With dozens of vessels plying the waters of the Galapagos Islands, many of them sailing nearly identical itineraries, prospective cruisers face a tricky decision when choosing a ship. Options range from tiny catamarans holding just a dozen passengers to a few larger luxury cruise liners that max out at 100 people (the limit imposed by the Galapagos National Park), with rates and onboard amenities varying just as widely.
At 32 passengers, Evolution strikes a healthy balance: It's small enough to foster a friendly, familial ambience onboard, but it's not so stifling that you're sick of everyone else's faces by the end of the week. It's also a perfect blend of luxurious and laid-back. You may not have a balcony cabin or a butler at your beck and call, but you'll feel plenty pampered when you're greeted with a cool, damp towel and a glass of fresh guava juice after a long hike, or when you're indulging in tangy, all-you-can-eat shrimp ceviche during an alfresco lunch.
Where the ship truly shines is in the quality of its staff. Three naturalist guides lead the way; they're the ones responsible for all off-ship excursions, as well as nightly lectures. Even after many years of guiding (each one on our sailing had more than a decade of experience), they still take obvious delight in spotting a Galapagos flycatcher or watching a pair of waved albatrosses playfully clacking beaks -- and their enthusiasm is infectious.
We encountered exceptional service from many other members of the crew as well, including the ship's captain, who gave one nervous swimmer a snorkeling lesson, and the hotel manager, who not only sent a bowl of soup down to a passenger who was feeling too ill to come to dinner, but also canceled the nightly turn-down call from the cabin attendant so he wouldn't be disturbed.
Life aboard Evolution feels so relaxed -- and has just enough down time -- that you might not notice how efficient and thoughtfully organized the schedule really is. A typical day begins with a wakeup call over the PA system, including a few minutes of acoustic pop music (think Norah Jones or Counting Crows) and a gentle "Good morning, amigos!" from the expedition leader. After breakfast, hiking excursions typically start between 8 a.m. and 8:30 a.m. to take advantage of cooler morning temperatures. During the heat of the day, passengers might go out snorkeling and then enjoy a post-lunch "power siesta" as the ship sails to its afternoon destination. Following the last excursion of the day, passengers have a little free time to clean up or have a cocktail before the nightly briefing and nature talk, followed by dinner.
International Expeditions charters Evolution from its owner, Quasar Expeditions, for about half the year. The ship's public areas are still sparkling after Quasar carried out extensive renovations in 2012, including new wooden decks, a fresh sun canopy and furniture in the open-air bar, and an expanded main lounge. The makeover continued in the cabins with refreshed furniture, paint and carpeting. These updates help ensure that the ship, which was originally built in 1970, rarely shows its age.
Evolution draws an adventurous, curious and easygoing crowd, ranging in age from kids to seniors, with most falling into the 50-plus range. Among the passengers on our sailing were a few professors and teachers, a geologist, a couple of lawyers and a former zookeeper. The bulk of the passengers are from the United States, though we also had folks from Australia and Singapore on our sailing.
There are relatively few families onboard, with most coming during the summer months. We had three solo travelers on our voyage; the small size of the group and the many organized activities mean it's easy to meet people even if you don't bring a friend or partner along. (A single supplement applies.)
Passengers generally dress for the equatorial heat and sun: shorts or lightweight hiking pants (jeans are not recommended) with long-sleeved khaki tops or light-colored T-shirts. Sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats are a must. International Expeditions also recommends bringing a couple of bathing suits for snorkeling, which is on nearly every day's itinerary.
For wet landings, pack some form of sandal or water shoe, preferably with a non-slip sole. While Teva-style sandals work well for beach walks, longer hikes on rocky volcanic paths call for sturdier walking shoes. For snorkeling, you might want to bring a dive skin to wear under the shortie wetsuits provided by the ship, particularly if you're fair-skinned or sensitive to cold.
The four-deck ship's pretty cabins are decorated with Peruvian furnishings and have private balconies, plus you'll find an expansive sun deck, open-air bar and small fitness facility onboard.
At 32 passengers, Evolution boasts an intimate ambiance, but never feels stifling. It's also a perfect blend of luxurious and laid-back.