Francesco Galli Zugaro learned about the profound effect that a protected, ecologically diverse destination can have on people when he spent six years running a company called Ocean Adventures in the Galapagos Islands. The wildlife, the scenery, the lack of development—all of it made him want to see more of the most untouched parts of the world.
About a decade ago, he launched Aqua Expeditions, a company dedicated to showing people those kinds of destinations aboard luxury riverboats. He began with Aqua Amazon in South America and then added Aqua Mekong in China, creating a following of by-the-stateroom customers, along with by-the-boat clients, who had a similar penchant for exploring remote locales in comfort.
Now, Zugaro is adding a superyacht to his charter fleet. In fall 2018, he bought Aqua Blu, a 198-foot Brooke Marine previously known in the Mediterranean market as Titan. She is finishing a refit and scheduled to reposition around the time you read this, so she can become the first Western-style superyacht to base year-round for charter in the remote parts of Indonesia.
“If I’m not working, I’m scouting the world for new destinations,” he says. “My clients have done Galapagos. They’ve done Antarctica. They want to go somewhere new.”
His plan is to offer four itineraries aboard Aqua Blu, with about 12 weeks a year kept open for full-yacht bookings of all 15 staterooms at once. Starting this October and November, the yacht will position for two months each year in the Spice Islands. From December through February, she will charter in Raja Ampat before moving to Bali and the area of Komodo National Park from April through September. After that, Aqua Blu will start the route over again in the Spice Islands—for as many years, Zugaro says, as clients want to visit.
Itineraries in those three destinations will be seven nights apiece, with a fourth, 12-night, shoulder-season option that includes highlights of each.
The spot among them that has most captured Zugaro’s imagination is Ambon, an island in the Spice Islands archipelago that few, if any, crewed charter yachts visit.
“I went there, and I was blown away,” he says. “There were Dutch cannons on the side of the road from the 1700s. It says Dutch East India Company on the walls. And this is also some of the best hammerhead diving in the world.”
That combination of regional history, natural beauty and wildlife—combined with the comforts of a superyacht—is the mix that he’s after, and for which he wants Aqua Expeditions to be known. He also wants to make it predictable, in terms of cost, to charter in such remote places. That’s why Aqua Blu’s weekly rate of $258,000 for 30 guests is inclusive of the yacht’s fuel, as well as food, wine, beer and scuba diving—all things that can be billed as extras aboard charter yachts in the Mediterranean and Caribbean.
And while spa services and crew gratuity are extras, he is able to offer the nearly all-inclusive deal, he says, because he had to price out the costs for things that most guests want anyway, for the weeks that Aqua Blu will take by-the-stateroom bookings.
“But we can get whatever people want,” he says. “If they want U.S.-bottled Coke, they can have it. We’ve done that request. We are in business for the clients, not ‘I’ll charter it when I’m not using it.’”
Zugaro is also trying to ensure that Aqua Blu becomes known as a yacht that is showing off the region while helping to protect it, as well as its indigenous people. He is hiring local rangers to come aboard and take guests into the parks, so the rangers won’t feel like they’re promoting a foreign yacht in their communities. The yacht’s full-time paramedic will go ashore and help local children with medical needs. And Zugaro has organized donation kits that charter guests can purchase, if they choose, to give to the locals. The kits are packed with things such as soap, books, salt and fishing weights.
“That way, we are removing all the plastic and packaging, and we’re giving them things they actually need—books they can actually read,” Zugaro says.
And, given the experience he has had with other Aqua Expeditions vessels, he is limiting the number of charter guests to five per naturalist guide. He plans to hire local guides for those jobs, to help educate clients not only about the flora and fauna they are seeing, but also about the culture of their homeland. Local support will also be brought in for scuba trips, should more than eight guests at a time want to go diving, and researchers studying things like black coral will be welcomed aboard to work while mingling with the crew and guests, offering yet another layer of expertise.
All of that learning should spark some interesting conversations when guests are relaxing in the refurbished interior by Dutch designer Cor D. Rover. Breakfast and lunch will be served in the fo’c’sle, while dinner will be on the main deck at a table that seats 22. Among the items meant to spur conversation are hand-painted, gold-leaf plates that Zugaro had made for the yacht, based on original nature sketches by British explorer Alfred Russel Wallace.
Wallace was a contemporary of Charles Darwin, and both men worked on their own theories of evolution. Darwin did his research in the Galapagos Islands, while Wallace included travels in Indonesia.
Which is a fitting tie-in, Zugaro says, to his own path that led him from the Galapagos to here with Aqua Blu.
“This is the Galapagos of Southeast Asia,” he says. “Diving, snorkeling—everything.”