Have a Green Stay

By Brad Tuttle
March 6, 2009
Have a green stay
Pricey eco-resorts no longer own the hotel high road—with the major chains now more environmentally minded, anyone can afford to think about the planet.

In the lodging world, green has gone mainstream. Once chided for being wasteful, the big hotel chains are now constantly trying to one-up each other with smart eco-design upgrades and stringent water and energy conservation policies. Consider this fact: In a recent survey, 68 percent of U.S. hotels said they had energy-efficient lights, and two thirds had implemented towel- and linen-reuse programs, up from just over half five years ago. The number of properties trying to become LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certified, the most recognized standard for building sustainability, is also on the rise: Applications to the U.S. Green Building Council for the award spiked by 550 percent between 2006 and 2008. More than 500 hotels could soon earn the label; until four years ago, only one had the designation.

Although all the major players are making strides toward better green policies, some are doing more than others. Here's what the leaders have achieved in four earth-changing categories:

Replacing inefficient lighting, one energy-draining bulb at a time

Accor More than 8,600 Motel 6 rooms* in at least a dozen states have been retrofitted with occupancy sensors that cause the thermostat to readjust when guests go out.
InterContinental A trial program has been rolled out at 650 hotels that aims to cut energy consumption by as much as 25 percent. If successful, it could be expanded to all of the chain's 4,000 properties, including Holiday Inns.
Marriott Over the past decade, 450,000 incandescent bulbs have been replaced with compact fluorescent ones, and more than 250 hotels (including some Residence Inns) have earned an Energy Star efficiency label from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Starwood The new Element brand's goal is for every hotel to be LEED certified. Its first property, which opened last year in Lexington, Mass., is fully loaded with Energy Star appliances, LED lighting, and top-notch ventilation systems. All together, that saves enough energy annually to power 236 homes.

Tightening up on all the drips and drops in hotel bathrooms

Hilton The company's aim: to reduce water use at all of its brands, such as Hilton, DoubleTree, and Embassy Suites, by 10 percent by 2014. Its nearly 90 European properties have taken the lead, installing water-saving toilets, showerheads, and faucets over the past three years. Home-turf hotels are next.
Hyatt Nearly all North American properties have "low-flow" showerheads (which use a maximum of 2.5 gallons of water per minute) and toilets (1.6 gallons of water per flush). The improvements helped reduce the chain's overall water consumption by 3 percent in 2007.
Marriott Over the past 10 years, the company has added some 400,000 low-flow showerheads and toilets to all of its locations world­wide. Marriott also buys 1 million towels annually that don't require prewashing, conserving 6 million gallons of water each year.
Starwood All new Element hotels will have low-flow water fixtures in rooms and water-efficient landscaping; its Lexington star has led the way, saving up to 1 million gallons of water per year.

Thinking about the environment from the foundation up

Accor The Motel 6 brand broke ground last year on an ultra-green building near Dallas, with laminate flooring made from recycled wood chips and a solar-powered water-heating system.
Best Western Opening this year in Golden, Colo., the chain's first LEED-certified hotel will run partially on solar power and have a porous asphalt parking lot to reduce storm-water runoff.
Hilton The company's green gem is in Vancouver, Wash.: a LEED-approved hotel with low-emission paint on the walls and special drains that funnel rainwater into wells for future use.
Hyatt Seattle's Hyatt at Olive 8, which opened in January, has an 8,000-square-foot rooftop garden, water-efficient dual-flush toilets, outlets in the parking lot for electric cars, and lighting controlled by room key cards.
Marriott In 2005, the Marriott in College Park, Md., was the first chain hotel in the U.S. to become LEED certified. Among the earth-friendly frills: kitchen composting, in-room recycling bins, water pitchers instead of plastic bottles, and an organic restaurant.
Starwood All eight Element locations being built across the country this year have carpets and cushions made from recycled materials, art mounted on frames constructed from old tires, and priority parking for guests with hybrids.

