Km 18 via Puerto Ayora-Baltra, Santa Cruz Island, Galapagos, Ecuador
Geared to customers who want to spend some time on land rather than just on the water, Royal Palm is a luxurious hideaway in the cool and misty highlands of Santa Cruz Island, between the airport and the Darwin Research Center.
If you spend the usual five to eight days on a ship exploring the Galapagos Islands, you'll see a lot of parched surfaces, lava fields, and scraggly vegetation. Royal Palm Hotel offers a different view. Here the landscape is lush, it rains lightly for half the year, and giant tortoises munch their way across grassy fields nearby. The management here says the perfect mix would be four nights on a boat and then three nights here, trading a small ship's cabin for oversized rooms and villas for the second part.
The first impression here is an odd one, especially if you're expecting an island near the equator to be covered with coconut palms and rainforest plants. Banana and citrus trees are dotted around the property, but the vegetation is dominated by short endemic trees, ferns, and wild impatiens. The resort is part of a coalition trying to eradicate invasive species (like blackberries) and return the island to its natural balance.
The buildings are all hidden from the highway and after climbing a road from the entrance you see villas scattered around with plenty of space between them. At the top of the hill are a set of eight bungalow rooms (meant to accommodate the usual ship capacity of 16) and all the public area buildings. The villas cascade down the hill, giving all of them a view from their walls of glass.
You check in at the lobby after the hotel transfers you and your bags from the airport or the ship port, your luggage going ahead to your room. One of the bilingual staffers escorts you there and shows you around.
The villas, each named after a historic British sailor, are like cozy houses minus the kitchen. Plank hardwood floors run throughout and each of the four rooms is large. Living space is divided between a regular living room and a sunroom. The first has a fireplace, dining table, desk, and sofa. The sunroom has a full Jacuzzi for two—which you may feel guilty using on an island where rain supplies the only fresh water—and a white wicker sitting area. Windows run from the ceiling almost to the floor and the units are angled to allow views down to the ocean. Spacious baths have rain showers, separate WCs, and plenty of closet and drawer space. Bedrooms come with satellite TVs, DVD players, and stereos. All the expected amenities are in place, including minibars and complimentary wired Internet access.
The Presidential Suite and Royal Suite trade the sunroom for a large outdoor terrace with hot tub and the slightly larger Royal Suite has a sauna. The top choice is the Prince of Wales Suite, renamed after his majesty and family who stayed here while on vacation. It has two full bedrooms, a sauna, two separate entrances with a car drop-off point, a roof deck, and two baths. Each bedroom (one with king, one with two queens) has its own furnished terrace area with hot tub, separated from outside sight lines by latticework and shrubs.
The verandah rooms near the restaurant are priced the lowest, but at 839 square feet they're certainly not cramped. There is plenty of space to move around the king beds and the baths are almost as large as those in the villas, with a whirlpool tub, dressing area, and separate w/c.
An attractive swimming pool with cushioned metal lounge chairs is popular in the dry season, deserted the rest of the year. Two tennis courts are also not used much from October through March. A spa has a massage room, sauna, whirlpool, and so-so gym with aerobic and weight equipment. The conference center doubles as an art gallery with an artist in residence and a business center offers satellite Internet access and printing.
The restaurant is an attractive circular space with custom furniture made on the island and an open fireplace lit on cool nights. Indoor and outdoor tables are covered by a huge palapa that will soon give way to a more standard roof—thatch and heavy humidity are not working well together. The talented Canadian chef delights in personal touches and experimentation, serving up an impressive five–course digestion dinner on request. With imports to the islands seriously restricted (no lamb chops, duck, fresh raspberries, or imported beef for instance), the kitchen still manages to offer a wide variety of choices for each meal. Just don't ask for kosher food: there is none on the island. A well–stocked bar off to the side is a comfortable space with sofas.
The staff routinely sets up excursions catered to individual tastes and it would be possible to get a "Galapagos light" experience from here without ever sleeping on the water. You don't have access to places where red–footed boobies or waved albatross birds reside, but day trips can take you to beaches and rocky outcrops filled with sea lions, marine iguanas, and sea turtles. Giant tortoises are a few minutes away in the highlands. Adventure activities available include snorkeling, mountain biking, and kayaking. This arrangement is especially popular with families as they can split up and do different things rather than being herded in a group.
While this humid, sometimes rainy resort may not fit everyone's idea of the perfect Galapagos vacation, it's a nice alternative to rocking through the night in a ship cabin. Royal Palm is clearly the most luxurious hotel in the region and the surprisingly fluent staff is poised and confident.