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Copyright © 1995-2004 
Linda Coffman

 

Celebrity Xpeditions
June 7-14, 2004

by Barry Cunningham

When it comes to the Galapagos, a photograph really is worth a thousand words. Spending a week in Ecuador and the Galapagos Islands was certainly not in our travel plans this year. To be honest, we never even thought about it although our favorite cruise line acquired a 300-foot yacht for tours. So indeed it was a surprise when we were invited along with other representatives from some of the best agencies in North America to spend four nights onboard for a ‘dry-run’. Having only two such sailing’s we were honored by the Celebrity invitation. 

We will not spend time giving a written lecture on the history of the islands, for this simply ‘Google’ Galapagos or go to your local library. There are so many naturalists and professionals who have written extensive information and it is frankly, overwhelming. We were not fully prepared for the adventure, and highly suggest picking up some good reading material to enhance the experience. 

Galapagos Basics
Only licensed Ecuadorian boats are permitted on the islands and the Galapagos National Park Service controls all aspects of your visit. Since the Galapagos Islands are a national park, all boats must carry certified guides and they stay with you everywhere you go as they guide and educate you on what you are seeing. Moreover, one cannot completely be prepared for all the curiosities you encounter and you must always be ready for that ‘Galapagos moment’ as it is called. If you like the untamed, remote sections of the Hawaiian Islands, you will love the Galapagos Islands.

A comment on the weather here, many of our fellow travelers naturally assumed that the Galapagos and Quito being on the equator meant hot, humid, awful weather. In fact, the summer season (June through December) is deliciously cool at times when the clouds are hiding the harsh sun, then quite warm when the sun breaks out. The warmer weather and humidity begins in January and continues through June. Confirmed by our guides, the early summer season is an excellent time to traverse the islands and Ecuador.

Standard Stateroom

The Xpedition Basics
Most boats carry less than 20 people, the Xpedition is by far the most advanced, spacious and luxurious of any that frequents the islands, carrying 98 passengers and 50-60 crewmembers. It truly is your own private yacht taking you to the most prehistoric, exotic places on earth…in Celebrity style! 

This is an all-inclusive product, so all drinks and excursions are included. Only shop purchases and ultra-premium drinks are additional (i.e. Dom Perignon, 50-year-old cognac, etc.).

Sauna & spa shower

Onboard you will find a freshwater hot tub on the topmost deck, as well as a hot and cold faucet shower for rinsing. Close by is the exercise area with several stationary bicycles and small hand weights. In addition, a sauna and shower are available. One deck down is the popular outdoor ‘Blue Finch’ bar. Lower decks include the main lounge area and bar called the ‘Discovery Lounge’, a small shop for essentials and souvenir clothing and the dining room aptly named ‘Darwin’s restaurant’. 

There were plenty of new deck chairs with the padded cloth covers and a very nice balance of outdoor and indoor space. We never felt crowded and could always find a place alone. In addition, there are plenty of covered shady areas to find a lounge chair or table and relax.

Lunch is not only served in Darwin’s restaurant with a buffet and fresh pasta station, dessert table, (including fresh homemade ice cream each day!), but also outside via the ‘Beagle Grill’. The Beagle served grilled chicken, burgers and hotdogs, as well as salads and desert.

Buffet choices

Dinnertime transformed Darwin’s restaurant into an intimate casual atmosphere with a South American touch to almost all the dishes. The pastry chef is outstanding! Fresh fish caught locally was served many evenings (see the links to copies of the dinner menu’s at the bottom of this review). Do not expect the finest in beef from Ecuador, it is adequate but not outstanding. Nothing like good ole’ U.S. beef and it is just not possible to fly it in week after week. Overall, the food was very good to excellent in our opinion.

Weather permitting passengers will also dine outdoors for dinner at least once. The last evening we were served grilled chicken, sausages, and bratwursts as the cool breeze of the Galapagos winds fanned our desire to stay another week. 

Each day, briefings occur in the evening before dinner around cocktail hour, including an excellent PowerPoint presentation that describes the three options for activities the following day. Generally, these are categorized as high, medium and low intensity. These activities come courtesy of the onboard Naturalist who did an excellent job of describing what was to be seen and experienced throughout the week. The onboard Galapagos Park Guides, as well, are friendly lucky Ecuadorian’s who truly love their job and enjoy speaking with the passengers.

