Galapagos Island Luxury :: The Athala II

A dusky green sea turtle the size of a manhole cover stared up at me with shiny gold-toned eyes… made of toffee.

Walking into my cabin on the Athala II luxury catamaran touring the Galapagos Islands for eight days was always a treat. Martin, the cabin attendant, folded the fluffy towels with origami precision. A sea turtle with toffee for eyes one day; a sting ray with long rolled tail the next. Terrycloth hearts, flowers and starfish also made for a cheery shower after snorkeling with real sea turtles, sea lions, rays and sharks.

We weren’t sure what the term “luxury�? meant when applied to a small catamaran carrying 16 people around the Galapagos Islands for adventure and education. I figured it meant the shower water was occasionally hot and the beer was reasonably cold. Haugan Cruises’s Athala II shattered all notions I had of life aboard a small boat run by a small company and booked at a very reasonable cost.

Two comfortable floor-level beds instead of the usual cheap-cruise bunk beds. Large windows, not portholes. Private balconies. A cozy bathrobe and full-sized Aveda products. Dinner options of grilled lobster or prime rib. Complimentary cocktails when we arrived, when we crossed the equator and when we departed. All this amid snorkeling, hiking, wildlife viewing and just relaxing in the heart of Charles Darwin’s evolutionary science.

Built earlier this year and touring only since July, the Athala II is the newest ship in the Galapagos Islands, a national park of Ecuador located 600 miles west of the mainland. It is the only ship of Haugan Cruises, a Norwegian/Ecuadorean company that focuses solely on Galapagos tours. The Athala II, named after the company owner’s daughter, features spacious cabins with enormous bathrooms compared to most cruise ships, indigenous Ecuadorean weavings decorating the comfortable beds, air conditioning, a large salon with plasma TVs and DVD player, indoor and outside dining areas, sun deck, hot tub, a creative chef , enthusiastic cruise manager and capable staff.

Touches of luxury could be found everywhere: in cabin attendant Martin’s insistence that the toothpaste line up precisely next to the moisturizer on the bathroom counter every morning, in the beach bags and clean beach towels offered each day to snorkeling guests, in the hot snacks and freshly squeezed juice awaiting hikers’ return, in Cruise Manager Yoyi’s “tea�? of lime, rum, honey and hot water to chase off head colds and any other malady.

The greatest luxury of the Athala II, perhaps, is its size. Or its lack of size. Dozens of cruise ships have permits to tour the Galapagos Islands with up to 100 passengers aboard, being divided up into groups for activities and given names like the Camarrones (shrimp) group, the Tortuga (tortoise) group so that the trip feels like little more than summer camp for grownups.

The Athala II can accommodate 16 passengers. At that size, guests and the staff become friends and family. Our shipmates included a honeymooning couple from Canada, a New York couple (he’s originally from Israel; she’s from the Ukraine), a couple from the UK, a pair of friends from New Zealand, a couple from Bucharest (he’s Romanian; she’s Irish) with their 8-year-old son and five from the US (Colorado, Missouri and California). Add to the mix the friendly Ecuadorean staff and a naturalist from the west side of Manhattan, and conversations take off in any direction, from life under Communism to the sleeping habits of sea lions.

Guests opt in and out of activities as they please, choosing to snorkel one day then deciding to relax on the sun deck the next. To participate in all the activities, as we did, requires a constant changing of clothes: wet suit for snorkeling (highly recommended as the Humbolt Current keeps the water chilly), hiking gear, casual clothes for walking around a town or interpretive center, fresh clothes for meals (dinner is not formal, but requires something more than a swimsuit).

Breakfast and lunch are served buffet style. Chef Darwin (his real name) makes eggs to order each morning. Dinner is served with a choice of two entrees. As in most of South America, lunch and dinner begin with soup. Fresh breads and desserts are baked in the large industrial kitchen below deck. The most interesting items are the juices that accompany every meal, pressed and pureed fresh each time. They range from a delicious foamy blackberry juice to the strangely slightly sweet juice of the tree tomato.

The bar is on the open-air upper deck and operates on the honor system, with guests making cocktails or grabbing cold beers and just writing down what they took. The wine list is predominantly Chilean or Argentine and very expensive (more than $50 for a Casillero del Diablo Reserva).

Every tour boat in the Galapagos is required to have a naturalist/guide aboard and accompanying guests on their treks and swims. On the Athala II, several guides rotate in and out of that position. They are fluent English and Spanish speakers knowledgeable about the history, ecology, geology and other fascinating -ologies of the Galapagos.

Overseeing it all is Cruise Manager Yoyi Manaya, the only female cruise director on a small ship in the Galapagos. Her bubbly personality, quick laugh and ability to speak six languages make her a perfect hostess. With very little encouragement, she’ll go out salsa dancing to help the clumsy or embarrassed move their hips “just so�? or brew up her potent tea for those feeling sick (and those just pretending).

Time goes fast in the Galapagos and just when you start to identify the different types of finches or fish, it’s over. But on the Athala II, every minute is a memory.

For details about the Athala II, go to www.haugancruises.com.

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