Celebrity Xpedition Cruise Review by Ethan Solomita: Celebrity Xpedition
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When most people think of the Galapagos, if they think of it at all, they associate it with Darwin and Evolution. Maybe they remember hearing about the unique wildlife found there. Most likely they don't really know where it is, but it's probably a long way away, and the travel is unpleasant, and once you get there you're on a very small boat with limited services.
That was my picture of it, too, but I decided that the natural history of the islands was enough to compel me to learn more. The final result is that I'm writing this review aboard an airplane on my way back from the Galapagos, after having spent 10 nights with Celebrity Xpeditions, 7 of which were in the Galapagos proper.
Quick summary: this trip was exceptional, as was the ship, the destination and the people. Although I did have one disappointment -- there were no naturalist lectures on-board -- it is impressive that there's only a single complaint I can think of. And that complaint is easily resolved More by buying a book about the Galapagos before you leave home.
THE GALAPAGOS: Let me start by talking about the Galapagos themselves, since you might be interested in visiting them regardless of cruise line. They are a chain of islands owned by Ecuador off of the Pacific coast of South America. They are directly on the equator, as is Ecuador itself. The mainland of Ecuador is basically due south of Florida, and the Galapagos are roughly due south of Texas.
Despite being islands directly on the equator, they are not a tropical paradise like Hawaii or Polynesia. The islands are quite arid, some extremely so. Although they have some beaches, the overall sense is more like the rocky volcanic style of the Kona Coast of Hawaii. Because of the islands' location they are the subject of cold currents coming up from Antarctica, making the waters surprisingly chilly, but bringing a lot of nutrients that make snorkeling and diving exciting.
What truly make the islands unique are two distinctions. First is that there was no human contact with the islands (according to most scientists at least) until very recently. Second is that there are no predators of land vertebrates native to the islands. Because of this, vertebrates (e.g. birds, reptiles, sea mammals) have no fear while on land, and will let you walk right up to them. In fact, you often have to step right over them, because they plop themselves down in the middle of the trail. I've been nuzzled by a baby sea lion, come face-to-face with a sea turtle while snorkeling and sat down right next to a giant tortoise who was looking right at me. Does this sound intriguing?
Post-human contact has taken its toll on the islands. Gigantic tortoises used to be everywhere, but unfortunately for the them they are extremely slow, they don't try to hide, they can survive for months on a ship with no food or water and apparently they taste really really good. European sailors killed tens of thousands of them over the years, and the cats, rats, pigs and goats brought by settlers nearly finished the job. But on several islands they do survive.
Today, 98% of the land is a protected national park. All access to that land is strictly controlled. As a tourist, you must be in the company of an authorized guide at all times in the park. The remaining 2% hold a couple of towns with a total of 20,000 people or so, and in fact many of the guides were born on the Galapagos.
Some people just fly out to the islands, stay at a hotel in town and book day-tours as they go. You can book scuba tours and surfing and beach trips if you'd like. But most people seem to get on a tour boat for a week at a time.
VISITING THE GALAPAGOS: The Galapagos are the crown jewel of Ecuador. While this isn't the poorest country you're likely to visit in your travels, it can certainly use the help, and they milk the tourist trade as much as they can. All flights to the Galapagos leave from Ecuador, and they're pricey. So, step 1 is to get to Ecuador.
Typically you will fly from the US to either Quito or Guayaquil. We went through Quito, the capital, which is high up in the Andes at over 9000'. Flights were either on Continental through Houston or American through Miami. I believe that TACA also had flights through Mexico City. From Quito, there are limited flights to the Galapagos. They sell out, so book early if you're traveling independently.
As an aside, the official currency is the US Dollar. This makes things real easy for US citizens, but be aware that they do press their own coinage, so if you get coins as change they may not be good in the US.
Due to flight timings, it is impractical to fly straight through from the USA to the Galapagos, or vice versa. Conveniently enough, you have to spend a night on either end on the Ecuadorian mainland. Celebrity had us spend two nights prior to the Galapagos in Quito, giving us a full day to tour the former colonial capitol. It was nice enough to spend the day in Quito, but we were all looking forward to the Galapagos.
Due to the altitude, Quito's weather is downright cool, highs may hit 70, lows are never too cool -- around 50. Coming from San Francisco in January, it was like I hadn't left home! The Galapagos, not surprisingly, were much warmer, typically 80's and sometimes 90's, somewhat humid but nothing like the mainland coast.
The above is accurate for the dates we traveled. The Galapagos have a distinct rainy/cooler season which begins in January, followed by a dry/hot season. We got lucky and had perfect weather throughout, but you might want to read up on the weather before you leave. Also, if you're interested in a specific animal, you might want to research when it is in mating season, as that is usually a more interesting time to see it.
Once you're in Galapagos National Park, your movements are very controlled. There are a large number of choices for activities, with each island having several options, but once you've made your choice you must follow your guide. Each guide leads a group of up to 15 people or so. One thing to note is that the guides are authorized by the Park, but are employed independently, i.e. our guides worked for Celebrity (i.e. Royal Caribbean).
