My wife and I signed up for Celebrity Xpedition's 10-day package. We made our own airline arrangements and flew to Quito, Ecuador on November 5, 2010, arriving there after 9:00 PM. After a smooth transition through customs and baggage claim, the Celebrity representative was waiting for us (and others in our group). From that moment until we arrived back at the airport to come home, Celebrity handled everything flawlessly. This truly was an "All Inclusive" vacation—expensive but worth every penny.
We had a 15-minute bus ride to the J W Marriott with a Celebrity representative on-board to give us a run down of what to expect at check-in and the itinerary for the next day. This was followed by a welcoming drink and hors d'oeuvres in the lobby, a check-in that took no more than a minute, and baggage delivered from the bus to our room. We were settled in our room in less than 1½ hours after the airplane touched down. The J W Marriott is a first class hotel.
Regarding altitude at Quito: My wife had a little difficulty initially with the altitude at Quito, which is 9,200 feet. From what I have read, it helps to stay hydrated, avoid alcohol, take headache medicine and drink the coca tea that is readily available.
The breakfast buffet at the Marriott was good, not great. At 9:00 AM our group boarded the busses for the day-tour of Quito. I think there were three busses. There were about 24 people on our bus. Our Celebrity guide was Rodrigo. Whichever bus you get on is the one to which you are assigned until you go to the airport the next day to leave for the Galapagos. And Rodrigo was with us all the way, explaining the itinerary, what to expect, pointing out sights of interest and offering information about the history and culture of Ecuador.
There is not enough time to see very much of Quito on the day tour, which I would rate as fair to good. Rodrigo was an excellent guide and took very good care of our group. We made several stops in the morning—the Basilica, the Presidential Palace, another church, and the city square. We were taken to a nice place for lunch (Carmine's), where we were greeted with a glass of champagne as we came in the door. In the afternoon, the bus took us to the Equatorial monument, approximately 45 minute bus ride. There are shops and activities there. We spent some time there before returning to the Marriott by 4:30 PM. At 6:30, we boarded the bus for the Theatro downtown, where we had a good dinner and were entertained by singer known as Stahl. By now we had met quite a few people that we would get to know during the week. Back at the Marriott, we put our luggage outside our room (except for our carry-on) before 9:30 PM. The next time we saw this luggage was in our cabin onboard the Xpedition the next day.
To reduce the weight of the luggage, we put it in duffel bags and left our roll-on suitcases at the Marriott for the week—no problem. The only reason in my mind that this is a good idea is that it makes it easier for those loading and unloading baggage onto the Xpedition. I believe the weight limit for the luggage on the flight to Galapagos was 44 lbs. for checked luggage and 17 lbs. for carry-on, but it has been less than this in the past. I am not aware that the weight was ever checked. What I had read about clothing needed for this trip was absolutely true: You do not need a lot and many take too much. The dress is casual at all times and there is a lot of variance in the way people dress. But nobody cares. There is a good laundry service on the Xpedition, although it is one of the very few things that is not free.
After another buffet breakfast at the Marriott on Sunday morning, we boarded the bus to the airport at 7:00 AM. Celebrity has this transfer worked out beautifully. Fifteen minute bus ride, straight into airport security, then on to another bus to the airplane. We didn't even sit down or wait anywhere. The name of the airline is AeroGal and I believe most, if not all of the passengers are with the Xpedition trip. The plane lands in Guyaquil (Ecuador's largest city) to pick up additional passengers, and then on to Baltra, one of three islands in the Galapagos that has an airport. We did not get off the plane at Guyaquil. On both legs of this flight we were served a light breakfast (which makes three counting the one at the Marriott). Transfer from the airport to the ship is also seamless—short bus ride to a pier and then load into zodiacs (pangas) to get to the Xpedition. There were 89 passengers on our trip—I believe the capacity of the Xpedition is 92 passengers.
The Xpedition does not dock at any port. Everyone going to or coming from the ship does so by panga. We watched the arrival of supplies one morning from the town of Puerto Ayora on the island of Santa Cruz. The supplies came by a small barge towed by a panga.
Check-in aboard the Xpedition was very efficient and included a "Welcome Aboard" drink, handed to us as we stepped onto the ship. We were in Cabin 401, which is as close as you can get to the center of the ship. Our cabin was an "Ocean View", and was very satisfactory. We had been booked into Cabin 420, which is as close as you can get to the Bow, but for some unknown reason were changed when we boarded (which was fortunate for us because there is less rocking and rolling near the center of the ship).
