While much of the global cruise industry is on pause, there’s plenty of action in this tropical destination, where new ships and itineraries are exploring more than just the Galápagos Islands.

By Nancy Trejos
October 03, 2020
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Ecoventura is leading the way, with stylish ships like the Theory.
Courtesy of Ecoventura

Editor’s Note: Travel might be complicated right now, but use our inspirational trip ideas to plan ahead for your next bucket list adventure.

The iconic Galápagos Islands have long been a dream destination for wildlife enthusiasts. And while the bird-watching and tortoise-spotting there are unrivaled, the vessels that ply these waters tend to be, with a few exceptions, humdrum. But thankfully some new small ships are bringing luxurious amenities and thoughtful design to both the islands and the mainland.

“Ecuador hasn’t had the same high-end experiences that you’ve found in recent years in Peru, our closest neighbor,” says Santiago Dunn, CEO of Ecoventura, which by next year will have three yachts operating in the Galápagos. “But I think we have a lot to offer — and room to grow.”

Ecoventura helped spark the movement toward design-minded ships with its Origin (launched in 2016) and Theory (2019), while the Evolve is slated for 2021. Each of the identical 142-foot vessels, which are part of the Relais & Châteaux collection, holds just 20 guests. (They’re also available for private charter.) Staterooms have huge windows, while public spaces, including a sundeck, have teakwood accent tables and daybeds in a calming neutral palette.

Ocean Grill restaurant, aboard the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora.
MICHEL VERDURE/COURTESY OF CELEBRITY CRUISES

A new vessel from Celebrity Cruises, the 100-passenger Celebrity Flora, arrived last year, though it has since paused operations through October because of the pandemic. For the interiors, BG Studio International (which also designed the Club Spa Suites on Azamara ships) chose lounge chairs, ottomans, tables, and sculptures by Ecuadoran designer Adriana Hoyos, as well as king-size beds fitted with Egyptian-cotton linens. Even the tenders that transport guests from the ship to the islands have been rethought: the custom-built Novurania dinghies have stairs, metal railings, and a hydraulic ramp to make wet landings on the islands’ beaches a little less wet.

The Silver Origin, the first destination-specific ship ever built by Silversea Cruises, was at press time scheduled to start sailing in September. Architecture firm Hirsch Bedner Associates, which brought a cool angularity with pops of color to the Four Seasons Kyoto, devised airy interiors for the 100-passenger ship, including an observation lounge near the bow with floor-to-ceiling windows and 180-degree views. All 51 of its butler-serviced suites have balconies — some even have ocean views from the tubs.

Lounges aboard Ecoventura’s three sister ships feature vibrant patterns and statement furniture.
Courtesy of Ecoventura

And while mainland Ecuador has been largely overlooked by the cruise industry, the new company Kontiki Expeditions aims to launch the first of its 128-foot-long yachts there this December. “Ecuador is a super-diverse country,” says Carlos Núñez, the founder and CEO of the firm, which is part of Small Luxury Hotels of the World. “The coastal areas are completely unexplored. We’re taking guests to beaches, small towns, and many other off-the-beaten-path places.”

The yachts will have nine staterooms (accommodating a maximum of 18 guests) and 10 crew members, plus a sundeck, two outdoor lounges, a bar, a whirlpool, and a gym. Interiors are heavy on organic materials — bamboo, jute, linen, and straw — and have lots of natural light and Ecuadoran art.

“I laugh when people say we’re a cruise ship in the Galápagos,” Núñez says. “We’re more like a small, floating boutique hotel.”

A version of this story first appeared in the October 2020 issue of Travel + Leisure under the headline Ecuador’s New Wave.