations across the property: under a mahua tree, on a patio, or even under the stars. Visitors can go on a tiger-spotting safari or birdwatching tour with in-house naturalists, or hang out with the resident elephant Tara. Kipling Camp has 15 warmly lit double rooms set up with local materials and a private cottage that overlooks a waterhole. The water body was enlarged and contoured over the years, as catchment for rainwater and remains full even during severe drought. Sewage is filtered using sand and other natural elements ( ₹8,950 per person (Indian guests); ₹12,600 per person (foreign guests).
Guests at Elephant Valley’s bungalows often spot these animals going about their day as they begin theirs—with cups of frothy filter coffee, from beans grown on their 45-acre pesticide-free coffee plantation. The resort also has a large organic farm that grows avocado, sweet lime, pepper, guava, and lemon, blossoms of which liven up the air. The 20 sparsely elegant villas and rooms are tastefully done up using wood from reclaimed doors and windows, have solar lighting and cast-iron stoves for chilly nights (0413-2656351; www.duneecogroup.com; doubles from ₹3,300).
THE 22-YEAR-OLD Nameri Eco Camp, one of the oldest nature resorts in India’s northeast, is a great vantage point to see the blues of the sky, the Nameri River, and the Eastern Himalayas coalesce on a bright day. Twelve thatch-and-bamboo tents and two cottages, built in the style of the Mising tribe, are arranged around a central courtyard where a restaurant serves Mising food made with veggies from the camp’s organic patch. Visitors come to Nameri mainly for the elephants, tigers, and more than 420 species of birds, including the critically endangered white-winged wood duck. They can also raft down the Jia-Bhoreli River or explore the national park on foot. The absence of jeep safaris means the national park is pristine.
Visitors who crave a slightly less intense itinerary, can opt for a walk through any of the villages around. The camp works closely with the Mising, Boro, and Garo communities, drawing staff from the neighbouring villages and providing others handicraft training. In conjunction with the State Institute of Rural Development of Assam, the camp sets up self-help groups that enable villagers to start small agri-businesses and become less dependent on the forest. The Nameri team also helps the Eco Task Force, the special unit of the Indian Army, in distributing saplings and afforesting the area. The camp is never closed, but the weather is ideal from October to April (08472800344; nameri.co.in; doubles from ₹1,800, inclusive of all taxes).
Kalmatia Sangam Himalaya Resort
ACCORDING TO ONE of two legends surrounding this Himalayan township, Kalmatia is a corruption of kali mitti or cursed black soil. This “blighted earth”, however, is so rich in iron and other minerals that it has given birth to a centuries-old forest spread out over the estate of Kalmatia Sangam Himalaya Resort. The greens and browns of the fragrant deodar and oak are offset by vivid rhododendron, peach, plum, pomegranate, and lemon in bloom. The forest grows every year. When the acacias perish due to snowfall in January, the Kalmatia team plants new varieties every monsoon ensuring that the home of Himalayan magpies, wild pheasants and hens, whistling thrushes, and pine martens remains almost untouched.
Kalmatia Sangam’s ten cottages channel the traditional Kumaoni aesthetic—floral patterns on the walls and tin roofs—with a western touch. A rainwater harvesting system, which feeds into underground storage tanks, fulfils the resort’s entire water requirement. The altitude at which the mountain-facing property is located (2,000 metres) means there is no need for air-conditioning. There are geysers for hot water in every cottage, but efforts are on to replace these with a solar powered system in a few months.
All staff members are drawn from nearby villages, and are full-time—not seasonal—employees, which entitles them to linked benefits. In addition to supporting local cooperative societies, Kalmatia Sangam also organises walks and overnight stays in the nearby villages of Deora, Palieu, and Sokhyatal (09886763039; kalmatia-sangam.com; doubles from ₹11,700 for two night. Book at least 30 days in advance).
YOU’LL FIND BHAKTI Kutir hidden away in a two-acre coconut grove on a quiet end of Palolem Beach. It’s an oasis of tranquillity, a refreshing change from the hustle and bustle of Goa’s beaches. The property is the brainchild of Panta and Ute Ferrao who escaped corporate life in 1993 to build their “eco-dream”. It offers visitors a chance to rejuvenate mind, body, and soul through yoga and Ayurveda.
