For more photos, view our "Discovering the Galapagos" slideshow.

ABOARD LA PINTA, Galapagos Islands — Even in today's era of attribute-saturated cruise ships, there are destinations so special that vessels heading there need not go to too much trouble trying to impress guests with the extras.

Although the price tag to visit destinations such as Antarctica or the Galapagos can be quite high, an often rough-around-the-edges expedition ship has been an acceptable part of the experience.

Local and international regulations limit the size and types of ships that can operate in these environmentally sensitive areas, and the small-ship economics act to discourage adding high-end amenities that can't be easily monetized through high volumes of guests.

But, to paraphrase Charles Darwin, things change.

Just two years ago, La Pinta was a floating casino in South Florida waters. But after an extreme makeover, courtesy of its new owners, Ecuador-based Metropolitan Touring -- represented in the U.S. by its Adventure Associates ( division in Dallas -- it emerged as a 24-cabin yacht, and it is on a mission to bring a new level of luxury to the Galapagos.

Emphasis: space, service, food

When I first approached La Pinta on a motorized, inflatable panga, I began to have doubts it would live up to its billing as "the cushiest yacht in the archipelago."

The word "yacht" conjures images of sleek, floating playthings for the rich and famous, and in those terms, the closer I got to the 28-year-old vessel, the less yacht-like it looked. While shipshape, the recent refurbishment, which included putting large windows in every cabin, made it look a bit anachronistic, as if modern architectural touches had been slapped on a ship whose general profile reflects the decade in which it was built.

Isabella IslandBut inside, the use of space is extraordinarily well thought out. The large windows provide abundant natural light, the staterooms feel spacious and some have connecting doors to adjacent cabins. A family of four can settle quite comfortably into two rooms. The bathrooms are surprisingly accommodating, especially the shower stall. The closet space is generous ("generous" being an understatement when measured against standard cruise ship closets).

Other touches include individually controlled air-conditioning units and iPod connections (if you didn't bring your own, prepopulated iPods are lent to guests). Wireless connectivity was available for a fee, but only in the lounge, and it was skittish. Or, you can rent time on one of the (slightly less skittish) computers in the library.

The furnishings and staff uniforms are neither high-design nor classic, the palette neither bold nor muted. But although La Pinta treads the middle road of style -- no one will be offended, no one will be wowed -- neither does it fall short in quality or comfort.

The 24-person staff, including three naturalists, did have the capacity to wow. Service was very friendly and more than accommodating.

The voyage I was on overlapped with school breaks, and there were a half-dozen children onboard. The lounge staff volunteered to watch them (without charge), whether the parents were onboard or on an island excursion.

There's a resident medical officer and, equally reassuring, a chef in the kitchen who knows what he's doing. The food ranged from good to surprisingly good; primarily Continental fare, but with local Ecuadorean dishes frequently offered. When possible, food is acquired from local bakers and organic farmers who live on the islands that are settled.

Although pretrip literature stressed informality, the cosmopolitan group of guests (Germany, Mexico, Canada, Netherlands, the U.S.) all cleaned up for dinner.

The ship and the islands

The nine Galapagos islands we visited on our eight-day voyage were not only impressive, but each was completely different from the others in both terrain and fauna. Island calls were also timed so that only twice in eight days did we run into a group from another ship.

Each night onboard, a naturalist would give a preview of what we would be seeing the next day. The Galapagos, near or at the top of most travelers' bucket list, live up to their reputation, and then some.

La PintaAs Darwin first attested, they are unique, and no matter how widely traveled you might be and how many national parks in foreign lands you have visited, the Galapagos experience leaves you with a thrill on par with the first time you were deeply moved by art, music, literature or, for that matter, nature and travel.

While many of the animals are found nowhere else -- the spectacularly hideous marine iguanas; the sleek, flightless cormorants; and Darwin's famous finches, among others -- it is the unexpected combination of animal life and terrain that allows you to see nature anew.

The fact that most of the animals don't fear people enables photographers to get much more intimate with their subjects than is typically possible in nature reserves.

The waters of the Galapagos have abundant marine life, and La Pinta provides snorkeling gear and wetsuits. Almost all of us saw underwater life that's rare in other spots: Sharks, rays and morays were sighted, and sea lions, seals, turtles and even penguins shared the waters.

For those who prefer to stay dry while viewing what's beneath the waves, the yacht also carries a glass-bottom boat. Kayaking is an option on some of the islands.

Luxury is a relative term

Sea lionThe top-deck Jacuzzi was popular, but the gym, described in promotional literature as "handsomely outfitted," was the only real disappointment. A few weights, an elliptical trainer, a treadmill and a stationary bicycle were shoehorned into a room whose ceiling was so low that a 6-footer could walk, but not run, on the treadmill.

La Pinta is marketed as a luxury yacht, and luxury is, of course, a relative term. On one hand, La Pinta's luxury comes certified by the Ecuadorean government. But to get your clients' expectations in line, you should know its cabins are not on par with a typical room in a Four Seasons, and its kitchen poses no threat to Alain Ducasse.

Even so, its level of luxury feels a perfect match for the Galapagos. In the midst of such singular natural beauty, over-the-top excess would be a poor match. La Pinta's combination of physical comforts, warm service and fine-but-unfussy cuisine seems just right.


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