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Yachting’s final frontier
Tristan Rutherford
14th October 2020

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Yachting’s final frontier

To discover nature like Charles Darwin requires an explorer vessel and an empty map. Francesco Galli Zugaro has both. As the Italian recalls: “When I set up my Amazon adventure, the only visitors to the Pacaya Samiria National Reserve were backpackers on banana boats.” This upper reach of the Peruvian Amazon is a seasonally flooded forest that hides jaguars, river dolphins and red-faced spider monkeys. “I rented a speedboat, chef, photographer and guide, then sailed off. Ten days later a dream became a plan.”

In 2010 the plan was launched as Aria Amazon. This 45m private yacht was custom built as a low impact cruiser with a shallow draft of just 1.5m (5ft). Instead of the wraparound walkway common to riverboats, Galli Zugaro demanded that each of his 16 cabins have floor-to-ceiling windows to “bring the Amazon inside”. The concept is mirrored on the top deck. Here a vintage chic roof terrace overlooks the surging river.

“Our clients are clued-up customers in search of authentic experiences,” explains Zugaro. “They are used to staying in Aman Resorts or Four Seasons and can see through a fake smile or a contrived encounter.” Multigenerational travel is a growing market. Senior guests aboard Aria Amazon can bicycle through a Peruvian river village with their grandchildren. Or kayak to a bucolically remote ‘swimming pool’ for an Amazonian swim.

“However, on return from a day of exploration, our guests don’t want to sacrifice creature comforts like air conditioning or high pressure showers,” states Zugaro. For price transparency, he chose to counter the traditional charter market by making each cruise fully all-inclusive. Booking flexibility allowed for 3, 4 or 7 day charters. Guest to crew ratios of one to one were also deemed a must.

The uncharted Amazon proved a success. But where else could match luxury with chance-of-a-lifetime sights? “I explored every opportunity,” recalls Zugaro. “I travelled upriver on the Yangtze.” He also spent three weeks amid the wildlife on Lake Kariba in Zimbabwe. “Here I evaluated the possibility of a luxury houseboat that could travel to Bumi Hills,” where a dusty airstrip provides propeller plane access to Victoria Falls. None were exploratory or exotic enough for a high capacity expedition yacht.

Zugaro’s search led him to the Mekong River in Cambodia and Vietnam, which boasts a biodiversity only bettered by the Amazon. In 2014 the Italian launched Aqua Mekong. At 62m she comprises 20 suites styled by Noor, the design agency behind Raffles Le Royal in Phnom Penh. All boast the floor-to-ceiling windows popular on Zugaro’s first vessel. Plus an infinity pool. While Michelin-starred chef David Thompson presides over a menu of Indochine-Moderne. Other highlights of this six-star charter from Ho Chi Minh City include sunset temple visits and naturalist guides who can spotlight 20,000 floral species.

Zugaro' s next quest proved harder still. He wanted an expedition yacht capable of showcasing Indonesia’s culture and colour. “To commission a luxury explorer vessel with a 40 guest capacity you're looking at between 25 and 50 million dollars,” he explains. “So I put my feelers out to brokers like Camper & Nicholsons and said 'if any robust hull comes across your desk, let me know'.”

A chance viewing of the former HMS Beagle occurred in Genoa. “In 1968 she was commissioned into Britain’s Royal Navy as a scientific research ship,” says Zugaro. “Of course the original Beagle carried Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, which struck a chord as my yachting career also started there.” Like a true explorer, HMS Beagle sailed from Italy to her refit yard at Singapore without pause; a distance of 7,000 miles in 35 days. “To find a yacht like her is one in a million,” claims Zugaro. Especially among Indonesia’s 18,000 islands, where “no steel explorer yachts with stabilisers and 15 luxuriously large cabins exist”.

The refitted yacht, which relaunched in 2019 as Aqua Blu, strides through the Spice Islands, Komodo National Park and Raja Ampat like a thoroughbred. The latter is a subaquatic wonderland that records the greatest marine biodiversity on earth. Paddleboards, private speedboats and scuba equipment allow for daily exploration. Jacuzzis, massage rooms and a 360° sundeck promise relaxation on return.

“Like Aria Amazon and Aqua Mekong, we designed Aqua Blu to fit the vernacular of a unique destination,” says Zugaro. Indonesian sketches drawn by Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist and contemporary of Darwin, were custom-printed onto the yacht’s ceramics. From an auction house in New York, 16th-century Dutch lithographs featuring birds-of-paradise were purchased. “Aqua Blu’s Indonesia cruising areas are full of heritage, hammerheads and incredible history,” continues Zugaro. “For example, how many New Yorkers know that one of the Spice Islands was swapped for the Dutch settlement of Manhattan?”

Explorers rarely rest on their laurels. (Darwin' s five-year circumnavigation on the original Beagle was followed by a dozen bestsellers, including The Voyage of the Beagle and On the Origin of Species.) That’s why in late 2020 Galli Zugaro cracked the Champagne on Aqua Nera. His second Amazon exploration vessel features a rooftop cinema, a custom black pool table, a top deck gym and the habitual array of speedboat excursions, fine dining and wildlife guides. And after that? “You won’t get that answer from me,” laughs the Italian. Whether it be the Orinoco or the Irrawaddy, the Bismarck Archipelago or Micronesia, the world is Zugaro’s oyster.