The Lindblad Experience

| Tuesday, 05 Mar. 2013

As I stepped ashore for the first time in the Galapagos Islands, several lethargic sea lions blocked my path from the landing and looked at me with casual indifference. Farther down the path, I stepped over dozens of prehistoric-looking marine iguanas that obviously did not intend to get out of my way. This is not the sort of nature-at-a-distance found on Alaska cruises, but a close-up, personal experience that challenges conventional ways of looking at human-animal interactions.

No matter how many National Geographic specials you've seen or how many stories you've heard, nothing prepares you for a visit to the Galapagos. Remote and unspoiled, these Pacific islands west of Ecuador are best visited with a well-established expedition company that can offer insight and access; and among the many options for sailing the islands, none is better than Lindblad Expeditions.

My normal rule of thumb for expedition cruising is the smaller the ship the better; but I confidently chose to sail on Lindblad's 80-passenger Polaris, bypassing some 14-passenger vessels, based on the company's reputation as the best expedition cruise line. In fact, it was Lars-Eric Lindblad, father of current company president Sven Olof Lindblad, who led the first non-scientific voyage to the Galapagos and is widely credited with pioneering the very concept of expedition travel.

Fostering a spirit of discovery, the company's primary concern is not maximizing profit margins but rather having passengers appreciate and respect the destination through responsible, ecologically sensitive tourism. Passengers of all ages are welcome onboard, and approximately 25 percent are part of a family group. Employing the most knowledgeable and personable naturalists, Lindblad creates an organized and educational cruise that allows eager passengers to see more, do more and learn more than the competition.

By sailing on Polaris, we had not just one naturalist -- as on the smallest ships -- but six, each with a special sphere of knowledge. The resident geologist might talk about the island's volcanoes; the next day, the ornithologist would speak on the bathing and feeding habits of the frigate bird. With some excursions starting at 6:30 a.m. and activities lasting as late as 10 p.m., days were long but exhilarating. They included guided nature walks, zodiac rides along the coast, and swimming and snorkeling with turtles, sea lions, or sharks.

Because the animals don't recognize humans as predators, I was able to see them in ways I never had before. I was never one to find birds interesting, but I became fascinated when surrounded by frigates or albatrosses along the path or in small trees. Being eye-to-eye with the birds was infinitely more interesting than searching for an illusive feather hidden in a tree 200 feet away. Most endearing were the colonies of comical blue-footed boobies; we were surrounded by an amusing juxtaposition of sound and motion as they lifted one foot, bent their wings, and whistled shrilly during their mating dance as if in a Monty Python skit.

We shared pristine beaches not with other tourists but with charismatic sea lions. Baby sea lions would come up to us and curiously sniff at our faces before crawling on top of our stomachs and lying down for a rest. In the water, they approached within inches of our masks as if inviting us to play before veering off and circling around. They especially loved it when we dove down and blew bubbles for them to swim through.>

While not a luxury cruise experience, Lindblad Expeditions walks the line between excitement, exploration and plenty of comfort. After a 40-year career that included decades of worldwide cruising, the Polaris has settled in comfortably year-round in the Galapagos for the last phase of her career. Cozy and charming, she is well maintained and full of nautical character, but has been outfitted with an assortment of modern equipment.

A video microscope projects images onto three screens in the lounge for lectures, and a "splash cam" records underwater life for later discussion. When whales appear, a hydrophone is dropped in the water and the ocean sounds are broadcast throughout the ship. A small gym and spa were recently added to the ship, including the Lindblad innovation of a ‘floating spa' where passengers receive massages on a glass-bottomed boat. Going ashore is accomplished with a fleet of Zodiacs; the expedition leader briefs you each morning as to whether it will be a dry landing at a pier or a wet landing on a beach.

All meals are served in the attractive wood-paneled dining room. In keeping with the company policy of supporting the local economy, more than 90% of the food comes from mainland Ecuador or the islands. Without exception, the Ecuadorian-themed meals were not only tasty and fresh but well prepared and particularly memorable.

Continually innovating and thinking of more creative approaches to travel and learning, Lindblad's six ships sail everywhere from Antarctica to Alaska. Through their commitment to education, exploration and conservation, they are working to ensure all of their destinations remain as special and enchanting as the Galapagos for future generations of travelers.

Lindbald Expeditions is at 800-397-3348 or www.lindblad.com / www.expeditions.com

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