On a tiny island some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, 6-year-old Jamie Koplow of Wilmette, Ill., paused on a boulder path, his mouth open in a perfect “o” as he spotted a large black and red marine iguana.
Mom Amy Koplow gently held her son’s shoulders to keep him from getting too close. The iguana moved its head to the side to look the humans in the eye, as fearless animals do in the Galapagos Islands.
Later, Jamie included the iguana on his list of animals seen on a weeklong soft-adventure cruise on Lindblad Expeditions’ 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavour.
But his favorites were feathered — the red-footed boobies. “You know, there are actually three species of boobies in the Galapagos, red-footed, blue-footed and Nazca,” he recounted.
Jamie came to the Galapagos together with his grandfather, parents, younger sisters, aunt and grown cousin, plus a nanny. And he’s hardly the only youngster to make the trek to the species-rich place, little changed in 5 million years.
Call it a trend of grownups splurging to take kids into the wild on small ships.
A decade ago nearly all of the line’s passengers were seniors, said Sven Lindblad, founder of Lindblad Expeditions. But last year on the 10 small ships the company operates around the world, only 40 percent of passengers were 65-plus, and 7 percent were under age 18.
The Galapagos are the line’s most popular family destination, and Lindblad operates two ships in the islands year-round (in addition to Endeavour, there’s the 48-passenger National Geographic Islander).
A partnership between the cruise line and National Geographic — which includes special training for naturalists — is a key selling point. But so is access to wildlife.
Lindblad has been bringing his own kids to the Galapagos for years. He said his 15-year-old daughter has been at least seven times.
Like other parents, he sees the Galapagos as a place to get the kids away from technology and connected with nature.
But the remote islands aren’t the only place where small ship cruises are attracting families.
Luxury operator Abercrombie & Kent has been marketing its holiday sailings on the French-flagged Le Boreal in Antarctica to families. Last year 30 kids were among the 200 passengers onboard (at fares from $15,296 for adults and 50 percent off for kids 7-18).
InnerSea Discoveries, which debuted last year in Alaska, has a “Kids in Nature” program on select departures of its 60-passenger Wilderness Adventurer this summer. On rivers, operator Tauck is marketing new French itineraries for families, following success with its family-friendly Blue Danube River, which includes such activities as white-water rafting.
In creating and marketing family product, the small ship lines are focusing on programming and amenities geared towards children and teens, special itineraries during school holiday periods and discount fares for kids.
But there’s also a build-it-and-they-will-come factor. Newer and recently renovated small ships have more interconnecting cabins and suites, favored by the family crowd.
Family and multigenerational cruisers are responding.
Even in a turbulent economy, parents and grandparents are sparing no expense for these trips. Lindblad’s Galapagos cruises are priced from $4,990 per person. Passengers who book them typically have household incomes of more than $150,000, according to the line. They can afford to take the kids to the world’s best natural zoo.
Jamie’s cruise was courtesy of his grandfather, David Eades, a scientist from Champaign, Ill., who said he saw it as both an educational opportunity and chance for family bonding.
“I picked a vacation I wanted and invited those who wanted to come along,” Eades said. He also offered to pay for everyone.
Daughter Amy Koplow said she and husband Larry hesitated before signing on. Jamie is their oldest — they also came onboard Endeavour with 3-year Emily and 10-month-old Lexi (the baby one of the youngest passengers ever to cruise with Lindblad).
“I really wanted to go, but didn’t know if it was possible with the kids,” Koplow said, adding she talked with her husband about the idea for two months. “I knew Jamie would know and remember the experience. We finally said, ‘Let’s just do it and bring a nanny.’ ”
One of her sisters chickened out, Koplow added, too nervous to bring her 7-year-old and 2-year-old on a ship.
But the cruise proved easier than Koplow had imagined.
For one, Lindblad has an experienced team of Ecuadorian naturalists on the Endeavour, one guide for every 15 passengers. While one naturalist is specially trained in tending to kids’ needs, several happily bent down to answer Jamie’s questions and gave his little sisters special attention.
The fact that the Endeavour serves up a friendly, casual environment also made the ship particularly conducive to family travel. Passengers drop off their snorkel gear on the top deck and walk barefoot back to their cabins. All cabins (the family booked four) have views from either portholes or windows and hotel-like twin beds, and two larger cabins sleep three.
Public rooms are limited, the hub of the ship a big, living room-like windowed lounge that leads to a sun deck. Koplow tried to keep the kids in one corner but said she was impressed by how many people came over to play, read the kids a book, show off their photos on a computer screen, tell stories or just chat.Lectures — the main form of onboard entertainment onboard — and daily recaps take place in the lounge, passengers and crew sharing their experiences at cocktail hour. Large video screens allow the naturalists to show off the ship’s high-tech tools including underwater microscopes and cameras (a wow for kids and parents alike).
While the Endeavour’s dining room is open seating, the family was able to reserve a large table so they could have meals together. Several of the meals were buffets, but even on set-menu nights the Ecuadorian chefs willingly catered to the kids’ tastes — if they didn’t want suckling pig they could have pizza.
All Lindblad departures have special activities when kids are onboard including arts and crafts projects, stargazing, photography lessons by the resident National Geographic-trained photographer, bridge visits with the captain and movie nights.
But most days in the Galapagos are spent on unpopulated islands exploring the natural surroundings — volcanic rocks, hidden lagoons, white-sand beaches — with opportunities to schmooze with land critters, sea creatures and a wide variety of birds and, at least for adults, contemplate evolution in a wild setting.
The Galapagos National Park restricts how many people can visit each island, and ship itineraries vary week by week. But a common call is Puerto Ayora for The Charles Darwin Research Station and its successful Galapagos-tortoise breeding program — including a chance to meet Lonesome George, the last surviving Pinta Island tortoise. He’s as big as a small coffee table.
Kids and adults who can swim can take advantage of amazing daily snorkeling opportunities — with wetsuits and snorkel gear provided onboard. In the water you’re likely to mingle with colorful schools of fish, sea lions, penguins and even sharks. For those who don’t swim, the Endeavour’s glass-bottom boat serves up underwater views.
Passengers also have opportunity to head ashore at least once a day on Zodiacs, which make both wet (up to your shins) and dry landings. Escorted hikes vary from easy to slightly challenging. Guests have the option of just playing on the beach — nearly always with sea lions and up to a dozen different species in view.
One day, a huge thrill for Jamie was a lesson in Zodiac driving. With his dad looking on, he even got a chance at the helm. He said it was his very favorite activity.
Jamie’s 3-year-old sister, Emily, said her favorite activity was swimming in the ship’s small pool, though she also liked seeing baby sea lions.
The kids were provided with journals and, like the grownups, were able to check off a lot of animal sightings.
Boobies, check. Sally Lightfoot crabs, check. Sea lions and fur seals, check. Land and sea tortoises, check. Marine and sea iguanas, check. Penguins, check.
Going over the heads of the kids were the intent of various animal behaviors on display — a frigate puffing his red throat pouch to show he is ready to mate; a blue-footed booby doing a little dance to indicate the same.
An onboard videographer captured many of the animal sightings, a souvenir video available for purchase at the end of the cruise. For families, it’s an easy way to remember what you saw.
Without human population, the islands tended to blur together. But the kids didn’t care.|
Despite occasional tears around naptime, “I was surprised how well they all did,” Koplow said. “I’m surprised how much Jamie learned and surprised how well they all adapted to the schedule.”
Meanwhile, Grandfather Eades is planning the next cruise.
“I’m thinking maybe Costa Rica and Panama,” he said.