We just returned from a 7-night cruise of the Galapagos Islands on the Celebrity Xpedition. It was fantastic! The islands themselves were incredible, and the naturalists were very well informed and friendly. They also seemed to genuinely love seeing all of the plants and animals too, although you'd think they could easily be bored.
The ship itself was quite new and very comfortable. Showers had excellent pressure, beds were nice. Food was good, but not great, mostly probably due to the requirement that everything is grown in the Galapagos or the Ecuadorian mainland. They did the best they could. Wine was from Chile and Argentina and was quite good.
Another great thing about the cruise was that everything was included, even top shelf liquor, mixed drinks, etc. No tipping either.
A few families were on the cruise. One had an 8 year old, who was just barely able to appreciate the trip. All of the other kids seemed like they were in paradise.
The service was excellent. Since it was a small ship, the staff knew everyone's name and cabin number. At lunch, they knew that I wanted an ice tea and my husbandwanted a Fanta. They also knew everyone's mixed drink preferences and were able to suggest delicious concoctions.
I was a bit worried about sea sickness, but I only needed 2 dramamine pills the whole time. There was one woman who was sick despite a scopolamine patch, but she was the only one, I think.
Overall, fantastic cruise, the best in the Galapagos so far. My only complaint is that since we did not purchase the 10 day package (extra days on the mainland and airfare), the cruise line would not help with airplane arrangements at all. Not very nice on their part. Not at all.
When most people think of the Galapagos, they associate it with Darwin and Evolution. Maybe they remember hearing about the unique wildlife found there. Most likely they don't really know where it is, but they think it's probably a long way away, and the travel is unpleasant, and once you get there you're on a very small boat with limited services. That was my picture of it, too, but I decided that the natural history of the islands was enough to compel me to learn more. The result is that I'm writing this review aboard an airplane on my way back from the Galapagos, after spending 10 nights with Celebrity Xpeditions, seven of which were in the Galapagos proper.
Quick summary: This trip was exceptional, as was the ship, the destination, and the people. I did have one disappointment -- there were no naturalist lectures on-board – but it is impressive that I can only think of a single complaint. And that complaint is easily resolved by buying a book about the Galapagos before you leave home.
The Galapagos are a chain of islands owned by Ecuador off of the Pacific coastof South America. They are directly on the equator, as is Ecuador itself. The mainland of Ecuador is basically due south of Florida, and the Galapagos are roughly due south of Texas.
Despite being on the equator, they are not a tropical paradise like Hawaii or Polynesia. The islands are quite arid, some extremely so. Although they have some beaches, they are more akin to the rocky, volcanic style of the Kona Coast of Hawaii. Because of the islands' location, they are subject to cold currents coming up from Antarctica, making the waters surprisingly chilly, but bringing a lot of nutrients that make snorkeling and diving exciting.
Two things truly make the islands unique. First, there was no human contact with the Galapagos (according to most scientists) until very recently. Second is that there are no predators of land vertebrates native to the islands. Because of this, the local vertebrates (e.g. birds, reptiles, sea mammals) have no fear while on land, and will let you walk right up to them.
In fact, you often have to step right over them, because they plop themselves down in the middle of the trail. I've been nuzzled by a baby sea lion, come face-to-face with a sea turtle while snorkeling, and sat down right next to a giant tortoise that was looking right at me.
Human contact has taken its toll on the islands. Gigantic tortoises used to be everywhere, but they are extremely slow, don't try to hide, can survive for months on a ship with no food or water, and apparently they taste really good. European sailors killed tens of thousands of them over the years, and the cats, rats, pigs and goats brought by settlers nearly finished the job. But on several islands they do survive.
Today, 98% of the land is a protected national park, where all access is strictly controlled. Tourists must be in the company of an authorized guide at all times in the park. The remaining 2% holds a couple of towns with a total of 20,000 people or so; many of the guides were born on the Galapagos.
Some people just fly out to the islands, stay at a hotel in town, and book day-tours as they go. You can book scuba tours and surfing and beach trips if you'd like. But most people seem to get on a tour boat for a week at a time.
VISITING THE GALAPAGOS
The Galapagos are the crown jewel of Ecuador. While this isn't the poorest country you're likely to visit, it can certainly use the help, and they milk the tourist trade as much as they can. All flights to the Galapagos leave from Ecuador, and they're pricey. So, step 1 is to get to Ecuador.
Typically you will fly from the U.S. to either Quito or Guayaquil. We went through Quito, the capital, which is high in the Andes at over 9,000 feet. Flights were on Continental through Houston or American through Miami. I believe that TACA also had flights through Mexico City. From Quito, there are limited flights to the Galapagos. They sell out, so book early if you're traveling independently.
As an aside, the official currency is the U.S. Dollar. This makes things easy for U.S. citizens, but they do press their own coinage, so if you get coins as change they may not be good in the U.S.
