This is an extremely long rambling review but if you can make it through the whole thing I believe I've answered most of the questions I myself asked prior to this trip.
Your Fitness: If you can walk a mile in about 30 minutes (even mall walking) without feeling exhausted then you can easily handle the walking part of the hikes even the long ones. Note no hike was longer than 1.75 miles and you walk them in 2-3 hours. Because of the length of time on each hike you will be standing for the 2-3 hours; there is usually no place to sit down. If you can't be on your feet for that long then do not take the long hikes. The only other limiting factor is your balance/mobility issues. On several hikes you will walk on rocky or uneven terrain; very rarely is the hike on perfectly level clear paths. If you can handle this, even slowly and/or with hiking sticks, then you will have a wonderful time. If you have major issues on uneven terrain then you will not even be able to do some of the shorter hikes because the paths are the same. The ship only has stairs (no elevator) and you will have to climb up and down fairly steep stairs to get on/off the ship but there are handrails. Hiking Sticks are available on the ship (think wooden sticks) but there are not enough for everyone if the ship is full and several people use two. This was a problem on our trip. I used the sticks the first day on both hikes and needed them for balance because of all the boulders. Also, a reminder, unless you are in a town the only place to go to the bathroom is on the ship.
Pangas: If you don't already know, the only way to and from the ship is by Panga(Zodiacs). Dock/Ship to Panga is easy. You will be handed onto the ship/dock by the guide and then you will use the steps/ladder to climb down/up into the boat. The staff will take your backpack/stick from you while you board to free your hands and then pass it to you. Dry Landings are pretty much the same. Wet Landings are actually easy as long as you don't mind the wet part; I did all of the Wet Landings barefoot and then used a washcloth to wipe off my feet. Wet Boardings are more interesting, especially if you are short but they do have a step (think of an old fashion wood swing) on one side that you can place your foot on and using the ladder rail to pull yourself onto the panga. Your butt will get damp on the pangas, accept this or dress accordingly.
Exercise Equipment: There is 2 ellipticals, 2 treadmills, 1 bike, 1 small weight machine. Several people on our trip used the equipment. The hikes really don't give you much exercise, I even considered using it but it was a vacation :-).
Exhaustion: Several people/reviews talk about how you need an extra day in Quito to recover from this trip. There is so much down time daily that I'm not sure how people get so exhausted unless they are staying up super late. Note we only went 1 time zone from EST to CST which may have helped us some.
Room: We stayed in Suite 501 (we were upgraded from 509 on the Thursday before we left - the PH never sold on our trip). I LOVED this room. The American outlet (3 prong) is what the clock is plugged into; when you unplug the clock to plug in your power strip the clock will remember the time. There is no clothesline in the shower but they have an over-the-door hooks which I thought was better. I personally thought the bathroom and room were good size. The shower is a glass door. Our beds were two twins pushed together with a gap created by the two frames touching each other (others have described this). After the first night, I left a note for our steward, Salome, requesting if it was possible to make a queen bed. Later that morning she had eliminated the gap and we had a queen bed. Whatever she used did not cause any bumps/lumps and lasted the whole week. We had a sofa in the room that comfortably sat 2 people and pulled out into a bed with a real, but thin, mattress (we looked). We had a TV we never watched and a frig always filled with sodas, and water but nothing was ever very cold, I preferred to go to the bar for an iced drink. There is also a desk, which I used for storage (note the blow dryer is in one of the drawers). We had a balcony which was tight but could sit two with a small table. When you were sitting in the chairs, sofa, or bed you could easily see the water and views even though most of the balcony isn't glass like on other ships its metal. You no longer get chocolate every night but we did get it two nights. The chocolates were just small plain pieces not the fancy box people use to talk about. Our luggage fit under the bed no problems but we only had carry-on size (45 linear inches). The room got cool/cold when we turned the air on at night, during the day we had the air off with the glass door open when we were there. The room is extremely sound proof; we didn't even hear the anchors unless we were awake. The only problem with this is it is extremely difficult to hear someone knocking and I mean knocking hard. Safe is still difficult to use, we failed twice to get ours to work. Neither safe on the ship or Marriott will hold a normal laptop (14/15 inch widescreen), if you have a smaller one it might. Shampoo/Conditioner are in the shower, bar soap, bath gel, lotion, sewing kit are all in the bathroom. We did get champagne in the room on arrival, we had a bowl of fruit (which we asked Salome to take away because it was going to waste), and we got appetizers in the room (which weren't bad but note they always have some snack in the bar/grill during the cocktail time).
