Far and Beyond: Cruising Through the Galapagos

Some 600 miles off mainland Ecuador’s coast, that country’s remote, volcanic Galapagos Islands, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, are home to an amazing array of marine life and wildlife found nowhere else on Earth. The islands’ name, “Galapagos,” is actually derived from an old Spanish word meaning “saddle,” referring to the archipelago’s gigantic Galapagos tortoises. 

Today, small upscale mega-yachts and expedition cruise vessels take guests from island to island, delivering a robust diversity of eco-experiences. During their cruise, travelers will likely encounter large, endemic Galapagos marine iguanas, the world’s only ocean-swimming lizard, along with endemic cormorants, sea lions, seals and even penguins. Certainly, most travelers also love spotting the isles’ blue-footed and red-footed boobies. 

By Ecuadorian law, ships must carry no more than 100 guests, Galapagos Marine Reserve itineraries are approved by the government, and guests must go ashore in small groups with a certified Galapagos naturalist guide. But it’s a trip of a lifetime for many luxury travelers. 

“The Galapagos is definitely a bucket list destination for people to collect,” says Ken Heit, owner, Luxury Cruise and Tour, a Frosch agency in Fort Lauderdale, FL, who adds that many well-traveled, affluent travelers are drawn to the exotic wildlife and remote location. In addition, he says that “many want to experience the wonderful ships,” citing both Silver Origin and Celebrity Flora

New, Ultra-Luxury Ship  

Entering service in spring 2021, Silversea Cruises’ new, ultra-luxury Silver Origin is an intimate, expedition ship that’s purpose-built for sailing the Galapagos year-round. This 100-passenger, all-balcony, all-suite vessel has replaced Silver Galapagos, which has since left the fleet. Some highlights? It offers an expert guide-to-guest ratio of 1:10. It also has eight Zodiacs for guest eco-outings and offers a Zodiac-to-guest ratio of 1:13. 

Elegant and sophisticated, Silver Origin’s public spaces include two dining options, a beauty salon, fitness center, beauty spa, an observation and stargazing platform and more. The Explorer Lounge has a piano and bar indoors and a fire pit outside. Large floor-to-ceiling windows extend throughout the ship, plus The Basecamp (“knowledge/enrichment lounge”) looks out to the ship’s Marina and provides easy access to the Zodiac deck.

Of the 51 suites, select suite categories feature such design perks as an ocean-view bathtub, showers accessible from private balconies or a Horizon Balcony which is enclosed by floor-to-ceiling glass (designed for use in any weather) with a top pane that drops down to convert the space to an open-air balcony.  

Luxury Travel Advisor would splurge for the 1,722-square-foot, ultra-luxurious Owner’s Suite, including a 646-square-foot veranda. That top-of-line suite includes a large veranda with patio furniture and floor-to-ceiling glass doors; living room with sitting area; separate dining area; twin beds or a king-sized bed; bathroom with double vanity, ocean-view whirlpool bath and separate shower; walk-in closet; and a powder room. Guests in this suite have a choice of pillows; use of a vanity table, binoculars and writing desk; two flat-screen TVs; an espresso machine; premium sound system; and complimentary premium Wi-Fi. 

Silver Origin
The Basecamp is the knowledge/enrichment lounge on Silver Origin. (Silversea)

From the eco-side, Silver Origin was designed with both a state-of-the-art, dynamic positioning system that protects the delicate seabed and an advanced propulsion system. As for itineraries, the ship sails multiple seven-night voyages roundtrip from San Cristobal, located in the eastern part of the archipelago. It’s one of the Galapagos’ oldest islands and home to its largest freshwater lake, El Junco. Approximately 7,000 to 8,000 people live on this island. Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on the island’s southwestern tip is the Galapagos’ capital.  

Near the harbor, cruisers will discover a statue of Charles Darwin and the San Cristobal mockingbird is said to have sparked Darwin’s theory of evolution. This island is also one of only two Galapagos nesting spots for the red-footed booby. On the February 25, 2023, voyage, the ship will first sail to photogenic Kicker Rock; cruisers love snapping selfies with the rock formation in the background. 