Allowing not a single can, bottle, or plastic key card to go to waste

Hyatt Starting this year, the company will only use key cards and shampoo and lotion containers made from recycled plastics. Hyatt has also begun recycling its own aluminum, plastics, and paper in countries such as Russia and Chile where such programs don't exist.
Intercontinental As part of a pilot program started two years ago, about 140 Candlewood Suites properties donated old furniture and linens to local families following renovations—helping to cut back on landfill. It hopes to replicate the initiative nationwide.
Marriott Each year, the chain buys 47 million pens and 24 million key cards made from recycled plastics; it has also eliminated Styrofoam and plastic utensils at all of its locations. Coming soon: bed pillows made from the polyester fibers of recycled plastic bottles.
Wyndham Debuting later this year at Super 8 motels across the country: new staff uniforms fashioned entirely from recycled plastic bottles.

*CORRECTION: In the published article, we incorrectly said that, for Accor, more than 8,600 Motel 6 locations nationwide have been retrofitted with occupancy sensors. We should have said "rooms."

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Boutique Bangkok

VIE HOTEL BANGKOK Vibe Modern and sleek. The all-glass Vie was designed with the views in mind—each of the 154 rooms has floor-to-ceiling windows. In the lobby, an illuminated concierge desk changes colors from deep orange to bright green, and chandeliers are strung with bare lightbulbs. Neighborhood Steps from Siam Square, which is surrounded by hip boutiques and bars, such as the duckpin-themed SF Strike Bowl. Top Amenity Vie Spa, with a glass-enclosed room just for quick foot massages. Info 117-39 Phaya Thai Rd., 011-66/2-309-3939, viehotelbangkok.com, from $120. JL BANGKOK Vibe Blissfully Zen, with pale-yellow walls and sconces shaded with rice paper and linen. Beds in all 52 rooms have white headboards with hand-carved flowers; balconies in 22 of the superior rooms overlook the Saen Saeb Canal and the Krai-Sri Noi temple. Neighborhood Students pack the streets 24/7 in this part of Ramkhamhaeng, just down the road from Assumption University. Open-air food courts in the area serve dishes from across Thailand, such as khao soi, a northern-provinces soup made with crunchy noodles. Top Amenity A traditional meditation garden in the interior courtyard. Info 5 Soi Ramkhamhaeng 23, 011-66/2-369-2407, jlbangkok.com, from $40. TENFACE Vibe Traditional meets quirky. The hotel's name comes from the multifaced giant from the Thai legend called the Ramakien—hence the large statues of the monster in the lobby. The 79 rooms (all are suites) have murals of warriors on horseback galloping across the walls and canopied beds with bold black-and-white sheets. Neighborhood In the heart of the business district, near the popular Ratchaprasong boutique shopping area. Top Amenity The blue-tiled heated outdoor pool. Info 81 Soi Ruamrudee, Wireless Rd., 011-66/2-695-4242, tenfacebangkok.com, from $104. MAC BOUTIQUE Vibe Futuristic. The lobby shines with pink lighting and silver leather sofas. In the 62 rooms, averaging about 700 square feet, there are chairs upholstered in tiger prints and two 35-inch plasmas. Neighborhood A quiet side street off busy Sukhumvit Road. The boulevard has a thriving nightlife scene—hundreds of clubs line the strip. Top amenity Shiraz Bar, on the ground floor, which stocks a dozen types of its namesake red. Info 23/8-10 Sukhumvit Soi 7, 011-66/2-651-2592, macboutiquesuites.com, from $68. Sacred sight The world's largest solid-gold Buddha (over 12,000 pounds!) finally has a home worth its weight in gold. Bangkok's 700-year-old deity will live on the top floor of the Phra Maha Mondop shrine and museum when it opens this month.