Ship: We had 91 guests on the ship and it never really felt crowded. The Blue Finch was never opened and we asked the Hotel Director about it and he said it was too cold for the guest. It was also the reason he gave for not having more meals outside. The Library was always locked, not sure why but the sign said they would open it for you. They also have movies but we never looked at the list. Several people used the laptops, I saw 5 going at once one day. Still cheaper to use an Internet Cafe on the two town days, Puerto Baquerizo and Puerto Ayora. The only stairwell we are allowed to use is the ones midship; the ones in the middle of the rooms on the port side are for staff only. And taking a turn around the deck takes about 30 seconds.
Food/Room Service: The Food is okay to good but it would be very difficult to go hungry. The only excellent item we had was a dessert called Chocolate Crunch. I wonder if the Executive Chef, Lazaro Fleitas, is a graduate of a Culinary School or just a cook (like me ?); reasons to follow. All of the fish was cooked well but it was all kind of bland; white fish with no sauce or seasoning. I'm not talking salt/pepper seasoning; I'm talking herbs, salsa, sauces, etc. The sides are also bland, I think most nights it was a boiled potato (shaped differently) or plain rice and very plain vegi (again no seasoning that you could taste). One night we had the fish with a chimchirri; the chimchirri had no garlic in it which if you cook is the main ingredient. A mushroom risotto on the menu was a portabella mushroom with a little pile of brown rice; again not a risotto. So after a few nights of this I decided to start ordering other things and the meals improved. I had moussaka which though it didn't taste at all like a greek moussaka, wrong seasonings, it had a very unique and good taste. I also ordered a pasta dish that once you put on the parmesan cheese again had good flavor. For Lunches the World Buffet at the Grill (Great seafood) and the Mexican Buffet at the Restaurant were the two better ones. You can easily pick up your food at the restaurant and go sit outside or as others did grab something from the grill and go down into the restaurant. I'm a dessert fiend and we had some good desserts but they did serve different colors of jello every day (you do not have to eat it ?) We discovered that we had trouble having dinner from 8 pm to 9:30 pm and then going to bed soon after (we are early to bed, early to rise people). This had nothing to do with seatmates, we tried twice to eat in the Restaurant at night, and it was the length of time and the noise level where I couldn't hear my tablemates to have a normal conversation. So DH and I had dinner in our room through room service on all the other nights. Now let me preface this that the Xpedition is not geared towards people eating frequently in their rooms, Service is not the problem it is communication. Most of the crew on this ship does not speak good English; we even had trouble with the Guest Relations not understanding us - my Spanish is extremely limited to only a few words. But once I learned the trick, what we received for dinner was exactly what I asked for. We did have a balcony room but I would have no qualms about asking for delivery to the Blue Finch which was a wonderful place and could even handle a group or family at the multiple tables. For anyone else who would like to do this, the tricks are: 1) Go preview the menu near Guest Relations/Bar; 2) Write Down what you want but be choosy about your keywords - for example: we ordered Shrimp Bisque one night what we got was Shrimp Cocktail. I watched the Guest Relations write it down correctly but the person who filled the order just saw the word Shrimp (we did have soup spoons that night so someone else had read it correctly). 3) Remember if you order Ice Cream Desserts they will melt, so eat first ?. 4) We picked 8 pm because 7:30-7:45 is the briefing time. Dinner always arrived on time. 5) Be sure to order other things like bread, butter, salt, pepper, parmesan cheese, etc. because it is hit or miss if they will show up or not if you don't ask for them. 6) If you want the nightly wine order it, anything else get it yourself from the bar after the briefing and bring back yourself. 7) Enjoy the dinner, place the desserts by the TV, go up to your own private hot tub for a while, then come back to enjoy dessert. 8) While we were in the hot tub, Salome would remove the dishes. I never complained when we received a wrong item, we just ate it. Breakfast had similar problems; if you order something very specific like fried eggs you will get it exactly as you want; if you order that you would like 1 each of the 2 juice choices offered today you can end up with anything. If you want butter, jam, etc again must be very specific. We would call for breakfast around 7 am every morning and they would deliver in 10 minutes (one morning they told me would be 15 min and they made it in that time). Remember my comment on the soundproofing, we didn't hear the delivery one morning even though I was waiting for it (DH was in shower), Guest Relations called and said he was ready to deliver, I felt terrible the guy had to carry the tray up and down the stairs extra times because I didn't hear the knock. Our normal breakfast was coffee, 2 juices (mix n match), and a plate of slice fruit for the two of us. I would sometimes go down myself a little later to the dining room and grab a couple pastries or banana bread (if you request them on room service you end up with weird things).
