The choice of the Galapagos Islands as the destination for Aqua Expeditions’ fifth vessel is an inspired one. What makes it significant is its location as the beginning of Francesco Galli Zugaro’s professional career in luxury travel. It also served as the inspiration for him and co-founder Fred Brown to launch their own brand of immersive small-ship voyages in the Peruvian Amazon River in 2011. Little did Galli Zugaro know that the dream he had would have him globetrot the world over by way of Peru, Singapore, Vietnam, Cambodia, East Indonesia before returning to the Enchanted Islands.
“Ever since I left Ecuador in 2006 with the clarity to build my own business, I have wanted to return to the Galapagos Islands with our very own luxury expedition ship. It has been 15 years since we ventured to Peru as a family and then onward to Asia to finally come full circle with Aqua Mare back to where it all started,” adds Galli Zugaro.
Enter Aqua Mare, a truly stunning example of signature Italian luxury mega yacht builders CRN Yachts. Designed and built in 1998, the 50m superyacht is a vessel of distinction in every way, incorporating original custom interiors by famous yacht designer François Zuretti, and timeless exterior styling by the Italy-based Studio Scanu.
With its incredible seven- and 14-night itineraries, seven design cabins, extravagant indoor and outdoor spaces, a unique lower deck ‘Beach Club’ and elegant finishing ranging from customized Bali-sourced plateware to curated 17th-century prints, Aqua Mare navigates the Enchanted Islands in both east and west directions, encountering endemic wildlife, spectacular volcanic landscapes and geological formations, and even 17th-century pirate hideouts.
Sixteen crew including two naturalist guides ensure a five-star experience that is second to none in the Archipelago. Exclusivity is combined with the most personalized service enabled by two naturalist guides, on top of the islands’ most exclusive one-to-one crew to guest ratio.
To understand what Aqua Mare truly means to Galli Zugaro, we have to go back to the beginning. In 2001, while working for a private equity group in Ecuador, he was asked to run Sales and Marketing for one of the companies which owned two ships in the Galapagos Islands, one a 48-passenger vessel, and another eight passenger sailboat.
Diving into the travel and small-ship cruising industry, Galli Zugaro took a leap of faith, confident that his ability to speak four languages aside from his international outlook would carry him through. He believes that the relationships fostered back then helped create the lasting bond he maintains to this day. “Today I’m glad to say that the same clients that used to be clients of ours in the Galapagos Archipelago are the same ones selling our expedition ships around the world. And now they’ll be able to do the same with Aqua Mare.”
Yet a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor. Aqua Mare has been at least five years in the making, in order to secure the opportunity to invest in the Galapagos Islands, to be in legal and governmental compliance, as well as consider operational restrictions. In fact, Aqua Mare was originally going to be custom-built, with Galli Zugaro and Aqua Expeditions spending time and funds designing the vessel, only to be thwarted by the pandemic.
“We had the design, all the approvals, and it was ready to be built but when COVID-19 hit in March of 2020, our priorities changed. We were already preoccupied with building Aqua Nera in Vietnam, and it would take 22 to 24 months to build a new ship, without counting delays in supply but also limitations presented by the pandemic and restrictions in traveling. I wouldn’t have been able to go to the yard, it just made more sense to look for something to buy,” Galli Zugaro explains.
As fate would have it, Galli Zugaro’s son Massimo had found the perfect ship. “He has a knack and passion for yachts and ships. She appealed to us immediately, and we fell in love, not only with her quality but also because she offers 30 percent more volume than most ships her size.”
Galli Zugaro closed the deal to purchase on 1 June in Istanbul, and Aqua Mare will be ready to welcome guests on board in May 2022, marking only 11 months from the sale to operation. “We have saved a year, so even if it comes out the same cost-wise, we will be able to operate one year earlier than if we had built from scratch.”
The vision Galli Zugaro had for Aqua Mare hasn’t drifted far from the original in terms of dimensions and gross tonnage. He explains, “What varied was that we have a much larger owner’s suite on the ship that we didn’t consider having but has ended up as a big asset for us. While there are other beautiful ships in the Galapagos Islands, there is nothing that parallels Aqua Mare, so it will appeal to travelers who are looking for a private superyacht experience.”
