Category Archives: volunteer travel

Hanging in the Arctic with Canada’s Amazing Inuit

The Inuit of the Arctic
The Inuit of the Arctic

When I talk about the arctic it’s usually in relation to me complaining about how cold it can get in New York City or some frosty metropolitan center. It’s sorta my humorous West coast take on what normal people call ‘seasons’. That said, for those who want to do the arctic well, Canada’s arctic offers visitors a glimpse into a different life; spectacular scenery and wildlife; a sense of timelessness and an experience that will last a lifetime.

We like this brand new tour series called “A Touch of the Arctic”, offered by The Great Canadian Travel Company, because it features the opportunity to spend two, three or four nights in a traditional Inuit community.  This is enough time to explore the area, learn about the cultures of the region, meet local peoples and enjoy the relaxing atmosphere of these remote villages.

An Inuit Fishes
An Inuit Fishes

The programs have no organized day tours, although they may be available in the communities (and arranged locally), to allow each participant to customize their own Arctic experience. Accommodation is in the comfortable and welcoming Inns North properties, each owned by the local co-operative. The Inuit communities are not used to many tourists –they are simply home to a small and tightly-knit group who will be happy to talk to you of their lives, their land and their culture. Life in the north runs at its own pace, and operates on a very different wavelength; which is a great part of the fascination of these villages. A tolerance of the northern lifestyle will add immeasurably to the enjoyment of your northern expedition.

An Inuit Hunter
An Inuit Hunter

The communities offered:

Kimmirut lies on the southern coast of Baffin Island and is home to just 400 people. It is a “new” community, first settled in the early 20th century. There is evidence of habitation of the Dorset people from thousands of years ago. Kimmirut prides itself on its warm, friendly people, traditional way of life and indigenous culture.

Qikiqtarjuaq lies at the northern end of Auyuittuq National Park, and means “Big Island”. The area is rich in wildlife, whales, walrus and narwhal, and offers spectacular scenery. Enjoy the walking trails, watch icebergs in the Davis Strait, rock climb or simply enjoy the community of 470 Inuit who call this village their home.

Pond Inlet is one of the major tourist attractions of Baffin Island, and offers visitors ample opportunities for wildlife viewing, including the spectacularly rich birdlife of the region. Local tours may be arranged through the co-op to see the ice floe edge, and learn about the remarkable wildlife of this region.

A Killer Whale spotted in Repulse Bay
A Killer Whale spotted in Repulse Bay

Repulse Bay lies on the Arctic Circle, and visitors to this traditional community will be delighted by the wide bay, the wildlife, the hikes and ancient settlements.  You can take a tour of the Arctic waters of Repulse Bay to look for narwhal, orcas, bowhead whales, seals and possibly polar bears. The community is renowned for its excellent artists, especially for its carvers who work in bone, ivory and stone.

Pangnirtung, an old whaling village, is an iconic destination lying at the southern end of Auyuittuq National Park and has been a favorite for tourists for many years. Pangnirtung has achieved an international reputation for producing high-quality traditional arts, as well as printmaking and weaving. The tour to this community will allow you the chance to enjoy magnificent scenery, and learn some of the history of the people of this fjord village.

Programs are priced from $2427 – $4006, depending on community and length of stay and include round trip air from Ottawa or Winnipeg to the community; 3 nights’ accommodation (4 or 2 nights in Repulse Bay); and all meals. The programs also operate year round.

The Great Canadian Travel Company also offers a 3-day, 2-night trip to Iqaluit, the capital city of Nunavut (population 6,000) for only $1499 per person, including accommodations and round trip air from Ottawa or Montreal.

A MassiveGood Travel Experience

This struck our fancy as we’re always looking for ways to travel the world and contribute to a more equitable, culturally rich society.  An initiative launching to the public on March 4, 2010, has the travel industry joining political figures and celebrities, including President Bill Clinton, to create MASSIVEGOOD, an innovative fundraising movement that will enable travelers to make a “micro-contribution” towards major global health causes every time they buy a plane ticket, reserve a hotel room or rent a car (I was wondering when they were going to start doing this!)

Created by the Millennium Foundation, MASSIVEGOOD will be available in travel agencies and on websites like Travelocity and Accor Hotels starting March 4th. This will allow travelers to contribute $2 to fighting HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis and to improving the state of maternal and child health in developing countries.