Next, the ship will call at Buccaneer Cove, Santiago, where cruisers will board Zodiacs to search for Nazca boobies, blue footed boobies, and swallow-tailed gulls. Sea turtles, reef sharks, and sea lions may also be spotted. Then it’s on to Punta Vicente Roca on the seahorse-shaped Isabela Island, the largest island of the Galápagos (about 80 miles long) and home to the Sierra Negra Volcano. Two Silversea excursions are offered — one on Zodiacs, another for snorkeling.  

Silver Origin then visits Punta Espinoza on Fernandina; Tagus Cove and Elizabeth Bay on Isabela; Post Office Bay, Champion Islet, and Punta Cormorant on Floreana. Then guests explore the Santa Cruz Highlands where Silversea offers a hiking excursion. Also on Santa Cruz, Silversea’s guests will visit the Charles Darwin Research Station’s “Fausto Llerena Breeding Center” at Puerto Ayora; they’ll view giant tortoises and land iguanas. Guides will also explain the center’s captive breeding and reintroduction programs. Guests also can enjoy a bit of free time in town to peruse art galleries and corner cafes.

The cruise then concludes with a visit to Cerro Dragon on Santa Cruz; Isla Guy Fawkes; Bahia Borrero, Santa Cruz; and then the ship returns to San Cristobal. What’s nifty is that this seven-night voyage can be combined with the following departure on March 4, 2023; it takes a different route, so guests see entirely different Galapagos Islands’ destinations. That “combo” option to create a 14-day cruise is available throughout the year. 

During that second, seven-night segment, the ship sails to Genovesa, where guests visit Prince Philip’s Steps and Darwin Bay. The steps are a steep, 82 feet pathway up the cliffs; they’re named for the U.K.’s late Prince Philip who visited the islands twice. At Darwin Bay, the ship’s Zodiacs land on a sandy beach often frequented by Galapagos sea lions. Guests may also spot marine iguanas. Underwater, snorkelers can see reef fish and sea stars.

Included in Silver Origin’s “Door to Door” Galapagos packages are: private executive transfers (between home and airport and back again on the return trip); included Economy Class Roundtrip between Ecuador and the Galapagos; charter/group flights, when required by the itinerary; two-nights pre-cruise in Quito, including transfers between the airport, hotel and ship; a “Quito by Night” tour; beverages in-suite and throughout the ship, including select wines and spirits; butler service in every suite and more. 

A Trio of Ships

Celebrity Flora
Celebrity Flora’s 1,288-square-foot Penthouse Suite has such added perks as full in-suite dinner service; monogrammed bathrobes and slippers for guest use and a pillow menu. (Celebrity Cruises)

With a “relaxed luxury” focus, Celebrity Cruises operates three vessels year-round in the Galapagos. Most notable, as Heit mentioned, is the new, luxurious 100-passenger Celebrity Flora. It launched in 2019. Celebrity also cruises the Galapagos with two other vessels — the 48-passenger Celebrity Xpedition and the intimate, 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration

Environmentally, Celebrity Flora’s advanced, dynamic positioning system allows it to remain on station without dropping anchor, protecting the seabed. Solar panels also supplement electricity, thus reducing emissions. Creature comforts and pampering await, too. 

All suites have full-room automation with everything controlled via the push of a button; a private veranda; an in-room drinking water filtration system; service by a personal suite attendant; unpacking assistance; complimentary laundry service twice per cruise; and a robust entertainment system with live TV and on-demand movies and programming. In addition, Celebrity Flora’s guests will receive a complimentary backpack, use of marine binoculars; locally sourced, turn-down chocolates; a stocked minibar with favorite soft drinks and beers; locally sourced and organic bath amenities; a champagne/sparkling wine set-up; delivery of afternoon treats to the suite; and 24-hour in-suite room service.

We’d opt for one of Celebrity Flora’s luxurious, 1,288-square-foot Penthouse Suites or a 559-square-foot Royal Suite. Both those suite categories receive all the above amenities plus such added perks as full in-suite dinner service; monogrammed bathrobes and slippers for guest use; a pillow menu; complimentary rain ponchos; use of sunglasses and reading glasses; and complimentary sunscreen, Aloe Vera cooling gel and lip balm. 

But those in other category suites have luxury-style accommodations, too. Guests staying in a 365-square-foot Ultimate Sky Suite with Infinite Veranda simply push a button to lower the upper glass pane on their outside wall. Presto, the interior space transforms into an open-air balcony. 

