In the Galapagos, it’s survival of the fittest for luxury yachts

New ships — and higher price points — will soon be plying the waters of Darwin’s playground

By Fran Golden / BLOOMBERG

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.

A stateroom on the M/V Theory

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 and 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.

A rendering of the top deck of the Celebrity Flora

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.

Guests on the M/V Theory, kayaking at the archipelago

“The Galapagos used to be a place that only adventure travellers had on their radar. Now, elite luxury travellers have it on their bucket list,” says Erin Correia, a travel planner with Missoula, Montana-based cruise seller Adventure Life and a board member of the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association.

A Sea Change in the Galapagos Islands
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 licences to roughly 70 boats per year, these options aren’t supplementing budget and mid-range models — they’re replacing them.

A rendering of the Celebrity Flora shows the open aft of the ship, where stairs on the custom tenders make it easier to get on and off the ship

“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, travellers are going to pay for it.” Whereas budget cruises start at around US$3,000 per person for a week, yachts command fares from US$6,600 to US$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.

How to Choose
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.

With just 20 passengers, the M/V Theory offers one of the most intimate experiences of the archipelago

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 programmes; 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 US$7,850 (RM31,950) per person, double occupancy, though you can also charter the whole yacht for US$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 multicourse 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 travellers with allsuite accommodations that include 1,288-sq-ft (119.6 sq m) 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.

Special Considerations
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.

Celebrity is claiming that Flora’s suites, seen here in a rendering, will be the largest at sea in the Galapagos

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 six years old, are among the fastestgrowing segments in the islands, largely due to the fact that they can often charter a small yacht for themselves. “People are realising that it’s an awesome family destination,” says Correia. “It’s a wildlife paradise, like taking your kid to the zoo on steroids.” — Bloomberg