If you are an independent traveler who likes to have some control of events, this is not the cruise for you. Unfortunately it is the only way to visit the Galapagos Islands and visit a substantial number of visitor sites. The Endeavour is an Ecuadorean flagged, German built fishing boat equipped for Antarctic conditions that carries 96 of your new best friends each week and a crew of 70 crammed into its hull. It is a slickly organized mass tourist market soft adventure cruise where you can do three or four activities: you can hike only with a naturalist in a group on either a designated “long” or “short” hike, you can snorkel with the group in a designated and patrolled area or you can kayak (three times per voyage and only with advance sign up for a spot on one of 7 kayaks) or you can, again with advance sign up, take a glass bottom boat ride. That is it. You cannot swim from ship to shore or around the ship or outside designated limits. You cannot up and go for a walk. Excersize will be in the small gym as the hikes tend to be short strolls with a lot of standing around rather than hikes.
There are long lines in narrow corridors to board the Zodiacs for disembarkation and a plethora of rules to obey. To go ashore requires you to know first whether or not it is a wet (on the beach) or dry (on a jetty) landing, then to remember, amongst the usual backpack items (insect repellent, sunscreen, water bottles) to put on your life vest, slide a magnet to indicate that you are going ashore so that they have a passenger count, stretch out both arms to be helped on board the Zodiac and then cram one against the other for the journey ashore. The Zodiacs are loaded to the point of discomfort for all, up to 8 per side. That leaves passengers wedged close together and is uncomfortable. The trick is to await the final Zodiac which may have fewer people on board. I found these Zodiac rides dangerous as well as uncomfortable; I have been whacked in the eye by a metal buckle as one of the ubiquitous photographers swings his camera around to catch a shot, poked in the side and sat on by a large off balance individual.
Once ashore, one discards life vests in the Zodiac and then the naturalist accompanying the Zodiac takes over, corralling her (or his) group of 16 close together for the hike. You cannot remain on the beach or stray from the group. The naturalists are all knowledgeable, some more so than others, and they lecture during the brief Zodiac ride ashore, going over the rules once again and then once on shore, the lectures do not stop; this is not a silent observation hike, nor a walk where one chooses one’s own speed. It is a forced march at the pace of the naturalist guide who will decide when and where to stop. People are herded like sheep and there is little space to enjoy a solitary moment of contemplation.
Cabins are very adequate with comfortable bunks (the mattresses could use updating) and good bedding and bathrooms are spotless with all the necessities provided including shampoos and soaps that are biodegradable. Meals are ample, many served buffet style with 96 people once more dutifully standing in a long line but quality is only mediocre. The offerings are typically bland to fit the American palate: bacon and eggs, sweetened fruit yogurts, sweetened breads and cakes and the usual chicken or meat or a vegetarian offerings at lunch and dinner. For those who enjoy American coffee, there is plenty but those who prefer a European coffee will need to ask for expresso. Beers and wines are local. The bar seems to offer everything one would need but I am no expert so will leave that commentary to those better qualified to comment.
The lounge is the place where everything occurs and if it is briefings (never brief) more lectures or National Geographic films that one wishes to see, you will be pleasantly surprised as there are 2 – 4 briefings per day. It is in this aspect that the crew is least skilled with little training in public speaking, thus lecturing rather than speaking without humour on their topics. Perhaps Lindblad might consider information given on ipads or similar placed in cabins. This would eliminate the vast quantities of paper wastage. The cruise line is environmentally conscious in every other aspect (biodegradable soaps, conservation of linens etc) but fails on the paper front. The daily bulletin is placed in cabins at night. The NYT bulletin in printed off and posted daily in the lounge and I would think that a system of people management whereby one signed up for a specific Zodiac in the cabin on the ipad or device for a specific boarding time, would be more effective and better save on paper waste. Much could be done to avoid the lengthy, repetitive and often boring lectures and briefings and the long lines in narrow corridors.
One cannot beat the bird and animal sightings and the knowledge of the naturalists on board. Neither can one match the range of sites visited. In this the Endeavour succeeds beyond imagination. And it is for the bird and animal sightings that one visits the islands. However, the long lensed enthusiastic photographers can be irritating as they thoughtlessly insert themselves to get the best shots. Again a better system of organization of boarding might better separate the serious amateur photographers with their lenses and equipment from those who prefer peace and quiet.
National Geographic / Lindblad cruises is probably the master of soft adventure mass tourist movers. Provided you do as you are told and show up on time for all activities to stand in line and wait and do not vary from the plan, you will have a wonderful time. Independent travelers, this cruise is not for you!