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The GalÃ¡pagos Islands, a 121-island archipelago 600 miles west of Ecuador, certainly deserve their rep as the Everest of eco-travel. Combine the islands' bizarre geology, the fearless creatures that inspired Darwin's theory of evolution, and the wonders below the waterlineÂ—manta rays, dolphins, orcas, and 35-foot whale sharksÂ—and it's no surprise that more than 90,000 tourists visited the GalÃ¡pagos in 2003, an increase of 31 percent from 2000.
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"I think we're reaching a tourism tipping point," says Martin Slater, owner of tour company Guide2GalÃ¡pagos, which offers yacht and diving tours. "Last summer we had to turn people away for the first time in my nine years of selling cruises."
But sometimes less is moreÂ—especially in the case of a fragile environment like the GalÃ¡pagos. In order to keep the islands pristine, GalÃ¡pagos National Park maintains strict environmental guidelines and closely supervises all tourists, allowing them on only a small fraction of the islands. Regulations duly noted, here are the coolest, most sensitive ways to tour the Enchanted Isles:
DIVE TOURS Â»
Hardcore divers have long known that one of the best ways to see this UNESCO World Heritage Site is underwater. The diving isn't for beginners, but if you can handle the cold currents and the schools of hammerheads, you'll find the animals beneath as approachable as those on the surface. Live-aboards like the cozy 12-passenger, 74-foot Mistral offer tanks, compressors, and three to four dives per day. Make sure your tour hits the legendary scuba spots of Wolf and Darwin islands, about 135 miles northwest of the main group, where whale sharks congregate from June to November.
SMALL BOATS Â»
Sailing yachts combine the romance of creaking masts and snapping canvas with the intimacy of a smaller group. Twelve passengers can dine al fresco on the aft deck of the Nemo I, a state-of-the-art, nine-year-old, 82-foot catamaran with a crew of six. Thanks to her 32-foot width, there's plenty of space for lounging and whale spotting on deck, when you're not snoozing below in one of six double cabins. Go even more intimate in a sea kayak: Outdoor Adventure River Specialists' (OARS) catamaran-based sea-kayaking and hiking trip offer the luxury of sailboat living and the flexibility of a kayak.
LUXURY CRUISE SHIPS Â»
If your tastes run to crisp linens and mimosas in the morning, reserve a berth on the four-year-old, 292-foot luxury liner Celebrity Xpedition. Between eyeballing land iguanas and snorkeling with sea lions, enjoy fine dining, top-notch guides, and a full-service spa and salon. Or take the spa concept a step further on Lindblad Expeditions' 80-passenger M.S. Polaris, where massages are administered from a floating, glass-bottomed pontoon strategically placed in a secluded cove. Onboard, take advantage of the research library and expert naturalists.
LAND-BASED ADVENTURE Â»
Then again, if the thought of sleeping on any boat makes your stomach do flip-flops, opt for a land-based tour on Santa Cruz Island (pop. 12,000), the metropolis of the GalÃ¡pagos. Just outside Puerto Ayora, the recently remodeled Finch Bay EcoHotel is the plushest option, with a secluded beach for sunbathing, sea kayaking, and snorkeling, plus 21 rooms with soft beds. Trails for hiking, mountain biking, and horseback riding lead up into the misty highlands, where you can explore lava tubes and watch armchair-size giant tortoises. Day trips by boat to nearby islands like Santa Fe and North Seymour are de rigueur.
Access & Resources
Quasar Nautica (011-593-2-244-6996, www.quasarnautica.com) runs dive trips on the Mistral starting at $2,420 per person for eight days. Day dives with Scuba Iguana (011-593-5-252-6497, www.scubaiguana.com) cost $63Â–$115 per person.
Book passage on the Nemo I with Latin Tour (011-593-2-2508-810, www.galapagosinformation.com) for five to eight days, running $1,100Â–$1,700 per person. OARS's (800-346-6277, www.oars.com) eight-day journey starts at $3,550 per person.
Eleven-day tours with Celebrity Cruises (800-722-5941, www.celebrity.com) start at $2,200 per person. Lindblad Expeditions' (800-397-3348, www.expeditions.com) ten-day cruise starts at $3,480 per person.
Doubles at Metropolitan Touring's Finch Bay EcoHotel (011-593-2-298-8200, ext. 2810, www.ecuadorable.com) start at $220.