Incidentally, you will be told that there is a 30 pound limit on bags checked to the Galapagos. I had been told that this is unenforced, and in fact my 50-pound piece of luggage went through without problem. A number of people were upset to have been forced down to just 30 pounds, but most of them later decided that it was better to travel light. The risk is yours to take.
One last note: on your return flight from Quito back home, you will have to pay $25 in cash, per person. It's one last way that Ecuador has to get a little more cash from you.
THE CELEBRITY EXPERIENCE: I chose Celebrity mostly because I'd sailed with them before and enjoyed my cruise, and also because I tend toward motion sickness and so wanted the largest ship I could find! The Galapagos have a reputation for rocky waters. Celebrity Xpeditions, however, works a little differently from a standard Celebrity cruise. Nearly everything is included. It was difficult to find anything to spend money on, other than souvenirs. Even alcohol on board the ship was completely free, unless you specifically asked for a top-shelf liquor.
Surprisingly enough, the transfers were included even though we booked our own flights. I guess there are so few flights into Quito that it wasn't a burden. From the moment we cleared customs, the Celebrity representatives were waiting. Everything was extremely smooth, with baggage being whisked away at appropriate times and reappearing in appropriate places.
All the guides in Quito were friendly and helpful. Upon hotel check-in there were drinks and hot towels. The next day, all meals were included and a full-day tour was offered. The hotel (the JW Marriott) was definitely up to U.S. standards, and the food was decent. It also had a really hot hot tub!
The next morning -- ridiculously early, I'm afraid -- we were up for the flight to Baltra in the Galapagos. I put out my bags the day before, and I didn't touch them again until they reappeared in my cabin aboard ship. I also was able to leave a bag with the hotel for pickup upon return in a week.
All through the airport in Quito we were taken around by the guides. Incredibly, TAME airlines served a meal on both legs of the direct flight, even though the first leg was only 40 minutes long and the second only an hour and a half. And a better meal that you usually get in coach on a US airline.
Upon arrival in Baltra we were met (unbeknownst to us at the time) by our naturalist guides for the coming week. Buses were waiting, and we were quickly sent to the dock 10 minutes away. Within a few minutes the Zodiacs began ferrying us all to the ship. Again, it was very well handled.
Upon arrival at the ship, we were welcomed with cold towels and fresh juice. This would continue to be our welcome upon return to the ship throughout the week. We were sent to the lounge to relax and have a drink as they checked everyone in, then off to lunch.
Even that very first day we had an afternoon excursion. The typical pattern throughout the week would be one excursion in the morning and one in the afternoon after lunch. For each excursion, typically three choices would be offered. You could usually choose a low-intensity zodiac ride along the island's coast spotting coastal wildlife, or a high-intensity hike along a trail.
Mind you, high-intensity is not really that strenuous. Most trails were under 3 miles round-trip, with minimal elevation change. The big problem is walking on rocks. Many of the hikes had extended sections where you had to watch your footing carefully.
There were also several snorkeling opportunities. I believe the third opportunity was the one that was declared "best" by the naturalists. Don't miss it! You will find yourself swimming with many sea turtles and sea lions, plus if you're lucky you'll spot rays, penguins, sea iguanas and yes even a shark or two in the depths. (They're small, don't fear!)
I had originally wondered if traveling on a large ship, relative to local standards, would detract from the experience. Our ship had 100 guests, whereas many others had 15. No fear! This is what allowed us to have so many choices for activities on each excursion. There was still one naturalist for every 15 people or so, so we weren't herded like cattle.
There were also no problems with waiting around. The ship had four Zodiacs and they were great. They had everything so well scheduled that you never had to wait more than a few minutes to disembark or to return to the ship. Usually they would start by dropping off the hikers on the island, then return to the ship for the low-intensity zodiac tour, and then after that they would go out to pick up the hikers. Worked perfectly.
As on the mainland, everyone was extremely friendly and helpful. Apparently the crew has even more reason to be happy. Almost a year ago, when Celebrity decided to enter this market, they bought out the Galapagos sailing rights from a local cruise line with a similarly sized ship. They kept the crew, junked the ship, replaced it with the Xpedition and gave everyone raises. And they deserve it.
On the last night, a local troupe came on board to perform. They sang and danced local music of Incan origins. Afterward, a wonderful surprise was waiting for us in our staterooms -- a really nice touch. I'll leave it as a surprise.
On the way back to Quito we were escorted to the airport, and with customary efficiency we returned to our hotel. A quick shopping expedition was offered at 4 p.m., and at 6:30 p.m. we were taken to an excellent group dinner at a local restaurant. Then we all returned to the hotel to prepare for the trip home.
Throughout the trip I never paid for a meal, for a taxi, for a drink, for a shore excursion. Bottled water was provided both by the hotel in Quito and by the ship in the Galapagos. All tips were included in the price.