Shopping in the Islands: Puerto Maquerez was T-shirts, touristy stuff. The problem is you might find a T-shirt you like hanging on the wall but finding one in your size seemed extremely difficult to me. So selection was very limited. Puerto Ayora seemed to have better shopping but was also more expensive, maybe your suppose to haggle which I don't do well. We didn't buy anything but some local snacks at the grocery store. I personally thought the Baltra Airport had the better shopping and you have plenty of time on the day you are leaving to shop here. I got a handpainted T-shirt and Tile here and felt the prices were reasonable. The place where I got the handpainted T-shirt (about 6 stores up on the left) gave a free Galapagos Passport Stamp if you bought something.
Quito Bus Tour - we filled 4 buses, they did a good job, and we saw several churches and some of the town. We did a little bit of walking but city walking. If you do want to do the Equator Monument you need to take the elevator up and the stairs down. The Guides all spoke decent English. We never felt unsafe, but the sellers are pushy. The scarves that everyone talks about buying for $2 each, I found at one of the shops at the Equator that still had the "Made in China" tag on it. I have a tough time believing that they are handmade by the locals. We did buy a few things at Equator Shops which I think could possibly have been made locally. There is lots of bottle water on the bus, and all the places they take you to use the bathroom have TP now. The first one though you have to pay 10 cents before you enter and then they give you a little TP (if you need more bring your own). That is 10 cents for everyone (male and female). Bring hand sanitizer because they may have water to wash up with but no towels or soap frequently.
Lunch was at Carmine's Restaurant - the food was good, not special. Unfortunately we ended up next to the pianist, who was good but made it hard to hear our tablemates (I know this seems to be my problem but I do not have any deafness). The water was sitting on the table in glasses, I did not feel comfortable with drinking it so we stuck to the juice which I really liked it was cantaloupe.
Dinner at the Theatre was okay. There are a few tables for two, we grabbed one of them. Here they have bottled water on the table and you could have beer at no extra charge. The singer wasn't bad but old school. If you know who the Rat Pack is and like their music then you will probably enjoy it. This is just the start for late, drawn out meals.
Quito again: The last dinner at the Hotel is now in a conference room and the food was very poor. They even miscounted and didn't have enough meals to serve. One of our tablemates didn't get his food for over 20 minutes after the rest of us. And this occurred at more than one table. Celebrity is trying to fill our days with cultural events but I wish they had left this as was where everyone went to the Hotel Restaurant and ate at their own pace. The Folk Dancing at the beginning of dinner was good, but then they went into what I call Modern Dance not Traditional Dance and I didn't care for the interpretations. I enjoyed the music and wish they played that during dinner instead of the canned music. The pre-dinner time is in my opinion stupid. They serve hors d'ouerves in the hallway outside the conference room. In this hallway is about 8-10 vendors selling local crafts; it is extremely crowded and those who wanted to go shopping did so for 1.5 hours before the dinner.
Flights: The Flights are fine. You get seating assignments based on your rooms. Top Suite gets First Class on the plane and then down. We didn't make First Class but we were Bulkhead; there are other people on these flights besides the Xpedition people. Luggage limits are the new higher ones but we saw people with way too much luggage and they didn't stop anyone. You stop in Guayquil both ways. Going to Galapagos you get fuel (can't go to the bathroom), some people disembark, some embark and they load tons of cargo. Return trip is similar but I don't think they load cargo because we weren't on the ground very long. You get fed on both legs of the flight both ways and I thought the food was decent. I especially liked the yogurt with frosted flakes.