What’s new? Recently launched is “Galapagos Glamping,” an upscale, sunset-to-sunrise experience offered exclusively on every Celebrity Flora voyage. A reservation (bookable on board) incurs a $299 fee (per cabin for two in a cabin) and includes private access for two guests to two lavishly comfortable, open-air cabanas. One transforms into the setting for an exclusive dining experience; the menu is crafted by the line’s Michelin-starred chef and also includes a sunrise bed-side breakfast. 

The second cabana transforms into a comfortable sleeping area with a double bed, where guests will have the option to sleep beneath the stars. The Galapagos area is one of the few places on this planet where guests can comfortably gaze at both Northern Hemisphere and Southern Hemisphere constellations. A naturalist will tell Glamping guests about the stars and constellations viewable from their cabana.

For 2023, Celebrity will offer seven-night Galapagos cruises and 16-night Galapagos itineraries (varying in routing by either the southern, northern or outer loop of cruising) combined with Machu Picchu. The latter includes top islands/sights in the Galapagos plus Lima, the Sacred Valley, Machu Picchu and Cuzco, Peru. 

In one seven-night example, on November 19, 2023, Celebrity Flora sails on a seven-night voyage roundtrip from Baltra, Galapagos. Guests will visit Daphne Island; Gardner Bay and Suarez Point on Espanola; Cormorant Point and Bahia Post Office (see fun explanation below) on Floreana; Moreno Point and Urbina Bay on Isabella; Espinoza Point on Fernandina; Vicente Roca Point; South Plaza and Dragon Hill and Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz.

At Floreana’s Post Office Bay, in the 18th and 19th centuries, sailors working on whaling ships would place letters in a barrel on the beach. In what’s best described as “pure snail mail,” they hoped that other sailors on passing ships would take their letters, add postage and mail them back in the U.S. This snail mail system is still in operation today, but it’s more of a fun option. Travelers can collect past travelers’ unstamped postcards, and mail them when they return home, hoping someone else will do the same for them. 

For 2024, look for Celebrity to offer seven-night Galapagos itineraries within 10- to 16-night, all-inclusive vacation packages.

More Galapagos Voyages

National Geographic Islander II
The National Geographic Islander II sails year-round in the Galapagos Islands. Shown here is the newly expanded alfresco Patio Café.  (Marco Ricca Studio)

In August 2022, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic welcomed the newest addition to its fleet, the 48-guest National Geographic Islander II, sailing year-round in the Galapagos Islands; it’s replaced National Geographic Islander. Previously sailing as Crystal Esprit, this mega-yacht was purchased for $13 million by Lindblad, which recently completed a top-to-bottom refit. Lindblad’s guests can choose from a seven-day “Wild Galápagos Escape” or a 10-day “Wild Galápagos & Peru Escape,” the latter combining the islands with a visit to Peru’s ancient Incan site, Machu Picchu. 

We like Lindblad’s many “Ecuadorian touches.” Local textiles and art décor create a unique, high-end Ecuadorian experience. Hand-woven blankets and locally made hot cocoa are available to guests on star gazing nights. Background and cabin music playlists are curated with regional sounds. On the F&B side, Lindblad has refined menus to focus on local, sustainable, fresh foods and more plant-based options. Plus, a curated cocktail and mocktail menu feature Galapagos ingredients and highlight Ecuador’s four regions. 

The ship’s public spaces include a Science Hub, library, Global Gallery, gift shop, lounge, Observation Deck, gym/fitness center with sauna and much more. Service-wise, the guest-to-crew ratio is 1-to-1. We’d opt for pampering massage after a long day of exploring. Check out the spa’s exclusive Ecuadorian massage treatments including these: compressed warm sachets in a Highlands treatment; an Ecuadorian Amazon bamboo massage; a Galapagos hot lava rocks massage; Ecuadorian Pacific coast treatment (combining energizing quartz with inversion therapy); Ecuadorian coffee scrubs and facial; and Galapagos charcoal masks. 

Guests can relax on the outer deck, home to a full bar, pool and hand-woven hammocks. The yacht-like marina deck is a great platform for expedition boarding, with hot and warm towels provided along with refreshments. Toys? Yes, this expedition vessel carries kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, a glass-bottom Zodiac, a video microscope and Splash-cam. 

