By Fran Golden
It used to be that if you wanted to see blue-footed boobies and giant colonies of sea lions sunning in the Galapagos Islands, you had to travel a bit as Charles Darwin did, on a research-style vessel whose creature comforts came second to up-close nature encounters. That’s changed. The new wildlife-seeking crowd wants to see endangered species by day and then sip bubbly in an open-air jacuzzi by night.
As a result, six new luxury yachts have debuted in the Galapagos in the last few months alone —with more coming. Two of the vessels — the over-the-top, 20-passenger M/V Origin and M/V Theory — are members of the prestigious, culinary-focused Relais & Chateaux collection. Also coming soon: the Celebrity Flora, whose 50 high-tech suites have such features as retractable, floor-to-ceiling windows. All are bookable by the cabin, rather than exclusively available for private charters.
Reaching this level of refinement has been a process of evolution for the Galapagos. (How fitting.) Luxury lines such as Lindblad Expeditions (which partners with National Geographic) and Silversea have been sailing the region for years. The new products, however, are more intimate and world-class.
“The Galapagos used to be a place that only adventure travelers had on their radar. Now elite luxury travelers have it on their bucket list,” says Erin Correia, a travel planner with Missoula, Mont.-based cruise seller Adventure Life and a board member of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.
According to Correia, it’s not just small yachts that are suddenly dominating the Galapagos Islands; she says that since 2017, the number of luxury vessels overall has doubled to 26 ships. And because of strict regulations by the Galapagos National Park that limit visitor numbers and licenses to roughly 70 boats per year, these options aren’t supplementing budget and mid-range models — they’re replacing them.
“Operators know they are going to make more money building luxury ships,” Correia says. “And if those are the only options to see the Galapagos, travelers are going to pay for it.” Whereas budget cruises start at around $3,000 per person for a week, yachts command fares from $6,600 to $15,000 per person for similar itineraries.
This is good news for both luxury-seeking visitors and concerned stewards of this ecologically sensitive archipelago of 330 islands, islets, and rocks. Even though all ships in the Galapagos are required by law to conserve water and energy, ban the use of plastics, and purchase locally produced products, the new vessels are more stable, faster, and fuel-efficient. Park regulations also require tours from cruise ships to be escorted by licensed guides, which makes for a more tightly regulated experience than the region’s increasingly popular land-based vacations (only five islands have human settlement); the latter frequently combine hotel stays with daytrips run by speed boat operators, not accredited naturalists. “Cruise passengers pose less of a risk,” Correia opines.
Among the new yachts, all are Ecuadorian-flagged and -crewed, and none carries more than 100 passengers — all in accordance with Galapagos National Park rules. The itineraries generally offer comparable experiences regardless of the islands they visit, so choosing between them can feel like splitting hairs. “You will have a Darwin experience everywhere,” Correia says. For most passengers, the right choice is simply a matter of taste.
Besides their ultra-small capacities, the 20-passenger vessels M/V Origin and M/V Theory (which just launched in March) stand out for their culinary programs; both a French-trained chef and a maître de maison are on board, creating dining experiences that use Ecuadorian products in dishes ranging from langoustines poached in citrus butter to classic crème brûlée. The all-suite accommodations and plush outdoor daybeds are icing on the gâteaux; ditto the supply of kayaks and paddleboards that offer an adventurous twist on wildlife watching. Fares start at $7,850 per person, double occupancy, though you can also charter the whole yacht for $157,000.
The 16-passenger all-suite catamaran Elite (set to debut in June from Golden Galapagos Cruises) might appeal more to design lovers. It has just eight suites with grand panoramic windows, bathrooms with rain showers, and a cushy, semi-covered sky deck on which multi-course dinners will be served al fresco, weather permitting.
Even the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora, debuting in June, feels yacht-like to a certain extent. It’s courting luxury travelers with all-suite accommodations that include 1,288-square-foot penthouses with big, porch-like verandas — billed as the largest cabins in the Galapagos. Some other suites replace step-out verandas with virtual Infinite Verandas, just like the ones recently introduced on the line’s Celebrity Edge. Guests will have easy access to innovative yacht tenders (think hydraulic ramps for wet landings, interior seating) for such shore landings as spotting Galapagos penguins in the moonlike landscape of Bartolomé Island.
Of course, true wilderness enthusiasts will want to make sure their trip can check certain boxes. Divers, for instance, will want to choose one of the half-dozen or so scuba-equipped boats in the region, even though they’re more basic than the new yacht offerings. Avid birdwatchers may also want to examine their itineraries with a fine-toothed comb: Seeing some of Darwin’s finches can require pilgrimages to certain islands off the beaten track.
But most will be more than satisfied with the close encounters that any standard Galapagos itinerary can offer. In this corner of the world, wildlife is shockingly unbothered by the presence of humans, whether it’s a frigate bird puffing his red throat to show he’s ready to mate or a large marine iguana slowly turning its head to look you in the eye.
That applies to little humans, too. Correia says multi-generation families, including children as young as 6 years old, are among the fastest-growing segments in the islands, largely due to the fact that they can often charter a small yacht for themselves. “People are realizing that it’s an awesome family destination,” says Correia. “It’s a wildlife paradise, like taking your kid to the zoo on steroids.”