I'm totally a novice cruiser, I tend to do more land adventures, but to really see the Galapagos, the cruises allow you to take in more of the islands. This was my first time on a completely escorted program and only my second cruise ever. I have however, spent extensive time in Europe, Central America, Mexico and the Caribbean and usually stay in more premium accommodations. Since this is Cruise Critic, I'm going to stick to just the cruise portion on here.
The Ship: We were met at the small airport by guides with signs for the M/V Santa Cruz, but our Tauck tour leader organized our group. There were a total of about 84 people on the ship, including our group of about 30-35 people. This was a Bridges tour, so specifically oriented toward multi-generational travel, so there were a lot of parents, grandparents and kids with our group, including a wide variety of ability levels. The bus ride from the airport to the pier in the small town was about 5 minutes, and when we got off the bus, there were tons of sea lions just hanging out on the public square, on the docks, on boats in the harbor. You will take zodiac tenders out to the ship, and the staff picks up your luggage at the airport and transfer that to the ship separately, so you don't see your bags until you get on board.(which, if you have damaged luggage, which we did, you can't report and get compensation from the airline). The ship is older, especially from a decor standpoint (one of the oldest still in service in the area), but very clean and it looked to be well maintained (i didn't see anything that scared me, but then again, I don't have tons of experience on ships, so I probably wouldn't have noticed anything that wasn't glaring). The ship was good sized for the group - it never felt too crowded, even when everyone was eating or gathered for briefings, 3 decks for cabins, plus a bar/lounge, and dining room. They also had a small gift shop on the main deck. There is a small library and computer room off the main bar. I was surprised to find out they had internet access for only like $12 for the entire cruise on their computers and $44 for wifi for the cruise (very reasonable all things considered, not that we used it at all) On the sun deck, there is an 8 pax jacuzzi (which the kids on board used extensively), as well as another bar, and sun loungers. The boat deck had storage for snorkeling equipment and a dryer that was free of charge to use anytime (but no guest laundry facilities). We had a standard cabin which had 2 twin beds, picture window, and a pull down third bed. Beds very very decent, not rock-like at all and pillows were comfy. The extra bed made it nice for my kid to have other kids come to the room and hang out, since we basically used the other bed as a staging area for day packs and such. There was also a small closet, with a safe and several drawers and storage on top, plus under bed storage for luggage, etc. The bathroom was small, but worked fine for us. The shower doors opened up all the way to maximize the space. It was a little tricky to figure out how to get in and out of the shower because of the door configuration, but there plenty of space once you got the doors opened right and AMPLE hot water at all hours (in some cases too hot). They also stock with bath towels and beach towels constantly. You were supposed to leave used beach towels in the bin on the boat deck, so even if we took one to lounge or use in the Jacuzzi, we'd come back to the cabin and find more. They don't have keys to the staterooms, as apparently many many sets have been lost, guests locked themselves out of rooms, etc, but you can lock them from the inside. We didn't have an issue with this, and I did use the safe to lock up valuables, but my laptop didn't fit. My folks had the superior stateroom, which was slightly larger, and had a floor to ceiling window and larger bathroom plus a table and 2 chairs. They include free snorkeling equipment (wetsuits were $15 for non-Tauck guests for the duration of the trip) and they have 2-3 mesh bags per cabin for equipment, and fresh water for rinsing.
Food: All meals were served in the dining room, with fixed hours for breakfast, lunch and dinner. There was a shipwide wakeup call at 7am, as the morning excursions all left at 8:15am. The dining room wasn't supposed to open until 7:30, but it opened earlier every day. Breakfast and lunch were buffet, plenty of choices, cold and hot. Lunch always had a kids station with fries, pizza, hot dogs, etc. (it changed every day). Dinner was a la carte with a couple of appetizer choices, three main course choices and two desserts. We didn't have a bad meal, but there were some days where some of the offerings (the more locally oriented ones) might not have been great for seriously picky eaters. The kids were given the option of having early dinner around 6:30 (dinner usually started around 7:45 or so) and they did a really nice separate buffet for them, with burgers and pasta, etc. We just had to let them know before the 2nd excursion and they would set it up. We were there for Christmas eve, and they had a special buffet out with turkey, etc, plus live music afterward. They also put out snacks after each excursion and around happy hour in both bars (hot food though in the indoor lounge only). They had a great coffee machine, available 24hrs (I lived on the mochaccinos), along with water for refilling bottles, etc. They also did a couple of included cocktail hours for everyone. On the Tauck program, all soft drinks, wine with dinner and happy hour was included. I'm not sure what the beverage inclusions would be booking direct, but the listed bar prices were reasonable - $3 for a beer, $4-$5 for a basic mixed drink.