25 Reasons We Love Philadelphia

1. Yes, yes—there are cheesesteaks Two of the oldest cheesesteak restaurants in South Philly—Pat's and Geno's—have a long-standing feud worth weighing in on. Pat's claims to have invented the cheesesteak. Geno's claims to have perfected it. Both serve equally generous portions of rib-eye steak, grilled onions, and Cheese Whiz on freshly baked Italian rolls; we'll let you decide which is worth lining up for. Pat's, 1237 E. Passyunk Ave., 215/468-1546, patskingofsteaks.com, $7.50; Geno's, 1219 S. Ninth St., 215/389-0659, genosteaks.com, $7.50. 2. There's actually affordable art With its cheap rents and thriving gallery scene, Philly has become a haven for artists fleeing pricier New York. "You can make your mark quickly here by filling a void," says Daniel Fuller of the Philadelphia Exhibitions Initiative, which funds galleries. The upside for visitors: There are plenty of places to pick up one-of-a-kind pieces, such as the Art for the Cash Poor festival, where nothing is priced over $200 (inliquid.com, June 13–14), and the Art Star Craft Bazaar, where 150 painters, sculptors, and designers unload their works (artstarcraftbazaar.com, May 30–31). 3. A river runs through it Date night in Philly could mean dinner and a movie, or something more intrepid: a moonlight kayak tour. Starting at dusk in the summer, instructors from Hidden River Outfitters provide a half-hour lesson, followed by a 90-minute guided paddle on the Schuylkill River. 215/222-6030, schuylkillbanks.org, $50 per person. 4. Latin Emeril is in the house Ecuadoran-American restaurateur Jose Garces, known as the Latin Emeril Lagasse, imported tapas to Philly in 2005 with his Andalusian wine bar Amada (217–219 Chestnut St., 215/625-2450, amadarestaurant.com, plates from $5). Now, he's moved on to Mexican with his candy-colored Distrito restaurant—the pulled pork and pineapple-salsa tacos do Mexico City proud (3945 Chestnut St., 215/222-1657, distritorestaurant.com, tacos from $9). 5. Backstreets are laid bare Even old-timers don't know all of the narrow streets tucked between the main arteries of the city's oldest neighborhoods. Good thing the guides from the Philadelphia Society for the Preservation of Landmarks have a handle on things. One of the group's most popular walking tours is Littlest Streets East of Broad, which winds its way through a small-scale section of Center City. 321 S. Fourth St., 215/925-2251, philalandmarks.org, $10. 6. Steve Wynn can't touch this More than 100,000 pieces of glass make up The Dream Garden, a mosaic designed by Philadelphia artist Maxfield Parrish in 1916 that graces the lobby of the Curtis Center. Ten years ago, the Tiffany-made rural-landscape mural was sold to casino mogul Steve Wynn, whose plan to move it to Las Vegas provoked a citywide outcry. The Pew Charitable Trusts stepped in with funding to keep the masterpiece in Philly—and Wynn stepped back into the shadows. 601–645 Walnut St. 7. Designers sell the clothes off their backs Mary Clark and Megan Murphy opened Vagabond eight years ago to have a place to peddle their own lines (Stellapop and City of Brotherly Love, respectively). Now, the shop sells vintage clothing alongside the works of other local designers, such as Bario-Neal's jewelry made from reclaimed metals. 37 N. Third St., 267/671-0737, vagabondboutique.com. 8. You can dance till dawn in a diner Mark Bee, a local restaurateur, bought the Silk City Diner two years ago, polished its grease-coated, 1950s-era pink Formica counter, and opened a club. Now, it's the place in town to dance on weekend nights, when DJs spin everything from early '80s Siouxsie and the Banshees to the latest by Beyoncé and M.I.A. 435 Spring Garden St., 215/592-8838, silkcityphilly.com, cover from $5. 