Funds will be distributed to UNITAID, an organization that has saved thousands of lives by lowering the price and increasing the availability of medicines in low-income countries. MASSIVEGOOD is also a smart demonstration of the travel industry’s determination to address global health problems in addition to the environmental programs many already have in place.

About The Millennium Foundation for Innovative Finance for Health (“Millennium Foundation”): They’re a Swiss non-profit created in 2008 whose mission is to create a sustainable source of needed additional funding to achieve the three health-related Millennium Development Goals agreed to by the United Nations in 2000: to treat and fight life-threatening diseases, including HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis; to reduce childhood mortality; and to improve maternal health. To achieve its mission, the Millennium Foundation aims to empower citizens to join a global movement of solidarity dedicated to reducing the glaring inequalities in access to health care between rich and poor. The initial focus is the creation of MASSIVEGOOD, makes it easy for all those who travel to make micro-contributions aimed at saving lives by fighting life-threatening diseases among the world’s most vulnerable populations. Sounds good to me.

UNITAID was launched 3 years ago as an innovative mechanism for scaling up access to treatment for HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Founded by Brazil, Chile, France, Norway and the UK, today UNITAID has the support of 29 countries as well as the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.  In less than three years UNITAID has committed more than 900 million dollars to the diagnosis and treatment of these three diseases, representing a total of over 11 million treatments provided to patients. UNITAID’s funding model is based on an air ticket solidarity levy.  While some of its donors contribute through multi-year budgetary commitments, the air tax provides more than 70% of UNITAID’s funding.

Essaouira, Morocco: Organic Beauty for Women, One Nut at a Time

Goats Climbing An Argan Tree, Morocco

Argan… doesn’t the name remind you of a dark roguish beard from Lord of the Rings? In reality, it’s a tree that only grows in Southwestern Morocco, an equally tempting image (for a botanist). So what makes the argan tree so special? They say, “It’s nuts.” No, really. It’s nuts… and the oil extracted from them. Deemed ‘liquid gold’ by locals and international beauty addicts, it’s organic, naturally rich in vitamin E, essential fatty acids, and antioxidants said to help heal skin conditions including wrinkles, acne, and dry skin. Women of Morocco have used it for generations to combat the dry desert air and reduce the signs of aging. Now, in the West, it’s slowly developing a very devoted following due to the extraordinary results it delivers.

By law, the Berber women are the only ones permitted to extract the argan oil, a labor intensive process that can take up to a day to produce a single liter of oil. In 1999, Morocco’s argan forest was designated a Unesco International Biosphere Reserve, but the argan trees still disappeared in large numbers, often used for fire wood, despite preservation. As a result, the women’s argan cooperatives were developed by the government to provide economic opportunity for the Berber women. These cooperatives now offer one of the only roads to financial and social independence.

In addition to providing the means to earn a living, many of the argan cooperatives also offer literacy and women’s rights programs, as well as work training and life skills programs. These simple skills provide a level of independence they ordinarily wouldn’t have, not to mention as increased sense of pride and self-esteem. We love the idea of sustainability, independence, and liquid gold. So get thee to Morocco! And ride a wave while you’re at it.
Essaouira, Morocco

From Marrakesh to Essaouira, you’ll find a majority of the women’s cooperatives. Through sandy roads you’ll pass rolling yellow hills, olive groves, sheep, and the occasional donkey or two (or three), signs will announce cooperatives like the Argan Co-Op, Women’s Argan Collective, and Miracle Oil. Visitors can stop in and have a demonstration of how argan oil is made while they taste the culinary argan oil and amlou – a concoction made with argan oil and honey – served with bread. Most of these have shops onsite where people can buy locally produced argan products. There’s also some rock star lore… people like Jimi Hendrix and Cat Stevens came here for a good dose of Moroccan hippy-style inspiration.

These days, Euros come for the fact that Essaouira is know as one of the top spots in the world for windsurfing and kiteboarding. To reach Essaouira, all you need to do is fly into Marrakesh. Rent a car at the airport; Avis ( and Sixt ( both have offices. The drive takes about two and a half hours and is well marked.