With sea views, National Geographic Islander II’s 26 suites include 18 suites, four solo suites and four top-of-line Islander Suites. All have plush bedding with 600-thread-count sheets and two pillow choices; a fully stocked mini-fridge with personalized choices; a mini-espresso machine; organically harvested bathroom amenities with an exclusive scent created just for LEX (shampoo, conditioner, body wash, body lotion, lip balm and foot cream); hand woven, locally made blankets highlighting Ecuador’s famous craft; live TV programming plus on demand movies and more.  

Luxury Travel Advisor would suggest a stay in one of the ship’s 515-square-foot Islander Suites, Nos. 209, 218, 303 and 309. Providing views from multiple panoramic windows, those pampering suites offer a king or two-twin-bed configuration; two lounge chairs; a sofa that converts to a bed to accommodate a third person; table and chairs; and a walk-in closet. The suite’s bathroom is decked out with marble double sinks, a rainforest shower and full-sized soaking tub with organic bath salts.  

Among other perks for those staying in the Islander Suites include a stocked minibar customized to guests’ preferences; a complimentary dry sack for the guest’s gear while on expedition; and a savory perk — ship-made truffles for nightly turn-down service. In top suites such as these, Lindblad also displays high-end sculptures and soft goods highlighting each island for which the individual suite is named.  

In 2022, Aqua Expeditions introduced its newly revitalized super-yacht, Aqua Mare, now sailing seven-night Galapagos voyages year-round. Originally designed and built in 1998, the 163-foot-long vessel was sizably refurbished in 2021 with two new accommodations added. What’s nifty, though, is that this luxurious super-yacht still incorporates original custom interior design, including seven sea-facing suites designed by famous yacht designer François Zuretti. 

Among those is an 861-square-foot Owner’s Suite, which offers spacious indoor and outdoor spaces, elegant finishings and more. With exterior styling by the Italy-based Studio Scanu, Aqua Mare also has inviting interior style that reflects the owners’ personal choices of everything from customized, Bali-sourced plateware to curated 17th-century prints. 

The vessel’s Sun Deck offers panoramic dining, outdoor seating, a lounge sofa, outdoor barbecue area, outdoor six-person whirlpool and an outdoor work-out zone, while the Upper Deck is home to the bridge, the main Panoramic Lounge, a lobby bar and outdoor deck. Guests meandering to Aqua Mare’s Main Deck will discover an indoor dining room, pop-up boutique and an outdoor dining and lounge area. On the Lower Deck is the swim platform and indoor Panoramic Beach Club/Movie Room. 

Thanks to its partnership with Quito, Ecuador-based Metropolitan Touring, which operates multiple vessels within the Galapagos, Norway’s Hurtigruten Expeditions offers its guests a Galapagos voyage on the recently renovated, 90-passenger Santa Cruz II. The small-ship, expedition line’s nine-day “Galapagos Expedition – In Darwin’s Footsteps” itinerary has multiple departure dates this year and next.   

Guests spend two nights in Quito before the cruise, which operates roundtrip from Baltra, Galapagos. Once aboard Santa Cruz II, guests will then travel to San Cristobal, Santa Fe, South Plaza Island, Santa Cruz, Espanola Island and North Seymour Island. For the top digs, choose a Darwin Suite, providing outside views and the most space. 

First-hand intel? Luxury Travel Advisor sailed on a Hurtigruten Expeditions voyage on the Santa Cruz II this past spring, and readers can check out the extensive, first-hand story online about the guest experience and eco-exploring in the Galapagos.

The National Geographic Islander II
On the National Geographic Islander II, guests can relax on the outer deck, home to a full bar, pool and hand-woven hammocks.  (Marco Ricca Studio)

Other ships also sail within the Galapagos, plus suppliers such as Avalon Waterways, Tauck and many others also either buy into vessel space or charter ships for guests. For example, Avalon uses the Treasure of Galapagos for its offerings, while Tauck offers a six-night cruise aboard the expedition ship, Isabela II. Guests visit Bartolome Island, Santa Cruz Island, North Seymour Island and Eden Islet. They also spend two nights at Oro Verde Guayaquil, gateway to the Galápagos Islands. Tauck’s dates are mostly sold out for 2023, but there is limited availability on January 26, 2023, and good availability on November 30, 2023.

