With misinformation and greenwashing rife in tourism, ‘Behind The Green’ interviews take it back to basics. Back to storytelling. Hear from the visionaries behind the world’s best sustainable retreats and the leading experts who help us to REIMAGINE, RESET, and REINVENT travel.
Written by Rebecca Woolford
Redefining Luxury In Travel
In the world of travel, the concept of ‘luxury’ is transforming. This is good news not only for the planet but for travellers and the future of tourism, an industry that is said to employ 1 in 10 people globally.
As we have become more conscious of our impact and how our decisions shape the world, there’s a very real and exciting shift taking place.
No longer defined by opulent accommodations, lavish amenities, and overconsumption, luxury is being redefined for the better.
This redefinition of luxury in travel is being driven by a profound shift in what we value. From the superficial surface level, many travellers now seek experiences that go deeper. Travel with more meaning and heart. From ‘consuming’ to ‘conserving’.
- A brand new resort erected by heavy machinery VS a restored building full of history
- A glass of orange juice unsustainably imported VS a local, organic, seasonal juice
Finca La Donaira provides ‘real’ luxury through organic food, clean air, water, and connection with nature
Authentic, Local, Meaningful Vs. Opulence, Lavish, Luxurious
At the age of just 15, Ronald Jacobs, now general manager of Finca La Donaira, enrolled himself in hotel school. His hospitality career took him to five different countries from Italy to the USA. Working for some of the world’s most ‘luxurious’ hotels in which ‘luxury had no limits’ the experience left Ronald feeling unfulfilled. He shared how ‘Luxury in hospitality was defined by excess and abundance.’
In his pursuit of happiness and an unsatisfied hunger for a more natural and authentic way of life, Ronald finally found what he’d been looking for. In the rolling hills of Andalusia lies an organic farm and eco-retreat that I’ve personally been following for over 5 years.
Finca La Donaira is a perfect example of this concept of redefining luxury. With its nine rooms across 700 hectares, it’s a rare example of such peace and tranquillity. With its organic produce, clean air, natural aesthetics, and approach to working with nature, not against it, there is nothing more soothing for the soul and restorative for the mind.
I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did!
Thank you, Ronald, it’s great to have you here. I rarely hear people describe their job as a childhood dream come true. That’s pretty special. But it wasn’t always this way. When working away in some of the world’s most luxurious hotels you decide to make a change. What happened?
“I remember there was this huge, defining moment when I was living and working in the United States. Even today, this moment feels like it was just yesterday.
I was part of a team serving at this big banquet operation, it must have been 20 years ago. Clearing the tables, we would bring everything ‘back of house’ in this hotel and I remember I just stopped in my tracks.
Staring at me were these massive bins, full of glass bottles, food waste, and plastic, all mixed, piled up high. Tossed away.
Up until that moment, I had been blissfully unaware.
‘This was a pivotal moment for me where I thought, this is not right, this is not okay.’
Hospitality has such a big footprint, and with that comes a huge responsibility. We take care of many people, especially in those bigger operations.
Many of the places I worked in were densely populated, whether it be Milan or San Diego. These cities brought a lot of hustle and bustle all around, and constant noise. And I just felt that I just needed to escape. Despite being surrounded by all this perceived ‘luxury’.
What does sustainable travel look like? What are the pitfalls travel companies must learn to avoid? Discover incredible case studies and useful blueprints all here.
My fondest childhood memories are of my grandmother who had a house in the countryside about an hour outside of Vienna in Austria. That’s where I spent most of my weekends and summers, surrounded by forests and farms. Lucky enough to experience this as a child, I think I had a yearning to return to the quiet and reconnect with nature.
Around this time I felt very competent in hospitality, and in the presence of luxury hotel brands, but I had this feeling I just couldn’t shake. That’s when I stumbled across a permaculture course and I just instinctively knew this was my next step.
I signed up for this course, it was a several-month commitment where I would go every weekend. It was so exciting and so much more than I had expected because suddenly you start seeing connections everywhere and see the world through a new lens.
There are a total of five modules and it was very comprehensive. You look at the soil, plant diversity, then the subject of water, connecting the dots between food production and community. You realise how much you don’t know the more you learn.”
It sounds like your internal compass was pushing you, it’s wonderful to hear that you listened to your inner voice. I imagine Finca La Donaira in Spain, where you are the general manager, to be a transformative retreat. Do you witness any change you see in your guests?
“That’s a great question. I’ll start with my own experience.
Before I accepted the role of general manager, the owner suggested that I stay here with my family. To take it all in, experience it as a guest, like someone undercover. Nobody quite knew who I was at that point. I felt firsthand the power of this place.
I have guests from all over the world. People from Manhattan show up at our doorstep, still sweating from the stress of life in the big city, the pollution, noise, etc. It takes them just one night here and they show up the next morning and they are a different person.
This place works its magic through space. You can walk the whole Finca for a day or two and never leave it. Space, and quiet combined with the earthy, natural materials of the buildings, it reconnect us with something primordial.
It’s usually on day 3 that we usually find our guests on a different frequency. Their faces change.
It is a beautiful thing to witness in our guests, not just for me but for everyone who works here, because it gives everyone a strong sense of purpose to be part of that transformational kind of experience that we see in people.
There is something about the velocity change we are experiencing in society. Look, change itself is natural. We’ve always gone through a change, you know, in our whole evolutionary cycle. But I believe that the speed, the rate at which this is happening now is what’s overwhelming people and creating chronic levels of stress.
