Searching for something a little different for your next on-water getaway? Let experienced boaters and brokers help you plot your course off the beaten track.
Step aboard any charter boat and get in touch with your senses. Breathe in the fresh air of a new place, experience new weather patterns, meet people, and open your eyes to a new part of America – or of the world. Today, destinations, activities, and the boats themselves add limitless dimensions to the charter experience. For inspiration, meet a few enthusiastic boaters who kicked it up a notch on their charter vacations.
Skip the tourist traps
Taking a self-drive barge out for a week on Canada’s Rideau Canal, North America’s oldest continually operated waterway and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, was a straightforward decision for longtime boater Dion Dasilva. “Monohull sailors are always heeling,” he says. “If you want the comfort of a smooth ride, to set something down and not see it slide, and not worry about where the wind is coming from to get where you’re going, then a marine adventure where you’re not going anyplace in a hurry and can enjoy the journey is nice.”
Dion, a frequent bareboat and crewed charterer, whose repertoire includes multiple Caribbean and Mediterranean destinations, has straddled the entire 124-mile waterway in two trips from the Le Boat base in Smith Falls, Ontario, north to Ottawa, then south to Kingston. “It’s not stressful,” he says. “The experience is extremely user-friendly, and I’m at an age where I appreciate the stories of a historic site.”
Then there’s Yamia Benhaim, who grew up sailing with her dad in Mediterranean locales including Turkey, Croatia, and Cyprus. Now a busy mother of four – including twins! – Yamia and her husband, Asaf, took her father’s advice when they went in search of a water-based vacation.
“He said, ‘You have a family now. Go with a gulet,’” Asaf recalls. “I said, ‘What the heck is a gulet?’” Traditional wood sailboats with a classic look and custom build, gulets are a staple along coastal Turkish and Greek waters, among other Med locales. Spacious amenities for groups of 12 to 20, attentive and energetic crews, and price ranges running from basic to five-star make them a popular charter option.
“Family time is critical for us,” Yamia says. “This is flexible, private, safe, and feels very upscale. We’re seeing quaint places that aren’t tourist traps. There’s crew and you don’t have to really lift a finger. And the kids are at the age where they like to bring friends. It became a wonderful party on the boat.”
Family time is also important to Paddy Bruce, who’s spent much of her life afloat on sailboats she’s worked on as crew or restored. She’s also experienced with trawlers, and with her family cruised the Inside Passage along the Pacific Northwest coast up to Canada’s Discovery Islands. But her exploration of Alaska was brief, and while she was casting about for a way to spend time with her grandson, he told her, “Nana, I want to see the glaciers before they all melt.” That was enough for Paddy. In 2022 she booked a cabin with over/under bunks aboard the restored 1929 small ship David B, for a combination charter and photography workshop in Glacier Bay National Park.
“Teenagers can sometimes be hard to reach,” Paddy says, adding, “I don’t see him all the time and wanted him to do something rather than just hang out with me. What he said about the glaciers broke my heart. I’m in my early 70s and have seen the world. But he’s only 16.”
The hunt by Dasilva, Benhaim, and Bruce for a special charter experience is a time-honored obsession that has long gripped adventurous souls, only narrowed by their budgets and dreams. Let’s look at some out-of-the-ordinary charter options, including the holidays chosen by our friends above.
Self-drive barges close to home and afar
Great adventures close to home appeal to charterers wary of air travel or desirous of taking their grandkids and pets with them on vacation, a growing trend. Here are two great options:
Le Boat offers a fleet of 950 self-drive “barges” in a network of more than 37 different departure bases in rivers and canals across eight European countries. It also offers charters in Ontario’s historic Rideau Canal, a great option for North American boaters. Choose craft ranging in size from one to five cabins (sleeping up to 12 people) for periods from three to five days, or a seven- to 10-plus night vacation. All Le Boat rentals come with an equipped kitchen, fresh linens and bedding, private bathrooms with showers in each cabin, and a top sun deck. The boats are rugged with a built-in fender all the way around, making pulling over to the side of a canal to dock or stop for lunch easy and safe.
“We try to understand the customer,” says Lisa McLean, Le Boat marketing manager. “How old are you? Are there kids? Are you just looking to enjoy life on the boat, the canal locking systems? Do you like shopping? Or do you want more a remote canal experience? French culture? History? Wineries? British pubs? Cycling? We ask a lot of questions to make sure everyone gets what they want so no one is bored.
