Family fun – taking the children on a Galapagos adventure

AUTHOR Tom Laing

“Can we stay for another week, please?” Joshie pleads, clearly not ready to head back to the UK any time soon. After a week snorkelling with sea lions and turtles, exploring the islands on foot, searching for giant tortoises in the forested uplands, and enjoying time on board a luxury expedition yacht, it’s not hard to see why.

But to understand how we found ourselves explaining to our 8 year old that his school dates are not as flexible as he might like, we have to rewind a week and pick things up from our arrival to this stunning archipelago where we – a family of 4, with Joshie and his 6 year old younger brother Angus – have just spent a fantastic week cruising the Galapagos.

Paradise found

Choosing the Galapagos – and Ecoventura – for our next family vacation was close to a no-brainer, once we had decided we were looking for an active, nature-based trip that the boys would remember for a lifetime.

The Galapagos is renowned for its wildlife, and with good reason. Charles Darwin made the islands famous following his voyage there on the Beagle, where his study of the landscapes and endemic wildlife helped him formulate his theories on evolution and natural selection.

Ever since, the Galapagos has been famous as a pristine ecosystem teeming with animals – mammals, birds, reptiles, sharks and fish, many of which are endemic to the islands – providing wonderful photos and capturing the imagination of young and old alike.

Once we had settled on the Galapagos, the next decision was how to explore the islands and make the most of our time there. It quickly became clear that a luxury boutique cruise was the way forward, and Ecoventura was the best of the best, being the only Relais & Chateaux vessels that sail the islands.

The islands are your oyster

With two week-long itineraries, Ecoventura’s fleet of 3 luxury expedition yachts are able to explore the furthermost reaches of the archipelago – it’s worth noting that only 3% of the islands are inhabited, with the remainder protected as a natural park. We have opted for Itinerary A, “Beaches and Bays”, which takes in the Southern and Eastern parts of the Galapagos and includes some of the archipelago’s finest soft white sand beaches – perfect for long afternoons playing in the waves with only sea lions for company.

Exploring by yacht opens up the archipelago to passengers and allows guests to reach islands that would be inaccessible to anyone staying on one of the land-based hotels on the main islands of Santa Cruz or San Cristobal, where day-trippers and the majority of the islands’ visitors gather and coalesce. Waking up overlooking a beautiful bay on an empty island, with no other vessel in sight and only your fellow passengers for company, is something to take the breath away.

“Another Shirley Temple please!” It is breakfast on our first morning, but whilst we are admiring the view from the top decking and settling in to a week at sea, our 6 year old, Angus, has other things on his mind and is making full use of the free – and 24/7 – open bar. He clearly intends to start the day as he means to go on, having tucked in to eggs, bacon, sausages and, with some cajoling from his parents, some deliciously fresh tropical fruit.

A feast for the senses

The food on Ecoventura’s vessels is extraordinary. Whilst the chefs may well be plying their trade in the smallest kitchen of any of Relais & Chateaux’s properties, the result is delicious, as you would expect from a member of this prestigious association of luxury boutique hotels.

Locally caught and sustainably sourced sea food is a regular feature – huge prawns and langoustines, fresh, citrussy ceviches and an array of fish such as the little known Huayaipe give the menu a mouth-watering sense of place.

The majority of the ingredients are sourced from artisan producers, family owned farms, or local fishermen, with Ecoventura updating their menu regularly throughout the year to focus on seasonal, local ingredients, so the vegetables, meats and other produce will almost certainly have been grown on the islands – just one of Ecoventura’s many efforts to reduce its – and our – environmental impact whilst sailing the islands.

It’s a good thing the food is so tasty, and plentiful, because there is a lot to do to build up an appetite and keep energetic and active young boys busy.

After a hearty breakfast, guests gather for the morning excursion where the fun really begins. The structure of each day is fairly similar, with meals on board, interspersed with morning and afternoon outings and an evening briefing to learn about the plan for the following day, with plenty of time in between to enjoy the hot tub up on the sun deck, make the most of the bar and relax before meals.

Under the sea

A particular highlight are the snorkelling trips, of which there are plenty. Whether from the shore, or deeper-water expeditions from the zodiacs (launches used to transport guests to and from the yacht), these trips never fail to provide excitement and something new.