Service: The service on board was fantastic, especially the stateroom attendants. I think they were in there 4-5 times per day. Great evening turn down with yummy chocolates every night. The waitstaff in the dining room was a little on the slow side for American standards, but they were attentive and wine pours were always generous. They accommodated numerous special requests. I had a minor issue with a light in our bathroom, it was fixed immediately. Everyone was super friendly. Christian, the hotel manager on board was hilarious and obviously cared about guest comfort (its so obvious when staff is checked out)
Guides: I think there were a total of 7 naturalist guides on board, plus the expedition leader, Ramiro (who was awesome and extremely knowledgeable). We didn't get all of them during the course of our 5 day cruise, but the ones we did have (we usually had Gabriel or Camillo, I think we had Katty one time), were excellent, with an engaging rapport and genuine interest in sharing their knowledge about the different species and ecosystems on the various islands. We did get to the the hike on Espanola with Ramiro, which was nothing short of incredible - he was funny, and just a fountain of information (i think we were the last people off the island. Because it was such a large group, they split between the Tauck guests and the other companies. We had separate briefings at night from the rest of the guests, and I think the other briefings were a little more in-depth than ours were. There was one briefing where I wished they had gone into a bit more detail on the planned hike to the crater lake on San Cristobal (it was a little more challenging than they made it out to be), but the rest of them were good, and left us prepared for what we would be doing the next day. They did a couple of photo shows throughout the trip of pics the staff took and then after the cruise, sent out an email link to the pictures (no charge! great added value, as we certainly would have paid for the dvd - a lot of the guides were serious photographers). I'd be completely remiss if I didn't mention how fantastic our Tauck tour leader Carla was - she was so on the ball and on top of everything, really made sure there was not one hitch possible.
Excursions: I could go on and on about how amazing the Galapagos is for wildlife, pristine beaches, rugged terrain, etc. We did 5 islands: San Cristobal, Santa Fe, South Plaza, Santa Cruz and Espanola (I'm not counting Baltra, because all we did was go to the airport). Everything launched from pangas and we had a variety of wet and dry landings. The guides went out of their way to create shorter and less demanding hikes that were not on the original schedule so that some of the passengers could see the boobies and other wildlife without exceeding their ability levels (there were several passengers in their late 70s/early 80's and one special needs passenger on board). On beach/snorkel outings, they have a glass bottom boat for people that didn't want to snorkel and they did multiple runs back to the ship so people could go back as soon as they wanted or stay longer on the beaches. For snorkeling and kayaking, they had staff out for safety monitoring. The only major Galapagos thing we missed were penguins (didn't make it up to Fernandina, but now I have a reason to go back!). Espanola was our group's favorite - lots and lots of boobies, marine iguanas, wave albatrosses and the most playful sea lions ever. We opted for the tortoise reserve on Santa Cruz instead of the Darwin center. The guides said they used to do both, but a lot of prior guests felt it was redundant. I'll be happy to answer any questions about specific things if anyone has any questions. otherwise this will be a million page review.
Tips and things to know: Agricultural control is really tight on the Galapagos - no nuts of any kind, no taking ANYTHING from the islands off with you (and they go through your luggage on both ends). We brought some snacks with us, as I have a growing 11 yr old, m and m's, chex mix, some jerky, clif bars, since there isn't 24hr food service. We brought back most of what we took with us, as we didn't really consume it, but it was nice to have the option. They give you one water bottle for use the entire time (you refill at the station in the bar - plus we had our own water bottles) and ask that you take that and any other larger personal trash off the islands when you leave. There is a DR on the ship and they leave out Dramamine for anyone to use when needed (and it was needed several times). There were several days where the ship was really rocking and location wouldn't make a difference I don't think. We felt it all over the place. Tipping was included on our package through Tauck, but I know we left additional tips for several guides and the stateroom attendant (I also got one of the bartenders). I know a lot of the Tauck group did the same, but I couldn't speak for everyone. I was very glad to have my laptop with me, as there was not a ton of entertainment on board and no tv's in the cabins (except the Christmas eve music session), and while most everyone was asleep by 9-10pm every night - these were busy active days, the kids would have movie night in our room on my laptop, then play cards or something. The staff was EXTREMELY accommodating for kids - they played a couple of movies we brought in the main lounge for them, popped popcorn for them, basically let them have the run of the ship, as long as they weren't being too obnoxious. We also were really lucky in having in general a great and diverse group of people on board with us. I don't think its always like that where all the kids got along. I know there was one older gentleman who was very frustrated with the kids, and the noise they made during meals, etc, but this was certainly not advertised as a romantic pleasure cruise, but as a family friendly adventure. This was absolutely a trip of a lifetime for me and my family and overall the ship accommodations and service was much better than I had personally expected (I was expecting much more rustic and spartan accommodations - this is a middle of nowhere kind of place with limited tourist facilities - I was expecting "research" type accommodations)