Upping the ante in ecotourism

Edgecomb couple ‘Venture Outside’ the norm
Posted:  Sunday, August 21, 2016 - 8:45am
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Ellie Osborn and Dave Santillo on one of their many adventures for Edgecomb-based Venture Outside, an eco-friendly, holistic vacation/retreat business. Courtesy of Dave Santillo

With the popularity of ecotourism showing no signs of slowing down, Edgecomb couple Ellie Osborn and Dave Santillo are raising the stakes through their new company, Venture Outside. The husband and wife team have created a retreat option which combines physical and holistic activities in natural settings around the world. Closer to home, they have partnered with Linekin Bay Resort in Boothbay Harbor for an innovative music retreat this September. As the company's motto states, Osborn and Santillo want people to venture outside the norm and into new experiences and fresh perspectives.

“It combines all of our passions and interests,” said Osborn. “We wanted to do all the things we love, like music, sports, yoga and spirituality.”

Both Santillo and Osborn are Licensed Maine Guides. In 2009, Santillo left his career as a biologist working on ecological planning throughout the U.S. and Latin America. After founding and then selling an environmental consulting agency, he’s concentrated on his passion for adventure travel and writing, and doing volunteer work for nonprofit organizations. As a guide, his specialties include sea kayaking, canoeing, and hiking. Santillo holds a PhD in biology.

Osborn, a Falmouth native, has an equally diverse skill set. As a kid, she lived on a sailboat and did two Atlantic crossings. She speaks Spanish and French, is a geologist, a teacher of 18 years, a multi-instrumentalist, an athlete, a coach, a juggler, an environmental advocate and a mother, and does hula-hooping. After teaching science for 12 years, she founded her own music education business, LittleMusicMaker.org. She competes in Nordic skiing, half-marathons, and triathlons and holds the bronze medal for the Mountain Biking World Cup. Osborn also plays eight instruments and is learning the Andean flute. 

One popular excursion is called the TMT  — the Try Maine Tri — a five-day adventure designed to rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. The itinerary includes three sports, interspersed around other activities in various places throughout Maine, including the Boothbay-Camden area, Downeast-Acadia National Park region, and Baxter State Park. 

“Our ultimate goal was to have people practice wellness in nature,” said Osborn. “Not inside a studio but in a natural element. The more people we can reach it helps not only them but the environment as a whole.”

All of the retreats have a volunteer component and are carbon neutral. The couple’s home in Edgecomb is completely off-grid and runs entirely on solar power. When feasible, food for the retreats is harvested from their garden and participants are encouraged to leave nature better than when they found it. It’s a mindful approach to a vacation and one designed to teach awareness in the real world.

“We want people to  take something and apply it to their everyday life,” said Osborn.

On a guided hike, participants will often pause for a nature stop, described by Osborn as a moment when nature becomes so awe-inspiring it necessitates a moment to reflect. Another spiritual element involves a bridge meditation led by Santillo.

“First participants look downstream and you let go of anything that’s not serving you,” she said. “Then you look upstream and welcome all the abundance of love into your life.”

Transcendental leanings aside, the retreats are designed to stimulate all of the senses and provide a deeper connection to nature. On the whole, eco-friendly tourism is a popular alternative to traditional travel. Some 58.5 million U.S. travelers, or 38 percent, would pay more to use travel companies that strive to protect and preserve the environment, according to a Travel Industry Association of America study cited by the New York Times.  Of those travelers, 61 percent said they would pay five to 10 percent more to use such companies.

Only in its first full year, Venture Outside has a slow growth approach but will explore corporate team-building retreats in the future. Its presence is also international: Santillo’s son is based in Peru where they offer an Andean Spirit tour and other trips are organized in Mexico, Panama and Ecuador. 

So what can people expect when they sign up? For starters, a drum circle and activities that may feel uncomfortable to some.

“When people feel the group energy the inhibitions subside,” said Osborn. “We’re creating a temporary community for a weekend.”

After dinner, there is music and chanting but there is no pressure to participate.

“We have instruments for everybody and everyone has a voice,” said Osborn.  “By the end everybody participates even if they were reluctant at first.”

The venture is not designed as a huge moneymaker. Any profits are rolled into a nonprofit the couple founded. The guiding spirit is altruistic, as exemplified by a recent excursion with young people suffering from diabetes. 

“It was so fantastic,” said Santillo. “Some had never been on a path and didn’t know what to do. They were from city backgrounds and buffered from nature. It energizes us to see them engaged.”

 With a business that allows them to be who they are, the two already consider the company a success no matter the bottom line.

 “You can travel and do something great for the earth and yourself,” said Osborn. “To me that’s a lesson worth teaching.”