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By Antonia Seagram
Ecotourism in the Galapagos consistently ranks highly on most people’s bucket list – and with good reason. This remote volcanic archipelago that straddles the equator is home to some of the most unique (and endangered) wildlife on Earth.
Most famous as the inspiration for Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking works on evolution, the Galapagos lie 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador. Consisting of 13 main islands and hundreds of smaller islets, all created by volcanic activity starting over 4 million years ago, the Galapagos remained in glorious isolation from human interference until the 16th century. Because of this, the islands gave rise to a great number of unique endemic species, including the famous Galapagos Giant Tortoises, marine iguanas, and the wonderful blue-footed booby, to name but a few. The remoteness of the islands and their unique nature makes visiting a true adventure, and lends itself to a luxurious “trip of a lifetime” experience.
Only 5 of the Galapagos islands have been permanently inhabited, but human activity and introduced alien species have meant that the native animal and plant life across the whole archipelago has come under huge pressure, with many species now being critically endangered. Recognising the fragility of this unique place, the Ecuadorian government made the whole archipelago a National Park in 1959, and the world’s second largest marine reserve in 1986. In order to protect and preserve the Galapagos as much as possible, the National Park authorities place restrictions on the numbers of tourists and the sites that may be visited. Everyone must be accompanied by a qualified National Park guide, and strict biosecurity measures are enforced for all travellers coming to Galapagos.
The fragility of the unique habitats in Galapagos and the new challenges its wildlife face from the impacts of climate change has led to an upsurge in demand for environmentally responsible tourism. One of the least impactful ways to experience the remarkable nature of Galapagos is to sail on a small boat around the islands. The latest generation of purpose-built Galapagos cruise ships have been designed to offer the most sustainable way to enjoy the unique experiences the Galapagos has to offer, whilst bringing previously unheard of levels of comfort and luxury – a true “trip of a lifetime” with minimum environmental impact.
We asked Galapagos travel expert Benno Schmidt of Galapatours.com for his recommendations for the greenest luxury cruise experience in the Galapagos. Benno told us that increasing numbers of ship operators are recognising that discerning travellers are looking for a complete package – superb luxury accommodation, environmentally sustainable operations, and an unforgettable adventure experience – and are bringing purpose-built ships to the Galapagos fleet to meet these needs.
In the Galapagos, luxury doesn’t mean formality. Despite the opulence of your ship’s surroundings, you’ll be enjoying a real adventure experience in practical clothing that keeps you cool, comfortable and protected from the often fierce equatorial sun. This relaxed feel to your Galapagos cruise enhances the intimacy of discovering the archipelago in a small boat with like-minded travellers.
Here are Benno’s top 3 picks for cruises that practice luxury ecotourism in the Galapagos Islands.
A traditional-style single hull motor yacht that was purpose-built for Galapagos travel, the Galaxy has made it her mission to be the most ecologically responsible luxury yacht in the fleet. In recognition of her achievements here she is one of the few luxury yachts to have been awarded the prestigious Smart Voyager certification – granted only to those vessels whose operations reduce the environmental impact on the Galapagos. As well as having clean, efficient engines and using solar power and water recycling features, she also operates to the highest standards of waste treatment and other anti-pollution measures.
However, Galaxy I proves that having an environmental conscience doesn’t mean adopting austerity measures. Despite being built to berth 19 guests, she only operates to a maximum of 16. This gives her a great feeling of space, and you can always find a quiet corner if you want to soak in the Galapagos in privacy.
Her 7 staterooms and 2 single cabins are beautifully light and airy, and all feature ocean views and sumptuous en suite bathrooms, stocked with luxury biodegradable toiletries, of course. The fresh decor and sumptuous linens make the staterooms the perfect place to rest after a long day exploring the islands. Air conditioning ensures a refreshing night’s sleep.
Communal areas on board are beautifully traditional, with teak decking throughout, but modern design cues bring everything right up to date. There is a comfortable lounge with stunning panoramic windows, a central bar, and an intimate dining room. Outside spaces include shaded areas with plentiful sofas and loungers, and a full length upper sun deck with wonderful views of the islands.
Dining on board is a delightfully extravagant experience. Specialist chefs prepare a wide range of Ecuadorian and international cuisine served in a relaxed an informal style. The ship carries a good range of high quality wines and serves some excellent cocktails!
With 10 crew to serve only 16 passengers you’ll get superb levels of service. Your shore excursions are in the company of an expert guide who really brings the islands, their history and nature to life, and the ship’s itineraries are chosen to ensure that you can experience as much of the islands as possible while making minimum impact on their future.
Benno says: “I love the relaxed yet first-class ambiance on Galaxy – and her signature cocktails! She has some of the airiest staterooms in her class and I like that fact that she offers single accommodation. I’m always impressed with the friendly and attentive service our customers get from her crew. Galaxy’s continuous drive for sustainability is fantastic, and the award of her hard-to-get Smart Voyager Certification is well-deserved.”
Another often overlooked area of environmental responsibility is to help more income from green tourism stay in the local economy. This encourages Galapagos residents to start and sustain more environmental tourist offerings.