Each of the 22 cottages has an individual identity and is built with local materials such as coconut wood, rice straw, and bamboo. Several incorporate the resort’s trees into the architecture, and this natural canopy keeps the cottages cool without air conditioning. Low-level lighting further reduces power consumption (and light pollution). Heat generated by the fridges is used to dry foodstuff and linen. Toilets are linked to a compost system. The resort’s waste water is reused in the surrounding gardens, while leaf fall covers paths to reduce water run-off. Guests are not obliged to be vegetarian nor abstain from alcohol, but the restaurant offers healthy vegetarian and vegan options with the exception of organic chicken and local mackerel (0832-2643469/72; bhaktikutir.com; doubles from ₹1,500).
Leh, Jammu & Kashmir
THIS THREE-STOREY HOUSE in picturesque Nimmu village, a 30-minute drive from Leh, is one of the few remaining examples of traditional Ladakhi architecture. Located close to the Indus and Zanskar rivers, the house was built in the early 20th century by Rinchen Namgyal Zildar, a cousin of the then Ladakhi king. It is surrounded by an orchard of apricot, apple, and walnut trees with many streams, which are cleaned up by the team at Nimmu House. Opening the establishment to visitors has given the place a second lease on life. Its multi-pronged renovation project aims to preserve local culture and provide economic opportunities to the community, while offering visitors an authentic travel experience.
Aside from two Buddhist temples and a stable full of yaks and dzos, the structure has rooms (glowing with natural light) that are renovated using traditional architectural style and materials. There are modern flourishes like solar panels for heated water and double-glazed windows for insulation, but it is really the sort of place that appeals to the traveller not seeking luxuries like room service and lavish baths. Besides the rooms in the main house, there are spacious and well-equipped tents, and the opportunity to indulge in light adventure, like hiking, rafting, and cycling around Nimmu village (84477 57517; ladakh.nimmu-house.com; doubles ₹9,950, including breakfast and dinner; open 29 April-25 September).
Sarai at Toria
Panna, Madhya Pradesh
SARAI AT TORIA appears to be an organic part of its grassland location on the west bank of the beautiful Ken River. Its rammed-earth mud cottages are decorated with natural and handmade elements. A stay at the resort is all about downtime with nature, and its many nooks and crannies encourage guests to read a book sheltered by the tall grass.
Even the dining area looks out over the river, and it is common to glimpse jackal, jungle cat, civet, or mongoose. Sarai at Toria’s attempt to maintain the sanctity of the area is evident from the in-house solar plant which meets all the property’s electricity requirements. The flora is completely indigenous to the landscape, which means you won’t find any exotic plant species here. Pests are controlled using tobacco, lemon, citronella, and eucalyptus products. There are no plastic mineral water bottles (only filtered water), and chemical-free toiletries are purchased in bulk and decanted into glass vials. Most of the staff is from the neighbouring areas (96852 93130; saraiattoria.com; doubles from ₹16,600, including meals and onsite activities; open October-April).
LOCAL GUIDES DON’T get much better than Narasimha Bhat, the enthusiastic owner of Kadumane Homestay. In his company, guests spend hours identifying all manner of herbs. Bhat grows over hundred medicinal plant varieties on his property near Anshi-Dandeli Tiger Reserve. At Kadumane, citronella and lime blossoms might find their way into buckets of hot water making for fragrant baths, spearmint tea is a post-meal staple, and wild honey is always served at breakfast. The homestay has fuss-free laterite-stone cottages, a mud house, and tents, most of which are surrounded by fruit trees. Kayaking, coracle rides, and rafting down the Dandeli River can be organised, but the best way to absorb the region’s wealth of biodiversity is on long hikes with Bhat (94800 85707; dandelikadumane.com; from ₹2,000 per head, including meals and nature walk).
MONTHS LATER, that Malvani lunch still makes my mouth water. The lush, spicy kombdisukkha (chicken in a thick gravy) and that glorious mango sheera swimming in ghee, were an ode to the Maharashtrian summer. Our hostesses, a giggling mother-daughter team, cajoled us to have one more bhakri, just a little more sheera, until we could barely move.
This home-style hospitality is the hallmark of Culture Aangan that uses rural tourism to preserve biodiversity and put local traditions in the spotlight. The organisation helps locals turn crumbling old homes into guesthouses that blend modern aesthetics with green building principles. Our homestay, over 100 years old, was once used to store the farm’s agricultural produce. The mud structure remains largely unchanged, save for the floor tiling and bathroom fittings. Farmers are taught to vermicompost and recycle waste, rainwater harvesting pits are created, and tube lights are replaced with CFL bulbs. I walked away with handmade wooden toys and packets of sour kokum, but my favourite keepsake was a recipe for the deviously indulgent mango sheera (www.cultureaangan.com; [email protected]; doubles from ₹4,500 including all meals).
Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort
GUJARAT’S TEXTILE and folk traditions are a patchwork blanket, and a small Kutchi village is holding on to one corner. Shaam-e-Sarhad Village Resort in Hodka is part of a Government of India and United Nations Development Program initiative to support rural tourism and create employment opportunities for locals. The resort’s bhungas—circular mud houses with sloping roofs that remain cool during the day and warm at night—blend into the village. Aside from these traditional cottages, guests can be accommodated in eco-tents. The walls of all the structures are decorated with block prints, mirror work, and Kutchi paintings. The resort is landscaped with indigenous plant species, and most daily perishables are sourced from the village.
Visitors have a range of activities to choose from. There are tours of the Rann of Kutch and Chharid Dhand wetlands, workshops on how to build your own bhunga, and folk music and dance performances to wind up the day (hodka.in; double eco-tents from ₹3,800 including all meals; open Oct-Mar).
Karadi Malai Camp
Chengalpattu, Tamil Nadu
ALL ACTIVITIES AT Karadi Malai Camp, a little over an hour’s drive from Chennai, are geared towards making visitors comfortable around wildlife. The owners (famous herpetologist-conservationist Romulus Whitaker and his wife Janaki Lenin) and staff encourage visitors to explore the nearby Vallam Reserve Forest. The fit can go for a relatively strenuous hike up the Karadi Malai Hill (700 feet), identifying birds like the spotted owl and paradise flycatcher, and snakes like the Russell’s viper, common krait, and rat snake.
A more leisurely walk winds through the forest towards nearby paddy fields, and helps guests understand the interaction between forest and farm ecosystems. Some of these are conducted by members of the Irula tribal community, who, with Whitaker’s help, have switched from being snake hunters to conservationists.
The camp has three cottages made with bamboo matting and timber. Each of these solar-powered cottages is surrounded by a moat, which ensures that the property’s snakes and smaller animals let you sleep in peace (80120-33087; draco-india.com; doubles from ₹6,600).
Parambikulam Tiger Reserve
THE YOUNG MALASAR GUIDE, who accompanied me to Thellikkal camp in Parambikulum Tiger Reserve several years ago, knew his wildlife well: He heard the giant hornbill approach, spotted the leopard pugmark, and “scented” the elephants. It didn’t come as a surprise since the forest was his home. As one of the families dependent on the reserve, the Malasar used to fell wood and herd cattle, an activity prohibited inside a sanctuary. They frequently clashed with the forest department until a few years ago, when locals were trained as naturalists and began to benefit to from the park.
At Parambikulam, guests are accommodated in old renovated buildings and tents. Plastic bottles are banned, but the reserve provides reusable steel bottles with filtered water. Garbage is segregated, and any plastic that is detected is fashioned into keyrings that guests can take back as souvenirs, along with organic ginger, pepper, and turmeric (94422 01690/94422 01691; www.parambikulam.org; doubles ₹6,000 including all meals, bamboo rafting, trekking, and safari).
KHEM VILLAS DESCRIBES itself as a “luxury jungle camp”. Its eight cottages and seven tents, modern adaptations of traditional dwellings, are a picture of understated elegance. But if you had surveyed the area a few years ago, you’d only have seen barren land with almost no vegetation. Today, through years of regeneration, the property is one of the greenest patches in the area. It appears like an extension of Ranthambhore National Park and is an example of the resort’s commitment to conservation.
The resort harnesses solar energy and has battery banks that store power helping keep generator use to a minimum. The food comes from vegetable patches within the resort. Rainwater harvesting measures have made Khem Villas almost self-sufficient for its water needs, and has raised the water table by almost 25 feet. Prakratik Society, an NGO run by owners Usha and Goverdhan Singh Rathore—son of Fateh Singh Rathore, who was one of India’s leading tiger conservationists—has donated over 30,000 saplings to farmers, helped them set up biogas systems, and offers affordable healthcare through its hospital. The resort’s guests can go on customised safaris, acquaint themselves with the local arts and crafts, or enjoy a picnic lunch by the River Chambal (94140 30262; khemvillas.com; doubles from₹12,500 including all meals).
Chorla Ghats, Goa
MY ECO-COTTAGE at Wildernest had an enchanting view of the Vazra Falls, flowing gloriously over the green gradients of the Swapnagandha Valley. Located at the intersection of Goa, Maharashtra, and Karnataka, the Chorla Ghats are the residence of tigers, leopards, sloth bears, and an important nesting site for critically endangered vultures. A few years ago, however, this misty forest was well on the path to destruction when it was opened up for mining.