“There’s never been a better time for Americans to travel to Europe and Canada,” McLean continues, referring to the sustained strength of the U.S. dollar. Depending on boat size, destination, and travel dates, prices for a Le Boat vacation for two to four people on a seven-night holiday in 2023 and 2024 are reasonable, starting at $2,300. | leboat.com
Let a crew take you on a journey
Crewed charters aboard custom owner-operated barges in European destinations like France’s Canal du Midi and Ireland’s River Shannon is a focus of the Barge Lady Cruises brokerage. Agents of the company, which has been in business for nearly 40 years, arrange bespoke travel experiences that offer everything from cooking classes in castle settings to tasting tours at small batch distilleries, wineries, and olive oil factories. Golf, garden, and cycling outings; high tea; archeological digs; and historic site tours are offered from the intimate setting of a boat that often is an elegantly converted cargo vessel maintained to four-star-inn standards by a liveaboard crew.
“These boats travel at 4 mph,” says broker Stephanie Sack. “It’s about the onboard experience as much as the immersion into another culture, with spectacular meals prepared by your chef, sightseeing arranged by your crew, and lots of inside knowledge about the history of the towns you’re traveling through.” | bargeladycruises.com
Gulets & Phinisis: Traditional look, custom itineraries
While Turkey is the predominant location of the gulet fleet (pronounced “GOO-let”), it’s also possible to charter these traditional motorsailers in Mediterranean locales such as Greece, Croatia, and Montenegro. Popular for their spacious open areas and comfort, gulets are also appealing for their beauty.
“When you charter a gulet, you get the custom touch of the builder,” says Ahmet Guler of Gulet Escapes. “When you see photos, some can look similar. But when you step aboard, you see differences and the warmth of the wood. They’re all custom-made, and there’s a human touch and feel to each of them.”
Affordability is another key factor. Gulets are known as a platform for an affordable vacation that feels like luxury. Gulet Escapes can even provide a yoga aboard option suited to yogis and novices alike. A typical layout with six cabins accommodates 12 guests, which is the broadest category booked, cost-wise, according to Guler. Rates run from $10,000 to $25,000 a week for the whole boat, excluding food, drink, fuel, and other fees. | guletescapes.com
Bike and boat amazing Croatia
For those eager to combine boats and cycling ashore, Croatia Travel Company offers bike and gulet charters along the dazzling coast, historic towns, and islands of the Adriatic Sea for everyone from laid-back pedalers to the adrenaline-addicted. Among the fleet is the luxurious beauty Tajna Mora, a wood-constructed, two-masted gulet with nine cabins for 18 guests. Additional options, with guides, include sightseeing, gourmet dining, and self-guided bicycle tours. Rates, exclusive of fees and airfare, start at $2,000 per person for a group of 18 on a seven-night charter. | croatiatravelco.com
Indonesia with dragons?
If you’re up for traveling to Southeast Asia, gorgeous phinisis are the counterpart to gulets operating in Indonesia’s scenic islands. Charter itineraries in the unspoiled Flores Archipelago offered by broker Missy Johnston of Northrop-Johnson Yacht Charters include visits to the Komodo Islands for viewing wildlife such as the impressive reptile called the Komodo dragon, and villages where ikat, a fabric dyed with natural dyes and spun on handmade looms, is crafted by local artisans. Flights are into Bali, where you can schedule extra time ashore. The diving is first-rate. Rates start at $12,000 per person for seven nights. | njcharters.com
Explore Alaska on the vintage David B
Hands-on engagement is the signature product of the antique ship David B and its owner-operators, licensed captains Jeffrey and Christine Smith of Northwest Navigation Co. The vessel, a beautifully restored 1929 workboat that takes eight guests, conducts photography workshops, wildlife viewing, and learn-to-cruise charters in Southeast Alaska, the Canadian Inside Passage, and Washington’s San Juan islands. David B is one of only several boats admitted on a daily basis to cruise Glacier Bay National Park; the crew shares reporting on environmental, educational, and conservation efforts with park staff. Charter lengths are three, seven, and 12 days from April through October with onboard gourmet dining. Per-person rates start at $2,900 for three days to $10,800 for 12. The boat’s homeport is Squalicum Harbor in Bellingham, Washington. | northwestnavigation.com
Turn up the heat
Trade in the foulies for flip-flops and a guided expedition cruise deep into the Brazilian portion of the mighty Amazon River and rainforest aboard the 82-foot M/Y Tucano. The “beautiful and bizarre” nature of the wilderness drew Rhode Island sailor and boatbuilder Mark Baker there decades ago, and he never left. Baker’s Amazon Nature Tours attract individuals, couples, and families fascinated by everything the UNESCO World Heritage site offers. Per-person rates for four nights start at $2,000; six nights at $3,450. Depart and return to the city of Manaus, Brazil. (Look for a first-person account of this expedition in an upcoming issue!) | naturetours.com
Retrace Darwin’s steps in luxury
For some boaters, cruising the Pacific Ocean islands that inspired Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution and natural selection is the ultimate bucket list trip. Spend your days exploring the pro and bird species, 100-year-old tortoises, blue-footed boobies, and more – all unafraid of visitors. Among providers to the Galápagos archipelago are two that also make luxury a priority for groups limited to 16 guests.