Marriott: Juices were better than the ship, 1st room the bed was a little hard, 2nd room the bed was great. The room and bathroom are huge and all amenities like soap, shampoo, etc are supplied. You get 2 bottles of water in your room that are free (one was by the coffee pot and the other was next to the bed, the really small bottles in the frig cost money. We supplemented these with ones bought from the "bakery" down downstairs, they cost $1.25 or taken from the bus after the tour. The breakfast at the hotel is very good. DO NOT leave anything important in your luggage that you put out at 5am; I accidentally left my IPOD in the front inside pocket of my suitcase forgetting to transfer it back to my backpack for the flight. It was stolen.
Naturalist - Jorge, Myra, Jose Luis, Freddie, Juan Carlos, Fatima and Jorge (goes by George) was our Cruise Director. I put the list in order of how I liked the naturalist. We were usually on the 1st or 2nd panga going out; just because we are always early. We also took the last panga once just to see what the difference was, none that we noticed. ALL of the Naturalist are extremely knowledgeable, personable, and speak English well. The problem I had with Fatima was you are frequently walking single file, 16 people stretched out especially after a sighting and everyone needs to take pictures; she would frequently talk to the front of the group and the back of the group would have no idea what was being said. She wouldn't get us all together and then repeat what was asked or what she already said to the front of the group. It is very tough to stay with the front of the group because you can get behind someone who wants one more picture, or is just having difficulty with the terrain. Another example with Fatima was we had spotted a land iguana and again about 8 of us still taking pictures, she had just left, we all saw a feral cat. We had been told to report them. We tried but when I walked around the corner to tell Fatima, I was next in line, she was gone, I could not see her in the 200 feet of trail ahead, so I walked very quickly and didn't catch up to them for probably about ¼ mile to tell her about the cat. We had her several times and she "ran" all the time. Hopefully it was a fluke for Freddie, because I really liked him, but he picked on one of the older ladies one day and it really turned me off; especially since this lady was keeping up very well with no complaining. Juan Carlos we only had once but he seemed very good.
Weather: "When it's hot it's hot, when it's not it's not". I didn't create the quote but I loved it and in Sept it was true. We had several days at the beginning when it was fully cloudy the whole day with mists/rain on and off. The rest of the days started off cloudy and turned fully sunny. Daytime temps were low to high 70s, nighttime mid 60s to 70s. Water temps were around 68 for us. Several naturalist mention that the rains start in Dec and go through Feb/Mar. Rain means a good storm for 20-30 minutes but note in Jan/Feb 2010 they had rains all day for multiple days; it affected the ecosystems for several of the animals. And as some reports also told it was HOT! In Feb/Mar/Apr 2010 even got to 104 degrees one day according to one of the naturalist.
Snorkeling - We did bring our mask and snorkel; we wore the wetsuits which helped but the temperatures weren't that bad around 65-68 (this is the same temp as when we snorkeled in the Keys in January.) We had 6 opportunities. Champion Island which they work hard trying to convince you not to take. They call it a deep water snorkel but most of my snorkeling has been in water over my head in which I'm not allowed to or can't touch bottom so no biggie. On our trip the water was calm and you get in the water by going over the side of the panga and return by climbing a straight ladder from the water (standard from other snorkel trips we have done). I missed the shark on this trip but we had a single young sea lion that wanted to play and I did so by diving and rolling. The sea lion will approach you from behind, belly to belly, and kind of touch your mask; it definitely freaks you out a bit but it was great fun. Be sure you know how to clear your mask of water because you will be smiling and laughing so water does get into your mask. Someone mentioned to me later that if you blow bubbles the sea lion considers that playing also. If you don't do Champion Island you can do Cormorant Point; people there said they swam with sea lions. We skipped the 2nd snorkel after the Flamingo search because it was labeled a practice snorkel and we didn't expect to see much (also asked our naturalist who agreed). People enjoyed it but it wasn't special (ie. Different from other places we have snorkeled). We did the 3rd one after Bartolome and saw some big fish (including sharks), lots of starfish, penguins (we saw out of water, some saw in the water), this was probably our clearest snorkel. The 4th snorkel at Urbina Bay was unsafe so no one snorkeled, waves were crashing against the rocks which means so would we. The 5th snorkel at James Bay was a good one, lots of sea turtles and sea lions and fish (sharks again), but clarity was poor. The 6th snorkel at Dragon Hill was like swimming through a salad bowl (someone else's description) and even though we saw some fish and sharks, everyone cut this one short. None of the Snorkels had truly clear water, but it's been a long time since we can remember truly clear water; and the clarity, roughness of water and what you see will vary from day to day and hour to hour so these descriptions are true of when I snorkeled only. Also I thought I would freak about the sharks and I did a little when I saw my first one but they totally ignore you. They swim by you but don't look at you or come back around so it's kinda like did I just see a shark.
