BRUNSWICK, Ga. (AP) — Tom Dennard built the Hostel in the Forest in 1975 as a haven for international travelers.
He'd gotten the idea while staying in such places himself during backpacking trips around Europe. Providing basic accommodations, hostels are popular among travelers out to see the world on a budget — generally younger ones but not exclusively.
And for years, those kinds of travelers made up the bulk of the business in the woods west of Brunswick and Interstate 95.
"Practically everybody who came here was from a foreign country," said Dennard, a successful attorney in his spare time.
In the intervening 39 years, the hostel has grown and evolved and the backpackers generally have been replaced by tree huggers.
"In the 1990s, we decided to go green," Dennard said. "We wanted to be a teaching facility and show people that they can live in a more sustainable fashion."
As he spoke, he pointed out appliances in the hostel's outdoor kitchen, a brick range and a clay oven that heats up to 900 degrees. It's a popular place on make-your-own pizza night, when visitors build their own pies and pop them into the red-hot oven for no longer than a minute.
Meals are included in the $25 daily rate, and Dennard estimates 40 percent of the food consumed comes from the hostel's organic garden.
Nestled as it is among the oaks and pines, the Hostel in the Forest lives up to its name. One of the original geodesic domes remains under the shady natural canopy, one has been replaced and a number of outbuildings have been added.
Guests stay in "treehouses," small cottages mounted on stilts and spread out over the property, and use composting toilets. After all, they're learning about sustainability. All waste, human and otherwise, is composted or recycled.
"We don't produce any garbage," Dennard said. "Nothing is wasted."
Guests learn a lesson in sustainability merely by staying at the hostel, but monthly seminars also are held covering a range of topics from solar energy to art and music to meditation and yoga and more.
"We even had our first film festival last October," Dennard said.
Students from the Savannah College of Art and Design, Florida State University and other schools presented their short films in the hostel's common room to a packed house. But packed houses aren't unusual.
The hostel can accommodate about 40 visitors at a time and reservations are required.
There's a particular atmosphere that draws them to the place. Artwork from visitors decorates tables, walls and even floors. Visiting carpenters leave traces of their presence with their skillful repairs and construction. And there's even an occasional jam session in the common room, sometimes featuring professional musicians.
Chickens roam the grounds, providing visitors with fresh free-range eggs and there's a paddling of ducks who refuse to paddle. Raised from day-old chicks and closely guarded against predators, they refuse to go near the water, Dennard said.
So popular is the hostel that there's a waiting list to be manager, and there's a six-month term limit.
Frank Belo currently holds the post along with one-named co-manager Carch.
"You meet people from all walks of life with crazy talent here," he said.
"We stand in a circle before dinner and we tell each other about ourselves and enjoy each other's company," office manager Dawn Holowienko said. "And there's also the lake."
The former borrow pit on a corner of the 133-acre property serves as a swimming hole for hostel visitors and staff, giving them relief from the summer heat.
When Dennard started the hostel, he figured it might last a few years but not approach the 20-year warranty on the original domes.
"I'm surprised it's lasted so long, yeah," he said.
But there's a simple explanation, according to a long-time friend and hostel visitor Bill Massey.
"It doesn't surprise me that it's still around, considering your dedication to it," he told Dennard.
With few of the creature comforts most people are accustomed to, logic dictates there would be a period of adjustment that comes with staying at the hostel, but Dennard said it's just the opposite.
"They tell me it's a lot harder to get used to being back home," he said.
Lia Nydes, who was at the hostel on a work-study program through Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, agreed.
"I don't miss concrete at all," she said.
Information from: The (Jacksonville) Florida Times-Union, http://www.jacksonville.com
Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.