Due to flight schedules, it is impractical to fly straight through from the U.S. to the Galapagos, or vice versa. You have to spend a night on either end on the Ecuadorian mainland. Celebrity had us spend two nights prior to the Galapagos in Quito, giving us a full day to tour the former colonial capital.
Due to the altitude, Quito's weather is downright cool: Highs may hit 70, lows are never too cool around 50. The Galapagos were much warmer, typically 80s and sometimes 90s, somewhat humid but nothing like the mainland coast.
The above is accurate for the dates we traveled. The Galapagos have a distinct rainy/cooler season that begins in January, followed by a dry/hot season. We got lucky and had perfect weather throughout, but you might want to read up on the weather before you leave. Also, if you're interested in a specific animal, you might want to research when it is in mating season, as that is usually a more interesting time to see it.
Once you're in Galapagos National Park, your movements are controlled. There are plenty of choices for activities, with each island having several options, but once you've made your choice you must follow your guide. Each guide leads a group of up to 15 people. The guides are authorized by the Park, but are employed independently -- e.g., our guides worked for Celebrity (i.e. Royal Caribbean).
You will be told there is a 30-pound limit on bags checked to the Galapagos. I had been told that this is not enforced, and my 50-pound piece of luggage went through without a problem. A number of people were upset to have been forced down to just 30 pounds, but most of them later decided that it was better to travel light. The risk is yours to take.
On your return flight from Quito back home, you will have to pay $25 in cash, per person.
THE CELEBRITY EXPERIENCE
I chose Celebrity because I'd sailed with them before and enjoyed my cruise, and because I tend towards motion sickness and wanted the largest ship I could find. The Galapagos have a reputation for rocky waters.
Celebrity Xpeditions works a little differently from a standard Celebrity cruise: Nearly everything is included. It was difficult to find anything to spend money on, other than souvenirs. Even alcohol on board the ship was free, unless you asked for a top-shelf brand.
Transfers were included even though we booked our own flights. From the moment we cleared customs, Celebrity representatives were waiting. Everything was extremely smooth, with baggage whisked away at appropriate times and reappearing in appropriate places.
All the guides in Quito were friendly and helpful. Upon hotel check-in there were drinks and hot towels. The next day, all meals were included, and a full-day tour was offered. The hotel (the JW Marriott) was definitely up to U.S. standards, and the food was decent. It also had a really hot hot tub!
The next morning -- ridiculously early -- we were up for the flight to Baltra in the Galapagos. I put out my bags the day before, and I didn't touch them again until they reappeared in my cabin aboard ship. I also was able to leave a bag with the hotel for pickup upon my return a week later.
The guides took us all through the airport in Quito. Incredibly, TAME Airlines served a meal on both legs of the direct flight, even though the first leg was only 40 minutes and the second an hour and a half.
Upon arrival in Baltra, we were met (unbeknownst to us at the time) by our naturalist guides for the coming week. Buses were waiting, and we were quickly sent to the dock 10 minutes away. Within a few minutes the Zodiacs began ferrying us all to the ship, where we were welcomed with cold towels and fresh juice. This would be our standard welcome upon return to the ship throughout the week. We went to the lounge to relax and have a drink as they checked everyone in, then off to lunch.
Even that first day we had an afternoon excursion. The typical pattern all week would be one excursion in the morning and one in the afternoon after lunch. For each excursion, typically three choices would be offered. You could usually choose a low-intensity zodiac ride along the island's coast, spotting coastal wildlife, or a high-intensity hike along a trail.
High-intensity is not really that strenuous. Most trails were less than three miles roundtrip, with minimal elevation change. The big problem is walking on rocks. Many of the hikes had extended sections where you had to watch your footing carefully.
There were also several snorkeling opportunities. I believe the third opportunity was the one declared "best" by the naturalists. Don't miss it! You will swim with sea turtles and sea lions, and if you're lucky you'll spot rays, penguins, sea iguanas, and even a shark or two in the depths. (They're small, don't fear!)
I had originally wondered if traveling on a large ship, relative to local standards, would detract from the experience. Our ship had 100 guests, whereas many others had 15. No fear! This is what allowed us to have so many choices for activities on each excursion. There was still one naturalist for every 15 people or so, so we weren't herded like cattle.
There were no problems with waiting around. The ship had four Zodiacs, and they were great. Everything was so well scheduled that you never had to wait more than a few minutes to disembark or to return to the ship. Usually they would start by dropping off the hikers on the island, return to the ship for the low-intensity zodiac tour, then go out to pick up the hikers.
As on the mainland, everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. Apparently the crew has even more reason to be happy. Almost a year ago, when Celebrity decided to enter this market, they bought out the Galapagos sailing rights from a local cruise line with a similarly sized ship. They kept the crew, junked the ship, replaced it with the Xpedition, and gave everyone raises. And they deserve it.
On the last night, a local troupe came on board to sing and dance local music of Incan origins. Afterwards, a wonderful surprise was waiting for us in our staterooms -- a really nice touch. I'll leave it as a surprise.
