This was an outstanding cruise/land tour experience that did not disappoint. There were many choices to be made including time of year, weather preferences, wildlife sighting preferences, and Itinerary A&B. We could not decide which itinerary so we "bit the bullet" and booked both. The temperature was lovely with averages in the mid 70's. Night time was much cooler. Generally speaking, Itinerary A was more abundant wildlife and Itinerary B was more diverse terrain, geology, more water activities including snorkeling. We did see lots of wildlife on Itinerary B but farther away--on cliffs, flying high in the sky, underwater, etc. As the naturalists reminded me when we gave them our comparative review, wildlife has no agenda and what you see each week on each itinerary can be very different. However, I really loved Espanola, the waved albatross and would have hated to have missed that. So I give a slight nod to Itinerary A based on my preferences.
SHIP: The Xpedition is a lovely small ship, very well appointed, comfortable, casual and easy to get around. The common areas had plenty of space and it was rare that we had trouble finding places for the 8 of us to sit together. We spent a lot of time in the Dicovery Lounge, especially since there was Wi-Fi available there. The connection was spotty sometimes but usually everyday we could access our email at least once. It was free, which was even better. You have to sign up the first day at Guest Relations and they put in an access code for you. I kept losing mine and they cheerfully re-entered it many times.
We never used the hot tub, there was just not enough time.
DINING: Food is very subjective, but our group enjoyed all our meals, the variety, the presentation and the amounts. While it is not like other Celebrity menus, it is good considered that they have to use local products from Ecuador and base all menus around what is available locally. The beef is different (grass fed) and tastes a little different that what we are used to but the beef dishes were prepared to order and I only had one that I would say was not good. All the fish dishes were lovely and the vegetarian choices looked nice but I didn't try any. We ate outside at the Beagle grill several times for lunch and there was a nice variety available there.
CABINS: We were in Cabin 417, forward on Deck 4. Once we got used to the space, we found there was room for everything. There are two closets, one on either side of the bathroom door with lots of shelves and hangers. There are no drawers except tiny ones in the one nightstand by the bed. We must have had a new mattress, because it was VERY comfortable. Our friends had to get mattress toppers added to their bedding. We used our empty luggage under the bed to store our "excursion gear" like backpacks, fanny packs, masks, snorkels, sunscreen, bug spray, water shoes, etc. We folded back the top and used it like a rolling drawer under the bed. WARNING: forward cabins get the anchor noise going up and down, sometimes late at night and sometimes in the mornings. Others in other locations heard the anchors but in our cabins it will catapult you right out of a dead sleep and scare you to death! It was not enough to make a complaint but we did notice it a few times.
CREW & STAFF: Wow, what can I say about the host of people from Celebrity which made our trip so memorable! We loved all the naturalists, although there was different degrees of understanding their accents. You cannot plan ahead which one you want to get; they randomly rotate and you just get on the next zodiac and get the one that is assigned to that boat. The Staff on board goes out of the way to be friendly, helpful and eager to please. We loved Maykel, (maitre'd), Fernando (Hotel manager), Gabby (guest services) and all the servers and room attendants.
EXCURSIONS: Our first excursion, Itinerary A, to Espanola was so thrilling, full of wonder and adventure, with so many wildlife sightings that it set the tone for the entire trip. That being said, I am sure if we had done only Itinerary B we would have been just as thrilled with the sightings on that trip. We saw the waved albatross, landing, taking off, with chicks, doing a mating dance...also the same with the blue footed boobies. We saw sea lions playing, with pups, with a brand new pup just born that hour and so much that we could not believe our eyes. We did more long walks the first week than the second week, and I do believe you have more opportunity to see more on the long walks.
We did all the snorkel trips on both itineraries and the ones on Itinerary B were more thrilling. However we got to see sea turtles, marine iguanas, a variety of tropical fish on both.
We saw orcas on Itinerary B and the naturalists detoured our regular excursion to take the zodiacs closer to the whales. Wow, fantastic.
Tortoise Day is Saturday of each Itinerary, and goes to the same places, just in reverse order. We found the Darwin Center interesting but not compelling. We loved seeing the tortoises "in the wild" in the highlands.
CLOTHING: We were there in "winter". Mild, pleasant days and very cool evenings. I took 3 pairs of shorts and did not need them. My convertible pants would have been fine. I layered on top: short sleeve or 3/4 sleeve shirts with a long sleeve Columbia shirt over the top. All my clothes were SPF and I only used sunscreen on my face and hands. Wore a hat at all times so had hat hair the entire trip. Did not need any bug repellant at all. We had Magellan jackets (more like heavy windbreakers and water repellent). They had zip off sleeves so sometimes we wore them as jackets and sometimes as vests. My husband had hiking shoes and I wore Clark walking shoes. They did just fine. We had water sandals for "wet landings" and that was just fine. We changed for dinner, but same kinds of pants we wore in the daytime (just clean) and I took a couple of nicer knit tops for dinner. The first week looked like a Columbia/Ex-Officio catalog among the guests. The second week a number of people "dressed" for dinner with jackets, dresses and heels. So, to each his own, and his own luggage weight requirements...
QUITO: The JW Marriott was lovely and a great place to begin the trip. We arrived 2 days earlier than the tour started. Those that arrived on the first night had a very short night before a full day of touring early the next morning and no chance to acclimate to the altitude. I'd recommend arriving at least one day prior to the start of the tour. Quito is interesting in the old town, not so much otherwise. We did go on our own to the top of the mountain on the sky tram to see the beautiful views. The food was good there with lots of choices.
MACHU PICCHU/Cusco/Lima: The was an outstanding tour, even with the altitude problems. I was the only one in our group of 16 who started Diamox in Lima before we went to Cusco, and I had no problems and no side effects. Others in our group had many issues with the altitude. Most was taken care of with oxygen treatments in the hotel in Cusco. Our tour director, Juan Carlos was with us from Lima through Cusco and Machu Picchu, back to Lima. He is the best tour director I have ever had. He added a level of trust and confidence that was greatly appreciated. Our tour guide, Ronald, was also very good. This is an exhausting tour with so much packed in there is little time for rest. But it is fantastic. I didn't realize Peru had such gourmet cuisine. It was great! It rained and snowed the day we went to Machu Picchu (first time since 1992) but the cool air and misty clouds added an element of mystery to our visit and shows in our photos. The Orient Express train was a great experience.
We rarely do planned tours like this but I am confident that we would not have had such a first class, experience packed, hassle free experience had we tried to do this on our own. HIGHLY recommend this tour.
I have very little of a negative nature to say about this trip. It was the most expensive trip we have ever taken but was absolutely the right choice for us.