9. They make good Impressionists Albert Barnes, a Philadelphia chemist, spent a fortune in the early 1900s filling his stately beaux arts–style villa just outside the city with an eclectic collection of 4,000 pieces of art: Renoirs, Monets, and Matisses are clustered side by side with devotional folk-art paintings, early American hand-forged iron decorations, and African tribal masks. The pieces will be on display in the mansion for only a couple more years; after that, the Barnes Foundation will move the entire collection to a much larger—but decidedly less atmospheric—museum being built in Center City. 300 N. Latch's Ln., 610/667-0290, barnesfoundation.org. 10. Clothes with a Grace Kelly pedigree Shopping at Jennifer Fitch's vintage-resale store, Philadelphia Vintage, is like gaining access to the closet of an eccentric millionairess. While Fitch says she isn't into things that are "too costumey," the shop, just off Rittenhouse Square, is stocked with items that seem beautifully fitted for the stage: fur capelets, Bakelite bangles, Gucci bags, and costume jewelry from the 1950s and '60s. 2052 Locust St., 215/964-9646. 11. There's an art to sleeping In the city's newest boutique hotel, The Independent, works by local artists hang both inside and outside the restored 1920s Georgian Revival building. Photographer Jenny Lynn's shots of Philly landmarks adorn the 24-room hotel's façade, and muralist Kim Senior's painting of Independence Hall spans the length of the three-story atrium. Another fun touch: The phones in the rooms are preset with numbers for more than a dozen nearby restaurants, from steak houses to Mexican joints. 1234 Locust St., 215/772-1440, theindependenthotel.com, from $149. 12. You can be your own sommelier Liquor licenses are like gold in Philly: Because of arcane alcohol laws dating back to Prohibition, the city doles out precious few of them each year. This has led to an explosion of BYOB bistros like Pumpkin, which specializes in seasonal New American dishes such as seared duck with sweet-potato hash. But even in the fall, you won't find pumpkin on the menu—that's just the pet name husband-and-wife owners Ian Moroney and Hillary Bor have for each other. 1713 South St., 215/545-4448, duck $24. 13. Beer goes by another name It doesn't matter what bar you belly up to in Philly—if you ask for a lager, you'll get a pint of Yuengling (pronounced ying-ling), brewed in nearby Pottsville, Pa. Don't believe us? Try your luck at local favorite Dirty Frank's, and see what the bartender pours in your mug. 347 S. 13th St., 215/732-5010. 14. The gelato will make you giggle It's a testament to Capogiro (Italian for "giddiness") that the 6-year-old gelato shop in Center City stays busy even in the dead of winter. Devotees swear by the 27 unusual homemade flavors, including mascarpone and fig, sweet potato with pecan praline, and Mexican chocolate spiced with ancho chilies, chipotle, and cinnamon. 119 S. 13th St., 215/351-0900, capogirogelato.com. 15. There's a garden fit for a king Quaker John Bartram earned the title King's Botanist for designing the first garden in North America devoted to native plants in 1728. The 45-acre Bartram's Garden continues to flourish at his former estate 25 minutes from the city, where you can spot specimens of Franklinia alatamaha, a tree with dogwood-like flowers that Bartram found in Georgia and named for his pal, Benjamin Franklin. 54th St. and Lindbergh Blvd., 215/729-5281, bartramsgarden.org, admission to the grounds is free, tour $5. 16. Sports superstitions seem to have merit Fans believe a curse descended upon the city when the 945-foot One Liberty Place skyscraper was built in Center City in 1987, trumping City Hall as Philadelphia's tallest building. The reason? The city's professional sports teams had enjoyed a run of great seasons in the 1970s and early '80s, but the wins ended when the bronze statue of William Penn atop City Hall lost its status as the highest point in Philly. Two years ago, ironworkers affixed a four-inch replica of the Penn statue to the highest beam of the Comcast Center, now the city's tallest building. And last October, the Phillies won the World Series. We're just sayin'... 