Visiting the Galapagos Islands has been on our bucket list forever, but it always seemed very daunting (both the cost and the expedition nature of the trip, especially on small boats). When we learned about Celebrity Xpedition, we felt ... Read More
Visiting the Galapagos Islands has been on our bucket list forever, but it always seemed very daunting (both the cost and the expedition nature of the trip, especially on small boats). When we learned about Celebrity Xpedition, we felt that the larger ship and luxury details would make it possible for us. I don’t like to tip my hand too much in reviews, but suffice it to say that this trip met and exceeded all of our expectations and was the best cruise ever!
This review plus a series of day-by-day blog posts, and questions and answers can be found here:
My photos can be seen and downloaded here:
We took the 10-day package because: (a) our Spanish skills are pretty much limited to restaurant menus; (b) since the cruise wasn’t going to be a relaxing spa affair we wanted a minimum of stress getting there and back; and (c) we were worried that the altitude in Quito is already stretching it [we live near sea level] so Machu Picchu would be problematic. That turned out to be the right decision for us. We made friends on the cruise who were going on to Machu Picchu and they had a great time, but we had enough trouble with the altitude in Quito and were happy to be returning home to our own bed at the end of the cruise.
Xpedition is unique in many ways, and the Celebrity website never recognizes this. You cannot print out express passes for Xpedition. You will get a very nice booklet in the mail with luggage tags and everything else you need. This is triggered by your completing the online check-in. If you booked with a TA, the materials will be sent to them and they will forward them to you.
Celebrity took great care of us from the moment we got through customs in Quito until they escorted us back to the airport for the flights home. Their shuttles were always waiting for us and eliminated the need to figure out the complex geography of the Quito metropolitan area [a mountain valley that is something like 3 miles wide but 35 miles long and seemingly never flat for more than a block] The J W Marriott hotel is beautiful, the rooms are large [especially compared to European hotels], and the restaurants are very good – and contrary to rumor Wi-Fi internet is included in the Celebrity rate along with the buffet breakfast.
The city tour of Quito was interesting, and the maze of streets made us very glad we didn’t try to do this on our own, especially since that first day was the bad one for altitude problems [exhausting travel the day before with the usual dehydration from airplane “desert” humidity levels and late bedtime plus early wake-up produced major headaches and serious lethargy – there should be a warning label “do not operate heavy machinery or make important decisions while under the influence of low oxygen levels”!] Lunch at El Theatrum was good, and the folkloric dancing was entertaining. The Middle of the World park is hokey but still worth doing [look at how many people keep going back to Disney, to see how well hokey can work ;)] – some say it isn’t on the exact Equator, but we have pictures with one foot in each hemisphere and that’s our story and we’re sticking to it… Dinner at La Gloria restaurant was even better than the lunch, so our adventure was off to a great start.
The next day showed the real benefit of the 10-day Celebrity cruise tour. After enjoying a sumptuous breakfast (included), we joined our fellow cruisers on Celebrity’s chartered coaches for a smooth trip to Celebrity’s charter flight non-stop to Baltra. We waited in the VIP lounge for a short while [probably until the ship sent the all clear that the cabins were ready], then were smoothly transferred to the nearby pier for the panga ride to Xpedition. Each panga group was welcomed in the lounge [with free booze – a harbinger of the week to come], given a brief presentation, and escorted to our cabins. We paid for “no hassles” – and there were no hassles! [Well, DW and I were seated at the back of the panga and because the day was unusually windy we got soaked from the waists up – but that was the only time we got wet on a panga and the cabin hair dryer took care of the dampness before lunch, so “no harm no foul.”]
Note 1: on Xpedition they usually refer to these inflatable boats as “Zodiacs,” which is their brand name. I use the general term “panga,” which is more often found here on Cruise Critic and was occasionally used onboard as well.
