How do you define a green hotel? One that asks you to reuse your towels and replaces its incandescent lights with compact fluorescents?
As if. These days, it takes more than a towel-reuse program and some tubular light bulbs to qualify as an eco-friendly hotel. The challenge, of course, is determining who’s really green and who’s simply greenwashing.
One way is to look for third-party validation from a group like the U.S. Green Building Council, which promotes sustainable practices through its Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) system. Covering everything from site development and construction processes to air quality and energy use, the program certifies hotels and other properties in one of four categories (Certified, Silver, Gold and Platinum).
At this point, just 17 hotels have made the list, although more than 700 others have registered for consideration. In the meantime, and with Earth Day on April 22, the following eight hotels offer a sense of the diversity of eco-oriented accommodations and proof that style and sustainability are not mutually exclusive.
CityFlats Hotel, Holland, Mich.
With its rooftop bistro, ultralounge bar and techno-chic decor, the CityFlats Hotel definitely puts the design in green design. The 56 guestrooms feature cork flooring and bamboo linens; public spaces combine bold colors and recycled materials, and LED lighting throughout blends high style with low energy usage. The hotel, which earned LEED Gold certification last month, also hosts Green Drinks Holland, an eco-oriented social mixer, on the first Thursday of every month. High-season rates are $139–$179.
element Lexington, Lexington, Mass.
As the inaugural property for Starwood’s extended-stay concept, element Lexington offers a residential ambience with a LEED-Gold, eco-chic motif. Its 123 guestrooms feature Energy Star appliances, furnishings made with recycled content and water-saving fixtures that will conserve almost 1 million gallons of water per year. Other eco-conscious amenities include a saltwater pool (no chlorine) and reserved parking for hybrid vehicles. The hotel is currently offering 20 percent off on stays of three nights or more.
Proximity Hotel, Greensboro, N.C.
Last October, the 147-room Proximity Hotel became the first (and currently only) hotel in the U.S. to earn LEED Platinum certification. Among its 70-plus efforts: 100 rooftop solar panels (which provide 60 percent of hot water needs), an energy-efficient air-filtration system (that pumps 60 cubic feet of fresh air per minute into guestrooms) and natural light in 97 percent of occupied spaces (to cut lighting costs). Even the elevators generate energy that is then fed back into the hotel’s electrical grid. Rates start at $239 per night.
Hotel Terra, Teton Village, Wyo.
Located steps from the Jackson Hole tram, the 72-room Hotel Terra (LEED Silver) was built green from the ground up with recycled steel, reclaimed lumber and low-E windows that let natural light in without letting heat out. Inside, two restaurants and a rooftop spa complement guestrooms and suites that feature 100 percent natural mattresses, organic bath products and coffeemakers with fair-trade coffee. Summer rates start at $229 per night.
The Palazzo, Las Vegas, Nev.
Can a hotel with 3,066 rooms be considered environmentally friendly? It can if it’s The Palazzo, which earned LEED Silver status last year. In the rooms, low-flow fixtures cut water usage by 37 percent; outside, moisture sensors and a drip-irrigation system help reduce watering needs by 75 percent. Elsewhere on the property, swimming pools are heated with solar energy which can be directed to the hotel’s hot water system during the warmer months. Nightly rates start at $199.
The Ambrose, Santa Monica, Calif.
Most guests come to The Ambrose for the Asian aesthetic, the Craftsman-style decor and the upscale amenities in its 77 guestrooms. In fact, they may not even notice the use of all-natural cleansers, the lack of Styrofoam and aerosol sprays or the preferred parking for hybrid vehicles. Underscoring its LEED Silver status, the hotel also offers complimentary local transportation via a bio-diesel-powered London Taxi. Average rates start at $199.
Orchard Garden Hotel, San Francisco, Calif.
At the (LEED-certified) Orchard Garden Hotel, guests hold the key to energy efficiency in their hands — literally. Slide a key card into a slot just inside your guestroom door and it will activate the room’s lighting and climate-control system; remove it upon leaving and it powers them down, saving nearly 20 percent in electricity costs. Appointed in sustainably harvested maple decor, the hotel’s 86 rooms and suites feature low-water-flow fixtures, low-emission carpets and organic bath amenities. Rates start at $189 per night.
Gaia Napa Valley Hotel and Spa, American Canyon, Calif.
Many hotels talk about their conservation efforts; the 132-room Gaia Napa Valley Hotel puts the information on public display via lobby touch-screens that track the property’s electricity use, water consumption and CO2 emissions. Solar panels and tubular skylights soak up the area’s abundant sunshine; water is recycled into an on-site koi pond, and high-efficiency HVAC units use environmentally friendly refrigerants to maintain air quality. These and other efforts helped the hotel earn LEED Gold certification in 2007; nightly rates currently start at $129.
Rob Lovitt is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. If you'd like to respond to one of his columns or suggest a story idea, .