Aqua Expeditions recently refit the 150-foot M/Y Aqua Mare, which features seven spacious suites and 16 crew, including two naturalist guides. Onboard niceties include a jacuzzi, panoramic dining area, lounges, sun decks, and a library. Charters in seven and 14-day terms are available year-round. Per-person rates for a seven-night charter based on double occupancy start at $10,000. | aquaexpeditions.com
Quasar Expeditions, operator of small ships, represents the restored 1928 yacht that was a wedding present from Aristotle Onassis to actress Grace Kelly and Prince Rainier of Monaco. Aboard Grace, up to 16 guests can follow three itineraries through part or all of the Galápagos on eight- or 15-day charters year-round. The 147-foot vessel offers expanded deck space, stabilizers for smooth cruising, naturalist guides, and itineraries suited to wildlife encounters. Per-person rates start at $8,500 for eight days; $16,150 for 15. | quasarex.com
Don’t forget to relax!
FX Yachting (Fyly Yachting Exclusive), which manages one of the largest global fleets of crewed catamarans, has attracted a following with its Wellness On Board charters. The trips through exquisite islands with white-washed village houses and tavernas along the coast and islands of Greece incorporate yoga and Pilates classes, meditation, and healthy fare with sailing and visiting historic sites. Other activities presented by onboard instructors include massage, art workshops, water immersion and play, nature hikes, breathing technique practice, beach dance, and exploration of local culinary dishes. Per-person (group of 10) peak season (July and August) rate for a seven-night charter aboard one of the company’s Lagoon 52s starts at $3,800 U.S.; per-person rate for a group of eight is from $4,770 U.S. | fyly.gr
Finding a vacation navigator
To decide where to go and which kind of boat and experience is right for you, it’s valuable to have someone help you navigate the options of destination and budget, especially when cost considerations prevail.
Consulting a reputable broker is a good way to conduct and fine tune your search. Here are some of the best.
“It’s very important for us to find out what the person’s vision is,” says broker Christopher Patrick, founder of CKIM Group (ckimgroup.com). “Why do you want to do this trip? Where do you want to go? Who with? Is it a bucket-list trip? Is it a milestone event? Are the kids going off to college and you want a last vacation as a family?” And if the client says they want to go off the beaten path, it’s the start of the next conversation.
“We want to know what they mean,” Patrick says. “‘Off the beaten path’ doesn’t necessarily mean going to the Seychelles. It’s client-specific as the conversation unravels. I’d love to send people to the Galápagos and French Polynesia every week because they’re stunning. But not everyone wants that. ‘Luxury’ means different things to different people.”
Global Yacht Concierge (globalyachtconcierge.com ) founder and broker Susan Gearan has, for decades, found top-notch charters for individuals, families, and groups looking for the ultimate custom onboard experience. Gearan, a longtime sailor and far-ranging traveler, understands budgets and desires large and small as well as every manner of personal preference. She’s taken charters aboard gulets in Croatia and Turkey and wellness charters in Greece, among others.
Jennifer Saia of Denison Yachting (denisonyachtsales.com/2021/07/jennifer-saia-charter-specialist) is renowned in the charter yacht industry for the once-in-a-lifetime trips she orchestrates for repeat clients. Like Gearan, Saia spends as much time on the water as possible, scoping out fleets and examining them down to the most minute detail on behalf of her customers.
Then there are high-end operators such as Eyos Expeditions (eyos-expeditions.com), which serves a clientele who can spend $200,000 and up on charters to the farthest reaches of the planet. “We’re only limited by our clients’ imaginations,” says founder Rob McCallum. “If you want to see a polar bear stalking a walrus, or the Baining clan of Papua New Guinea dancing in open flames, we can get you there.” — E.L.