Pre/post-cruise. We booked our own air using frequent flyer miles, but for the first time did the Celebrity pre/post-cruise package. This was by far the most convenient arrangement and was handled beautifully. We arrived in Quito late after delays in Atlanta and it was a welcome relief to see the "X" sign and be whisked from customs to our hotel. The JW Marriott was first rate and we only wish we had more time to enjoy it... Note: Captain's Club members are eligible for Executive Lounge privileges which are a significant perk. (We had read about this and requested it at check-in) The Lounge has snacks, a full breakfast, and free internet. Plus the friendliest and most efficient staff imaginable. After breakfast there, we departed at 9 am for our city tour. We saw Quito highlights and had lunch at the Crater restaurant (take pics as soon as possible before the fog rolls in). After a brief turn around, we went out for a lovely evening at Theatro restaurant and were entertained by a tenor. During the pre-stay we me the first of many wonderful people we would be travelling with. We had to have our suitcases outside of our room at 5 am to be inspected before being taken to ship. (One suggestion would be to check the bags the night before.) We did leave bag with warmer clothes which we hadn't needed at the hotel. Left early to be taken to airport. Great not to have to hassle with luggage. We made one stop en route to Balta to pick up some people. TAME was a delight to fly - not sure if the white table cloth service was because our flight was a Celebrity charter. The post-cruise stay was a bit rushed; we didn't get to hotel until after 4 PM and left at 5 PM for shopping. Did like the open air market and bought some things there and at airport. Had a lovely dinner at the hotel before a very early departure the next morning. We did take altitude meds and had no problems while in Quito.
Embarkation. Term hardly seems to apply. No lines involved. We were met at Balta airport taken by bus to the landing where there were the most photographed seal lions sunning on benches. We boarded zodiacs for first time, were oriented by naturalist, and disembarked onto Xpedition. While we were enjoying welcome fruit punches, we were checked in and found that we had been upgraded. We were escorted to room and had a little while to rest before formal orientation and preview of day's excursions. Our bags had been misplaced and we had our first pleasant interaction with the guest relations staff - truly there to help. Our bags were located onboard in time for first excursion.
The Ship. So much attention has been paid to the wonders of the excursions, that less has been said about the Xpedition itself. It is a lovely ship. With the emphasis on ship - you are clearly on a ship and not a floating hotel. There definitely is the feel of being at sea and the movement to go with it. We had started taking bonine and had no ill effects. The Discovery Lounge is a pleasant, comfortable room where we were briefed each day and the source of espresso, cappuccino and imaginative and standard drinks. The Beagle Grill was not open during our sailing; its menu was served in the MDR. The MDR was never crowded and had comfortable seating where people lingered. An upper deck had chaises and a hot tub (which unfortunately was out of service for part of the trip and not very hot when it was working.) There was no pool. We were given a tour of the galley and could have toured the bridge. The overall condition of the ship was spotless and sparkling. While the live music was nice, the piped in music seemed at odds with the ambiance. The ship has a recycling program but guests could benefit from more instruction on how to recycle their water bottles. When I asked, I was showed where to place the bottles.
Our cabin. We had been upgraded to stateroom 411. We had originally booked the least expensive stateroom reasoning that we would seldom be in our cabin. However, we enjoyed having a window instead of the porthole. May have had nicer robes, etc but this was not a consideration. Don't know if we would have felt less movement on 3rd rather than 4th deck or further back. Did hear anchor but this turned out not to be a problem and not sure any cabin escaped it. The cabin seemed larger than expected and had an enormous amount of storage space - given the weight restrictions on luggage, don't see how it would ever be filled but nice to have. The TV was pretty much a waste of space and seldom used; the refrigerator which was stocked with bottled water and soft drinks was a big help. The beds were unusually comfortable and no egg crate was required. The bathroom was larger than most ships and had a shower door instead of curtain. The furnishings were attractive and room kept immaculate which was hard given all our activity and inevitable tracking of sand and mud.
The staff. In spite of some language gaps, this was the friendliest and most accommodating bunch of people you will ever meet. There is really a sense of community and the desire for everyone to have the best experience possible. I was particularly taken with how helpful the Guest Relations staff was (this had not been my experience on other Celebrity ships) and the computer person had amazing patience and a most pleasant manner. Since the internet service was understandably spotty, she was accosted constantly and kept her good humor. (I was just delighted to have computer access at all.) Our stateroom attendant was never intrusive and giggled at and encouraged my attempts at Spanish. While there was open seating and we had no regular server, some waiters seemed to learn who wanted champagne or cappuccino. The service was more informal than on other cruises and not perfect, but was warm and obliging. The cruise director, a naturalist himself, was a constant presence from early morning to night and always on top of the complicated logistics of the excursions. There was an excellent masseuse on board. The naturalists are in a class by themselves. It became apparent that they were the main asset of the ship. The quality of the small group excursions which they led was unparalleled. All were knowledgeable and provided an excellent experience while they ranged in personality with some being more outgoing than others. They are a wonderful resource and would provide help as needed on excursions. Don't be afraid to ask.