Typical Daily Itinerary (approximate—times do vary):
-Breakfast around 7:00 AM
-First Excursion 8:00 AM
-Back on Board the Xpedition by 11:00 AM
-Lunch at Noon
-After Lunch: Rest and/or attend film or lecture in Discovery Lounge
-Second Excursion 3:00 PM
-Back on Board the Xpedition by 6:00 PM
-6:30 to 7:30 Cocktail party at Beagle Grill or Discovery Lounge
-7:30 Presentation regarding next day's itinerary in Discovery Lounge
-8:00 Dinner in Darwin's Restaurant
-10:00 Usually some entertainment provided by Naturalist/Celebrity staff. One night the
exterior lights are turned on to attract sea life and birds; sometimes the lights are turned off on the top deck to allow the viewing of the night sky.
Excursions on the Xpedition: Each night before dinner, there is a meeting (cocktail party) in the Discovery Lounge, during which the Cruise Director explains about the following day's excursions, the choices (long-walk or short-walk), what to look for, what footwear is appropriate, dry or wet landing, whether there is a snorkeling opportunity or not, etc. The presentation includes a slide-show. People then sign up for the long-walk (higher intensity) or the short-walk (lower intensity) for the next day's excursions. There are two excursions per day (three on Monday). There are five or six pangas on board, which are lowered into the water prior to each excursion. Each panga carries approximately 16 passengers, the boat pilot and a Naturalist. During the week, a total of 10 islands are visited, and 14 excursions are taken. The procedure for embarking and disembarking is very efficient. The Naturalists help you step on and off the panga, which sometimes is bobbing up and down, depending on sea conditions. Each time you board a panga, you have a Naturalist on board and you stay with the same group of approximately 16 during the entire excursion until you get back onboard the Xpedition. All excursions include walking on an island except the Monday morning excursion to Kicker Rock, which is solely a zodiac ride with a Naturalist onboard. Not everyone does all the excursions, but we didn't want to miss anything so we did all the excursions and I was not disappointed. We did all the long walks (high intensity), but I understand the short walks are merely abbreviated versions of the long walk, with some additional time onboard the pangas searching for sea life. Every excursion is unique. The Guest Booklet provided by Celebrity contains a list of animals and birds that you might see. This is a good checklist to have with you during the excursion if you are like me and have trouble remembering what you saw or what the names are. Note: When you arrive back to the Xpedition, you are greeted with a refreshing drink and some hors d'oeuvres.
Following are my notes regarding the excursions (chronologically):
North Seymour Island. After lunch on Sunday, the first day aboard the Xpedition. Approximately 1 mile hike, terrain is challenging, with uneven surfaces and boulders. We saw hundreds of Frigate Birds, Blue Footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies, and Sea Lions. They are everywhere. We also saw marine and land iguanas and many other types of birds. As is the case with most all the wildlife in the Galapagos, the animals have no fear of humans—you can get up close and personal with them, although you are not allowed to touch them. You need to watch your step because you might step on a creature if you are not careful.
Kicker Rock. The first of three excursions on Monday is a panga ride around Kicker Rock. To be there at sunrise is an awesome experience, not to be missed. We saw lots of birds and some sea turtles.
San Cristobal Island. Visit to the Interpretation Center and a shopping opportunity at Puerto Baquerizo Moreno. The islands are largely uninhabited by humans. Exceptions include small population centers on San Cristobal and Santa Cruz islands.
Espanola Island (aka Hood Island). Afternoon excursion on Monday is a hike approximately 1.9 miles. Terrain is challenging, with uneven surfaces and boulders. Again, we saw hundreds of Blue Footed Boobies, Nazca Boobies, marine iguanas, sea lions and Sally Lightfoot Crabs. We also saw a Galapagos Hawk and two juvenile Waved Albatross. This was one of my favorite hikes.
