A Luxury Journey Through The Galapagos
The first superyacht in the archipelago, Aqua Mare offers the Galápagos Islands in intimate and personalised luxury.
“I can’t say again how lucky you are to be experiencing this alone.”
Notable words from Yvonne, given she’s spent the last 30-odd years as a guide in the Galápagos Islands and knows just how crowded it can get, especially from around mid-June to the beginning of September when tourist-filled ships and day boats descend on the islands.
Now one of two naturalist guides for Aqua Mare, the fifth vessel to join the Aqua Expeditions fleet, she takes personal responsibility for upholding the brand’s reputation to provide intimate tailormade excursions that venture into remote destinations, away from the crowds.
The first true superyacht in the Galápagos Islands, the launch of the 50-metre Aqua Mare is a sort of homecoming for the company’s CEO and Founder, Francesco Galli Zugaro, whose professional career in luxury travel began in Ecuador. Since then, he’s expanded the Aqua fleet from its Amazonian beginnings to now include ships that ply the Mekong River and the waters around Indonesia.
Like her sisters, Aqua Mare is a beauty to look upon. Previously privately owned, the yacht’s decisively slick exterior sets the tone for lavish interiors that have now been overhauled and streamlined by the Aqua team to feature the yacht’s original Italian walnut veneer wall panels, plush Jim Thompson fabrics and luxuriously thick cream carpets underfoot.
Like all of the Aqua vessels, there is also a strong attention to detail — in the living room, a carefully curated book collection, which focuses on the wildlife and history of the Galápagos, is organised and displayed in gradient shades of blue and bespoke tableware from Bali-based ceramic brand, Gaya features details like beautiful endemic plant species along with the numbers 1835, the year Charles Darwin visited the islands.
Unfolding over four decks, there are just seven cabins – including a sprawling 80sqm Owner’s Suite and a room smartly configured with bunk beds – each with ensuite bathrooms, some with Jacuzzi showers. There are indoor and outdoor dining areas, a series of shaded and open sundecks, a six-person hot tub, a barbecue area which is also used as an early morning workout zone, and a lower-level beach club perfect for kids to hang out in. Holding centre stage on deck three is a plush book-filled lounge and bar anchored by a large comfy u-shaped sofa, perfect for having a nap or for socialising and watching movies.
This all comes together as a cosy and intimate base for a schedule of daily morning and afternoon excursions, meaning guests can rest and enjoy the yacht in between. The seven-day itineraries follow one of two Galápagos circuits, which either head east towards the islands of Santa Fe, San Cristobal and Española, or west, covering the seahorse-shaped Isabela, the largest island in the archipelago and the wildlife-strewn Fernandina.
The excursions are tailored to each destination, ranging from gentle ambles along desolate seaweed-carpeted sandy beaches scattered with sea turtle trails, to relaxing zodiac cruises through dense mangrove forests teeming with birdlife. Water activities include daily snorkelling sessions and kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding amid swooping pelicans and frolicking sea lions.
Comprising around 18 major islands, about 950 kilometres off the coast of Ecuador, the Galápagos’ most famous visitor, Charles Darwin, spent 19 days studying the islands’ flora and fauna in 1835. Since then, thanks to its unique volcanic landscape with its distinct lava formations, alongside its magical collection of endemic species like the marine and land iguanas, the flightless cormorant, and the Galápagos tortoise, the islands became Ecuador’s first national park in 1959, named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in1979.
Surprisingly, these giant tortoises, probably the Galápagos’ most famous residents, are mostly not seen in the wild. Their once 250,000-strong population went into serious decline – a consequence of a hunting spree by pirates, whalers and traders between the 17th and 19th centuries – with only about 15,000 remaining in the wild today.
Santa Cruz, the Galápagos’ most populated island, is home to the Charles Darwin Research Station where you can view these gentle giants in captivity, but the best place to see them roaming in their natural habitat is in the island’s highlands at farms like the family-run Rancho el Manzanillo.
Along the western itinerary, Fernandina, the youngest and westernmost island in the archipelago is the most volcanically active and sits at the hotspot that created the Galápagos Islands. Almost like a live David Attenborough show, the rippling lava landscape – punctuated with yellow lava cacti – is a lively burst of endemic wildlife including a mess of thousands upon thousands of sunbathing marine iguanas, the highest population density for the animal. A walk along Punta Espinoza, on the northeastern tip of the island will take you past slithering racer snakes chasing after baby iguanas and lava lizards, mewling baby sea lions, flightless cormorants, circling Galápagos hawks overhead, blue-footed boobies, and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs- both of which make a wonderful contrast to the gently rippling grey lava landscape.
A wander along the Mars-like red-sand stretch of beach on Isla Rabida, a postage stamp of land to the east of Isabela, will take you past a resident colony of several hundred snoozing sea lions, and inland to a brackish pool filled with bright pink flamingos feeding on shrimp. A top spot for birdwatching, keen ornithologists can expect to see nesting brown pelicans, Galápagos hawks and doves, and the bizarre blue-footed boobies. It is also the only site where all of the nine different species of Darwin’s finches can be found.
Back on board, following a late morning snorkelling session, the afternoons are spent soaking in the hot tub, watching a film, or snoozing off lunch in your cabin or on one of the sun loungers as frigate birds soar overhead, taking advantage of the yacht’s upward air currents. In the evenings, over an excellent cocktail or a preprandial glass of wine – the house red and white is included in each stay – guides debrief guests on the day’s events and run through the next day’s itinerary. Following that, supper – like all meals – is served family style, either at groups of tables in the indoor dining room downstairs, upstairs on the outdoor deck around one large table or at the top by the barbecue. The food, a collaboration with Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, the chef behind the Amazonian-inspired menus on board Aria Amazon and Aqua Nera, features mostly Japanese-Peruvian inspired dishes like tuna crudo, barbecued plantains, and fresh shrimp ceviche, or Galapagueña lobster lettuce wraps with acevichada dressing. Futher, and in staying true to its personal service, anything goes on Aqua Mare and so opting to eat a burger for dinner every day is also not out of the question.
While boarding an intimate yacht with a group of strangers might not be everyone’s cup of tea – and know exclusive charter, which includes a private masseuse five hours a day, is available – as days pass all onboard become acquainted. As Yvonne notes, “more often than not, guests bond over the shared experience of being in the magical Galápagos Islands, and depart the yacht having made new friends.”
Seven night itineraries (including all meals and beverages – non-alcoholic, premium wines, and beer – and local transfer to/from recommended flights) from approx. $13,800. Exclusive seven night charter (for up to 16 passengers) from approx. $286,300; aquaexpeditions.com
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