The food. I hadn't expected much in the food department and was pleasantly surprised. The food is lighter than the more European menus on other Celebrity ship and was a nice change. While not everything was great, there was a good variety and something enjoyable at every meal. The fresh fruit is outstanding; I particularly enjoyed the papaya at breakfast every morning. There was excellent cerviche for lunch every day along with themed offerings. For dinner our choice was usually the local fish. We liked the Galapagos lobster but others did not. I particularly recommend the whole red snapper served at lunch and the tuna appetizer at the bar b-que on deck. There was shrimp galore. The menu did include Celebrity's chilled soups including an excellent Gazpacho; there were breadsticks; waffles were made every other am, and there were even soufflés for dessert twice. I enjoyed trying the Ecuadorian dishes. There was a hot sauce made daily which enlivened the made to order omelettes. While I believe there was an alternate menu, this was never mentioned and I never needed it. Wine was served generously and after dinner drinks if requested. There are shorter meal hours than on regular cruises. Room service is at some times the only food available. Snacks were provided after excursions and during briefings.
Activities. The cruise is clearly about the excursions, but I was surprised to see that there were other activities offered as well. For us at least, it was impossible to do everything. There was a wine and cheese tasting, various cocktail parties every day, star gazing, lectures, a film, a not to be missed King Neptune's party, a culinary demonstration, open discussion with naturalists, a Galapagos trivia contest to name some. I have been told that there was dancing but have no first hand knowledge; excursions start early and are tiring. Almost everyone attended the daily briefings and slide shows which preceded dinner. I was surprised that they were announcements of activities and could have done without them. (except perhaps for the one before PM excursions which served as a wake-up call for those of us napping.)
Excursions. Amazing. I didn't meet anyone who wished they hadn't gone on one. We chose low/medium intensity which does not mean low impact! We saw more than we ever dreamed. The main difference in excursion levels in my opinion is that low/medium have more time on zodiacs and high more time on land. If someone enjoys hiking, that is an option, but it is not necessary in order to see everything. In fact, some "low" intensity excursions saw more wild life. Actually I feel that "low" is somewhat misleading or at best a comparative term. There was only one excursion other than zodiac rides (a beach walk to see Flamingoes) which I considered truly low intensity. Most low/medium excursions involved shorter walks on lava rock which was still difficult for some. I fell once as did others and also twisted my ankle getting off of a zodiac during one of the easier landings. Fortunately, neither mishap was a problem. Walking sticks were a big help. It is impossible to catalogue all that we saw - for starters, turtles mating (more than once), seal lion pups nursing (more than once), Kicker rock at sunrise, an island covered with iguanas, countless blue footed boobies, penguins, flamingoes in flight, striking landscapes, beautiful beaches. The only species I hadn't seen was sharks and they appeared just before we disembarked. I had never snorkeled before and my first time out saw a turtle and a school of yellow tail; later had a face to face encounter with a seal lion. Those who did advanced snorkeling were enthusiastic about it. Unfortunately, two snorkeling activities were cancelled due to high winds and rough seas. These conditions led to some exciting zodiac rides. I was impressed with how well the naturalists worked together to get us back when the tides were high - this involved some less than graceful hauling of passengers onto the zodiacs. The progress of the excursions and conditions are monitored by the ship and instructions relayed to naturalists. One of our landings was cancelled just before we attempted it; luckily, we had already seen an incredible amount via zodiac. Safety is always paramount. While there is water onboard, it seems like an ice pack (and first aid kit) might be worthy additions.
General Comments This was not a perfect cruise; the significant point is that the imperfections did not matter. The experience transcended a broken hot tub or at times spotty service. I was very impressed with my fellow travelers; they were the very antithesis of "chair hogs" or entitled cruisers. Instead people seemed to feel privileged to be onboard. In fact, there was very much a communal feeling with everyone helping each other out even offering to exchange deck chairs so we could sit together, sharing binoculars, pointing out wild life, etc. The passengers were a very diverse mix of ages and nationalities. Most had travelled extensively. Although I'm not a fan of open seating, there was always someone interesting to sit with. By the time we were leaving we had met and had pleasant interactions with nearly everyone onboard. The charter flight back was fun as was the final dinner at the hotel. We enjoyed meeting the other two CCers onboard. I feel that the trip experience was enhanced by insights gleaned from the postings of previous cruisers. I understand now why the mega thread has been going for 5 years. We are all aware that we have shared a very precious experience.