The Quito layover
Before actually arriving to the Galapagos Islands, Celebrity provides a day prior and post-cruise package in Quito, Ecuador at the Marriott hotel. We cannot think of anywhere else one can fly so close to the United States, as exotic, without jetlag. The city is picturesquely situated on the lower slopes of Pichincha volcano in a narrow, fertile valley of the Andes Mountains at an elevation of 9350 ft. above sea level. Because of its elevation, it has a pleasant, moderate climate despite being just south of the equator. 

Our flight from Miami took approximately 3.5 hours and an Xpedition representative shuttled us away for a quick drive to the hotel. The Marriott is one of the nicest hotels in Quito and has shops, restaurants, and all the amenities you would expect a Marriott to have. All Xpedition guests have VIP check-in as well as complimentary refreshment, separate from the regular guests.

While you are here do not forget the message, manicure, and pedicure spa treatment. The price is an incredible $30 for a 50 minute massage (excellent) and pedies and manies are around $8. All that and Internet in the business center for a scant $0.20 per minute makes this a great stopover before your cruise. A word of advice here in Quito-learn some basic phrases in Spanish because hardly anyone speaks even broken English and translation can be difficult at times. Do not let that scare you however, hand signals work wonders and you can always go to the front desk and find someone to help you. You will also notice massive arrangements of roses throughout the hotel. Roses are a huge export product in this region and sell for pennies apiece locally.

Celebrity provides a city tour taking you to landmarks, historic sites, and museums and of course… shopping for souvenirs. Our motorcoach was nice and comfortable as we toured the area and shopped. You can expect to pay very little for all sorts of Ecuadorian goodies and the U.S. Dollar is the official currency. Colorful wool coats $8-$10. Handbags, pan flutes, shawls range from $1 to $10. Be prepared to bargain a bit. Keep in mind this is an evolving product for Celebrity and we are not sure how things will change here and there. Our tour(s) may vary from others experience but we were assured it would most likely be similar in the future.

One of the highlights of the tour was visiting ‘Middle of the world’ monument and museums. This monument celebrates the measurement of the middle of the world in the 1700's by the French geodesic mission. The monument, which is located exactly on the Equator line, includes various experiments proving that you are at latitude O’0’0. Having one foot in the Southern Hemisphere and the other in the Northern is an odd feeling indeed, and not one you will forget.

Another treat is to dine at ‘The Crater’ restaurant that is literally perched high in the clouds on the rim of an extinct volcanic crater. Great food, beers, and wine all included in this Celebrity adventure! Photo opportunities galore all day long on this day trip make it most memorable.

After a good nights sleep and we were off to the airport to board a 727 for a half-hour flight to Guayaquil to refuel, pick up a few locals and head to the islands. The flight from Guayaquil is another hour and a half and we were touching down on the Galapagos Island of Baltra ready for an adventure! 

Keep in mind this is a trip with Xpedition escorts handling all ticketing, baggage, and other headaches one might encounter in a third world airport. VIP treatment all the way. Snacks and cold drinks are served as you wait for your flight to arrive (U.S. airlines could learn a thing or two from Ecuador’s air service).

Finally Galapagos!
Upon arrival, we were escorted to the waiting Galapagos staff checking all carry-ons for fruits, plants, harmful insects etc, to insure you are bringing no foreign species into the islands. A quick chat about what size snorkel gear we needed for the week (to be waiting in our cabins) then off to the VIP lounge for a drink and to our bus to board the ship. A ten minute ride to the dock and our waiting Zodiacs (or pangas as they are referred to locally) waited to take us to the Xpedition! Need a hint that this was an incredible adventurous place? A sea lion slept at our feet as we donned our life vests! 

The Captain and other staff greeted us off the aft swim platform of the Xpedition and the signature Celebrity cold towels and refreshing fruit drinks awaited us upon embarkation. One look at the other ‘options’ for touring Galapagos docked there also reminded us that we were in the lap of luxury compared to other ‘ships.’

The panga rides are an excellent example of what to expect in fitness for the passengers to come. How fit does one need to be to trek the Galapagos via Xpedition? Celebrity pangas have steps in and out, covered sides that are comfortable and a solid flooring, however a certain mobility is needed as this is the standard mode of transportation for the week. You will spend a lot of time in the pangas searching the cliffs and beaches for wildlife.

Our trip was an abbreviated version of what a paying traveler would expect (lucky buggers), as we were to have ‘only’ seven adventures vs. many additional on a regular voyage. That said, we kept to the planned schedule of activities as if we were on the longer voyage. Type A personalities prepare thyself! We were off on our first Xpedition to Bartolome Island after a buffet lunch within a few hours. 

