Celebrity Cruises is the only mainstream cruise line to operate expedition ships in the Galapagos Islands. To many cruisers, it's a familiar brand but the experience of cruising in the Galapagos on Celebrity's expedition fleet (branded by Celebrity as Xpedition) is quite different from in any other location that Celebrity sails, in terms of what you do, what you see and how it's organized.
Celebrity currently operates three ships in the Galapagos: Xperience, Xploration and Xpedition. In 2019, a new ship, the all-suites Celebrity Flora, will join the fleet, and Xperience and Xploration will retire.
So, let's say you're a big Celebrity fan and you want to see the unique flora, fauna and landscapes of the islands. What should you expect and should you choose Celebrity in the Galapagos? If you enjoy the Suite Class on the big ships and have the budget, you might be better off waiting for Flora, which will have the closest experience you can get to a traditional Celebrity sailing. If you like the Celebrity ethos and service but don't mind an older ship, now is the time to go, before the snazzy new ship means prices rise.
But, before you make a decision, here are 12 differences between Celebrity in the Galapagos and the big ships in the fleet.
- The Galapagos ships are tiny. Xperience carries just 48 passengers and weighs 1,610 tons, while Xploration takes just 16 and the larger Xpedition takes 98. The new ship, Celebrity Flora, coming in 2019, will carry 100. In contrast, the smallest of Celebrity's mainstream fleet is Millennium, carrying 2,138 and weighs 91,000 tons.
- Don't expect a Celebrity ship in microcosm. No Lawn Club, no atrium, no Qsine, no Martini Bar, no kids' clubs -- this is a much simpler setup, with friendly bartenders, plentiful food, expert naturalist guides and a backdrop of stunning scenery and extraordinary wildlife. Having said that, there are some features that Celebrity fans will find familiar: The beds with the curved edges, the gray swimming towels, the X on the funnel, for example. Celebrity Flora will have more similarities to the big ships, in particular Celebrity Edge, in terms of its clever "infinite veranda" cabins.
- Almost all of the crew are from Ecuador. To sail in the Galapagos, cruise ships must be flagged in Ecuador, with a crew that comes primarily from that country. Ecuadorans have a reputation for being friendly and because the ships are so small, the crew quickly learn your name and your favorite drink or how you take your tea. Senior officers go through the same training and operate to the same protocols as those on Celebrity's big ships.
- The food is different. It's excellent, but don't expect the range of restaurants you find on Celebrity's bigger ships; Xpedition and Flora have two each, plus cabin service, while the smaller ships have one, as well as outdoor dining when the weather permits. A lot of local ingredients are used in the food; fish is bought from local fishermen, and ceviche soups feature most days, as do tropical fruits, palm hearts, different corns and quinoa, all of which are Ecuadorian specialities. Some dishes have a more personal touch than you'd find on a big ship, like the homemade ice cream.
- A Galapagos cruise with Celebrity is all-inclusive. So while it comes with a higher price tag than the big ships (which is usual for this destination), you spend no money once you're onboard, unless you buy things from the shop. All drinks are included, all meals, all excursions, park fees and all equipment like wetsuits, masks and snorkels, which are top quality. There's no tipping, either, unless you want to add something extra into the tips box at Reception. But, don't expect bargains. Even a last-minute deal will cost four or five times more per night than a late deal in, say, the Caribbean.
- Cabins are comfortable but fairly simple. For now, anyway. Xperience and Xploration are old ships, built long before balconies became fashionable, so the higher category cabins have picture windows and the lower categories, portholes. On Xpedition, accommodation is more luxurious -- the suites have verandas, for example. Flora will be all-suites, so by 2019, the whole product will move upscale. Cabins do come with a few familiar Celebrity trappings like bathrobes, mini-bar, fruit baskets and turn-down service. Instead of bottled water, every guest is given a reusable plastic flask, which can be refilled from water stations all around the ship. The flask is yours to keep. There are no accessible cabins; Celebrity, like other lines in the Galapagos, makes it clear that the destination is not suitable for wheelchair users.
- The ship is never docked. If you're going to the Galapagos, you have to get used to the Zodiac inflatables (which most people love). Even when it's in Baltra or Puerto Ayora, the only two centers of population you will visit, the vessel is at anchor and the Zodiacs are used to ferry passengers ashore and, once a week, supplies and luggage. A degree of agility is needed to get on and off, especially when the sea is choppy.
- There's no SeaPass card. It's not necessary, as you don't sign for anything; getting on and off the ship is handled the old-fashioned way, with an officer checking names off a list, although Flora will most likely be more high-tech. On the older ships, there are no door keys for cabins unless you specifically request one, but safes are provided.
- The people you meet aren't the typical Celebrity cruiser. If there is such a person, that is. Many will never have cruised before. Ages ranged from 30s to 80s, although the Galapagos is a family destination and you will encounter quite a few families during school vacations. Essentially, though, the Galapagos is a bucket-list destination and everybody has a special reason to be there; you don't meet people who have booked a cruise purely on the basis of a last-minute deal.
- There's no dress code. On the big ships, evening dress code is either "smart casual" or "evening chic" but in the Galapagos, it's dress as you please. By day, the packing list advises lightweight fabrics in neutral colors and sturdy footwear. In the evenings, it's very casual, as well although a few people made an effort on the last night.
- Everybody does everything together. This fosters a happy, house party atmosphere. Most people book the pre-cruise package that starts and finishes in Quito, including sightseeing, meals and three nights in the JW Marriott, so friendships are struck up before even arriving in the Galapagos. Onboard, it's open seating dining, with everybody eating at the same time. Because all excursions are included, the tours and activities have a friendly spirit, too, for example, people choosing to snorkel together, or joining the same hike. After the cruise, expect everyone to share photos on social media.
- Entertainment is themed around the expedition. There are no distractions like art auctions or shows in the evenings. Instead, expect talks on wildlife, David Attenborough documentaries and on the penultimate night, a quiz about the Galapagos. If you're lucky enough to have a talented guide, you might get singing and guitar playing, too. Nightlife stretches to a couple of drinks in the bar and a spot of stargazing, but that's all. There are TVs in the cabins but they only show a couple of local channels. There is free Wi-Fi but it's so slow most people didn't bother.