Which brings us to Kahina and Giving Beauty, the new line of argan-based skin care founded by socially conscious entrepreneur Katharine L’Heureux. Named after a Jewish Berber queen (700AD) who successfully resisted the first Arab invaders, Kahina is a heroine to the Berber women and represents empowerment for women worldwide. Sourcing key ingredients from Moroccan argan oil cooperatives, L’Heureux not only buys their ingredients, but spends valuable time with the women, donating 25% of the profits from the sales of the skincare back to the women of the argan cooperatives who work to provide the raw materials for the Giving Beauty products.
Kahina and companies like hers also help preserve the forest by creating an economic incentive for the locals to protect the forests. Formulated with organic ingredients and manufactured in an eco-friendly, carbon neutral facility with recyclable materials, Kahina’s packaging is designed with a compilation of signatures by the Berber women that Katharine has met during visits to the cooperative. Most of them are just learning to sign their own names so their signatures also hold a great deal of meaning for them. Here are just a few of their uplifting stories, told by Katherine L’Heureux.

Aarbia Amzil
Aarbia’s personality is as colorful as the clothes she is wearing–multiple layers of yellow and red. She claims to be 70, but doesn’t know her age exactly. With no children of her own, Aarbia finds comfort in the company of the women of the cooperative. When I ask her how the cooperative has changed her life, she says, “Thanks to the co-op, I have gone from having nothing to having everything.”

Fatima Achkich is a pretty woman who often appears to be containing a smile or laugh. Fatima, who has two children she is raising on her own, has worked at the cooperative for 9 years. When I ask about her life, she tells me that she is happy, and that she especially enjoys the companionship of the other women she works with. In the positive manner she shares with all the women, she says, “Thanks to my work at the cooperative, I am able to afford all I need to live.”

Essaouria’s Hotels

L’Heure Bleue

Essaouira’s first luxury hotel. It even has a heated pool!

2, rue lbn Batouta
Rates @ $400/night

Villa Maroc
This is the oldest hotel in the city and offers spa treatments with the aforementioned liquid gold… argan oil.
10, rue Abdellah Ben Yassine
Rates from $120/night

Essaouira Dining

Try the fish stalls around the sea for lunch. It’s fresh and you can’t miss fresh fish.

After Five for fusion food using local ingredients
5, rue Youssef El Fassi

To purchase Kahina, Giving Beauty’s kick-ass products made with argan oil:
Retails from $15-$72.

Honeymooning in the Maldives: Luxury Over Water Villas

The first “Floating Resort” in the Indian Ocean… does it get any better than this? The perfect exotic escape for honeymooners and discerning families alike, check out The Banyan Tree’s ‘Angsana Velavaru’ located in the pristine South Nilandhe Atoll in the Maldives, known as ‘Turtle Island’ in the local Dhivehi language. We’re excited to be one of the first to announce that they’re launching their first standalone collection of water villas in July 2009! Feted for its turquoise lagoon, spacious pool villas, and one of the few resorts in the secluded southern reaches of the Maldives, it’s a scenic 40-minute seaplane (yes, seaplane!) journey from Malé island. The 34 uber-luxurious InOcean Villas are located just a half a mile from the island of Velavaru where the resort’s original 79 villas are located and range from 1,885 square feet to 3,122 square feet. We love that the sliding glass doors along the living, sleeping, and bathing areas offer an absolutely unobstructed panoramic view of the Indian Ocean. Each swanky two-story villa is also reminiscent of a stylish loft with contemporary design accents. We think you ought to relax on an airy outdoor deck with a hammock suspended over the sparkling azure waters and swim in a 200 square-foot infinity pool. Like this…
The Premier InOcean Villas and two-bedroom Sanctuary InOcean Villas each have extended decks into the ocean, complete with a cozy pavilion for lounging or yoga practice (since we know how much you all love your yoga). Modern amenities include a flat screen TV, stereo system with iPod docking station, and wireless internet. Hell, it’s hard enough to find a reliable wireless connection on the mainland!

In addition, Azzurro, the resort’s new gourmet Italian restaurant and bar, has been added toward one end of the InOcean Villa cluster and guests can enjoy complete access to the facilities at the main resort on Velavaru Island like dining at Funa and Kaani restaurants, cocktails at Kuredhi Bar, culinary classes, Angsana Spa treatments, diving, guided snorkeling safari, wakeboarding, and, our favorite eco-resort feature… a dedicated Marine Lab which organizes hands-on activities for environmentally-minded travelers like coral planting, reef cleaning and marine biology classes.