Floreana Island. Tuesday morning excursion is a hike approximately one mile, first to a brackish pond in search of Flamingos (we did not see any here) then across an isthmus to a white sand beach. We saw blue herons, a lava gull, more sea lions. We headed back to the Xpedition early to get ready for the deep water snorkel near Champion Island. A 15 minute panga ride was required to get to Champion Island. Only approximately 20 people participated in this event—it was billed as an "advanced" snorkeling activity and I had read that the seas can be very rough here. We did not find that to be the case the day we were there. The water was slightly murky, but we did see lots of fish and a baby sea lion swam with us the whole way. The afternoon excursion is a wet landing and a short walk to the "Baroness Lookout". The Naturalist tells about the intrigue and mystery surrounding the disappearance of the Baroness and her two lovers. In the bay on our return trip to the Xpedition, we saw several sea turtles, a shark, a ray and many more sea lions.
Wednesday morning excursion to Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island is an easy walk to two lagoons in search of Flamingos (still none to be seen). We did see other birds and there is a snorkeling opportunity here.
Wednesday afternoon excursion to Bartolome Island is a favorite of many. There is a hike to the top of the volcano (374 feet high, 358 wooden steps). The view from the top is incredible. We boarded the pangas for a cruise around Pinnacle Rock and saw several Galapagos Penguins. Afterwards, we snorkeled in the bay next to Pinnacle Rock. The water was very clear here and we saw lots of fish and interesting volcanic formations. Some saw sea turtles and sharks here.
Thursday, after crossing the equator twice, the morning excursion is at Isabela, the largest island in the Galapagos. An easy hike of approximately one mile. On the beach we saw a nesting sea turtle laying eggs. We saw lots of finches, mockingbirds and a young giant tortoise. We snorkeled here. The water was slightly murky. A sea turtle swam with us. On the way back to the Xpedition, we saw turtles mating in the open ocean. The channel between Isabela and Fernandina is the place where one is most likely to see dolphins and whales. We did see several Bryde Whales.
The Thursday afternoon excursion is at Fernandina Island, the youngest and most volcanically active of the islands. The hike is fairly short on dark lava rock. Here we saw marine iguanas, sea lions, Flightless Cormorants, Galapagos Hawks, Sally Lightfoot Crabs, and lots of other birds. In the water we saw sea turtles and rays. The marine iguanas are everywhere, hundreds of them. This was one of my favorite hikes.
Santiago Island. Friday morning hike is easy, approximately 1.4 miles. Half is along the coast. We saw lots of birds including yellow warblers, white egrets, yellow crowned night herons, mockingbirds. Again, there are lots of marine iguanas. Here we saw fur seals, another species of sea lion. We also snorkeled here, not my favorite.
Friday afternoon was back to the north end of Santa Cruz Island and a 1.5 mile easy hike around Dragon Hill. Here we finally saw Flamingos and lots of bird species. We skipped the snorkeling opportunity here.
Saturday morning on the south side of Santa Cruz Island to the port of Puerto Ayora. Short bus ride to the Charles Darwin Research Station, where we saw Giant Tortoises in the captive breeding program. We saw Lonesome George, the last member of the Pinto Island race. Afterward, we walked back through town. This is a shopping opportunity.
After lunch onboard the Xpedition, the Saturday afternoon excursion begins with a 25 minute bus ride starting at Puerto Ayora to the Highlands. The hike is an easy hike, less than a mile. We saw several Giant Tortoises, a Vermillion Flycatcher and other bird species. We went into a cool lava tunnel. I missed seeing the owls, but others did see them. We stopped at a farm where we had a nice break and cup of coffee. While there was a light mist, we did not experience extreme mud, nor did we have a problem with ants.
Post Cruise: Disembarkation from the Xpedition is handled very efficiently. Checked luggage is left outside the cabin before bedtime. There was a considerable wait at the Baltra airport. I believe it is necessary to get passengers off the ship early to get it ready for the next cruise. The airplane bringing the next bunch is the same one you take back to Quito. There is a shopping opportunity at the Baltra Airport. After arrival back in Quito, the transfer to the JW Marriott is again handled very efficiently by Celebrity. In the late afternoon, the schedule includes a bus trip to two shopping venues. Some of our group skipped this. Dinner was a Mexican buffet at the hotel, with a band entertaining us. The meal and the entertainment I would rate as good. Our flight was very early the next morning. The Marriott's breakfast buffet was open at 3:30 AM and we had a light breakfast. Celebrity made sure we arrived at the airport with plenty of time for check-in.
