Celebrity's Galapagos

| August 19, 2004


On the inaugural cruise of Celebrity Xpedition -- a new division of Celebrity Cruises -- the most often heard phrase was "cruise of a lifetime." Virtually the only ones who didn't say it were the animals that seemed to surround us at every turn. In the Galapagos, you truly get the feeling of having stepped back in time.

The Galapagos, a loosely connected chain of Pacific islands 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, would be the size of Puerto Rico if they were combined. The geographic diversity of the main islands is astonishing, from lava flow and desert-like vistas to a profusion of greenery. The islands visited on this seven-night cruise provided an eye-opening look at what nature has created.

The cruise began in Baltra, a three-hour plane trip from Quito, including an interim stop at Guayaquil. From Baltra's airport, it's a short hop to the ship via tender. The mood was set as we saw a sea lion lazing comfortably on the dock.

Most cruises start with a lifeboat drill and safety briefing, followed by an evening's dining and entertainment. Not so on Xpedition (the former German-built Sun Bay), a 100-passenger, three-year old vessel purchased by Celebrity last year specifically for sailing in the Galapagos (the license to sail there came with the ship). After a delightful buffet lunch, a very short safety briefing and a welcome-aboard speech, the ship sailed for an hour or so to North Seymour Island where the adventure really began. Three different shore excursions were offered: High Intensity, Medium Intensity and Low Intensity. This set the theme for the rest of the stops during the week, as guests could choose which level of activity was right for them. Some excursions included climbing as many as 360 steps to the top of a hill. Some were zodiac (in local parlance, "Pangas") rides along the shoreline.

Whichever one passengers took, they were greeted with scenery and animals galore. There were eight naturalists and a team leader on board – by Galapagos regulation, no leader can take more than 16 people at a time. Each group must stay within specific boundaries for walking. Not to worry: Right from the very first excursion, it was a flat-out triumph for animal lovers. On North Seymour, we saw the Magnificent and Great varieties of Frigate Birds (those are their actual names as well as appropriate adjectives), with their wonderful red pouches as part of the mating ritual; the very playful, or often sleeping, sea lions; and, of course, lots of the world-famous Blue-Footed Boobies. Subsequent excursions provided opportunities to see Albatrosses (doing their mating dance and cliffside take-offs), penguins, fur seals, marine and land iguanas, Galapagos Hawks, Masked Boobies, flamingos, giant tortoises and sea turtles, pelicans, lava gulls and many, many more species.

You immediately notice how unbothered the animals are by the presence of humans; we just do not appear threatening to them. The guides are exceptionally knowledgeable and carefully guide as well as inform. Tours are not rushed, and photo opportunities are non-stop.

Upon returning to the ship after any of the two-a-day excursion programs, guests were welcomed back with cold towels, fresh fruit and tropical soft drinks and juices. It was easy to kick back and enjoy the ultra-casual nature of being on board a high-quality expedition ship. The terrific climate added to the experience; it was mostly in the 60s and 70s even though the ship crossed the equator four times during the cruise. But with the extreme sun beaming down, sunscreen and cover-ups were really required.

The 294-foot, 2,842-ton ship has 47 rooms in five categories. None of the staterooms or suites is overly large by today's standards (most regular rooms are 163 sq. ft.), but they have lots of high-quality amenities including great bedside lighting and full-length mirrors. There are some three- and four-berth cabins available, but they'd be tight. Single occupancy carries a 100% premium. Cruise prices are not cheap (starting at $2,000 for the seven-night version, higher for the 10 or 11) but they seem to be fair for this type of cruise. Further, in a switch from the other Celebrity destinations, the Galapagos cruise price includes all shore excursions, most alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages (premium brands carry a charge, as do wines ordered separately from the ones included with meals) and tipping.

There is a sense of unofficial forced socializing as part of the cruise. Since shoreside adventures are so carefully controlled, you zodiac and tour at sea or ashore, for either dry or wet landings, as a group of 12 or so. Aboard the ship, the spacious and comfortably designed Darwin Restaurant has a few tables for four or eight, but most tables seat six (there are no tables for two), so sitting with other guests happens naturally. Service is buffet-style for breakfast and lunch with omelet/egg or pasta stations. Dinner is the major event of the evening. Celebrity is subject to some restrictions in terms of the foods it can bring aboard. For example, no oatmeal is allowed. Local provisions are used extensively. There are some galley limitations on this small a vessel, but we were certainly not underfed. Further, since regulations dictate that 88 percent of on-board staff be Ecuadorian, there is still some training to be done. But the wonderful attitude of all service personnel really is great, especially after guests throttle down a notch and get into the slower rhythms of the cruise.

Bar personnel were exceptional and kept hopping -- certainly during the pre-dinner briefing, which described to guests what adventures were in store for them the next day. Housekeeping service was excellent and provided three times a day. On the last night of the cruise, an outdoor barbecue was held. It was outstanding and a definite cut above the daytime lunch barbecue (outstanding French Fries were the exception).

I have never read as little as I did on this cruise. I virtually never turned on the color TV in my room. There was too much enjoyment involved in the excursions – and I did not miss one (but I failed to take advantage of the many snorkeling opportunities; those who did raved about the underwater sea life they saw, including playful sea lions, penguins, and turtles). There were a few stops in the small towns of the region (97 percent of all the land mass is a national park) that furthered the casual yet educational feel. At the Darwin Research Station on Santa Cruz Island, we learned a lot about the giant land tortoises; going nose to nose with a huge tortoise is really fun, as is seeing lots of babies.

It's an ideal experience for families and couples, friends and relatives of all combinations as long as they like animals and are reasonably physically fit. While the Low Intensity zodiac rides are serene enough, one still has to climb in and out. Realistically, the best adventures are ashore in order to see the amazing variety of animals and scenery.

For more information, contact your travel agent or Celebrity's website www.celebrity.com.

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