Note 2: there has been controversy on Cruise Critic about the luggage weight limits on the Celebrity charter flights. The website and the printed materials from Celebrity state limits for both checked and carry-on luggage. I think our checked bags just came in under the limit – but since they were taken the night before so Celebrity could handle the Ecuadorian agricultural inspection for us, there was no opportunity for anyone to complain if they were too heavy. I’m sure our carry-ons were over the limit – and I’m even more sure that nobody weighed them. This is a charter flight, so Celebrity is setting the rules, not the airline. I wouldn’t worry about luggage weights. [If you like to pack light, more power to you – it will make it easier for me to remember you as “the person in that outfit.” ;)]
Lunch was the first of many good meals. We had heard that food on Xpedition isn’t up to Celebrity’s usual standards – Bunk! The food was different [which for those who complain about Celebrity’s 14 never-changing menus should be a good thing!], and everything was made from fresh local ingredients and usually reflected Ecuadorian cuisine [both things that people lament missing on most ocean cruises]. I love Ceviche, and it was great to have it in infinite variations every day at lunch. Likewise Spanish deserts like flan and tres leches. And the fish was plentiful, varied and always cooked perfectly. The only weak spot is meat, because strict environmental regulations require that all meat imported into the Galapagos must be partially pre-cooked – this made it a real challenge to comply with our orders for “medium rare,” but once we made our taste known [and adjusted our request to “rare” for emphasis] we generally got exactly what we wanted, and they were always happy to try again and get it right the second time [very quickly].
Alcohol is truly all-inclusive throughout the cruise. Most nights there is a special cocktail of the day in the hour before dinner, but you can get anything you like at any time. Wine is poured freely at lunch and dinner, and if you want anything else they will happily procure it for you. You also get a bottle of bubbly in your cabin – and unlike any other cruise we’ve been on when we asked to switch it for something else we were offered our choice of any wine on the ship [and through a mis-communication we ended up getting two bottles! – although there’s hardly any reason to have a bottle in your cabin, since the bar is only a few steps away]
Tipping is also included, and no one acted like they expected anything more even for exemplary service. We weren’t sure how Celebrity had handled tipping at the Quito hotel or with the tour guides, but again the body language was completely different from service personnel in the US who know how to subtly convey their desire for an emolument. At the end of the cruise they ask you to come to the service desk with your credit card, but they sent us away because our bill was zero!
Our cabin, 403, was very convenient to the lounge and just one flight up from the dining room. The cabin feels larger than 160 sf, but it's hard to keep it neat with all the expedition gear you need for wet landings, swimming, etc. One of the twin beds is fixed to the wall, so when you have them together as a double somebody [that would be DW] has to crawl over the covers to get in and then doesn’t have a night table or reading light – but otherwise the bed was fine. There’s also a small desk which houses the flat-screen TV, and underneath the small fridge and hairdryer. Behind the TV there are two plugs, one US (for the TV) and one EU. Our cabin came equipped with a 3-plug expander in the US outlet, so we still had 2 spares – plus I had brought an EU-to-US adapter and a 3-plug/2-USB expander [http://www.amazon.com/dp/B0016IXEWG/ref=psdc_761520_t1_B0015DYMVO], so we had more than enough slots to plug in the computer, camera battery charger wall-wart, and my shaver charger wall-wart. There are three small drawers in the night table, and two closets with both hangers and shelves (and the safe). The bathroom has a nice shower (with glass door that mostly didn’t leak) and lots of space on the counter and the shelf underneath. The shower has 3 dispensers (soap, shampoo and separate conditioner. Water pressure is very good. There is a clothesline built in to the shower – but with no balcony, stuff doesn't dry quickly [meaning, bring 3 bathing suits]
Air conditioning worked great in our cabin and throughout the ship. I had heard rumors that the AC isn’t so good on decks 3 and 6, but we heard no complaints from residents of those neighborhoods. Our deck 4 cabin was nice and cool [even had to turn up the thermostat] I mentioned to the CD the complaints I have read on CC about deck 6, and she admitted that the separate AC system added for that new deck had some teething problems that were corrected after the first season. She also noted that the ship's AC system uses sea water and that makes it work perversely in the Galapagos climate where the water is warm when the air temp is cool and vice versa – the result is that the AC works too well in cool weather and not well enough in warm weather [I forget the engineering principle behind this, but it made sense at the time – of course that was the evening of the Wine Tasting, which may have had something to do with my comprehension ;)]. The dining room does get warmer as you go back, but we never had to sit further back than the first table past the arch and we did fine.