Samba is a shining example of a truly local luxury Galapagos cruise ship. This charming Dutch-built motor-sailboat is owned and operated by the local Salcedo family – 30-year veterans of environmental tourism in the archipelago. The family’s passion and respect for the islands is evident everywhere, from the sourcing of ingredients for the galley through to the use of local materials for the ship’s decor.
Unlike almost every other ship in her class, Samba is only berthed for 14 guests – two fewer than the standard. This means your Galapagos adventure is even more intimate and personal, and you enjoy a relaxed and spacious onboard experience. The decor throughout the yacht reflects the islands themselves. Natural shades of creams and whites are complemented by warm wooden furniture and fittings that have been handmade in the Galapagos from local cigar box cedar.
Staterooms carry on the decor theme, and feature stylish private bathrooms and individual air conditioning for perfect comfort. There is plenty of plush seating outdoors to sink into and relax, as well as a perfect al fresco dining area. For sun worshippers (or stargazers) the open foredeck is the ideal place to indulge in your passion.
Luxury and sustainability also extends to Samba’s galley. Angel the chef carefully sources only the finest local ingredients for his wonderful dishes. All the meat served on board is organically grown in the islands. Only local fish caught using sustainable methods by fishermen known personally to the Salcedo family is used. This respect for the local land and marine environments means you can enjoy the stunning food Angel presents with a clear conscience.
The Salcedo family philosophy about the islands is “look after them and they will look after you”. They also extend this philosophy to their staff. All of Samba’s crew are Galapagos residents, and they are treated as part of the extended family. This means a happy and proud crew who do everything they can to ensure you have a remarkable time on board, and on your excursions.
The chief guide, Juan Manuel Salcedo, has designed the cruise itineraries to give you more than “just a vacation”. HIs stated aim is that you leave the islands having learned a great deal about what makes them unique, having experienced as much as possible, and becoming more environmentally aware.
The yacht itself, its owners, crew, guides and its itineraries all work together with one objective – to give you a luxurious experience that gets you closer to the real Galapagos while having the minimum possible impact on the nature of this wonderful archipelago.
Benno says: “In my opinion, this is the only choice for the real nature lover looking for a luxury Galapagos experience. The Salcedo’s are truly inspiring, and their passion for sustainability and this wonderful yacht will give you a far deeper experience than most of the other boats in the Galapagos can offer. Juan Manuel’s itineraries are packed with excursions, both on land and in the water – there are more snorkeling opportunities on Samba than on almost any other vessel.”
When it comes to the environmental impact of a vessel, sometimes more can mean less. Galapagos Legend was purpose-built in 2001 as an adventure ship that can offer the perfect balance between “big cruise” luxury, a more intimate experience, and minimal impact to the Galapagos.
The 300ft Galapagos Legend offers a more sustainable cruise experience thanks to her size. Moving her 100 passengers through the islands at once is far less disruptive to the fragile ecosystem than the 6 standard 16-berth yachts she can replace. At each visitor site this means only one anchor to disturb the seabed rather than 6.
Having larger, four-stroke engines means Galapagos Legend uses cleaner fuel oil more efficiently than smaller-engined vessels that may burn “dirtier” bunker oil. She can also securely store all potential pollutants such as grey water and refuse for processing or recycling on shore, protecting the ocean.
These superb green credentials don’t come at the expense of luxury and comfort, though. Legend boasts wonderful facilities such as a gym and fitness suite, inside and al fresco bars, large open air jacuzzi, and a swimming pool. You’ll also enjoy relaxing in the piano bar, and you can even take a snooze in one of the hammocks fitted on the sun deck.
Accommodation is spread over 5 decks, and Galapagos Legend has 57 cabins offering a range of comfort levels. She was fully refurbished in 2017 and now offers some of the best appointed rooms in the fleet. The creme-de-la-creme is the remarkable Balcony Suite on the Moon Deck. This opulent feature stateroom has over 43 square metres of space and includes a private balcony and personal fridge with complimentary champagne.
There are further smaller luxury balcony suites suites available, as well as junior suites. All of these feature stunning panoramic windows offering unrivalled views, luxury private bathrooms, and stunning decor and linens.
The levels of service and attention to detail are unmatched in the Galapagos fleet – there are over 60 crew members at the service of a maximum of only 100 guests. For excursions, group sizes are restricted to just 16 guests meaning you still enjoy an intimate experience with a knowledgeable national park guide, and yet you can return to all the facilities that only a larger ship can provide. She also carries on board one of the few glass-bottomed boats in the Galapagos, providing an unparalleled view of the ocean life for those who don’t wish to snorkel.
Benno says: “Despite the larger size and the extra amenities, Galapagos Legend manages to retain an intimate and personal feel – it really is a “small yacht” experience in a larger package. The fantastic amount of communal space means nowhere ever feels crowded and we like the additional thoughtful features like a pool, a gym, and hammocks. The green advantages of taking a cruise on a larger vessel are obvious, and Legend is a particularly good choice for families with children looking for a luxurious yet eco-friendly trip of a lifetime.”