Surely vying for top spot on any self-respecting adventurers' or naturalists' bucket list is a visit to the Galápagos Islands. Consisting of 13 main islands, three smaller islands, and dozens of islets straddling the equator some 525 miles west of mainland Ecuador deep into the Pacific, the volcanic archipelago is one of the world's more remote and greatest natural wonders (and of course served as the catalyst for Charles Darwin's revolutionary book on evolution, The Origin of Species). It's also one of the world's most protected: 97.5 percent of the Galápagos archipelago's land area is designated an Ecuadorian National Park, and 27,000 square miles of the surrounding ocean is a protected marine reserve – one of the largest in the world. As such, the ideal way to explore, experience, and enjoy the Galápagos is on a boat.
The best boat we've found belongs to Eduardo and Delores Diaz, who operate Quasar Expeditions. Veteran explorers of the Galápagos since the 1970s, Delores, Eduardo, and their Quasar boat have set the standard for small group trips in the Galápagos. The company's flagship, a 150-foot luxury yacht named M/Y Grace, has berths for just 18 people spread throughout nine spacious staterooms. The seven-night itineraries merge two land-based expeditions every day with snorkeling and sea kayaking opportunities all led by the most qualified and knowledgeable naturalist guides working in the archipelago. Due to the small size of the groups on M/Y Grace, guests are allowed to visit the most sensitive locations and sites on the islands, many of which are off-limits for bigger groups, like the Tower of Genovesa – a veritable Garden of Eden for avian and sea life formed by a collapsed volcanic crater.
During your visit, you can expect to encounter enough endemic species to fill a biology textbook: think Blue-footed Booby, Waved Albatross, Galápagos Tortoise, and Galápagos Land Iguana, along with large populations of sea lions, penguins, hammerhead sharks, and manta rays. And because human encounters among these species are so rare, the animals often lack a certain amount of fear, which makes interacting with and observing these unique and beautiful species a truly exceptional experience. Whether you're scuba diving, snorkeling, or walking along the beaches and rocky coastline – or all of the above, we hope – the Galápagos Islands' magic and mystery are second to none. [From $5,800 for 7 days 8 nights, including domestic flights and most food, beverages, and equipment; galapagosexpeditions.com]