A quick briefing took place on ship emergency and lifeboat demonstration (no need for mustering here, just a demo) as well as a few park rules and regulations and a briefing of what our optional activities were to be for the day.

Suite bedroom

What did we see and do?
To describe in detail, each daily option and each landing or panga ride and what there was to see would take so long we decided to simply scan the daily sheets for readers to peruse, and comment on what we enjoyed the most. One could easily write a book on what you see and experience as the naturalists describe the history, the devastation man has caused as well as the efforts to repopulate and restore some of the islands natural balance. 

Most afternoons snorkeling is offered as a sideline or a full activity. Snorkeling on the islands pretty much year round is a ‘cool’ affair. Currents alternate between warm and down right cold as you swim. Wetsuits were being flown in soon for the next lucky guests. We advise to take your own if in doubt. If cool water does not bother you than leave it at home, however we saw several that could not take the cool waters. We found it invigorating. Our first snorkel we had in mind to go find and play with the fish, turtles, and sea lions. What we discovered is the sea lions play with you! We came across two that were playing on the surface in about 20 feet of water, as we approached they swam around us coming within a foot or so of our masks and circling around, as curious of us as we of them. Over 50 minutes swimming and playing with sea turtles and sea lions (though the turtles are very shy). Every snorkel trip was incredible. This is nothing like the Caribbean, as animals (not just fish) are everywhere and it is totally unspoiled. 

The lack of fear that all the animals show you in the Galapagos is absolutely mind boggling. Other guests reported seeing sharks, we were not so fortunate. Stingrays also abound here and it is not uncommon to see some that are easily 6-7 feet across swimming slowly through the water. Marine iguanas populate almost every island and can be seen eating algae under water off the rocks. These hideous looking creatures spit a white substance out of their noses at you as if to say "go back and leave us alone".

The Islands
Bartolome Island, a moon-like rugged terrain that was horrifically dry, yet beautiful. The high intensity climb to the volcano rim is strenuous, yet with a very, very satisfying reward! Imagine a Stairmaster climb up 370 steps. Luckily, the guides take it easy and stop frequently to give you history and information about the evolution of the volcanoes. All the islands are pure, young volcanic rock. The top of the volcano has a small lighthouse and possibly, the best view in the Islands.

Isabela Island and Tagus cove was a fascinating area, with ‘historic graffiti’ dating back to 1836 from the many pirates and visitors that dropped anchor here. Another long but much easier hike than Bartolome reveals breathtaking views and Darwin’s lake. Blue footed boobies abound, as well as sea lions and penguins. If you are lucky, you will see land iguana amidst the brush. An hour-long Panga ride to view sea lions, turtles, penguins, crabs, and various birds takes place afterward.

Fernandina Island is the youngest island as well as the most volcanic having erupted as early as 1985. Massive lava flows that make parts of Hawaii look like Disneyland. Here we have easy hiking, expect uneven but flat trail to navigate.

The corner of the island, Punta Espinoza is famous for large sea lion colonies as well as many, many Marine iguanas. Flightless Cormorants and Pelican nesting areas abound. We panga around a bit and relax and let the guides entertain you here. After all, by now we need a rest! That ship in the distance and the waiting cold towels and drinks are starting to call our name!

On Santiago Island, we had three choices including an ‘Xtreme hike’ of around 4 miles to see an eroded cinder cone used for salt mining years ago. A medium intensity coastal walk of 2 hours, (level yet rocky trails), and a beach animal observation excursion with little walking involved. All three excursions ended with snorkeling or swimming in wonderful waters that were a bit chilly.

Rabida Island between Santiago and Isabela islands is the geographic center of Galapagos. This so-called ‘Red Island’ due to the mineral composition has a small lagoon that occasionally has flamingoes as occupants. We chose the inland walk, a short 80-foot altitude overlook and beach walk to observe sea lion colonies and snorkeling, versus a simple beach swim and snorkel. No flamingoes for us this trip, however others reported seeing several later in the day. 

Our stop on Floreana Island included a visit to ‘the Post Office Bay’. An old mailing system started by sailors around 1793. You drop off your mail here in a barrel and if someone comes along afterward, they are to pick it up and mail it for you at the next port of call. A friend of ours picked out a post card from a lady about 10 minutes from our hometown. We cannot wait to contact here and let her know we have it. She mailed it to herself. Later in the afternoon an ‘Xtreme snorkeling’ along the cliffs takes place for advanced snorkelers. Good swimming skills are needed due to the current and area of visitation. 