17. It's peaceful at its core There's no question that Rittenhouse Square is one of the most tranquil spots in Center City, with its wide diagonal walkways, towering oak and maple trees, and central plaza surrounded by an elegant balustrade. It still feels like a retreat even when there's a lot of activity—from the farmers market on its north end every Tuesday and Saturday morning to the annual Rittenhouse Row Spring Festival (May 9), during which Walnut Street is closed off to traffic so shops and restaurants can spread out onto the square. Walnut St. between S. 18th and S. 20th Sts. 18. A cinematic setting Walk into XIX (Nineteen) restaurant and bar at the Park Hyatt-Bellevue and you may think you've entered Katharine Hepburn's classic 1940s romantic comedy, The Philadelphia Story: The lounge exudes glamour with its elaborately molded, early-1900s rotunda, 20-foot pearl chandelier, polished marble columns, and leather banquettes. What makes this the place to be past sunset, though, are the twinkling views of Philadelphia from the arched windows 19 stories above the streets. 200 S. Broad St., 215/790-1919, parkphiladelphia.hyatt.com, martini $12. 19. Italy is within shelf's reach Philly's go-to place for everything Italian, DiBruno Brothers, was opened in 1939 by three siblings from Abruzzi, Italy: Thomas, Joe, and Danny. Every inch of the shop in the Italian Market, a 14-block neighborhood in South Philly, is packed with wheels of cheese, giant vats of olives—and regulars jostling to place orders at the deli. 930 S. Ninth St., 215/922-2876, dibruno.com. 20. Go-kart art At the Kensington Kinetic Sculpture Derby, being held this year on May 16 in north Philly, go-karting is taken to absurd heights: Contestants dress up in wacky costumes and rumble down Frankford Avenue in rickety, homemade art projects on wheels—the more outlandish, the better. (Think two men dressed as aliens piloting a mini spaceship and you're on the right track.) Naturally, awards are given out for the best dressed, as well as for the vehicle that falls apart in the most spectacular fashion. 2515 Frankford Ave., 215/427-0350, kinetickensington.org. 21. Gossip informs the architecture It's hard to believe people actually live on Elfreth's Alley, a 15-foot-wide lane dating back to 1702. The country's oldest residential street almost didn't make it this far—it was so derelict in the early 1900s that developers tried to demolish it numerous times, only to be thwarted by stalwart tenants. The alley's homes have since been perfectly restored, with no detail overlooked: Houses 120 and 122 still have a "gossip door" connecting them on the inside. 215/574-0560, elfrethsalley.org, tour $5, daily Apr.–Oct. 22. You'll go home smelling minty Co-owners and partners Steve Duross and James Langel make most of the all-natural soaps, shampoos, and body scrubs at their boutique, Duross & Langel, infusing them with scents like ginger and mojito. They also stock specialized balms for afflictions both concrete (PMS) and crunchy (lack of concentration). 117 S. 13th St., 215/592-7627, durossandlangel.com. 23. Vinyl is still king Mike Hoffman, the owner of A.K.A., the largest—and coolest—independent record store in the city, knows how to keep his music-obsessed regulars happy. Not only does he organize his vinyl and CDs by themes you'll never see at a chain store, such as "prison work songs" and "psychedelic Japanese rock," he also brings in up-and-coming musicians, like singer-songwriter Kimya Dawson, for free shows on the second-floor stage. 27 N. Second St., 215/922-3855, myspace.com/aka_music. 24. A haunted house in the big house The Eastern State Penitentiary, which once held the likes of Al Capone, has figured out how to trade in on its notoriety since closing in 1970. In recent years, it has staged dramatizations of bank robber Willie Sutton's 1945 escape and jail-themed ice-sculpture contests. And every Halloween, the cell blocks are turned into a haunted house, complete with escaped inmates and zombie guards lurking in the darkened corners. 22nd St. and Fairmount Ave., 215/236-3300, easternstate.org, haunted house from $20. 25. Many happy trails Getting lost in Fairmount Park, one of the largest city parks in the country, is a welcome rite of passage for new residents and visitors alike (fairmountpark.org). Rent a bike and grab a map of the 9,200-acre woodland at Trophy Bikes, near the Schuylkill River Trail (3131 Walnut St., 215/222-2020, trophybikes.com, from $20). One sight not to miss: the replica 16th-century Japanese House, with its cypress-wood walls, paper-screen doors, and manicured gardens (N. Horticulture Dr., 215/878-5097, shofuso.com, $6).