Fitness: I did not consider the excursions physically demanding. However, on several islands, the walking is on un-even surfaces, with fairly large boulders and the footing is tricky It is important to watch where you step and that is difficult because you are at the same time trying to see all the sights and take photos. On our trip, Elsie (86 years old) did every excursion, including the hike to the top of the volcano at Bartolome. This was the most physically demanding excursion, but the Naturalists stop several times for breaks and photos. There are two or three fitness machines on the top deck, but I don't know of any who found the time to use them.
Walking Sticks: Just prior to boarding the panga, you have the option of taking a walking stick that Celebrity provides. I found these very helpful for the following excursions: North Seymour and Espanola. Other excursions where a walking stick might be useful: Fernandina and Santiago. Most of the other excursions are easy walks.
Temperature and Weather: For our week in early November, the weather was mild. Only one day did we experience any rain and it was only a mist for a short time. I believe the temperature was in the 70s and 80s the whole week. Early mornings and evenings can be cool and a light rain jacket is recommended. I wore the jacket on some excursions and was not uncomfortable. The water temperature is cold, but not as cold as I expected. I believe it was in the 60s, maybe 70s at times.
Snorkeling: Celebrity furnishes wet suits—most are half suits with short legs and sleeves. Some have long sleeves. We were able to get the long-sleeve wet suits, and I would recommend asking for a long-sleeve suit. We also had previously purchased "skins". With the skins and the wet suits, we were quite comfortable in the water. It was not as cold as I had expected, but the temperature did vary, depending on the island. If I remember correctly, there were six snorkeling opportunities, and we snorkeled five times during the week. The water was very clear in some places and somewhat murky in others. My favorites were Champion Island (deep water snorkel), Bartolome and Isabela. We swam with sea lions, sea turtles and lots of colorful fish. Some saw sharks. We saw sharks, but not while snorkeling. The sharks do not bother humans.
Naturalists: They are excellent, well educated, helpful and knowledgeable. Our Naturalists were Fredy, Fatima, Veronica, William, Manuel, and Juan Carlos. They are much more than tour guides—they are a wealth of information about anything Galapagos. Our favorite was Fredy. Our cruise director was Jorge, also excellent.
Seasickness: The sea can sometimes be pretty rough. For our trip, it was very rough the first day we boarded the Xpedition and the day before we disembarked. The remainder of the time, the sea was fairly calm. We had put on the Scopolamine patches behind our ears before our flight to Baltra. They helped and we never experienced any seasickness. I took mine off after the third day on the Xpedition. The patch is not without side effects. For me it caused very dry mouth and some disorientation.
Service: Outstanding. The level of service provided by the entire Xpedition staff, as well as the Celebrity staff in Quito, is first class, and beyond any we've experienced on prior packaged trips or cruises.
Food: We found the food on the Xpedition to be the one thing that was less than perfect. The food was mostly good, and there were plenty of choices. However, some of the food was poor to fair. In our experience, the breakfast food was the least appetizing—with scrambled eggs that were runny and dry cereal that was stale. The hamburgers at the Beagle Grill were somewhat bland. All the fish, pasta and steak dishes I ate were good. We did not take advantage of Room Service.
Insect Repellant: I understand insects can be a problem at certain times of the year. For our trip in early November, we did not need insect repellant anywhere.
Down time: This cruise does not offer a lot of down time if you want to participate in all excursions. Dinner is served late, excursions start early and there are at least two excursions per day. This is an active vacation and many are worn out at the end. It is good to get some rest during the day, between excursions. This is a good time to take a nap.
Summary: If you require a casino, three days at sea, shopping at every port and a midnight buffet, this is not the cruise for you. If you don't like a structured itinerary, you may be disappointed. The Xpedition is a small ship, a unique and active adventure. It truly is "all inclusive"—you can put your wallet and credit cards away. Celebrity takes care of everything. It is likely that you will get to know most of your fellow passengers, some very well. Before the week is over, you will have been on excursions with all of them. Much of what you see in the Galapagos cannot be seen anywhere else in the world. And you will see a lot. Many of the postings I read called this "the trip of a lifetime" and I very much concur.
The long running thread called "Xpediton—Anyone Recently Back" on cruisecritic.com is an excellent resource for the Celebrity Xpedition adventure. Thanks to all who have posted there. The information was very helpful.