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 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.
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.
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.