Hut Hikes for All!

HOW TO TAKE THIS TRIP... STAY: The Appalachian Mountain Club's eight huts are open from June 3 to October 17. (Three also operate self-service in the winter for cross-country skiers and snowshoers.) You should make reservations a few months in advance by phone at 603/466-2727 or online at outdoors.org/lodging/huts. Rates start at $85 per night for AMC members and $94 per night for nonmembers, including breakfast and dinner. Yearly memberships are $50 per person. PARK: When you arrive, leave your car at the trailhead where you plan to end your hike; from there, a shuttle will deliver you to your starting point ($18 per nonmember, reservations required). PACK: The huts come equipped with pillows and blankets, but you'll need to bring a sheet or sleeping bag. Also, consider a face towel, earplugs, a headlamp (for stumbling to the bathroom in the dark), and a waterproof trail map ($10 at outdoors.org/amcstore). OR ONE OF THESE OTHER HUT-TO-HUT OPTIONS 10th MOUNTAIN DIVISION HUTS, COLORADO Along a 350-mile stretch in the Rockies between Vail, Aspen, and Leadville, 28 rental huts are open to hikers and bikers from July to September, and to cross-country skiers from Thanksgiving to April. 970/925-5775, huts.org, from $28 per person. LA GRANDE TRAVERSÉE TRAIL, QUEBEC Fifteen chalets offer shelter along the International Appalachian Trail in Canada's Gaspésie Provincial Park. All but four stay open year-round for hikers, backcountry skiers, and snowshoers (no mountain biking is allowed). 800/665-6527, sepaq.com/pq/gas/en, from $19.50 per person. RENDEZVOUS HUTS, WASHINGTON Situated along some of the best cross-country skiing trails in the Methow Valley of the North Cascades, five huts are available for rent from December to March. Shuttles are available to transport skiers' gear along the route each night for $85 per trip. 509/996-8100, methownet.com/huts, from $35 per person. *For these three trips, you must bring your own food, water, and bedding.

