Metropolitan Touring's 48-passenger La Pinta is a year-round Galapagos-based island hopper. The cruise yacht -- considered mid-size among the 100 or so 12- to 100-passenger vessels cruising the region -- provides an effortless means of experiencing the menagerie of reptiles, birds and marine mammals the Ecuadorian hotspot is famous for.
While no manmade ship will ever compete with Darwin's favorite national park -- where rust colored calderas jut out of the Pacific; stoic, yellow iguanas guard fruit-laden cactus trees; and blue-footed birds dance and whistle their way to progeny -- La Pinta exceeds the basic requirement to introduce well-traveled, pretense-free passengers to sea lions and sea turtles.
Touches like fine in-cabin showers, Wi-Fi and a glass-bottom boat (for non-snorkelers and the sea lion-phobic) are welcome inclusions. After a day peeking under the Pacific or trekking under the equatorial sun, passengers can chat in the popular top-ship hot tub or enjoy a pre-dinner pisco sour in the lounge as they swap pictures (the world's most adorable baby sea lion, say) and stories ("The baby sea lion thought I was its mother!").
There's also the occasional traditional cruise flourish. Observe the sun glasses-wearing towel monkey endemic to your cabin or the Beef Wellington that appears on the dinner menu.
Passengers who spent thousands to cruise and gear up with quick-dry outfits, zoom lenses and waterproof shoes aren't visiting the world's foremost evolutionary lab just to eat Beef Wellington, take great showers and surf the Web. La Pinta, built in 1982 as a Bahamas-based casino ship, then gutted and rebuilt in 2008, also fulfills its duty as a modern expedition vessel. Tools of the trade include outdoor shower heads (de-sanding), a public-use dryer (for wet towels, swimming trunks), a goodie basket of Dramamine in the lobby, a quintet of tandem kayaks, snorkel gear (mask, fin, snorkel), a briefing room with modern A-V equipment and a crane that delivers a trio of pangas from ship to sea.
If the pangas, inflatable water taxis that shuttle passengers from anchorage points to uninhabited islets, are the connective tissue of the experience, the top-flight naturalists (Level III, the highest in the Galapagos) are the heart. By law, the English (and other) language-speaking guides accompany passengers on all land-based expeditions, providing enthusiastic commentary and answering questions about local geology, botany and biology. They're great with kids, too.
The overall experience on La Pinta (and every other Galapagos-based ship) is highly structured, almost military-like. (Though you can opt out of anything without threat of pushups.) It has to be. In an effort to maximize time on land, where opening hours are sunrise to sunset, scheduling is precise. Wake up: 0700. Breakfast: 0730. First landing: 0830. And so forth until you hit the pillow after dinner (at 1930). If you participate in every activity, expect two hours of down time tops -- and expect to be enthralled but slightly exhausted by debarkation day. Something more casual post-cruise, like a beach stay, is a good idea for two reasons: first, as a counterpoint to the hyper-scheduled pace, second, to unpack the mystical experience you just had, spending time in a place that starts to feel like a strange dream the moment you return to civilization.