In Taos, New Mexico, Tom Worrell's El Monte Sagrado resort offers luxury with a social conscience

Gretchen Reynolds,  – December 27, 2005

Stroll onto the grounds of El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa and you immediately smell water. Everywhere, ponds are linked to streams, which burble over small waterfalls into still more ponds. Goldfish flash beneath the surface. Plants crowd the view. The effect is of wild, luxurious, and decorative spontaneity.

The appearance is deceptive. El Monte Sagrado’s waterscape is carefully planned and eminently functional: a manmade version of nature’s own water-purification system.

“The Earth has been doing this for millions of years,” says Tom Worrell, the crusading businessman who built El Monte Sagrado. “We just advanced her methods a bit.”

El Monte Sagrado is one of the most unusual resorts in the West, if not the world. Unapologetically high-end, with rooms costing as much as $1,095 a night and a spa offering bamboo lemon-grass body polishes and skin renewal-power peel facials, it’s also an elaborate experiment in resource conservation.

El Monte Sagrado, in Taos, New Mexico, is trying to prove that in 2006, environmentalism can coexist with aesthetics and sustainability doesn’t require sacrifice ― at least of comfort. Worrell has made the resort a personal crusade, hoping it will spark a new philosophy of sustainable building and resource conservation in the West.

But can you really save the Earth at $1,095 a night? 

During El Monte Sagrado’s grand opening three years ago, Zen and Tibetan Buddhist monks, a rabbi, a Catholic priest, and dancers from the Taos Pueblo all blessed the space. A few brightly colored prayer flags still flutter from an overhead line. On sunny days, the resort’s well-heeled guests practice yoga or tai chi in the Sacred Circle, a large, green oval swath of grass at the heart of the resort’s grounds.

On wet days, the circle “acts as a kind of big catchment basin,” says Doug Patterson, director of systems design and architecture for Dharma Living Designs Group, a resort-affiliated company that creates natural water purification systems. During downpours, the circle’s sloping shape fills with rainwater, which slowly drains into nearby ponds. Instead of being lost to runoff, the water is recycled.

Wastewater and rain runoff are treated via a complex organic process, then used to irrigate the grounds. In contrast to Taos’s camel hair-colored, high-desert landscape, El Monte Sagrado is luxuriant.

Its equally green energy production uses geothermal and solar sources, without unsightly solar arrays. Pipes are buried. Solar collectors are hidden on rooftops or disguised as sculptural “trees.”

In the El Monte Sagrado system, microbes replace chemicals as cleansers. In the warm, glass-enclosed Biolarium room at the heart of the resort, you can see the process at work. Here, large tanks are overhung by tropical plants, including banana palms, bougainvillea, and papyrus. Within the tanks, the resort’s wastewater gently filters through layers of dirt and peckish microbes. A sighing shush fills the room as the water moves and the solids settle. Soil and bacteria remove organic materials and other impurities from the water. By the time it’s piped out of the Biolarium and into the ponds, the water is potable (although the resort uses it only for irrigation of the grounds).

This system, Worrell says, allows the resort to reuse all of its water and utilize rainwater, conserving hundreds of thousands of gallons annually. 

Biolarium notwithstanding, don’t call El Monte Sagrado an eco-resort, at least not in Worrell’s hearing. “I try to avoid that word,” he says. “It makes people think of granola and dirt and hippies and giving things up. I want to show that you can conserve resources, respect the Earth, and still live very, very well.”

Certainly no one staying at El Monte Sagrado will experience grubbiness or want. Even the most modest rooms are large and stylish. The resort hired a designer and local artists to decorate every room, resulting in what’s almost a stage set, particularly in the most expensive two-bedroom suites. The Argentina Suite has massive leather furniture and handmade tiles; the China Suite, seductive crimson walls; and the Kama Sutra Suite, a wooden bed elaborately carved with its eponym.

This level of luxury is by its nature elitist, available only to a wealthy few. Is that any way to spread a message of environmental activism?

Absolutely, Worrell insists. A self-made millionaire (thanks to a publishing empire of regional newspapers that he sold in 1995, in part to finance the building of El Monte Sagrado), he says it’s “only by reaching the decision makers, the people with real influence” that environmentalism can have an impact. So El Monte Sagrado has played host to a United Nations delegation. It has set up tours of its water-reclamation system for top Japanese architects. It has massaged the egos and the lower-back muscles of movie stars and financiers.

The approach is working, Worrell believes. Dharma Living Designs Group, which he also owns, is installing natural water purification and energy conservation systems in buildings in Florida, Las Vegas, Santa Fe, and Dallas. The Dharma Living Designs Group website gets more than 70,000 hits every month.

But it’s in the mindset of quietly powerful visitors to El Monte Sagrado that Worrell expects to have lasting impact. “What I hope is that some of the people who stay with us will decide that their company’s next office building should reuse gray water and storm runoff,” he says. “That’s my idea of success. We change the minds that can change the world.”

Info:  El Monte Sagrado Living Resort & Spa (from $325 a night, spa treatments from $115; 317 Kit Carson Rd., Taos, NM; 800/828-8267)

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