Over the River and Through the Woods

As unexpected luxuries go, there's a lot to be said for the notion that you can climb for six hours into the roadless New Hampshire wilderness, unshoulder your backpack, and find yourself, at 4,200 feet, face-to-face with a freshly carved turkey dinner. For more than a century, the Appalachian Mountain Club (AMC), a Northeast conservation group, has maintained a string of eight huts in the White Mountains, each a day's hike away from its nearest neighbors, that shelter and feed thousands of hikers every summer. I've known about these cabins since I moved to Boston 15 years ago and, strange as it may sound, have diligently avoided them. I was an avid camper and backpacker in my early 20s, and these huts always struck me as a form of cheating: The outdoors is supposed to be a theater of self-sufficiency; it felt wrong to march into the open only to spend the night at a hotel. But now that I'm 38, I'm willing to change my mind. I haven't camped for more than a decade; these days, having someone cook for me after a hike is the only way I'm getting back to nature. That's what brings me 2,000 feet above the trailhead off Interstate 93, the straps of a new backpack cutting into my shoulders. It's the middle of June, and I've decided to try a four-day trek, bunking down in a different AMC hut each night. For company, I've enlisted my friend Sam, an architect and fellow lapsed hiker. We've spent two weeks buying gear, marking our route on a waterproof map, and wondering whether we're crazy to think that, after years of tackling nothing harder than the hills around Boston, we can walk into some of New England's most forbidding terrain and emerge unscathed more than 25 miles later. Also along with us are a photographer, Josh, and his brother Jason. Their backpacks, I note, look suspiciously new, too. We're bypassing the short route to our first hut in favor of a more picturesque—but also more challenging—climb over Franconia Ridge, which rises like a wall along I-93 through the middle of northern New Hampshire. It's a clear, sunny Saturday morning, and we set off in T-shirts and shorts, hopping roots and brooks, with the cheerful wooden signposts of the White Mountain National Forest marking every junction. Soon, though, the trail takes a sharp turn for the vertical, and we find ourselves scrambling upward on our hands and feet, grabbing on to trees for balance, and double-checking the map to make sure we're going the right way. We're rapidly draining our water bottles, and conversation eventually dwindles into labored breaths. Am I wrong, or is my hiking party starting to look at me darkly? At least the setting is magnificent. At one point, we hear a low rush of tumbling water and then come upon a 60-foot cascade deep in the forest. Sam poses before it with his hiking stick, grinning: If nothing else, we've made it this far! As our elevation ticks higher, the dwarfish windswept spruces and firs give way to an open gravel path lined with delicate little alpine plants. We press up the last few hundred feet to the ridgeline, and we're rewarded with a spectacular panorama of velvety green hills interrupted only by the brown stripes of landslides. Far below, the highway twists like a double strand of ribbon. We hike along the crest for an hour, the view dramatically rearranging itself as we trace folds in the mountains. Then, after we summit the 5,260-foot Mount Lafayette, our highest peak of the day, we finally spot it: the roof of the Greenleaf Hut, about 1,000 feet below. Our moods brighten instantly—we can almost smell dinner—and we scramble down the trail. If this were a true luxury camping experience, Sam says, they'd have installed a zip line. A two-story shingled house with green-trimmed windows and a porch, Greenleaf would be unremarkable anyplace else. But here, it is a small wonder, built nearly 80 years ago with lumber hauled up by burros. Inside, it looks like a charming ski lodge, with knotty-pine walls, a cathedral ceiling, and long wooden picnic tables scattered with backpacks. Bootless hikers lounge in sandals and fleece. A man with a white walrus moustache checks us in by ticking our names off a handwritten list and then points us toward the bunks. The hut can accommodate 48 people, but the rooms are tight—most have two sets of beds stacked three high. In my room, the lower berths have already been claimed by a family of four playing cards. I try to change discreetly, hanging my sweaty clothes on wooden pegs and hoping that they'll keep their eyes on their crazy eights. Before I left Boston, friends had offered some hints about hut life. "I hear it's quite a scene up there," one told me. There was a mention of guitars and of people drinking wine they'd packed in. I was slightly worried that we'd signed on for a happy hour in the woods. But in the main room, we meet Mike, a Boston money manager who hikes the mountains twice a month and knows the ground with a geologist's expertise. Then, Josh, who has just returned from Easter Island, starts swapping travel stories with Eric, a medical resident who backpacked across Central America. It's more like an adventure camp for grown-ups. Suddenly, from the kitchen comes the clamor of spoons banging on pots, and the staff calls out in unison: "DIN-ner!" The three dozen guests quickly sort themselves among the picnic tables, and the mostly college-age workers begin trooping out with a feast: thick slices of roasted turkey, homemade whipped potatoes, a pitcher of gravy, a huge pot of minestrone, and turban-size loaves of warm challah bread. We pass plates up and down the benches like an impromptu