You will so lose your heart to blue-footed boobies, orangey-scarlet Sally Lightfoot crabs and a host of other colorful wildlife characters in the unforgettable Galapagos. That goes whether you're a luxury cruiser or not. Since the Galapagos National Park Service strictly regulates visits, all passengers share similar experiences ashore. Everyone follows park-licensed guides in small groups, stays on designated trails and beaches, and carries nothing to impact the environment.
So don't count on sipping Champagne in the surf, luxury cruisers. But wait until you read just how many other distinct advantages lie ahead. Here's the skinny on luxury cruising in the Galapagos.
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Why Choose a Luxury Galapagos Cruise?
Guides drive the Galapagos experience and luxury ships hire the best. Most have doctorates in fields like marine biology and ornithology. Their English is excellent and they enthusiastically and compellingly share their knowledge.
Luxury cruises often have cool exploration tools. For instance, they can employ divers to shoot underwater videos. Expedition experts use underwater microscopes to capture plankton samples -- wait until you see the blown-up images on huge high-definition screens. Luxury ships might have glass-bottom Zodiacs, and eying reef fish in areas unreachable through snorkeling is spectacular. They'll also have additional water-sport toys, like paddleboards and kayaks. Snorkeling gear and wetsuits are included. Luxury ships usually book photographers and videographers to create a voyage DVD, guaranteeing a fabulous flick of your bucket list trip.
Expect more shipboard amenities, like onboard doctors; laundry service; more dining options (including room service), with fancier, higher-quality food; more beverage choices, including fine wines and spirits; Wi-Fi (throughout the ship, not just in public rooms); entertainment; libraries; fitness rooms; and spas. Robes and hair dryers are de rigueur. You might even score a veranda to privately ogle views. And most -- if not all -- amenities are complimentary.
Luxury cruises often include round trip air transfers from Quito or Guayaquil, Ecuador, to the Galapagos, a pre-cruise hotel stay and park service fees. Mainstream ships usually charge for these services.
Maintenance is a priority for luxury ships. So everything looks spiffier -- no chipped paint or worn furnishings -- and everything feels better, too. Expect softer and thicker towels, silkier sheets, premium toiletries and plusher carpeting. Expect better service, too. There's more crew, just to pamper you.
Galapagos Luxury Cruise Ships
These six ships -- ranging from 16 to 100 passengers -- offer luxurious Galapagos cruises, which sail year-round.
Silversea's 100-passenger Silver Galapagos sets the gold standard for luxury cruising. All accommodations are suites, with flat-screen televisions and marble-topped desks. Butlers in every suite stock mini-bars with passengers' preferred soft drinks, wines and spirits. Baths possess marble accents, organic toiletries and rainfall showerheads. Beds are dressed with posh Pratesi linens.
Onboard amenities are awesome; work out with weights or machines in the fitness center, get mellow with massages, hit the 24-hour library or schmooze in a six-person outdoor Jacuzzi. The two bars are hopping pre- and post-dinner. In the Restaurant, sumptuous buffets are served at breakfast and lunch, while dinner is a delicious multicourse sit-down affair. The alfresco Grill is open for lunch and dinner. A pianist entertains at mealtime, cocktails and teatime. Kayaks are provided for off-ship fun. Wi-Fi, alcohol and gratuities are included.
On Celebrity Cruises' 100-passenger Xpedition, passengers love socializing in the Discovery Lounge while a pianist entertains. Organic produce and fresh fish caught by local fisherman feature heavily in menus, which are designed by a Michelin star-winning chef. Passengers dine in an open-seating restaurant or at an alfresco grill. If you're feeling virtuous, the fitness room awaits. Then it's hot tub or spa time. Room service, plush bathrobes and premium bedding up the comfort, too.
In addition to three different room types with large windows, Xpedition offers a bevy of suites. All have private verandas. The penthouse suite dazzles with two bathrooms and a Jacuzzi on a private balcony. All accommodations offer laundry service and feature MP3 docking stations, binoculars and flat-screen televisions with DVD players. Wi-Fi, alcohol and gratuities are included.
National Geographic Endeavour II
This Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic 96-passenger ship replaces National Geographic Endeavour in January 2017. An older ship (built in 2005), it was purchased by Lindblad and then underwent a complete refit. Endeavour II is majorly family-friendly with many cabin options; choose between suites, connecting double staterooms, triple cabins and solo cabins. Colorful Ecuadorian-style bedding accents and at least one window brighten each room. Amenities include botanically inspired toiletries, a hair dryer and robes.