Cruise Line Overland Trips

Sometimes cruise ships don’t actually sail to the Galapagos, but the cruise lines offering voyages along the Pacific coast of mainland South America offer “overland trips” in the midst of a cruise; those take cruisers via roundtrip flights to the Galapagos. Typically, guests stay in a Galapagos hotel for several nights and head out daily on yachts or boats to various isles, or, alternatively, embark a chartered vessel for a cruise. Segment examples are given below, but often these voyages are a part of a longer Grand Voyage or World Cruise, too. 

Regent Seven Seas Cruises’ 16-day “Empires of the Maya and Inca” itinerary on the 750-passenger Seven Seas Splendor offers an overland trip to the Galapagos during its Miami to Callao, Peru sailing, departing December 4, 2023. During a four-day overland trip, cruise guests will leave the ship in the midst of the cruise at Guayaquil, Ecuador. They’ll board a flight to Baltra, Galapagos, then transfer to Santa Cruz Island, visit the highlands, tour the Charles Darwin Station and then transfer to the island’s Galapagos Habitat or a similar hotel for their stay. 

During the next few days, they’ll board day boats for rides to explore other islands. Then, they’ll take a flight to Quito and another to Lima. If they’re continuing on the ship for the next segment, they’ll transfer to Callao and reboard the ship. Regent Seven Seas also offers a post-cruise “Lost Incan City and Galapagos Adventure” program, for those who want to complete the full “Empires of the Maya and Inca” itinerary, yet still journey to the Galapagos after disembarkation. 

In addition, ultra-luxury Seabourn offers a three-night “Galapagos Islands – Mid-Cruise Adventure,” on several Seabourn Sojourn itineraries such as the 59-day “Pearls of The Pacific,” a double occupancy option. The ship will sail between Miami and Sydney, Australia, and during the section of the voyage along the Ecuadorian/Peruvian coastline, guests can opt for the Galapagos overland trip; guests take flights to/from the isles, stay at the Finch Bay Hotel or a similar property, and explore multiple islands. 

For an even more full-bodied overland trip, check out Seabourn’s “Jewels of South America: Galapagos Islands & Machu Picchu Overland Adventure,” available for single occupancy, during its “21-Day Panama Canal & The Inca Coast” sailing, departing January 6, 2023. In addition, that and other itineraries on the same day depart from Miami; the 21-day segment ends in Santiago, Chile.

Similarly, Oceania Cruises offers a 24-day “Pacific Panorama” voyage from San Francisco, CA, to Santiago, Chile, departing January 15, 2023. During this robust itinerary along the Pacific Ocean coast of both North and South America, guests can choose an optional, three-day “Wild Wonders of the Galapagos” overland trip, with a road trip from Mantra, Ecuador to Guayaquil. 

Travelers will board a flight to the Galapagos, stay for several days at the Finch Bay hotel or a similar property and then spend several days exploring by day boat to multiple islands. After a flight to Callao (Lima), they’ll rejoin Insignia. 

Aurora Expeditions also doesn’t sail the Galapagos with one of its own ships, but it does offer a Galapagos Extension cruise around the isles. So, travelers might cruise on Aurora’s 15-day “Costa Rica and Panama Canal” itinerary, operated by the Sylvia Earle, which has 71 cabins. That cruise from San Jose, Costa Rica, to Cartagena, Colombia, departs April 20, 2023. Guests can take flights to Ecuador to join the Galapagos Extension.

Parting Thoughts

Arranging cruises for many luxury travelers to the Galapagos, Heit gives this advice: “My tip for cruisers to Galapagos is not to expect warm waters or colorful reefs and not expect diving or snorkeling to be that great or the prime reason to visit.” While those certainly are fun, enjoyable activities within the islands, he says that a Galapagos cruise is more for luxury travelers desiring to add a remote, bucket-list, eco-adventure destination to their portfolio of completed experiences and to see nature in its purest form, with little civilization and lots of endemic wildlife, marine life and birds.  

“The other tip is to realize that the pace of a Galapagos cruise is very active and visitors should expect long days of walking, Zodiac rides and swimming,” Heit notes. In other words, it’s not typically a curl-up-and-do nothing vacation, where the prime goal is relaxation. He believes that “a Galapagos cruise is not for everyone as it’s an adventure.” But for those seeking just that, it’s a chance for amazing eco-adventures found nowhere else on earth.

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