Captain Nitin Dhond, Wildernest’s managing director, and his eclectic band of nature-lovers acquired the forest approach road and gradually managed to secure 450 acres of this crucial wildlife corridor connecting Mhadei and Bhimgad Wildlife Sanctuaries. Now, the resort relies largely on solar electricity, employs residents of nearby villages who serve the most delicious local fare, and its cottages are fashioned from acacia wood.
When not lounging in the spectacular infinity pool, guests at Wildernest can spot megafauna like the gaur, but I loved the chance to get acquainted with smaller creatures, thanks to the resident naturalists. I met the slender loris, a tiny primate known to the locals as vanmanas or the spirit of the forest. I also saw the pill millipede, a small, tight pearly-black ball; the Malabar gliding frog; and the tortoise shell beetle, so called for its uncanny resemblance to the turtle (0832-4201662; www.wildernest-goa.com; doubles from ₹6,400, includes food and activities; prices vary with season).
Kodaikanal, Tamil Nadu
KARUNA FARM TICKS all the boxes on the “alternative lifestyle” checklist. Located on a hilltop overlooking Kodaikanal Valley, the farm is off the power grid. They grow Brazilian coffee, avocado, lime, jackfruit, custard apple, and passion fruit through organic methods, and offer their (chiefly) yoga-loving guests the chance to offset their carbon footprint through a tree plantation programme. They even have their own beehives. But the farm’s most inspiring achievement is the “bio-home” that looks simultaneously rustic and futuristic. The self-sufficient hut is made from reused tyres and tin cans rammed with earth. It relies on solar energy for heating, rainwater is harvested and stored in insulated tanks, and sewage is treated onsite. The farm helps arrange training for participants interested in making their own biohomes.
Each of the cottages at the farm is equipped with a kitchen for those who wish to cook. For those who don’t, Prashanti Restaurant, overlooking a lovely little waterfall, serves vegetarian meals on order. The furnishings in the cottages are strictly functional, bordering on the monastic, but that’s a small price to pay for solitude and gorgeous views (93607 50817; www.karunafarm.in; doubles from ₹1,500; minimum stay 2 nights).
Singinawa Jungle Lodge
Kanha, Madhya Pradesh
SINGINAWA JUNGLE LODGE is a luxurious retreat near the outer edge of Kanha Tiger Reserve, but behind its opulent exterior is a heartening story of conservation. Until a few years ago, the 58-acre property was just an overgrazed plot infested with weeds and garbage. But with a little help from the latest agricultural techniques, a large part of the land today is in the process of regeneration and the area is slowly returning to its former green glory.
Each of the 12 sumptuous cottages affords a stunning view of the forest. All buildings have double walls with a three-inch gap that ensures thermal and sound insulation, which reduces the cost of heating and cooling. A large part of the lodge’s energy needs are met through solar power, while most of the water is harvested rainwater. Guests at Singinawa can choose to go on a safari with trained professionals or cycle to a nearby village or the forest department nursery. There are a few rock formations nearby, one of which is used for regular campfires. A more relaxed itinerary includes lounging in the resort’s large asymmetrical swimming pool, the spa, or even the library-lounge. (01244908610;www.singinawa.in; doubles from ₹20,000 includes all meals).
THE SECRET LOCATION of Elsewhere ensures that it is difficult for the average traveller to find, but it is already a safe haven for Goa’s oldest tourists: turtles. Before the shacks, bazaars, and garbage took over, olive ridleys would traverse the state’s coastline to nest. All that remains for the turtles now is a small patch in the state’s south and an even tinier one in Morjim and Mandrem, at the northern tip. If you time your visit to Elsewhere, and are very lucky, you might be able to see them. But there’s much more here for the nature-lover. I managed to watch kingfishers at work, a pond heron lurking in the mangrove, sprightly mongoose, and at night, a monitor lizard and I surprised each other.
Elsewhere recycles some of its water but, more significantly, the property conserves water and other resources. The four beach houses and three tents were built using reclaimed material. The resort employs locals like the cheerful Saloo who zips up palm trees to bring you tender coconut water after your swim in the sea. (The coconut trees are at least a century old, fed on a healthy diet of fish waste.) The food is heavenly, and if you request chef Balvino, he may cook you a dish just the way his grandmother did. It is the ideal base for relaxing by the creek or whiling away time on the porch with a glass of feni in hand (www.aseascape.com; to book, send an email to [email protected]; tents from ₹7,757 per night; prices vary by season; book at least two months in advance; open Oct-May).
