NEW YORK (MainStreet) — A regular guest of the Four Seasons' Lodge At Koele, in Hawaii, Sherri Foster has come to enjoy the lush hillside property's hiking, exercise and swimming offerings, not to mention the award-winning golf course.
The Maui-based financial adviser also has raves for a somewhat more unexpected activity from a hotel chain known the world over for luxe offerings and pampering.
Foster is one of many guests who have been connected with an opportunity to volunteer at the Lanai Animal Rescue Center, a local, nonprofit animal shelter that is home to hundreds of cats.
"It's just a rewarding experience," Foster says. "I spent eight days [at The Lodge at Koele] before Christmas, and one of the most enjoyable things was going to the animal rescue center and participating in petting the cats and donations. It's a great experience for hotel guests to have."
Guests who visit the Four Seasons Resorts on Lanai are able to do such things as help with facility upkeep, garden and paint at the shelter.
Volunteer vacations are certainly nothing new.
There are countless organizations dedicated to connecting globally conscious travelers with opportunities to do some good for the planet or its inhabitants while on vacation.
Luxury hotels getting into the act is new. The idea: You can help elephants in Thailand, impoverished children in South Africa or feral cats in Hawaii and still have your 800-thread-count sheets at the end of each day.
The Four Seasons, Marriott, Biras Creek in Virgin Gorda and Le Quartier Français in South Africa are just some of properties that have recently begun offering guests opportunities to volunteer for a few hours or days while on vacation.
"Guests have so many opportunities to lay on the beach and have fun, and that's of course what vacation is about, but they really seem to enjoy coming out to the sanctuary," says Kathy Carroll, founder of the rescue center in Lanai.
The help is much needed, Carroll says. On a small island such as Lanai, home to only about 3,000 residents, there isn't always enough local volunteer support.
The St. Regis Bahia Beach Resort is the only AAA Five Diamond resort on Puerto Rico and was recently included (for the third consecutive year) on Conde Nast Traveler's Hot and Gold lists.
Guests at the exclusive property, which includes butler service, can indulge in treatments at a Remede Spa, golfing or enjoying two miles of unspoiled beach and a seaside pool with private cabanas.
They can also serve as "guardian" to the Leatherback turtles that nest on the property's shore. But be prepared: Guests who participate are called at any time of day to protect the animals once they begin hatching on Bahia Beach.
At Biras Creek in Virgin Gorda, five rescued horses provide yet another opportunity to give back.
The resort, accessible only by boat or helicopter, is the location of 31 deluxe suites on 140 acres. It is also home to Ben, Kid, Winston, Fugitive and Sorbeto, all Paso Fino horses, two of which were terribly abused.
"Pam and David Johnson saved these horses' lives. Nobody wanted to deal with them. One was a stallion and was afraid of people, and the other was really old," says Carolyne Stolzenfels, referring to the two most poorly treated horses among the bunch, rescued from Puerto Rico.
Stolzenfels started the volunteer program at Biras Creek about a year ago. Guests are able to do such things as groom the horses, feed them and give them a bath.
"It doesn't require a lot of skill, it just requires getting your hands dirty," Stolzenfels.
"Some of the guests who come here have horses and pets at home and they don't know what to do with themselves when they are here away from their pets, so they love to come and volunteer with the horses," she says.
If direct contact with animals isn't your thing, there's always working with children in South Africa or restoring the rainforest in Costa Rica.
Guests at Le Quartier Français, in Cape Town, South Africa, are able to accompany hotel staff delivering food to impoverished children. Those on a longer stay, a minimum of five nights, can even volunteer to teach and care for local preschool children.
And just a few years ago, in Costa Rica, there was a serious problem with tropical almond trees nearly disappearing in the wake of too much construction, which also led to the decline of the scarlet macaws that use the trees to nest.
That's when the Marriott Los Suenos Costa Rica decided to start its Reforest the Rainforest initiative, offering guests a chance to plant trees during their stays.
"The tropical almond tree was almost extinct. It was very hard to find," says Brenda Obando, of Marriott Los Suenos, who says the tree is home to more than 150 species of birds and local wildlife.
Guests who volunteer get to plant a tree. They get a picture with it, and a wood plaque with their name is placed on the tree.
As many as 600 trees have been planted in a year thanks to the program, Obando says.
"We have even had some people who come visit their tree," she says.
"We started this program with kids and hotel associates, but it was such a success we expanded it to include guests," Obando says. "I think people have more of a sense of helping the world. And maybe because they are in Costa Rica, and they see such a green environment here, they are interested in helping."
— By Mia Taylor for MainStreet