And what is the perfect antidote to that? It’s to go back to the roots. To go back to something real, something that touches your heart, that reconnects us with our ancient brain and ancestors.”
I love that description. Finca la Donaira is the antidote. I would like to talk next about that dark brown stuff underneath our feet. Soil, the earth, it’s a topic that doesn’t get enough attention, especially as a climate solution. I was thrilled to see your ‘Soil Academy’ where you host workshops and lectures about regenerative farming. What can you tell us about it?
“I’m so happy that you brought it up – otherwise I would have at some point in the conversation – because I 100% agree with what you’re saying. It’s the most important subject and it just doesn’t get enough attention.
‘The surface of this planet and the way we treat it are directly linked to the problem and solution.’
The problem we have with temperatures rising, drought, and climate change.
As I drive past the farm fields that are not practicing regenerative agriculture, where the soil has been tilled and turned over, it is being scorched in the sunlight. It physically hurts me to see it like that, it doesn’t have to be this way.
There is so much going on in the soil. But what have we done to it? We have drenched it in synthetic fertiliser, practically killing off everything alive with the use of pesticides. So what happens? We become dependent on these chemical fertilisers. So the problem gets amplified year over year over year. Add some rain to it, and the surface runoff takes care of the rest. You’re left with a dead landscape.
The health of our soils is something that we put a great deal of focus on here. I hope that this topic becomes wider spread and more mainstream, through conversations like the ones that happen here at Finca La Donaira in Spain.”
Interested to learn more about regenerative farming, soil health, and the important role ‘food’ has to play in sustainable travel and tourism? Click here.
I recommend the film Kiss The Ground to anyone interested in learning how healthy soils are connected to locking up vast amounts of carbon, creating more nutritional foods, and boosting biodiversity. I’d like to touch on a unique experience that you offer your guests Ronald, Bee-Bed Meditation. Can you share how it works?
“It’s a very cool activity that our guests love. We have a variety of nature-related experiences that our guests can participate in. And the Bee-Bed Meditation is one of those that first raises eyebrows and gets people curious. If you see pictures of it, it looks unusual.
It looks basically like a tomb, or a coffin. This coffin sits on top of the hives. So, when you lay down the lid goes on. Inside you’ll hear and feel the deep humming vibration of the bees beneath you. It’s been described by many people as ‘magical’.
It is a guided activity so it’s safe. Both my wife and I have experienced it. It’s a very rewarding experience.”
An element that excites me most about Finca la Donaira in Spain is the equestrian aspect. I have been drawn to horses since I could walk, I am fascinated by how horses can be healing, and calming, they can even hear our heartbeat.
“In terms of the size of our operation here, the horses play a large role. We currently have around 100 Lusitano horses, and the Lusitano is the oldest saddle horse on the planet.
Firstly you do not need to love or even like horses to enjoy a stay here. I was a bit spooked initially, because if you don’t have experience with horses, they are powerful creatures and sometimes unpredictable. But in the past year, watching them at work I’ve changed how I see them.
These horses are raised according to the principles of natural horsemanship. We have a team of specialists led by a gentleman from Ireland, who’s amazing at his craft. For the guests that stay with us for a few nights, we offer introductions into natural horsemanship. In the round pen the horses are sometimes like dogs, in the way that they come up to you, interact and even follow you around.
It is a real privilege and a luxury to have these proud and beautiful animals amongst us.”
From the organic farm to the soil academy, there’s just so much goodness that I personally get excited about. When you look at Finca la Donaira’s sustainability projects, which one are you most passionate about?
“Currently there are two that I find very exciting.
The first one is focused on our wildlife conservation efforts. We are working with a specialist from the UK who has been visiting the property for several years now, setting up camera traps, and is documenting the numbers of different species present at the farm. The idea is that through this process we can identify which species are missing in the ecosystem, especially with birds. It’s a rewilding project which essentially turns back the wheels of time, to bring the landscape closer to what it once was, before human interference.
We are not a traditional hotel in the sense we have crafted activities for guests. I like to think of it the other way around. We are an organic farm first, that just happens to have nine very pretty rooms. So, that’s why everything you can do and experience is full of life’s pleasures.
The second project I am passionate about is the improvements we are making to our soils. Increasing the health of our soils is possible through grazing rotation with our livestock. We have about 40 Wagyu cattle. We also have 40 Pahuna cows, a very old local breed that is perfectly adapted to this terrain. We’ve got about 300 sheep and goats, and 300 chickens. So, there is a lot of movement on this farm.
Regenerative farming is about improving the health of the land, working alongside nature and not against it. Traditional farming is focused on depleting resources and extraction.”
What’s next for Finca La Donaira?
“Although we only have 9 rooms, we have 90 staff. This is across the organic farm, the animals, the equestrian center, and 700 hectares. Each staff member brings their passions and goals. We encourage everyone to use this land as a canvas, inviting their ideas and creativity on how we can make it even better. So this will continue.
Cultural celebrations and events are something that we want to put more focus on. There is a lot of room for growth in terms of music and art, it’s a big passion of our owner. Alongside the sheer beauty of nature, there is also the beauty that people can create. And to combine the two is a beautiful thing that we’ll start to do more of.
We’re also planning a musical concert next summer in July. Set in the Andalusian hills it’ll be a spectacular setting, in which we’ll provide organic food and beverage. It’s going to be special. It’ll start from 9 p.m. and continue until midnight. Following this we’ll provide a sleep experience by Max Richter which’ll play out in a dome of sound.”