“It’s like jumping in to an aquarium!” shouts Joshie, bobbing to the surface after leaping in to the crystal clear waters on one such outing.

Shoals of brightly coloured fish gather around the reefs, providing a kaleidoscope of colour beneath the waves. We are regularly accompanied by sea lions, darting to and fro in an acrobatic display metres from our masks, whilst the occasional marine iguana can be found nibbling the algae that covers the submerged rocks.

A sea turtle paddles gently beneath us, gliding through the calm water unperturbed by a trail of snorkellers following its progress. Penguins bob along the surface, as curious in us as we clearly are in them. These are the world’s most northerly penguins, and the only ones to be found on the equator; there are not many places in the world where you can snorkel with penguins so this really is quite a privilege.

Reef sharks shelter amongst the rocks below, and rays glide silently past in the gloom, providing an additional thrill for those lucky enough to spot them.

The boys’ eyes are on stalks behind their masks as they take it all in – this is a different world to splashing around in the chilly, murky waters of the UK. We will need to manage their expectations before our next family holiday.

Explorers and pirates

Other popular excursions include outings on kayaks and paddle boards. Angus and I take to a double kayak, where he takes up position up front to spot sea lions, turtles and rays in the inlets and bays of Floreana, pointing imperiously in the direction he intends to lead us as I strive to follow his orders before being made to walk the plank. He has been inspired by tales of pirates, who used the Galapagos as hiding places and areas to stock up on supplies before taking once again to the high seas.

Our guides, Fernando and Sofia, bring the history of the Galapagos to life as they take us around the islands, regaling the boys with stories not only of pirates, but of naval officers, baronesses and mysterious disappearances, not to mention an encyclopaedic knowledge of the islands and the creatures that inhabit them. Their rapport with the boys – and the other children in our particular group – is brilliant, keeping them engaged and interested and adding an educational element to the week.

Back on the kayak, Angus quickly spots a sea turtle ahead as it lifts its head out of the water. As we make our way towards it, another pops up to our right, before a third, then a fourth, appear to our left. We are surrounded by turtles, and pause to watch them as them make their way gracefully across the sheltered bay, enjoying the silence and stillness for a moment before paddling off to search for more. We soon find sea lions exploring the bay as we are, before a dozen golden rays pass by beneath us.

Trips to the islands provide some land-based fun and a chance for the boys to stretch their legs. One morning we visit Post Office Bay – home to the oldest post box in the Galapagos – to drop off postcards to be delivered by passing passengers heading for the UK. One arrives only a week after we return – no sign yet of the others!

A hike up to the viewpoint on Bartolome Island provides a stunning panorama and the most iconic view in the Galapagos, whilst blue-footed boobies nesting on the trails of Espanola Island are a brilliant sight, providing an opportunity to get up close to these photogenic and charismatic creatures.

Giant tortoise spotting in the Santa Cruz highlands allows us to see a different part of the islands as we venture in to the thick forests up in the hills. These enormous animals dwarf the boys – back at the breeding centre, they climb inside an empty shell to see quite how large they are – and provide a prehistoric feel to the trip.

Back to back itineraries

By the end of the week, we feel so at home it isn’t just Joshie longing to extend his trip. And in fact, Ecoventura do offer back to back itineraries, for those looking for an extended visit to the Galapagos and to sample both itineraries.

Having been so well looked after, not only by Fernando and Sofia, and our ever-present concierge Joselyn, but all the staff and crew on board as well, it is hard to prise ourselves away from a life on the seas with Ecoventura.

Chef Estuardo put on a pizza making session, strictly for under-12s only, complete with chef’s hats and aprons, whilst captain Jhon invited the boys to the Bridge to learn how to sail the yacht. The barmen and waiters, Victor and Alexander, made more Shirley Temples (and something a little stronger for the parents) than you could shake a bottle of grenadine at, and never seemed to tire of responding to every wish and whim of an increasingly demanding 6 year old guest.

But we don’t want to get in trouble with the headmistress back home, so we grudgingly disembark for the flight back to the UK.

Many people say the Galapagos is a bucket-list, once in a lifetime trip. But perhaps a return visit wouldn’t be out of the question?