We are in our seventies and this was our 7th cruise. Exploring the Galapagos was something that had been on our "to do" list and it turned out to be a trip of a lifetime on a perfect ship. Many people have offered comprehensive reports on Xpedition. We will offer a few comments that we think need to be re-enforced.
Overall we spent 10 days on a very classy program on board one of the best cruise ships in the world. Celebrity Xpedition has an award-winning environmental program and is reportedly the most eco-friendly ship in the Galapagos. In our opinion, there is no better way to see the Galapagos than travelling with Celebrity Cruises on Xpedition!
Bookings - As always, we worked with our favourite travel agent, Marie, at Marlin Travel in Ottawa. Celebrity offered an all-inclusive 10 day program that we accepted and added air transportation through them. Of note, Celebrity also offers one additional day in Quito on the return from the Islands. The JW Marriott hotel in Quito (five stars +) had an extensive list of one-day tours in and around Quito that may be of interest to some. In addition, Celebrity also offers an extension to Peru to visit Machu Picchu for a total of 13 nights. Details are available on their web site.
The Celebrity web site is relatively easy to navigate and manage your reservation. Completing all the forms on-line prior to departing home is highly recommended. The thing to remember is that Celebrity does not notify you (phone, mail or e-mail) that your luggage tag order is available, or that the Guest Ticket Booklet is on your electronic page. You need to log-in on Celebritycruises.com then manage your reservation. The luggage tag order form will appear on the reservation summary page. The Booklet is visible only when you fill-in the on-line check-in. All this starts to occur around 45 days prior to the cruise.
The personalized Guest Ticket Booklet mentioned above is superb. It is 48 pages long and has all the information one could hope for. We did not get this last year when we cruised on Equinox so it may be a new feature or just for the Xpedition. A few weeks before leaving we even got a glossy version in the mail thought our travel agent with more baggage tags. It is something to behold and keep as a souvenir!
Getting to Quito - We travelled by train from Ottawa to Montreal, stayed at the Marriott (a five-star hotel) right in the terminal then flew American Airlines the next day from Montreal through Miami to Quito. The North Terminal (American Airlines) at Miami is new and very impressive. It is spacious, clean, and offers a multitude of shops, restaurants, and bars.
The Celebrity brochure and web site limited baggage weight to 30 lbs (13.6 kg) which was not mentioned in any other reliable source such as the airlines that travel to the Galapagos. Reports from travellers that had used Celebrity Xpedition all mentioned that they saw no signs of their baggage being checked for the 30 lbs limit and many reported that they had exceeded that weight limit without any challenge. In December 2010 the revised Exotic Cruise e-brochure stated 40 lbs (18.2 kg) as the baggage limit. On arrival in Quito our guides told us that the limits were 45 lbs for checked baggage and 17 lbs for carry-on! Not really sure why the misinformation but if you use the airlines limits you cannot go wrong.
Quito - The flights Montreal-Miami-Quito and return went very smoothly. We did have to do a "go-around" arriving in Quito due to weather but the second approach was successful. On arrival in Quito we were met by the Celebrity staff and from then on until we boarded our flights northbound everything, and we mean everything, was taken care of. We did not even have to retrieve our luggage; it just appeared at our hotel room door.
The JW Marriott hotel in Quito is a five-star hotel in every respect. Separate check-in for Celebrity, cold drink on arrival and a superb room. The room we had was huge with a large bathroom that included a soaking tub, separate shower stall and all amenities possible.
Keep in mind that Quito is at almost 9400 feet above sea level and the lack of oxygen is noticeable. You have to walk slowly and not strain. The locals drink coca tea which they say helps adapting to the height. It is not very good tasting and we certainly did not notice any effect. The day spent in Quito was a classy affair. City tour, excursion to the equator monument (45 minute bus ride each way) and the evening dinner completed the day. The lunch was at Carmine, a first class restaurant while the dinner was at the National Theatre for an excellent meal accompanied by a recital given by a local tenor. Soft drinks and juices were provided but alcohol had to be purchased separately.
Checked baggage had to be turned in to the staff by 10 pm for overnight inspection to protect the Galapagos environment. They were kept under supervision by Celebrity security. The bags re-appeared in our ship stateroom the next day.
Transfer to Baltra and back - This was done by AeroGal an Ecuadorian airline flying new Airbus A320 that were pristine and the service first class. We were delayed one hour on departure but overflew Guayaquil thus regained some time. All the headrest covers, tablecloths (yes, tablecloths) flight attendants aprons bore the Celebrity Xpedition logo. The meal was what is normally provided in business class. As it is a charter flight each couple got three seats thus it was most comfortable. A very classy affair indeed.
Embarkation - There is a special arrival procedure using park entrance passes provided by Celebrity then it is on the Zodiacs called "pangas" in the islands. The ship never docks thus the pangas are used everywhere and you become an expert getting in and out of them. We were then greeted on board with fresh wet towels and a welcome drink. Very simple procedure on board as we had photocopies of our passports for them and a credit card at the ready. We were then taken to our stateroom where a welcome letter waited with a program for the rest of the day. A program for each day was in our stateroom every afternoon.
