Many on the island thought they were crazy. Who, particularly non-native European transplants, would ever build a luxury camp resort in the highlands of the Galapagos? Who would build a resort on a farm with no roads, no water, and no electricity, away from the beaches, far from the docks, and nowhere near tourists?
Some of my favorite resorts in the world were created by people considered either deranged or at best, outrageously optimistic. Michael and Stephanie Mesdag, the husband and wife duo behind Galapagos Safari Camp, certainly fit in this category, and thank goodness they do. The Galapagos Safari Camp, located on Santa Cruz Island, put the entire region on the map in terms of luxury accommodations and world-class service. I was fortunate to visit the camp on my first trip to the Galapagos Islands. Thanks to the spectacular experience created by the Mesdags and their team, it will not be last visit.
One of the camp's mottos is, "When was the last time you saw something for the first time?" This no doubt could be the mantra for the Galapagos Islands in general, as the wildlife is the world's most exotically bizarre and uncanny. It was indeed the first time I had ever seen neon blue-footed birds, orange-peel colored lizards the size of toddlers, and trees that were part cacti, part pine. From the deck of the stunning glass-accented lodge, one can now look over the entire Galapagos National Park.
Situated on the last farm before the National Park in the Santa Rosa region, the Galapagos Safari Camp offers elevated panoramic views from the arid landscape to the beaches, the Pacific Ocean, and the distant islands of Isabela, Santiago, Pinzon, and Rabida. To highlight the natural vistas, the Mesdags placed the resort on a hillside and designed the lodge in a half-crescent shape, allowing the dining room, spacious deck, and living room areas to wrap elegantly across the horizon overlooking their 110 acres of land.
I'm one for fantastic views, but I also appreciate thoughtful design, and the lodge itself is one to admire. I loved the open, wood fireplace, the concrete flooring featuring an indoor platform pool, and the seamless use of glass that blends the landscape with the camp in one dimension. As though the lodge wasn't enough, the Mesdags added a gorgeous year-round heated pool and sun deck with similar views down the hillside.
From the lodge, guests stroll to one of the nine luxury tents, modeled off of traditional African safari camps. The Mesdags long admired the use of exceptionally comfortable tents put directly in natural settings, and these tents remain the Galapagos' only to this day. My tent was impeccably appointed. My personal deck featured another stellar scene of the ocean which looked particularly grand from a hammock. Little luxuries such as the shower's water pressure and plush bedding were not compromised either. Such attention to detail makes enjoying nature, like the rain and distant thunder at sunset, an unmatched experience.
The Mesdags have a deep commitment to sustainability, and despite nearly insurmountable challenges in the Galapagos, their resort is a model for ecological practices throughout South America. As Michael emphasizes, "We totally lost our minds," so it just made sense to make the resort the only one in the Islands to function from collected rainwater. Solar power is about to be installed and the tents have minimal impact. Most impressively, the Galapagos Safari Camp leads a strategic non-native species eradication and reforestation project with Conservation International and the Botany Department at the Charles Darwin Foundation.
Beyond the natural wonders of their resort and the aesthetics of the accommodations, what sets the Galapagos Safari Camp from others in the region is its staff. The team, nearly all local villagers, has been trained personally by the Mesdags. In addition, a few of the managers, particularly a European transplant, Katherine, pay great attention to each guest’s requests and needs. From bug spray to taxi negotiations, Katherine is the kind of manager who enhances each guest's vacation. Back in the kitchen, a set of chefs—one from Quito and the other from Israel—work in tandem with native women to prepare international cuisine using local ingredients that exceeded my already high expectations.
Overall, the Galapagos region is a wondrous natural place, one that seems almost too absurd to exist. And the Galapagos Safari Camp is a great base to explore this smattering array of islands in a far corner of the world. Darwin must be smiling.