I love Italy! The people, the food (Eat-aly), the wine, the history and the warmth… what’s not to love? Well ok, the overwhelming shiploads and busloads of tourists that sometimes give it that overwhelming “Disneyland” feeling. My PIBAL (Partner in Business and Life) Julie and I recently set out to experience the best of Italy in 25 days and explore how the real leader inside all of us can make travel more sustainable. Many of the strategies we employed can help you in your travels, no matter where you go.

I began with my travel agent of 20 years who knows my preferences well, but is no expert on eco-tourism. I honestly didn’t even think to tell him of our sustainability mission from the start. This actually worked out well, because he did what most agents do and recommended some excellent (and horrifyingly wasteful) examples of unsustainable luxury hotels.

To his credit he did also throw in some world leaders in sustainability too. We agreed that four nights each in Venice, Florence, Sardinia, Cinque Terre, Amalfi, and Rome would allow us to see as much as possible without feeling too stressed about the constant moving between cities. This turned out to be just the right formula.

With so much moving between planes, trains and automobiles, packing light is essential. I was able to convince Julie to limit our luggage to two carry-on bags each, and she did (I love her!) Remember that you can always use the housekeeping service to launder items as you go, or simply buy items as you need them. Carry-on also meant less time wasted in terminals. She thanked me later.

We left at the end of May to take advantage of the best weather, without having to deal with the high-season crowds. We experienced four very different examples of how responsible hospitality businesses have created innovative and sustainable accommodation. Most had converted and repurposed their underutilized real estate to dramatically increase the number of people who could enjoy it, instead of building newer or additional buildings. All four of the examples below are ways you can enjoy a luxury vacation in a more sustainable manner, rather than selecting a more recently built property.

1. In Tuscany (Greve, near Florence) we stayed in a beautiful 6,000-foot, hilltop Italian family villa owned by a countess and managed by luxury vacation club Inspirato. For thousands of years the world’s wealthy have owned vacation homes to enable them to enjoy the same privacy and luxury while on vacation as they do at home. Inspirato has disrupted the status quo with a business model that manages and staffs 130 luxury estate and villas around the world for their members at a small fraction of the cost of ownership. Why would anyone choose to buy a second home when they could enjoy a professionally managed luxury home anywhere in the world? Inspirato provides a concierge, housekeepers, cooks, gardeners and maintenance for a carefree vacation.

Upon arrival we were welcomed by a multi-lingual concierge who had stocked our kitchen with requested items and arranged for a private wine tasting in the surrounding region of Chianti. In the morning we were greeted with coffee and breakfast. In addition to the obvious appeal of a having a low-cost alternative to choose from rather than owning a second home that sits empty most of the time, you’ll feel good knowing that you’re supporting a more sustainable vacation solution that more fully utilizes these properties, meaning fewer need to be built and maintained. The particular villa we stayed at sleeps 18 and is great for a family reunion, forum, business retreat or private getaway.

2. Our next stop was Villa La Massa in Florence, a spectacular 16th century Medici villa that has been recycled into an intimate 37-roomed luxury hotel in 1948. The restaurant patio is alongside the Arno River, with world-class service and food. The food has more flavor, because the vegetables are picked fresh in their organic garden.

The organic olive oil is also grown and bottled on-site. In addition, this property requires no piped municipal water, choosing to supply all its own water from a well on the property. This villa is a peaceful oasis 10 minutes away from the seething crowds of Florence. Villa La Massa is an excellent choice for couples, forum or chapter retreats, a romantic getaway, or even an intimate wedding in their chapel! This was another great example of how the owners took a property that had been underutilized for hundreds of years and greatly expanded its use and functionality, rather than build more. 

3. We rented a car and drove for two hours from Naples to Amalfi (what were we thinking!). Frommer’s describes the “technical difficulty” of this drive as “easier than the road to Hana in Maui, let’s say, but more difficult than the Pacific Coast Highway”. Having driven both several times (who would do that?) I must agree with Frommer’s. Technically, however there is something about this stunningly beautiful, terrifying 3,000-foot cliff and the passionate, crazed Italian drivers that put this route on my list of top driving challenges.

The narrow and winding drive was very exciting and was also perhaps the best test on earth for the compatibility of any couple in a rental car. We survived without incident and actually had fun, not to mention our newfound gratitude for life! You might think that a 12th century convent is the antithesis of a luxury vacation, but don’t be too hasty in your judgment. Those nuns might have known what they were doing after all. Convento Di Amalfi enjoys the best location and views of Amalfi from its’ hillside perch. Our friendly hotel manager was quick to point out that historically it hadn’t actually been a convent with nuns, it was a monastery.

What was still unclear, however, was why they call it “convento” instead of “monastero”. Regardless of what it was called, the 53 room five star hotel is full of pleasant surprises, from the 800-year-old church and infinity pool to the contemporary interiors and breathtaking views.

It was recently renovated and was reopened last year with an international quality management system award (the ISO 2000). This old convent/monastery turned out to be the most energy-efficient of all the places we stayed during our 25 days in Italy!

The manager pointed out that the hotel is one of 400 hotels owned by NH Hotels of Spain, who’d made a pledge five years ago to reduce their environmental footprint by 25%. They have since exceeded this goal and their aim is to now inspire the hospitality industry to follow their lead in sustainable practices.

4. The only experience we had of Italy without the presence of tour buses and crowds of tourists was thequaint 13th century village of Trevignano, situated outside Rome on the shores of beautiful Lake Bracciano. Here you can go beyond the simple looking and tasting of Italy, you can experience living in Italy with local Italians. We were the guests of Borgo Vistalago, one of about 40 Albergho Diffuso-type renovations found throughout Italy.

Albergho Diffuso is an innovative concept of hospitality that was launched in Italy in the early 1980s as a means of reviving small, historic Italian villages and town centers that are situated off the beaten tourist tracks. The idea is of a hotel, that is not in a single block, but rather created from various historic buildings within a small community, with a central hotel manager. If you want an authentic Italian experience and can live without room service, fitness room and pool this may be for you

Found about 40 minutes outside of Rome, we enjoyed the authentic local culture of Borgo Vistalago – the playing Italian children and the conversations of locals at the café during breakfast. We had dinner with the proprietor and architect of Borgo Vistalago and found the food to be unexpectedly exceptional. After dinner we had a Skype call with her husband and chef, Simon, at his restaurant in New York, that had just been recognized by the Wall Street Journal.

This was our first attempt at aligning our values with vacation spending and it was far from perfect, but it did give us the motivation and confidence to continue exploring eco-tourism and sustainable options for the future. Hopefully we’ve inspired you to give it a try too and to challenge the status quo of tourism on your next trip.

PS. We still have a lot to learn so please share your experiences or suggestions below.