Keep in Mind: You will spend time waiting. You will wait on the dock before the initial boarding of the ship and you will wait at the airport when it's time to go back to Quito. This is just common sense because they have to have some time with no guests on the ship to get it ready for the next group. We heard several people complaining about.
Also the Newsletter you get each day can be wrong. They obviously repeat them and they would frequently say things like the Blue Finch is open (never was), Buffet outside at Grill (only the 1 day), or Outside Night Dining (never was). That everyone on this trip wants to see and take pictures of the same things you do. We had people who hogged the prime locations videotaping or snapping pictures, we had people who would go off path or way ahead possibly scaring the animal into hiding or flight (think tortoise in the shell hiding, land iguanas scurry away) of course this ruined it for everyone.
Alcohol: The liquors offered are fine name brands, a few examples Dewars, Tangeray, Amaratto Disarnno, Stoli; if it's out so you can see it you do not have to pay extra for it. You can request a double, a virgin anything, or lighter alcohol. Our bartender Jacobo was wonderful, and we never really had any waits for drinks except the one time we were on the last panga back from the shore.
The STAFF is PHENOMENAL! If you ask for something they will do it sometimes you don't even have to ask. They really do try to make everyone's trip special for them. I don't know how they remember all the faces from week to week but they will ask you for your drink order in one part of the ship and then deliver it to wherever you were heading.
We brought just over $300 in cash, small bills; this included our $40.80 exit tax ($81.60 for two or us). I wish I had brought a little more money we came home with less than $40 but we didn't use a credit card for anything. You can pay your bill on the Xpedition with cash; you do not have to even given them a credit card imprint unless you are paying that way. We did give extra small tips (not expected, not implied by anyone) to our room Steward, our favorite bartender, and to the poor woman who had to lug our dinner to our room every night.
We saw everything we were "suppose" to see. We missed the snake (what a shame ?) and whales. We did see dolphins, sharks, turtles, boobies hatching to few weeks old, boobies mating, penguins mating, albatross flying, albatross babies, sea lions from a few days old to seniors, tortoises, owls, hawks, and most of the other birds that are unique to the islands. We went on every excursion and if there was a difference we took the long one, and we tried to do all but one of the snorkels. I know some people say you can skip an excursion but if you are healthy I wouldn't do that we had fun and learn something on every excursion and that was the whole point of the trip. Also, you can choose not to get off the pangas if you can't do the hike portion.
6:15 - 9:15 am Coffee/Croissant on Beagle Grill 7:30 - 9:00 am Gift Shop Open 7:00 - 9:00 am Breakfast Buffet in Darwin Restaurant 9:00 - 11:30 am Excursion 12:00 pm Lunch either at the Beagle Grill (hamburger, fish, hot dogs, pizza) or Darwin Restaurant (Different Theme Buffets) 2:00 pm lecture/movie/demo - length varies to 15 minutes to couple hours 3:30 pm - 6:00 pm Excursion 6:00 - 7:30 pm Gift Shop Open 6:30 pm Cocktail Time (different specials if you want to try them) 7:30 pm Nightly Briefing 7:45 pm - 9:30 pm Dinner 9:45 pm some form of party