Many public spaces, like the lounge, possess spectacular views. So does the gym, stocked with treadmills, elliptical machines and stationary bicycles. (You can borrow small weights, a yoga mat and exercise bands to use in your cabin.) Chill in the expansive library, use an iMac and browse a gallery showcasing local handicrafts like hand-carved chess sets. Indulge in spa treatments, a sauna or swim in the small swimming pool.
Count on a buffet breakfast, buffet or family-style lunch (or a light meal on deck) and plated dinners. Tables often have odd numbers of chairs, encouraging easy mingling, particularly for solo travelers.
Toys and exploration tools include a glass-bottom Zodiac, kayaks, stand-up paddleboards, underwater camera and video microscope. With a dual Zodiac-boarding platform, passengers can embark and debark twice as fast. Camera geeks should note that some expeditions are photography-driven. Wi-Fi, alcohol and gratuities cost extra.
National Geographic Islander
Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic's 48-passenger twin-hulled Islander, a Galapagos fixture since 2004, attracts yacht-admirers. The nautically themed ship is awash in brass and mahogany. Eight of the 24 cabins have private glassed-in terraces with seating. A few cabins accommodate a third person. Two top suites have wraparound views at the bow. Amenities include botanically inspired toiletries and hair dryers.
As on sibling Endeavour II, dining means buffet breakfasts, buffet or family-style lunches (or an alternative light meal on deck) and plated dinners. The elegant lounge, cozy library and well-equipped fitness center stay busy.
Shop for artisan Ecuadorian gifts, like woven sun hats and coffee, in an onboard boutique. Spa treatments tempt. There's Wi-Fi access, an iMac station and laundry service, too. Here's a perk that you never want to use: An onboard doctor is available around the clock at no charge.
Exploration tools and toys include an underwater video camera and microscope and kayaks. Some cruises offer scuba diving. Back onboard, hop into a hammock strung across a deck and chill. Wi-Fi, alcohol and gratuities cost extra.
Celebrity Cruises' 48-passenger Celebrity Xperience hits the sweet spot between large and small Galapagos ships. Passengers have plenty of public spaces to explore, from a cozy reception area and lounge bar to the library outfitted with books and games, a dining room and sun deck. Dining is mostly buffet-style, with plated dinner selections. Enjoy breakfast and lunch on deck, and on some evenings, dinner too. Or, savor room service.
Passengers choose between three staterooms of varying sizes, with either portholes or picture windows. Beds convert from twin to king. Amenities include soft or firm mattress choices, pillow menu, bathrobes, small refrigerators, laundry service, binoculars and hair dryers. Wi-Fi, alcohol and gratuities are included.
Want to explore the Galapagos by catamaran? Another Celebrity Cruises ship, 16-passenger Celebrity Xploration makes dreams come true. Charter all eight cabins -- great if traveling with friends or family -- or just book one cabin and make new besties. Choose between ocean-view staterooms and junior suites with verandas. All accommodations convert from two twins to one king bed, and offer choices of soft or firm mattresses. Egyptian cotton sheets, pillow menu, flat-screen televisions and binoculars round out the in-cabin amenities.
The dining room has just two tables, but ample buffets are showcased. Dining alfresco is an option, too, and especially delightful under the stars. Belly up to the full-service bar in the lounge or the open-air alternative. Peddle away on one of two exercise bicycles on deck. The hot tub beckons, as do chaise lounges. And although Xploration is too tiny for many exploratory toys, motorized dinghies and kayaks are available. Wi-Fi, gratuities and alcohol are included.
Luxury-Minded Cruises in the Galapagos
Some luxury-minded ships offer shorter itineraries or possess fewer shipboard amenities and exploration tools. For instance, Metropolitan Touring's 90-passenger Santa Cruz II emphasizes shorter cruises (most are at least a weeklong). Yet amenities include single, double and family cabins plus suites; indoor and outdoor dining; a lounge, library and gym; and two hot tubs. Another Metropolitan Touring ship, 40-passenger Isabela II, has small but immaculate cabins, and the ship features a glass-bottom boat, kayaks, hot tub, fitness room and bar.
Note that luxury tour operators like Abercrombie & Kent and Tauck charter ships like Celebrity Xperience and Isabela II and really up the luxury experience. Such companies might downsize the number of passengers, take smaller groups on nature walks, use their own expert guides, offer true all-inclusive experiences (such as Wi-Fi, gratuities and alcohol) and can include or arrange more pre- and post-Galapagos transportation, lodging and add-on adventures.