Xpedition cruising - A couple of things that should be emphasised are that while ashore on excursions you should be wearing earth coloured clothing in order not to attract insects (bright red is not an earth colour!) and walking sticks are almost essential. The ship provides walking canes but if you own real walking sticks with good handles, shock absorbers, and are collapsible for your checked baggage you will find the hiking a lot easier.
It is an adventure/exploration undertaking not a leisurely Caribbean cruise with lots of sea days. In fact, there is no free day unless you decide not to participate in events. The ship is very stable underway as it uses stabilizers but there is a rolling motion when at anchor. We were not affected by that at all. Some people wore patches (scopolamine) for the first few days.
The cabins were well laid-out with ample storage space and comfortable beds although unusual in that they are mummy type single beds put together but they do not make a double bed. The bed against the wall is a little more difficult to access but having them apart takes space away form the sitting area.
The food was exceptionally good with many selections at all the meals. Breakfast buffet offered Belgian waffles, omelettes, and eggs made to order. Lunch buffet was also good with the odd BBQ on deck. Dinner was a five course meal with a great selection every night. The waiters all speak English and are very attentive. The wines are from Chile and Argentina and are all very good. On the second day we came back to our stateroom to find a bottle of Chilean sparkling wine for being in the Celebrity Captain's Club. Nice touch.
There is a lounge and three bars but that is about it. There is also a small pool on the top deck and a spa that offered excellent massages we were told. They try to put on some entertainment every night with the help on the single on-board musician who was very talented and the amateurs amongst the crew and some passengers. They even had a Karaoke night and an Equator crossing ceremony. Perhaps the two best evening events in our opinion was one night when the ship turned off all its exterior lights except for the navigation lights so that we could see the stars. It was spectacular! On another night, while at anchor, the ship turned on all its spotlights drawing many fishes. We saw 7 sharks roaming around the ship with sting rays, sea lions, flying fishes and pelicans. Most of the passengers went to bed early because many a morning the first excursion left at 8 a.m.!
Every evening before dinner the tour director gave an outline of the activities for the next day including the excursions available. They are divided by level of intensity for ease of handling by the passengers. After his talk we selected our activities for the next day. Each panga carries a maximum of 16 passengers plus a sailor and a naturalist/guide. Individuals are not permitted by the National Park to explore on their own, you must be with a guide and each guide is a trained naturalist. The ship had 6 naturalists (formally trained and examined yearly) who we found to be simply excellent. They were all very passionate about the islands, the animals and nature. They spoke good English but you had to stay close while hiking in order to hear them well.
The pangas are relatively easy to get on and off at the ship and on most of the "dry landing" but can be a challenge on the "wet landing" or in the surf. You also need to wear a large amount of sun block because you are at the equator and likely pink from the northern climes. We wore water shoes (Teva) that proved to be an excellent choice. It is recommended that you wear covered water shoes as the ones with holes allow a lot of crushed coral and lava sand to infiltrate the shoe. In addition, you can easily get a sun burn on the exposed skin if your sun screen is washed away in the salt water. Some of the "trails" are really on large boulders and not groomed at all. It can be a challenge and the walking sticks are a definite advantage. On occasion we saw more while doing a "Panga" cruise along the shore than did people walking on the same shore. The lava formations and the wildlife are breathtaking.
Water bottles were available everywhere and needed hiking in the heat and sun. Sun screen is mandatory.
Disembarkation - Smooth as silk. The night before disembarkation we met the crew for a farewell and a slide show of our cruise. They gave us a CD with the PowerPoint presentation and additional pictures. What a wonderful gesture! The bags were taken as late as 6 a.m. to re-appear at our hotel room in Quito! On the last morning you leave the ship at 9 a.m. in order for them to prepare for the next group of passengers yet the flight does not leave until shortly after noon. It is a long wait in an open aired terminal with a minimum of facilities. We checked in as a group, went through security about two hours before our charter flight. We were then taken to the VIP lounge which meant that there were ceiling fans and a bar that served free non-alcoholic beverages (you could purchase alcohol separately). AeroGal provided first class service to Quito with another excellent meal.
Transit through Quito - On arrival in Quito we were taken to the JW Marriott then offered a shopping excursion before dinner. Dinner was in the main dining room of the hotel where we were offered an excellent dinner with music as a farewell gesture.
Return home - No major problem but keep in mind that transiting through Miami can be time-consuming. What seems to never change is the customs, immigration, security coming back north from Quito. It is a tedious and long process only to find yourself outside the security zone after customs thus you have to go through security again and lose your duty free liquor if you did not take the time to put it in your checked luggage immediately prior to leaving the customs area.
Cost - When Celebrity says it is all-inclusive it really is. All gratuities, guides, porters, excursions, hotels, meals, water and alcohol on board were included. You only had to pay for your shopping and alcohol ashore! In our opinion it is excellent value for money.
Recommendations - We would unreservedly recommend Celebrity Xpedition to anyone wishing to visit the Galapagos. It is a classy affair on board one of the best cruise ships in the world. Do not forget sun block, walking sticks, good walking shoes and good water shoes, two bathing suits if you are doing snorkel, sun glasses, camera with lots of memory, and scopolamine skin patches if the ship movement might bother you.