On the way back to Quito we were escorted to the airport, and with customary efficiency we returned to our hotel. A quick shopping expedition was offered at 4 p.m., and at 6:30 p.m. we had an excellent group dinner at a local restaurant.
Throughout the trip, I never paid for a meal, a taxi, a drink, or a shore excursion. Bottled water was provided by the hotel in Quito and the ship in the Galapagos. All tips were included in the price.
CELEBRITY XPEDITION -- THE SHIP
It was a great ship. I've been on ships ranging from the Royal Olympic Stella Solaris to Carnival's Ecstasy to Radisson's Paul Gauguin, so I have a reasonable basis for comparison, although this is by far the smallest. We never saw another ship in the Galapagos that we would have preferred to be sailing!
The standard cabins were 160 sq. ft. and well laid out. There were no formal or informal nights, so we had plenty of space for luggage. The only requirement for dinner attire was no bathing suits. Cabins all had air conditioning and private bathroom.
There is only one indoor lounge, but it was large and had a bar that was open all day and into the night. The couches and chairs were all very comfortable, and the windows gave good views.
There were three outdoor decks: one in the stern (next to the lounge and its bar), one protected from the wind amid ship with the hot tub (which was only warm), and one in the bow. There was plenty of space for everyone, and if you chose to be lazy and skip an excursion, you could relax in the sun (or shade) with a drink. Or you could schedule a massage ($50 for 50 minutes) almost any time you liked.
There are no elevators on this ship. The Zodiacs disembark on deck 2, and rooms are variously on decks 3, 4 and 5.
Smoking is quite restricted. The only place you can smoke is on deck. All indoor spaces are non-smoking, and the park itself is non-smoking. Even in the towns I didn't see much smoking.
Exercise facilities were limited to a few exercise bikes on deck and a few basic workout devices in the room where massages were given, but massages take preference, so you can get booted out. Also, there's no wraparound deck to use for jogging. Due to the nature of the shore excursions, however, there's probably enough activity to keep you busy.
Except for the performance on the final night, almost no entertainment is provided. The exception is a keyboardist playing music as people return from excursions, and in the evening on deck.
Food was quite good, but generally not inspired. There were no showy menu options like lobster and caviar. The food was mostly of Ecuadorian origin (required by law, apparently). The beef was better than I'd been warned about, but in general the fish was always the freshest option.
Breakfast was a buffet in the restaurant. Lunch was either a buffet in the restaurant or a simple hamburger/hot-dog and mini-buffet on deck. Upon our return to the ship in the afternoon, sugar cookies were available. During the 7:45 p.m. briefing on the following day's activities, hors d'oeuvres made the rounds. Dinner was a more traditional affair in the restaurant, with open seating, except for two nights when dinner was on deck. Room service was available except during late-night hours.
For snorkelers ,the ship provided fins, snorkel and mask directly to your room before the first snorkeling opportunity, to be returned on the last night. Wet suit shorties (3mm) were also available in various sizes. Most of the passengers wore them, although admittedly most of the naturalists didn't. These could be left hanging to dry overnight on deck, so no worries about a wet smelly suit hanging in your bathroom.
As for SCUBA: I'm afraid the answer is no, they don't offer it. A Celebrity representative on our sailing was evaluating the water sports offerings, and he was looking into the possibility of offering SCUBA in the future.
The ship had a small library and a small gift shop with some basics. A doctor is on board if you need her. And the ship has an open bridge, so you can get a tour any time, day or night. There is a TV in your room, but it has no live satellite link, just pre-recorded programming.
Aesthetically I found the ship to be very pleasant, even if some of the artwork clearly predates the ship's repositioning to the Galapagos. The restaurant was very nice, and just large enough for everyone to be seated. The best word for it was "comfortable." It had most of the amenities one looks for on a larger ship, with the coziness of a ship where you recognize everyone within a few days.
The Galapagos are an amazing destination for anyone interested in seeing a unique side of nature. Celebrity seems to have found an excellent itinerary with very good guides and crew, who are helpful, friendly, and keep everything operating smoothly. And the Xpedition is a great ship from which to explore the Galapagos.
Some mornings you have to be up very early, especially if you want breakfast. If you just can't handle a short night's sleep, or varying sleep times, just accept in advance that you'll occasionally sleep through a morning excursion. It'll leave you in a better mood to enjoy the others.
I was disappointed by was the lack of a lecture series on board. They did have one lecture on the history of people in the Galapagos, and a short video I think was originally an IMAX film about the Galapagos. But I was hoping for something seriously informative regarding the theory of evolution and how it relates to what we were seeing. The Galapagos are, after all, the Mecca of evolution. Perhaps they were concerned about being too controversial for those who reject evolution. More likely the naturalist guides, while well trained, were not truly scientists prepared to give such a lecture.
And I feel compelled to mention, on behalf of a friend I made on the trip, that there were no chocolates left on the pillows at night. So be warned!