In a destination like the Galapagos Islands that is highly regulated with set itineraries albeit in different order, Aqua Mare is able to differentiate itself by its personalization. There is the feeling that every single thing on the superyacht has been either personally selected or personally designed by the Galli Zugaro family.
“As soon as our guests embark,” Galli Zugaro adds, “they can tell – someone has taken personal care to make sure that every single detail has been thought through. We spend a lot of time on the art and design of our ships.” When asked his favorite aspect of Aqua Mare, Galli Zugaro smiles widely, “The owner’s cabin! The sheer size of 80 m2 is truly a luxury. I also really enjoy the bridge with its Italian leather sofas and open bridge policy to witness in the navigation between the islands.”
The attention to detail is what sets Aqua Expeditions apart. It is found in the thread of storytelling that is woven between the different ships – in the Galapagos Islands, it is Darwin’s legacy that gives meaning to the company’s vision, bridging the gap between the Archipelago and East Indonesia’s Coral Triangle where sister yacht Aqua Blu operates, connecting a significant moment in the history with naturalist and explorer Alfred Russel Wallace’s co-discovery of natural selection and theory of evolution.
In Darwin’s Footsteps
More than anything, Galli Zugaro is appreciative of how the Galapagos National Park is controlled because visitors are still able to journey from island to island without feeling like it is a mass exodus. It ties in with Aqua’s own philosophy of socially responsible travel by venturing into remote destinations with minimized human interaction, secluded from crowds.
As in Aqua’s other destinations, Galli Zugaro insists on attaining high standards in sustainable operations, achieving them through fuel efficiency, ethically-sourcing materials in design, reducing energy emissions, using eco-friendly products onboard, and waste management innovation. Aqua Mare continues the company’s committed effort to improve its environmental and socio-economic impact by rethinking the F&B supply chains, in particular applying a fresh farm-to-table approach, as well as community engagement, while also paving the way for more sustainable river and sea explorations, educating crew, guests, and locals involved on the importance of preserving these fragile ecosystems.
“I think Ecuador has done a very good job in finding the balance between the growth of the human population, protecting the endemic wildlife, and ensuring that visitors get an incredible experience. There is a good amount of coverage that we do in a two-week itinerary, but you will always feel like you are discovering it for the first time,” Galli Zugaro enthuses.
There is an immense sense of satisfaction in actually confirming all the stories about the Galapagos Archipelago are true. His favorite itinerary is around the western side of Isabella. “I love Caleta Tagus. Typically underneath where we anchor, there are tons of hammerhead sharks and while it’s not always visible, you know they’re down there. We also take a hike up to Darwin Lake and the view from there is breathtaking!”
So what comes next for the man who has made a 15-year old dream come true? Having launched another ship earlier in the summer – the Aqua Nera, in the Peruvian Amazon – during the pandemic no less, Galli Zugaro is optimistic. When asked if Aqua Mare will redefine sailing in the Galapagos Archipelago, he says “There are incredible operators out there, but we’re catering to a niche audience with small-ship expeditions that present a perfect blend of design, attention to detail, personalized service, and adventure, so in that sense, we are carving out a new path.”
Galli Zugaro is content to navigate into 2022 and 2023 with his latest additions while waiting for East Indonesia and the Mekong to open up. “Everything has been challenging, especially in the past two years. But if you think about it, we have launched two ships during a pandemic. It brings our total to five, making it one ship every three years over the past 15 years.” By his calculations, Aqua Expeditions should be on track for a new ship in 2025 but insists that it is enough for now.
But he does leave us with this, “There are so many incredible places that I have visited personally in the last few years that I see a potential for, so watch this space.”
Aqua Mare will set sail the Galapagos Archipelago in May 2022. Find out more about this once-in-a-lifetime adventure or speak to our Reservations team to book your dream seven- or 14-night itinerary.