Finally, Santa Cruz and Puerto Ayora where the Charles Darwin research station is located. 

Take the highland excursion to (hopefully) see wild Giant tortoises. We missed them because we had to choose between the Darwin station or the highland’s hike. Our friends saw 13 wild tortoises, some were mating! 

In Ayora, 10,000 inhabitants live in a thriving shopping area. Internet, restaurants art galleries abound. Yet it is still a very pretty city and the walk to the Darwin Station is around 10-15 minutes and quite enjoyable. The Xpedition crew drops you off, one takes a quick bus ride to the station, and then you walk back to the pier (shopping as you go). 

A few warnings here for the shoppers. The official Darwin souvenir shop in the National Park has all sorts of goodies and we purchased T-shirts, polos, etc with the official logo on them. However, the sizes are obscure. Some of our XXL shirts would fit our 10-year-old. More like a medium, so be wary of that fact. Also, the closer you get to the pier, the cheaper the shirts and trinkets become. We saw t-shirts we paid $15 for going for $10 the closer we got to the ship.

Darwin’s Station is interesting and ‘Lonesome George’ as they call him is there and the last of his specie of Galapagos tortoise. Scientists found George almost thirty years ago. Lonesome George was the only tortoise found on Pinta.

Scientists took the turtle to the Charles Darwin Research Center on Santa Cruz Island. They wanted to help him find a female tortoise for mating. The scientists had been successful in similar efforts for thousands of other tortoises. 

The researchers placed George in the same living area as females from the nearby island of Isabela. Scientists thought George would be more closely related to the females from Isabela than to other Galapagos tortoises. Scientists say that George never showed any interest in the females around him. Scientists say hopes of finding a mate for George are decreasing. If no mate is found, the Pinta Island tortoises will disappear when George dies. 

We called it the petting Zoo because visitors can get up close and personal with the captive giants for photos.

The Xpedition Galapagos is not for everyone. You need to be reasonably fit and able to hop in pangas easily. In addition, you should to be able to hike around and not complain about it. If we were there for a full seven days we definitely would take off a morning or an afternoon here and there to rest. Others would go full-tilt high-intensity each morning and afternoon. Yet, it is important to note that one can go low-intensity panga riding for sea lions and iguanas and snorkeling each day and still see one of the last amazing unspoiled places on Earth.

Sail to the Galapagos on the Celebrity Xpedition and see for the first time, what it was like millions of years ago on Earth…with a glass of champagne in your hand on your own private yacht.

Observations & suggestions on this Celebrity Xpedition Galapagos
Learn some basic Spanish phrases--it really helps and it shows respect for their culture in Quito.

Get the massage at the Marriott for $30-The Xpedition at this point has no massage employee but they are really trying hard to find someone. If you know of any Ecuadorian masseuses please let them know! (It’s the law they have to hire an Ecuadorian.)

Take along a small lightweight backpack to carry water (at least 2 bottles per person per excursion), ponchos or light rain gear, extra camera gear and sun block. 

Comfy shoes. Sneakers worked well for most, opened-toed shoes are okay (Tevas, etc.). However, keep in mind your shoes (and feet) will be black from dirt on some trails.

Buy the hat in the ships shop. It is lightweight, cool looking with logo and chin straps for the Panga rides.

Buy LOTS in the shop, shirts and other gifts are relatively inexpensive. (i.e. a nice polo for $18.00 with neat Xpedition logo)

Take along at least twice as much film and digital cards as you think. Really! If you think you will take 100 photo’s, you will want to take 200. In addition, you cannot buy digital cards easily on this trek, if at all.

Stateroom has decent hairdryer so no real reason to bring one. Being beautiful is not a priority on this trip.

Need to bring electric adapter for European 220v outlets. A few are available at guest relations, they are the safest for sensitive equipment (transformer based).

Keep in mind that some of the excursions can last up to 4 hours, especially if you see Dolphins or something unbelievable in a panga ride. The guides will go after it! There are no bathroom stops so be prepared.

Bring back as a souvenir a bottle of Galapagos water served religiously onboard. It makes one really cool souvenir.

At this time no scuba is offered and we do not see how to squeeze in time to dive (unless you fly there before the departure). It's our guess it will not occur due to the logistics, staffing, and equipment needed for diving.

All tips are included on this trip. There is an error on the 'Welcome Pages' that gives suggested amounted for tipping. Disregard this note.

Skyscraper Tours
 
Copyright © 2004 Skyscraper Tours, Inc.

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