National Geographic Islander
The 48-passenger National Geographic Islander is exactly what you would expect to come from the decade-long partnership between Lindblad Expeditions, whose founder, Lars-Eric Lindblad, is widely regarded to have been the father of eco-tourism. National Geographic is world-renowned for its stewardship of nature, and Islander doesn't disappoint: The ship is equipped with Zodiacs, kayaks, snorkeling equipment, and a staff that not only includes naturalists but also an underwater videographer, wellness coordinator, and visiting lecturers such as a professional wildlife and scientific text illustrator.
The ship is the smaller of the two Lindblad-National Geographic vessels to sail in the Galápagos, and has been sailing there year-round since 2004. That small size means that it occupies a sweet spot among those cruising the Galápagos. While larger ships must anchor farther away from islands, and smaller yachts must accommodate the schedule of larger ships so as not to bring too many people aboard each island at once, this ship is small enough to dock close to the islands without having to modify the schedule for other vessels. Overall, it feels like a private yacht taking a scenic expedition. That's because it actually started out as a private yacht, built for the Caribbean.
What We Love
Intimate Size, Retro Feel: This catamaran-style yacht was built in 1995 and refurbished in 2004, but feels older — in a good way. All mahogany and gleaming brass inside, with hammocks dangling from the third-floor deck and not a television in sight, the Islander hearkens back to a time when going off the grid was not something people had to plan to do. It takes almost no time to acclimate to days spent learning about the importance of the islands and their history of exploration.
Impressive Education Program: Groups cannot enter the national park of the Galápagos without a certified naturalist guide, and the ship has a team of experienced naturalists to accompany each voyage. Daily outings are split into small groups that will fit on each Zodiac (usually about eight passengers per outing), and naturalists provide expert commentary and instruction along the way. Each guide must certify in areas such as geology and volcanology, group assistance, professional ethics, ecology and conservation, and wildlife of the Galápagos National Park. On a recent voyage, one of the naturalists was also an experienced wildlife photographer, and conducted several special tours to instruct amateur photographers on getting the best picture.
Up-Close Wildlife: With no human predators, the wildlife is what one naturalist called “ecologically naïve,” which means you’ll meander through flocks of rare birds who take little notice of your presence. Colonies of sunning sea lions, including lots of babies, are equally lackadaisical. On board you’ll likely see whales and dolphins swimming close by.
Adult-Camp Vibe: Nostalgic for the summers when you joined a bunch of enthusiastic campers for a week of adventuring and singing "Kumbaya"? You'll get a feel for that here. Since meals are at communal tables and daily expedition groups are basically organized by order of departure, passengers get to know everyone on their voyage. Most are enthusiastic adventurers determined to take full advantage of what is, for many, the trip of a lifetime.
Local Cuisine: The mostly Ecuadorian kitchen staff whips up fabulous lunchtime buffets of healthy local produce and specialties such as ceviche and fish cooked in coconut milk. We also had a whole suckling pig at one meal and a festive traditional barbecue on the last day of our cruise. Thoughtful touches include hot chocolate and cookies to greet snorkelers and kayakers after excursions, a full bar with a daily cocktail special, passed appetizers during cocktail hour recap time, and a rotating selection of goodies in the lounge at all times. Breakfast and lunch buffets are so plentiful and colorful that the somewhat institutional dinner, with three courses including an entrée you must choose earlier in the day, can be anticlimactic.
Best Known For
Familial Atmosphere: Friendly naturalists who are almost perpetually accessible and an open-bridge policy means passengers feel like they’re on their own ship. The service is also spot-on, with attentive bartenders who remember your cocktail and chefs who take particular note of food sensitivities, from gluten-free to vegan and dairy-free, without asking twice.
Yacht-Like Feel: Most of the action happens on the main deck with the dining room and reception, plus the bridge deck with the lounge, well-stocked library, computers, and small but well-outfitted fitness center. But two decks — one with hammocks on the upper deck and a partially covered sun deck above — are less trafficked and offer privacy for those who would like some alone time.
Flexibility Among Islands: The small size of this ship allows it to travel to some smaller ports that other ships can’t access. In fact, a delayed departure from Baltra on the last day allowed for a “bonus” visit to Santa Cruz Island's Bachas Beach, a former World War II encampment on which iron barges (called “bachas” by locals) were abandoned and whose remnants are still visible on the sand.
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Who It's Best For
Couples or Friends Looking for a Group Experience: Because of its small size and the fact that all dining is communal, the anonymity of a large ship isn’t an option here. While the trip is great for extended families looking to do a milestone trip as a group, part of the point of an expedition ship this small is getting to know fellow passengers. Mixing and mingling is expected.
Active Travelers: Passengers should be mobile enough to get into a Zodiac with assistance, and many of the shore excursions revolve around hiking, snorkeling, and kayaking. There’s surprisingly little free time (though passengers may opt out of any activity). Although it’s possible to take a trip like this with kids, they’ll likely have no one to socialize with and there is no organized kids club with drop-off. If they aren’t able to do all of the above activities, parents will end up spending a lot of time on board with stir-crazy little ones.
Don't Say We Didn't Warn You
Seasickness Sufferers Beware: National Geographic Islander's catamaran build means that it is more stable than similar-sized ships, but you will feel movement. Those who are susceptible to seasickness might find themselves in an expensive world of hurt if they aren't prepared, though the onboard physician is on call to assist. Take our advice: Although the prime rooms are the 400 category, passengers on lower decks won’t feel as much movement.
Remember, You’re on the Equator: Temperatures in this part of Ecuador, which literally translates to “Republic of the Equator,” vary only slightly year-round from 70 to 85 degrees Fahrenheit. Sunburn is a major consideration. Most guides wear a Buff bandana to cover their entire face and neck while on excursions. Meanwhile the waters of the Galápagos aren’t that warm and hover around 73 degrees. If you are an "80/80/80" diver (meaning no more than 80 feet, no colder than 80 degrees, no more than 80 minutes), you’ll want to bring skins or a wetsuit, though shorties are provided.
Again, It’s a Small Ship: Couples and travelers who don’t mind very close proximity and lots of social time will love sailing on a small ship. It's hard to escape your fellow passengers, even in your cabin. The staterooms range from 124 to 199 square feet and the thin walls don’t mask fighting (or other loud, ahem, activity) going on next door.
You'll Feel Very Unplugged: For those who are concerned, there is a bank of three computers, and Wi-Fi access is available, though spotty.
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National Geographic Islander at a Glance
- Line: Lindblad Expeditions
- Number of Passengers: 48
- Ship Size: Small
- Launch Date: 1995
- Refurbish Date: 2004