Rainforest Retreat at Mojo Plantation
THE RAINFOREST RETREAT at Mojo Plantation is a unique project that combines ecotourism with sustainable agriculture and environment education. The certified organic spice farm, in one of the most natural and scenic parts of Kodagu District, was founded in 1994 by Sujata and Anurag Goel. The botanist couple wished to “explore an organic way of life and a more harmonious existence with nature” and “cater to environmentally conscious and intellectually curious travellers”. The two cottages sit surrounded by bamboo, banana, and fragrant coffee and orange plants, and are lit by eco-friendly 12V solar lights. The plantation’s wide population of creepy-crawlies—including spiders, wasps, dragonflies, frogs, lizards, and snakes—contribute towards a diverse and healthy agri-ecosystem. All organic waste makes its way to the retreat’s biogas plant that powers the kitchen. The rest is composted and used to fertilise crops of coffee, kokum, cardamom, and vanilla, which are also available for sale.
There are fine birding and trekking routes around the plantation: A peek around the backyard will reveal wonders like the Atlas moth (the largest of the species), yellow caterpillars, and even a Malabar gliding frog’s foam nest. The forest is at its greenest between September and November (08272-265638/6, rainforestours.com; doubles from ₹3,000 for cottages, ₹2,000 for tents; open Sept-May).
A ROUTINE DAY at Hide-Out begins with trekking through the forest to bathe under a hidden waterfall, followed by ploughing a field with the help of bullocks, and cycling through a neighbouring village. A meal made with freshly picked vegetables is the ideal wind-down. This is a farm that strives to bring guests close to nature.
Visitors can be accommodated in eco-tents, a mud house, an eco-cottage, or a brick house—unless they’d like to sleep under the stars. Warli art adorns the walls of the houses, which are kitted out in rustic rural Maharashtrian furniture. All the structures are made from cow dung, fortified by bamboo and mud. This ensures that they stay cool in the summer and use minimal electricity, most of which is produced by solar panels during the day. All organic waste is either reused or dunked into a vermicompost pit that converts it into natural fertiliser. Owners Hemant and Sangeeta Chhabra, also conduct regular workshops introducing participants to organic farming and a lifestyle that is closely linked to nature. Visitors can take home a bit of the farm by purchasing organic mangoes, lemons, and even Warli paintings from the farm’s popular Eco Shop. Hide-Out is very popular with travellers, so book at least a few weeks in advance (98201 49022;www.hideout.co.in; ₹2,000 per person).
Diphlu River Lodge
THE MACHAN AT Diphlu River Lodge, a short distance from Kaziranga National Park, is a great spot for visitors to soak in the sounds of the jungle as they sip a cocktail and watch rhinos bathe in the river. Paddy fields surround the bamboo and wood huts, built on stilts in the style of the local Mising tribe and connected by walkways. A variety of birds flutter through the property, and the absence of fences or harsh lights encourages small animals from the park to saunter through the property at dusk.
Visitors are given a list of dos and don’ts on arrival, and the staff—nearly all from the area—are regularly coached on ways to protect the environment, conserve natural resources, and manage waste. The cottages, decorated with local handicrafts, are air-conditioned, but the resort tries to offset the carbon footprint by reforesting the areas around the property. Grey water is recycled at the in-house filtering pond and used to irrigate the fields where organic rice, a variety of vegetables, and mustard are grown. The resort is sometimes closed during the monsoon due to heavy rains and water logging, so check in advance before making plans (0361-2667871/2/3; diphluriverlodge.com; ₹18,000 per person from November to April; doubles ₹6,056 from May to Oct, when the park is closed. The tariff includes safaris, three meals, and park entrance).
Our list of eco-lodges was drawn up based on visits by the Nat Geo team and on recommendations from environmentalists and conservationists in India. The retreats we eventually selected fulfil three main criteria: They have taken active steps to minimise (or subsidise) their carbon footprint. They are helping preserve the region’s natural and cultural history. And they have helped boost the local economy by employing the community. Unfortunately, it isn’t easy to find resorts in India (or around the world for that matter) that satisfy all of these prerequisites. These retreats however, are strong examples of conscious tourism—a proposition that benefits businesses, communities, and travellers, and the planet at large. This list is definitely not an exhaustive, so do write to us with your own suggestions.