There's been a lot of hype about hotels becoming more ecologically responsible but few manage to live up to their public relations spin.
The Bangkok-based luxury resort group, Six Senses, long a vanguard for sustainable travel, recently unveiled the Eco Villa in the hope of resetting these standards. Tucked into a jungle clearing at the Soneva Kiri resort, on the Thai island of Koh Kood, the prototype, off-the-grid Eco Villa may look prehistoric but may also signify the future of sustainable accommodation.
The villa has been built entirely from materials found in its immediate environment. The cave-like structure is based on a naturally ventilated tepee design by Miwok Indians from northern California, with casuarina driftwood logs dug out of a nearby beach providing the support. Stone boulders rendered with a buffalo-skin glue and jaggery line the outside walls; inside, mudbricks covered with plaster made from clay and rice husk radiate a warm glow. The floor is compacted mud, the furniture is fashioned out of driftwood and the whole building has been fixed together with hardwood dowels made by a local boat maker.
"It's all a bit obsessive," says the villa's British-born designer, Louis Thompson. "We wanted to create a villa that was as close as possible to nature, while achieving the same level of comfort as in a conventional Six Senses resort room."
Thompson and I have just landed at Soneva Kiri on Six Senses' plush but not-so-eco Cessna Grand Caravan. Situated near the Cambodian border, the resort took five years to build, which included the construction of a private airstrip on a neighbouring island - the justification being that it takes less carbon to run an eight-seat plane than four luxury cars and speedboats over the same distance.
Still having its finishing touches applied, the Eco Villa is about to take in its first overnight guest - me.
With some trepidation, I unpack my bags and settle in. Although it's cosy enough, there are a few teething problems: the earthen floor is dusty and stains the soles of my feet, there is barely a dribble of water in the two outdoor showers and the only toilet has been taken over by a tribe of cheeky frogs.
These are minor quirks, though, and the villa is packed with ''wow'' factors. Wash your hands in the bathroom and the water is gravity-fed around the room and into the toilet cistern, ready for the next flush. There is the ingeniously designed roof that keeps the villa's spacious interiors deliciously cool, even without the aid of the supersonic DC inverted airconditioner (Thompson's bane as the chief consumer of the villa's 8.2-kilowatt solar- and wind-energy system). Starting with a patchwork of teak wood leaves lining the ceiling, the roof then has layers of insulation, recycled newspapers, rubber wood planks, a membrane, egg crates, a textile filter, thick padding of earth mixed with coconut and ash and, finally, a garden of edible tropical plants.
The best place to admire the rooftop garden is from the sizeable, free-form swimming pool, filtered ecologically, of course, using therapeutic magnesium and potassium electrolytes designed by Australian company MagnaPool.
And what villa wouldn't be complete without a wine cellar? Tucked into a far corner of the compound, the 150-bottle wine cellar is made of mud and clay, with a solar-powered top-down watering system to keep the wine at 20 degrees.
Add to this a Phillips 50-watt eco-TV, iPod dock, internet and a diligent butler to tend to your every whim.
But I discover it's not for everybody - including me - when late that night the surrounding jungle bursts to life, making a racket worthy of Bangkok rush hour.
Being green Six Senses-style isn't cheap. One night in the Eco Villa will set you back $US2500 (NZ$3480) in peak season, plus a "carbon-sense tax" to make you feel better about the Cessna transfer. This 2 per cent tax will be used to fund reforestation programs in Thailand.
Six Senses is hoping to use the prototype villa (with a bit of tweaking) to launch a new resort brand called Evalution, says the founder and director of Six Senses, Sonu Shivdasani, who has pledged to decarbonise all of the company's resorts by 2020.
IF YOU GO
Senses Soneva Kiri. The Eco Villa is $US1190 (NZ$1655) a night for two people, room only, until October 22.
* Leisa Tyler travelled courtesy of Six Senses.
Two dead while the washing hung on the line (graphic content)