I had heard that you have to go to the lounge to get Wi-Fi reception, but our cabin (403) was close enough that we had a good signal. The issue was getting beyond the local network to the internet – apparently there was an unusual problem on our cruise, because part way through they reformatted the network server with a new name and new passwords and after that it was much better.
Service was good, but not great. Our cabin attendant kept everything clean and neat [she was OCD about everything – even our things – being kept in the “right” place!], but she had a blind spot for wash cloths and routinely failed to replace them. [Luckily we discovered that they use them as hand towels in the public washrooms, so we knew where to replenish our supply as needed!] The waiters in the dining room were very friendly and willing to make substitutions/corrections as requested, but service in general was slower than we would have liked [and with three friendly couples we had enough conversation going on that we weren’t bolting our food…] The naturalists were top-notch, and I can’t imagine any other cruise line having better ones. They were taking pictures throughout the cruise, and at the end we were each given a DVD with a slideshow and 500+ pictures – and also a coffee table book that Celebrity produced about the Galapagos Islands – nice touches! [And if our luggage wasn’t overweight on the flight in, the addition of that book ensured that it was coming home!]
So, from a cruise and cruise-tour perspective this was a 4- or 5-star experience. But that’s not why you go to Galapagos [it’s just what makes it possible to survive…] You go for the itinerary – the unique geology, flora and fauna. And this trip did not disappoint in any way. We chose the Inner Loop in May because we wanted to see the Blue-Footed Boobies doing their mating dance – and we saw it in spades! Also the male Frigate birds with their gular pouches expanded like their had overdosed on Viagra! Everything else was gravy, but there was lots of gravy: sea lions in all the usual poses; many kinds of birds [I guess it’s obvious that we’re not “birders” – all I know about pelicans I learned from Ogden Nash: “A wonderful bird is the pelican, His bill can hold more than his belican”]; the stark beauty of volcanic landscapes, with more variation than I expected – and above all the animals’ complete lack of fear about our presence. The Galapagos delivered everything you have ever read it can.
It helped that we had great weather. There was no rain to speak of until the last day. The air was hot and humid, especially on the afternoon excursions, but there was usually a good breeze to keep us cool. [There is no shade anywhere, so you really want to wear a big hat and spread on the SPF50.] And the water was still warm enough that we didn’t need the (provided) wetsuits. So my conclusion on timing is that early May is an excellent choice.