CELEBRITY XPEDITION -- THE SHIP: I've been saving my comments on the ship itself. Quite simply, it was a great ship. I've been on ships varying from the Royal Olympic Stella Solaris to the Carnival Ecstasy to the Radisson Paul Gauguin, so I think I have a reasonable basis for comparison, although this is far and away the smallest of those ships. I can definitely say this, however: we never saw another ship in the Galapagos that we would have preferred to be sailing!
The standard cabins were 160' and well laid out. Given that there were no formal or informal nights, we had plenty of space for our luggage. The only requirement for dinner attire was no bathing suits, so that's pretty relaxed! They all had air conditioning and private bathroom, just as one would expect on a larger cruise ship.
There is only one indoor lounge, but it was large and had a bar which was open all day and into the night. The couches and chairs were all very comfortable, and the windows gave good views outside.
There were three different outdoor decks to choose from: one in the stern (right next to the lounge and its bar), one protected from the wind amid ship with the hot tub (which was only warm) and one in the fore. There was always plenty of space for everyone, and if you chose to be lazy and skip an excursion, you could relax in the sun (or shade) with a drink. Or you could schedule a massage for $50 for 50 minutes at almost any time you liked.
One thing to be aware of is that there is no elevator on this ship. The Zodiacs disembark on deck 2, and rooms are variously on decks 3, 4 and 5.
Smoking is quite restricted. The only place you can smoke is on deck. All indoor spaces are non-smoking, and the park itself is also non-smoking. Even in the towns I didn't see much smoking.
Exercise facilities were fairly limited. There were a few exercise bikes on deck amid ship. There were also a few basic workout devices in the room where the massages were given, but massages take preference and so you can get booted out. Also, there's no wraparound deck to use for jogging. Due to the nature of the shore excursions, however, there's probably enough activity to keep you busy.
Except for the performance on the final night, there is almost no entertainment provided. The only exception is a keyboardist playing music as people return from an excursion, and in the evening on deck. Fairly simple, but pleasant enough.
Food was quite good, but generally not inspired. This wasn't a menu filled with showy ingredients such as lobster and caviar. The food was almost all of Ecuadorian origin (required by law, apparently). The beef was better than I'd been warned about, but in general the fish was always the freshest option.
Breakfast was a buffet in the restaurant. Lunch was either a buffet in the restaurant or a simple hamburger/hot dog and mini-buffet on deck. Upon return to the ship in the afternoon, simple sugar cookies were available. During the 7:45 p.m. briefing on the following day's activities, hors d'oeuvres made the rounds. Dinner itself was a more traditional affair in the restaurant, open seating, except for two nights which were on deck. Also, room service was available except during late-night hours.
For snorkeling purposes the ship provided fins, snorkel and mask to all passengers, sent directly to your room before the first snorkeling opportunity, to be returned on the last night. Wet suit shorties (3mm) were also available in various sizes. Most of the passengers wore them, although admittedly most of the naturalists didn't. These could be left hanging to dry overnight on deck, so no worries about a wet smelly suit hanging in your bathroom.
As to SCUBA: I'm afraid the answer is no, they don't offer it. Yet. On-board our sailing was a representative from Celebrity who was evaluating the water sports offerings, and he is looking into the possibility of offering SCUBA in the future. But as of now, nothing is settled.
There was a small library available from which to borrow books. I left one entitled something like "God and Evolution in the Galapagos," which I found quite interesting. There is a small gift shop with some basics. A doctor is on board if you need her. And they have an open Bridge, so you can get a tour anytime, day or night. There is a TV in your room, but it has no live satellite link, just pre-recorded programming.
Aesthetically I found the ship to be very pleasant, even if some of the artwork clearly predates the ship's repositioning to the Galapagos. The restaurant was very nice, and just large enough for everyone to be seated. The best word for it was: comfortable. It had most of the amenities one looks for on a larger ship, with the coziness of a ship where you recognize everyone within a few days.
SUMMARY: The Galapagos are an amazing destination for anyone interested in seeing a unique side of nature. Celebrity seems to have found an excellent itinerary with excellent guides and crew who are helpful, friendly and keep everything operating smoothly. And the Xpedition is a great ship from which to explore the Galapagos.
Some mornings require you to be up very early, especially if you want breakfast. If you're not one of those people who can handle a short night's sleep, or varying sleep times, just accept in advance that you'll occasionally sleep through a morning excursion. It'll leave you in a better mood to enjoy the others.
The only thing which I was disappointed by was the lack of a lecture series on board. They did have one lecture on the history of people in the Galapagos, and they showed a short video that I think was originally an IMAX film about the Galapagos. But I was hoping for something seriously informative regarding the theory of evolution and how it relates to what we were seeing. The Galapagos are, after all, the "Mecca" of evolution. Perhaps they were concerned about becoming controversial for those who reject evolution. More likely is that the naturalist guides, while well trained, were not truly scientists prepared to give such a lecture.
And I feel compelled to mention, on behalf of a friend I made on the trip, that there were no chocolates left on the pillows at night. So be warned! Less
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