One of the joys of the expedition cruise experience is anticipating what you will see each day. But the anticipating can also cause a certain amount of anxiety: Am I wearing the proper footwear for a hike? How close can I get to a sea lion? Are there sharks where I am snorkeling? Ultraluxury line Silversea Cruises, with its new destination-specific Galapagos ship, the 100-passenger Silver Origin, has come up with a clever way of foreshadowing.
An elegant Basecamp with indoor and outdoor living room areas is attached to the ship’s marina, and it serves as both a cushy place to hang out and gear up for excursions and a brilliant educational center.
At the marina, you step off your Zodiac inflatable boat and go up steps onto the ship. This is how all guests arrive onboard, after flying in to the sleepy island of San Cristobal. Later, if you go snorkeling, you’ll leave your provided wetsuits, masks and other gear in a storage alcove. Couches provide a place to sit while you disrobe.
Stepping from the marina, you start seeing the difference between this ship and many of the vessels that typically sail in the Galapagos. The Basecamp is done up with stone and cream-colored captain's chairs and couches, glass display cases with coral, statues of turtles and nautical knickknacks, and you'll find a self-serve espresso machine in the corner. Of yes, you remind yourself, this is luxury cruise line Silversea.
And then across from the two reception desks you are drawn to an alcove covered by an interactive digital screen -- the largest such screen in the Galapagos. A touch control panel on a podium looks like the controls of a spaceship, but don't let that intimidate you. Here you can find every detail about your trip and more.
Silversea received special permission from the Galapagos National Park to film footage by drone, then added in expert commentary from naturalists. Touching the screen, you can see photos and video of the actual trails you will be hiking -- to see if it's terrain you want to tackle during your seven-night sailing. The trails are rated moderate to adventurous.
If you want a deep dive into the Galapagos, you'll find it by navigating the magic wall, which provides details about the islands, including science and research being conducted. It's a fun way to supplement the already deep and interesting lectures given by the ship's expert team of naturalists -- one naturalist for every 10 guests onboard.
Cruise ships in the Galapagos are required to alternate weekly between eastern or western routes, because there are restrictions on how many people can come ashore. On my sailing we were on a western route.
Having checked the video wall and listened to the nightly preview from our expedition leader, which takes place over complimentary cocktails in the cushy Explorer Lounge each evening, I knew we would encounter nesting marine iguanas on an adventurous hike on volcanic rock on Isabela Island.
Still, nothing quite prepares you for being surrounded by the large, dark and menacing looking creatures. As with all the animals we encountered in the Galapagos, the marine iguanas couldn't have cared less about our presence. We were sized up as something big and non-threatening walking by.
Deep-sea snorkeling off a Zodiac one afternoon, my companions and I were greeted not only by schools of fish but also by playful sea lions who swam by to check us out and lingered to show off some diving moves, five black-tipped Galapagos sharks (of which I kept a wary eye) and a couple of sea turtles. On other snorkeling outings there were swimming penguins, and I got spoked by a cormorant with big, webbed feet who seemed to materialize out of nowhere.
Beaches brought views of turtles and rays in shallow water and sea lions lounging. Paddling on one of the ship's 10 kayaks, I lingered to watch a seal eat an octopus, a circle-of-life experience. On Zodiac rides close to cliffs, we spotted blue-foot bobbies and other marine birds staring at us as we stared at them.
You remind yourself often on a visit to these islands, 600 miles off Ecuador and deep in the Pacific, that you, as a human, are not all that significant.
On Silver Origin all guests stay in spacious suites with butler service, the only such experience in the Galapagos. All suites either have a step-out balcony or a Horizon Balcony, a design borrowed from sister line Celebrity Cruises, in which you push a button to open the top half of a wall of glass for a balcony-like experience. (Your faux balcony is large enough for a couch, table and chair.)
You head off each day on your choice of Zodiac tours, kayak excursions, beach visits, hikes and deep-sea snorkeling experiences -- or stay on the ship for the opportunity to admire the scenery as you dip in the ship's raised top-deck whirlpool, stretch out on an outdoor daybed or explore the book collection in the windowed Observation Lounge. Windows abound on this ship even in stairwells. You are never far from views, or niceties.
Never mind that you might be sweaty and covered in sand from your land exploration, your glass ocean-view shower with rain head shower awaits, and so does your butler, with an evening tray of canapes and your choice of cocktails.
If you want, you can reserve a private retreat to the ship's top deck whirlpool and order up some complimentary bubbly to enhance your soak.
The luxuries on Silver Origin are quieter than on other ships of Silversea. The idea is the luxury of destination immersion: The ship is a quiet backdrop to Mother Nature's bounty.
You might dress up a little for dinner -- country club casual -- where you can order up a local beer or a cocktail prepared with local liquor, or take advantage of the wine pours, which feature South American and international selections (all complimentary), while dining on Ecuadorian cuisine, prepared with locally caught fish and farmed ingredients.
You have the luxury of a large expedition team, all from Ecuador, and several of the guides raised in the Galapagos, and never more than 12 guests in your Zodiac.
None of this is bang-you-on-your-head luxury, and that's a comfort here in a place where animals and the volcanic geology are what drew in the first place. Silver Origin has a subtly elegant way to help you immerse yourself in one of the most fascinating destinations on Earth.