Angsana, managed by The Banyan Tree, truly caters to the modern traveler seeking style, luxury, and eco-awareness. Comprising of contemporary chic retreats, each property is designed to deliver vibrant experiences which also exude the spirit and conscience of its environment. A stylish eco-resort in the Maldives with one of the only Marine Research Labs in the world onsite… along with a hammock suspended in the ocean? Does honeymooning (or canoodling) get any more high-end and feel-good than this?

$750 per night, per villa.
1(800) 591-0439

Costa Rica: Sustainable Adventures

I’ve never written about this before because words, well… they just don’t seem to do it justice.

But when I graduated from college I had an experience that would change my life forever.

I said goodbye to my friends and family and flew under the cover of night to Costa Rica. My wild daydreams of becoming an Adventure Guide in the jungles of Central America had actually come true. My parents thought I was insane, but I embarked on the crazy journey with little more than will and a prayer. It was a lot like The Secret. My relationship with my first love was on shaky ground. I was graduating soon. I would have to decide – and visualize – which direction my life was going to take. All I knew was that I needed nature, a spanish-speaking country, and the opportunity to learn and teach. I became obsessed with the idea that I should become an Adventure Guide.
Sort of like this without the guns (and add a horse, a bow, and some arrows).

Of course, I had no real qualifications (unless archaeological digs and riding horses with my dad counted as ‘experience’), but I scoured the internet regardless, reaching out to every single adventure company listed. Whales, turtles, rafting, sailing, ecology… you name it, I begged for the chance to learn the ropes.

I never heard back. I was a senior; unsure of what life – after graduation – might have in store, but somehow I saw – and willed – what would later become one of the most memorable experiences in my life. Strangely enough, I was on my way to see the movie Titanic, when I ran into Jordie, an old friend from freshman year. We hadn’t seen each other since we took a train from Philly to Madison Square Garden to see one of the last Grateful Dead shows in history. We stood outside the movie theater catching up… Jordie had taken a semester off to travel Costa Rica and clear his head, I had moved to Spain to study Spanish literature.

“Costa Rica… that’s amazing,” I said. “I just got back from Spain and I’ve been dreaming about becoming an Adventure Guide. Costa Rica would be the perfect place…”

As fate (or The Secret) would have it, Jordie responded:

“That’s what I did… and I think they’re hiring.”

The rest, as they say, is history. I willed my fate and the universe had finally heard me. Two weeks later, Jordie called to give me the phone number of Stephen Brooks, the 25 year-old eco-adventurer and owner of Costa Rican Adventures. Ten minutes later, Stephen offered me a job. Those two guys in the photo above, Brian (left) and Jupy (right), would be my fellow companions and guides throughout the Costa Rican jungle. Together, and with our passionate boss, Stephen, we studied poisonous dart frogs at a biological reserve, learned about sustainable farming, visited a co-op of women who farmed natural herbs, hiked steep mud-filled mountains to eat with a local tribe of Bribri, went white-water rafting (where I momentarily fell for a local river guide), and cooked yucca for high school and college students who were all there to learn – with us – about the miraculous beauty and plenitude that is… nature.

Peto and I leaving Manzanillo, the last stop before Punta.

Four months later, clarity came by way of rafting through Turrialba, picking and cooking my own food, listening the symphonic cascade of the jungle at night, and witnessing the first-hand struggle of a green turtle laying her eggs in the sand along the Panamanian border.
Since 1998, Costa Rican Adventures has certainly been thriving. What was once a run down treehouse where we camped and washed dishes in the ocean, is now Punta Mona or Monkey Point, a 30-acre organic farm and educational retreat dedicated to environmental consciousness by creating an example of sustainable living through permaculture design, eco-technology and organic farming. Located 6 km south of Manzanillo on the Southern Caribbean Coast, ‘Punta’ (as we called it) is surrounded by nothing, but monkeys, turtles, the jungle, coconut, and the Caribbean, complete with the locals that you can really only dream of…

Take Padi, a 70 year-old man who lives alone – with no electricity – on the border between Costa Rica and Panama. The nearest town is only accessible by boat or a two-hour hike with a machete through dense jungle and swarms of mosquitos. How long he’s been there… it’s a mystery. Thirty, maybe forty, years. Time here is dictated by the movement of the seasons, the migration of the turtles, and the tides. A remarkable man of almost Lama-esque peace and calm, Padi really is the old rasta man to your sea. He follows the turtles by the cycles of the moon and tides; consulting a lunar calendar as he tells you, before bedtime, just why there’s no place on earth he’d rather be… even if he’s got a few kids living in the big city.

