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Ask the luxury cruise expert: Francesco Galli Zugaro, founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions

By Ina Yulo Stuve  |  June 2, 2020

If your idea of a cruise involves a jam-packed itinerary, rushed stops at cities full of tourists, and an overall impersonal service, then you clearly have not been on an Aqua Expeditions cruise. Francesco Galli Zugaro is the founder and CEO of Aqua Expeditions, the luxury cruise company for a clientele that he describes as “affluent explorers”.

“River and ocean cruising has been commoditised for a long time, and our small ship expeditions are the total opposite. Personal, small, adventurous and remote – the core of our experiences are the small group shore excursions,” explains Zugaro.

Whilst the initial idea of keeping groups small was to be able to accommodate a personalised, engaging, and unique experience, this strategy has also helped the team adapt to recent concerns around social distancing amongst passengers and crew members. Additional measures have also been put in place to ensure regular sanitation and cleaning of all surfaces, equipment, and interiors.

Aqua Expeditions stands out with its choice of remote and far-flung destinations

Zugaro says: “We also have paramedics on-board and their roles are evolving to now be health and safety officers for both crew and guests. There are many schools of thought on this front and lots on the table with regards to increased measures being implemented. The most important thing is to find the right balance between getting a conscious comeback of our travellers where they feel safe on-board and on shore, but not hindering the experience they are wanting to have.”

In addition to the smaller group sizes, Aqua Expeditions stands out with its choice of destinations: the rivers of Mekong and the Amazon as well as far-flung islands in Indonesia. “Our small ships only visit and navigate into remote destinations, far removed from crowded areas and attractions, with a focus on nature and wildlife regions with little to no outside human interaction,” says Zugaro.

Luxury travel writer Ina Yulo Stuve speaks with Zugaro about the unforgettable expeditions he creates for his guests and his views on different cities around the world.

Alfresco breakfast on the 15-cabin explorer yacht Aqua Blu

What is your favourite thing about living in Singapore? 

The safety, efficiency, and ease of day-to-day life. It’s also provided us with the opportunity to raise our three children in South East Asia, which has opened their minds and hearts to a set of amazing cultures.

How did you choose the destinations for your itineraries? 

I personally research, scout, and vet each location and guest excursion. I look for that authentic “WOW” moment that really speaks to me. The Amazon, the Mekong, and Komodo National Park are all iconic destinations that were not being serviced properly for our travellers. Our guest group size also permits us to enter a place with only 10 guests and keep the experience authentic and unique.

What is the one place you have on your itineraries that has positively surprised your guests, and why is that? 

Our most recent expedition on our 15-cabin explorer yacht Aqua Blu took us to a blue river I had only heard of and none of my crew had ever been to. It was out of a movie – a freshwater, blue river dip after seeing Red and Wilson’s birds-of-paradise in West Papua. Truly a memorable experience. Check out my Instagram to believe it.

Aqua Mekong showcases modern architecture and interiors by renowned architect Noor Design

How important is the element of design in your fleets? 

I wanted to be bold and create transformative experiences, and for this I need to rethink the small ship expedition sector and innovate with interiors, design, dining, and the on-board experience. For every cruiser, we use a renowned interior designer like Jordie Puig, Noor Design, and Cor de Rover…I let the interior drive the design, rather than the hull and superstructure dictate the space and interiors.

For example, in October of this year, we are due to unveil the highly anticipated Aqua Nera, setting a new standard for luxury river cruising on the Peruvian Amazon. The sleek silhouette and nature-inspired design of this newly-built luxury boat was masterminded by Noor Design, the renowned studio behind the Aqua Mekong vessel. Aqua Nera’s effortless elegant interiors take inspiration from the black water lagoons and tributaries of the Amazon River and the Pacaya-Samiria National Reserve.

The design incorporates intricate accents from the Amazon rubber boom and the colourful cultures of Portugal, Spain, and Peru alongside sustainably-sourced dark-lacquered hardwood. With the 20 spacious river-facing suites conveying a welcoming and stylish sense of Amazonian tranquillity, the design philosophy continues to manifest across the vessel’s social spaces including the restaurant, lounge, and spa along with a river-facing plunge pool and gym.

Aqua Mekong has 20 spacious suites featuring full-length windows that offer spectacular panoramic views

Many discerning travellers are leaning towards “conscious luxury” when it comes to their choice of trips. How does Aqua Expeditions align with this shift? 

Consciousness for our employees and crew is at the core of what we do and has been from the very start. We make a committed effort to employ all local guides, which in turn enriches the guest experience as staff have a true passion for sharing knowledge on the regions and communities that they know so well. Many of the gifts sold in the on-board boutique are also sourced directly from local artisans. In Cambodia, we also actively support Penh Lenh, a Cambodian social enterprise dedicated to helping marginalised young women. These women handcraft jewellery such as necklaces and earrings, which we offer in the Aqua Mekong boutique.

In the Peruvian Amazon, we visit different villages on every excursion to maximise our outreach efforts and to prevent any commercialisation… Aria Amazon’s wooden crockery, such as dishes and pots, are made by native Cocama Indians in their village and are used for lunch and dinner service. For our guests, we have created three donation kits available to buy on board – which can be donated personally to the local community on one of the many excursions. Aqua has also been a long-term partner of ‘Pack for a Purpose’ – a charity that provides necessities such as first aid kits, school supplies and clothing to local communities that desperately need it.

Cruises and private excursions focus on nature and wildlife regions with little to no outside human interaction

On the Mekong, Aqua Expeditions additionally supports the local communities in Vietnam and Cambodia through the Room to Read programme. This innovative project operates in both Asia and Africa, helping schoolgirls to improve their literacy skills and equipping them with the skills to succeed in their studies and beyond. Through the generosity of guests on its departures, Aqua Expeditions has been able to fund a library at a local primary school in Long An Province, just outside of Saigon.

What are your favourite cities for: food, culture, history, shopping?

Food: Cacio e Pepe Pasta from Felice in Rome. I actually make a very good one as well! For men’s fashion: Rome and Tokyo. The Japanese have an incredible sense of style and I have found amazing menswear boutiques on and off Ginza. Lastly, for culture, I find Istanbul very cool. But as far as culture is concerned, the true attraction for me is having a Turkish Steam bath (hammam) at Kilic Ali Pasa Hammam. It’s like going back in time.

What is the first thing you’ll do once the quarantine period ends? 

Get on a plane and head to Rome to visit my dad then bring him with us to Bali and embark on Aqua Blu where I plan to spend the rest of the summer in bliss with family and fellow guests exploring Komodo and Sumbawa.