The two faces of the Galapagos Islands have never been as easy to explore. Try the Ker & Downey approach by taking a journey by land AND by sea.
Colorful birds create a cacophony in a crisp saltwater lagoon, while nearby giant tortoises silently make a trail through the tall grasses. Miles away, penguins jump from rock to rock, inventing a new kind of hopscotch on prehistoric atolls barely inches above the waves. Still elsewhere, marine iguanas peek over rock formations already ticked Africa’s Big Five off their world species bucket list.
The choice in this diverse archipelago is not so much what to see, but how to see it. Those bound for the Galapagos with Ker & Downey inspect the best of the islands both by land and sea, partaking in the unmatched comfort of lavish tents and splendors aboard an intimate yacht.
One of only a handful of luxury tented camps in South America, Galapagos Safari Camp was conceived by a pair of seasoned explorers while sightseeing from a tree branch. Michael and Stephanie Mesdag envisioned a future far from their home in Europe on that fateful perch, inspired by the vistas before them and the potential for a harmonious marrying of aesthetic accommodations and eco-minded tourism.
Dreams have been realized here – shared by the likes of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles – with Galapagos Safari Camp emerging as the leader among luxury accommodations in the Galapagos.
With facilities that stand toe-to-toe with tented camps in the Okavango or Kruger, the Galapagos Safari Camp indeed adds a touch of African-chic to this wilderness. Nine elevated tents are comprised of three protective layers of canvas, specifically designed to combat the rain and sun. Climate controls, custom-built beds and writing desks, storage cupboards and en-suite facilities with hot power showers and flush toilets are among the modern amenities. Guests will find warblers, mockingbirds, Galapagos doves and owls amidst the menagerie of birds residing on the farm. Among the highlights of a stay at camp, a chance meeting with visiting tortoises that regularly meander between the tents and through the grounds. A hammock and chairs on the tent’s gracious balcony invites relaxing moments with a front-row seat to the rustic activity, a view duplicated from the infinity pool situated inconspicuously in the brush next to the main lodge.
From its location on a hill, the open-plan main lodge’s panorama stretches across the Pacific with nearby islands briefly interrupting the blue – ever present through the picture windows and the ample curved veranda.
The ridgeside camp occupies 55 hectares of former farmland in what is known as the transition zone – a kind of eco-DMZ bordering the Galapagos National Park and the farmlands of Santa Cruz Island. Reforestation efforts at camp, aided by the botanists of Conservation International and the Charles Darwin Foundation, are helping endemic trees reclaim ground and simultaneously removing introduced species of guava and banana leftover from the property’s former agricultural pursuits.
Venturing outside of camp and into the highlands, visitors can interact with more dome-backed denizens on the tortoise reserve inside Galapagos National Park. Santa Cruz’s lowlands offer a venue for diving snorkeling and various other watersports in the cerulean waters. A variety of further excursions can be arranged from Galapagos Safari Camp, ranging from guided mountain biking treks and horseback rides on Santa Cruz, to day trips to the nearby islands.
To truly discover the wealth of biological majesty of the Galapagos, extended cruises on larger ships and yachts are mandatory. Among the sea-faring options is the newest in Galapagos’ fleet, the Sea Star Journey.
In the Enchanted Islands, some of the most lasting wildlife encounters can only be reached by boat – isolated beaches abuzz with the spirited activty of flamingos or decidedly quieter shores where sea lions enjoy afternoon siestas. Having debuted in February 2011, the Sea Star Journey was born of an experienced history in responsible Galapagos cruising with a focus on conservation and up-close discovery. The vessel itself embodies opulence afloat, awash in supple modern textiles, chrome accents, light wood and rare open spaces, imparting the feeling of a land-based luxury hotel jettisoned into the blue. Panoramic windows are found throughout, ensuring that not a moment of scenery passes that cannot be surveyed from the suites or any point indoors on the ship. Aboard the top deck, plush deck furnishings rest beneath a good balance of sun and shade, with two Jacuzzis inviting guests to watch the scene at sea as they soak.
The Mesdags of Galapagos Safari Camp were among the first to embark with the Sea Star Journey. Theirs was a five-night jaunt to Isabela, Fernandina, Santiago and San Cristobal Islands with their two young children. Aside from the unparalleled comfort and spaciousness found in the cabins, Stephanie praised the ease of traveling with her entire family aboard the ship. “For children, it is fabulous,” says Stephanie. “For instance, the dining room floor plan allows for separation, so families with children can keep a comfortable distance and enjoy meals as they would at home. The space helped us avoid the feeling that we were making the other passengers uncomfortable.” Tike-friendly features also include a play zone, assembled only on embarkations designated as family cruises. Safety and adventure are of equal priority on the vessel with special care paid to all maritime safeguards, reviewed with guests of all ages before each sailing.
By land and sea, the Islands are a playground for precocious naturalists-in-training. The many available tours cover a wealth of ground and water between the islands, among them the less-frequented habitats rich in fauna. Spy penguins, sea lions and marine iguanas between the lava tubes of Chinese Hat, a volcanic formation named for its resemblance to the conical hats indicative of many cultures in Southeast Asia. Snorkel among sea turtles and playful sea lions in the shadow of Pinnacle Rock on Bartholome Island. Raft the placid canals of Isabela, bordered by lush vegetation alive with twittering finches and Galapagos hawks. Expert guides are close at hand on excursions, eager to impart their knowledge of the volcanic geology of the islands and point out the varied species uncovered here. At once beautiful and fragile, ever combating the encroachment from introduced flora and fauna, the pristine state of the Galapagos remains in flux. Though sharing the magic of the region may be regarded as a double-edged sword, inviting a stifling of its prosperity, the Islands continue to be bolstered by a handful of protective organizations funded in part by the extraordinary interest in travel. With the responsible practices of Galapagos Safari Camp and the Galapagos Sea Star Journey, fans of wildlife, conservation and family-friendly exploration can confidently chart their own adventurous course by tent and cabin on a multi-faceted safari at every angle.