Stephen Brooks knew something before most of us did. If you want to find some meaning in your life, really engage in the natural world and take refuge in the land that’s right there before you. ‘If you want to connect to the land, her resources, and her people, this is the place to do it,’ he says. Having farmed the soil, climbed the peaks, and witnessed a turtle struggle to lay her eggs in the sand… I can heartily say, Brooks was way ahead of his time. He knew – and fulfilled – what any person needs to encounter at least once, if not repeatedly and permanently, in life. An experience – or, better yet, a lifestyle – that really reminds you how to live. Naturally.

They’ll tailor trips for up to 40 people from one day to several weeks where you’ll hike, kayak, get massages, do some organic farming, swim, observe turtle nesting, get permaculture instruction, do yoga, and even… learn how to make chocolate!

They’ll even take care of all meals and snacks (the majority of food comes fresh from their organic gardens and the sea).

Last year, I covered the incredibly cool turtle sanctuary at the luxurious Le Meridien Bora Bora and, in addition to sustainable trips and organic farming with my alma mater, Costa Rican Adventures, I’m passionate about hunting down the best trips for the heart, the soul, and… the turtles.

So, if you’re in the mood for a more research/labor intensive trip focusing solely on these glorious Chelonia mydas, check out:

The Caribbean Conservation Corporation and Sea Turtle Survival League (CCC). For over 45 years, they’ve conducted sea turtle nest monitoring studies located on the most popular nesting sites for green turtles in the Western hemisphere. The area stretches along the twenty-mile black sand beach of Tortuguero and now provides the majority of the information on the reproductive ecology and migratory habits of sea turtles. Researchers (and volunteer guests like you) are based at CCC’s John H. Phipps Biological Field Station or the Landon T. Clay Scientists Residence where you’ll monitor nesting trends, growth rates, and reproductive success. You’ll walk along the large expanse of beach at night – just you and the world – tracking turtles and observing babies hatch while mother heads back to the shore.

The best part?

Through this conservation initiative, CCC has reversed the decline of green turtles in the Caribbean.

For centuries, the long beach draws the largest nesting population of green turtles hunted for their meat and eggs; still considered delicacies, regardless of the fact that, like shark and shark finning, it’s pretty tasteless and there’s a good deal of fresh fish, coconut, and vegetables around to eat instead. After all, it’s illegal to kill and eat these ancient turtles for a reason.

The sand is soft and the wind is smooth, but they recommend people in good health and physical condition. You’ll pull a 4-hour nightshift with a few others between 5 -7 miles a night, walking in the dark (with no flashlight as to avoid scaring the turtles). You’ll pick a shift that runs from 8am-12am or 12am-4am and then… get taggin’. When you’re not tracking the turtles and watching them lay eggs and hatch, you’ll have plenty of time to veg in a hammock and write plenty of Darwinian sonnets as you plan the next 10 years of your life.

Here’s a sample room:

$1,399 for a one week session – $2,699 for a three week session.
Contact CCC for details, fees and availability of the Scientist Residence or local Eco-Lodge options.

At the end of your sustainable adventures, when you’re ready to check out a bit more of the country, take a trip to the volcanic hot springs of Arenal and then treat yourself to Manuel Antonio/Quepos where you can really contribute to that Costa Rican economy. When my family came into town to visit me at the end of my eco-journey, we stayed at:

The Tulemar Bungalows (****), my personal favorite. Intimate and nestled in the jungle, monkeys will greet you in the morning and play in the trees as you sip a pina colada in the pool. You can choose from modern eco-friendly bungalows, private villas, and houses on the beach.

$128 (Green Season/Bungalows)-$11,000 (private villa that sleeps eight for a week)

Our plush eco-loving staff also recommends the only five-start property (and eco-reserve!) in Costa Rica, Gaia Hotel and Reserve.

$220-$970 (high season, 2-bedroom villa)

This place will not only remind you why you needed to lend your beautiful spirit to the earth and her creatures around you, but it will also remind you to appreciate the beauty, and the design, that is lovingly made by man. Now go farm the jungle and track some turtles already!