family and help ourselves to generous portions. It's a bit weird having a Thanksgiving dinner in June, but it's also the first Thanksgiving dinner I've ever felt I needed. While we eat, our hosts line up to introduce themselves and recite the hut rules. One of them sings the alphabet backward; another tells us about his college thesis on pirates. Two words pop into my head: Mouseketeers and granola. Happy hour never occurs, although I notice that a couple at the end of the table has quietly opened a box of wine. As it turns out, we eat a lot better than we sleep. All four of us end up on top bunks, listening restlessly as a fellow camper's snores echo throughout the building. Sam whispers that he'd have been happier in a tent. I'm not sure if Josh and Jason sleep at all. At 6:30 a.m., when the hut staff sounds reveille by marching past the bunk rooms singing a proudly tuneless rendition of "The Lion Sleeps Tonight," it's hard to imagine there's anyone not already wide awake. The sun has given way to spitting rain. Back on the trail, we plant our feet carefully, trying to find traction on loose rocks as we crest Mount Lafayette again. At the top, we're enshrouded in mist and can barely see the stone pyramids that mark the way. For all we know, they could be leading us over a cliff. As we hike deeper into the backcountry, the footing gets worse. At times we're sliding down sheets of slick granite; at others, we're clomping through mud beneath dripping trees. Sam leads the way, his red rain pants flashing like a weather beacon. At one point, we all debate whether a jumble of rocks is part of the trail or a waterfall. It's both, and we can only laugh as we carefully clamber down it. Two hours pass before we see another person. Around noon, we crouch under a rock and carve hunks of salami for lunch. The climb becomes a little easier in the afternoon, and just after we reach the turnoff to our next hut, a small miracle occurs: The sun comes out. Galehead Hut is the most remote in the chain, cupped in a green cleft between two peaks, five miles uphill from the nearest road. It's a perfect little lodge, with rough logs supporting the porch roof and tall windows surveying the valley like eyes. We're checked in by Caroline, a cheerful Colby College student with a bandanna on her head. Like the rest of the crew, she won a lottery to land her job, which requires living in the woods all summer, cooking for 30 strangers most nights, and hiking the trash out and the food in twice a week. It's cozier here, and because this is a Sunday, there are few guests. After a dinner of pasta shells in a marinara sauce and turkey chowder, we settle down for a talk by a staffer on why the climate here is so extreme. (Who knew that the White Mountains are in the path of nearly every major weather system on the East Coast?) This time when the lights go out, there's nothing but silence. In the morning, we're awakened by an acoustic guitar and three staffers singing tune­fully about the open road. It's kind of magical. We've started to realize that these cabins form a vine of sorts, one that goes dormant every winter and reawakens in June. Photos on the walls show hut crews stretching back for decades, year after year of doughty "hutmen" and, since the 1970s, women. Caroline says that everything gets passed down from one summer to the next: the ancient wooden pack frames used to carry supplies, the breakfast and dinner skits, the ghost stories. Hokey, yes, but also undeniably seductive. After three days of camping in a tent, I'm usually aching for a beer and a shower. On this trip, I'm starting to wonder how I can enlist. Josh and Jason are heading home today, so Sam and I say our good-byes as we set out over South Twin Mountain. By now, my calves feel like guitar strings. Fortunately, today's route is less tricky: a few steep, rocky climbs, but mostly bouncing descents. And the weather is clear again. At one point, we sit for 15 minutes at the edge of a cliff, awed by the sweep of Zealand Notch beneath us. We spend our last night at the Zealand Falls Hut, eating chicken fricassee in a dining room with bound nature journals slouching on the shelves and Austrian hiking signs on the walls. There are even fewer guests here, and we've crossed paths with several of them before: Shawna and Amber, friends who are on their annual trip to the mountains, and Keith and Roger, brothers from England who haven't hiked together in 55 years. Everyone is friendly but not too much so—the one thing we have in common is that we've traipsed for days to get away from civilization. Before we leave in the morning, I chat with Ben and Lindsay, students who've worked in the huts for a few summers each. Some visitors are wowed by the setup, they say, amazed to see a full dinner materialize in the backcountry. Others blanch when they discover that the bathrooms have sinks but no showers. Lindsay, who made perfect scones and oatmeal for breakfast, tells me her worst guest was a man who stormed into the kitchen, irrational and swearing, frightening her until she realized he was hypothermic from two days in the rain. She got him out of his wet clothes and wrapped him in blankets. "In the morning, he gave a speech about how I saved his life with a hot orange liquid," she says. "It was Tang." Sam and I bid adieu to our last hut and walk down the stairs and into the sun-dappled birch forest for the last couple of miles of our trek. After four days in the mountains, we're not only intact, we feel revitalized. And when we reach my car and I turn the key in the ignition, I'm pleased to notice that the engine sounds just the tiniest bit strange.