The one weak spot in the itinerary [in our opinion] is the final day on Santa Cruz [and this is common to both itineraries]. It’s a good thing the Giant Tortoises were not high on our to-do list because they really didn’t hold to the level of “Oh My God” that the rest of the animals had established. [This was our one rainy day, which may have also affected our enjoyment.] We took the morning tour of the Charles Darwin facility – but the museum is closed and even the gift shop was closed on our visit, so this was just a dull walk to get to the Tortoise pens. There we saw randy Diego and two of his harem [he and the two young males he incited to jealousy brought their species back from 14 to 2,000], one pubescent male mistakenly humping another male [at the wrong end!] while a few others milled around, and dozens of cute babies being raised to restock the unique species on a couple of the islands. This was OK, but not much different from visiting any zoo [Diego was repatriated to the Galapagos from the San Diego zoo, hence his name]. We went back to the ship for lunch [this was option 2, which only 6 of us had chosen]. In the afternoon we were supposed to go back to the island for a bus ride to the highlands where we would see the Giant Tortoises in the wild, but since it was still raining only one couple decided to go – and they reported that after a 45-minute bus ride (each way) and much slogging through mud, they only saw a total of two (count ‘em – 2!) tortoises. [They also stepped off the bus into two feet of brackish water, which didn’t add anything to the enjoyment of the day ;)]
Option 1 was a full day on the island, with the Darwin Center in the morning, a tree planting service-trip, lunch at a restaurant in the highlands, and then the search for wild Tortoises. I don’t know how this is handled normally, but on our cruise there was a special attempt to set a world record for simultaneous tree plantings so there was heavy pressure [Ecuadorian women know how to use guilt as a weapon as well as any nationality!] and almost everybody signed up. The reports back were not good: the food at the restaurant is not up to Xpedition standards, the folkloric entertainment was amateurish, the mud was as high as a tortoise’s eye, and several people fell or had near misses. Instead of being shunned as non-team players we were praised for our good judgment in staying on the ship.
Other than that day, all the excursions were top notch and we almost always chose the more demanding one. There were usually two choices for both the morning and evening excursions – you sign up the night before so that they can allocate panga-loads among the two options [National Park rules limit each panga to 16 guests, so they have to make sure everybody sorts out correctly.] As far as I could tell everyone got their first choice every day [I think there are seven pangas, so they have a little wiggle room – we were occasionally on a less-than-full panga].
On two days there was also a third activity – a deep water snorkel. We passed on these as DW doesn’t swim well enough and even I was scared off by the dire warnings. After hearing the reports back I think I could easily have done them [the water is actually calmer away from the beach] but three excursions in one day would probably have been too exhausting.
One added bonus was the stars! DW went up to deck 6 (which has the fewest lights) and after her eyes adjusted she was blown away by the myriad stars and the painted stripe of the Milky Way. This was unexpected, but another awe-inspiring aspect of nature in the Galapagos.
We missed the extra bonus of the eruption of Wolf Volcano on Isabela Island, which started two weeks after we were there – the next Inside Loop cruise was perfectly timed, and they should be seeing views like this:
Too bad we missed it on the May 10 sailing – we could have saved a trip to Hawaii!
The end of the trip was a smooth as everything else. One last panga ride [stayed dry this time], charter flight, and bus back to the J W Marriott. I should mention – and praise – the food service on the flight: first a white tablecloth for your tray table, then the meal tray which includes a blue cloth napkin and real metal tableware. Pay attention to your napkin: many have a Celebrity X embroidered in the corner, but a few have a Blue-Footed Booby [two of which are now in our collection] We had an excellent (and included) dinner that night in the hotel restaurant, then breakfast the next morning and a quick shuttle back to the airport for our flights home. The altitude didn’t bother us as much this second time in Quito [probably because we didn’t arrive exhausted, or maybe because we didn’t actually try to do anything] and we got home safely late that night.
We had been warned that Quito is “dry” on Sundays and therefore on the return evening you could not purchase wine at dinner. This is not quite true. If you go to a regular restaurant, it may be true [we didn’t test this] But the hotel is allowed to serve alcohol along with food. Not only was the restaurant selling wine, the bar was doing a good trade also [I suppose they provided peanuts or something to qualify as “food”] But the advice ended up working to our advantage since we brought that free bottle of wine back from the ship and the hotel bar was happy to open it and provide wine glasses (for free), which we then brought into the restaurant without raising any eyebrows.
This was our 11th cruise, plus we have taken many DIY land trips – and it is etched in our memory as the best cruise ever. Celebrity Xpedition is the only way to go in the Galapagos, and the islands are everything they are reputed to be. I highly recommend it – but don’t wait too long because even with all the Celebrity luxury this is still an expedition cruise. Do it now, and save the Caribbean for your dotage! Read Less