We chose this cruise to get up close and personal with the wildlife in the company of National Geographic guides and were not disappointed in that regard.
Since no one has written a review of this ship before, I felt obligated to make this one very detailed to answer as many questions as possible. Read on…
When we boarded the ship at the end of October, it had just come out of its annual dry dock 4 weeks earlier, and it was in good shape. On Deck 2 was the front desk, gift shop, infirmary, spa, and dining room. This was the deck where we boarded the panga boats, and either side of the lobby had outdoor racks for hanging wetsuits to dry, even numbered cabins on one side and odd on the other. We also hung our skinsuits here to dry after making a drippy mess trying to hang them on the clothesline in the bathroom. There was a Sparkletts-type water dispenser in the lobby and a table where they would have a big glass dispenser of a different juice every day when we returned from outings along with some kind of sweet treat like brownies.
Up a steep and narrow staircase to Deck 3 led you to the only public restroom, a computer center with 2 computers you could use when you bought Internet minutes plus a Mac computer designated for downloading photos and videos to transfer onto jump drives or other storage media. The computer center was in the hallway between the stairs and the lounge. In that same hallway in front of the windows were 2 small round low tables with 2 leather high-backed chairs each.
The lounge had a bar, enough chairs and couches for all the passengers, a flat screen on both sides of the room for the daily briefings, and a drink station. Coffee, decaf, and numerous kinds of tea bags with hot water were available. The water station had 3 buttons: 1 for pellet ice, 1 for water, and 1 for a combination of ice and water. A bar-type soda handheld dispenser had options of coke, diet coke, sprite, orange, and strawberry soda. Rounding out the drink options was a small fridge with bottled beer on the honor system where you could write your cabin number on a paper along with how many beers you were buying. There were usually tins with Oreos and store bought chocolate chip cookies next to the drink station and sometimes fruit. Before the daily briefings in the evenings they would set out snacks like cheese and nuts plus a basket of really good buttered popcorn on each table in the lounge.
We had chosen cabin 207 specifically because it was midship lowest level to reduce the rocking motion since I am somewhat susceptible to seasickness, and we loved the convenience of the location being so close to where we were constantly getting on and off the ship and on the same level as the dining room. It was especially great being able to quickly duck into a hot shower when we were all wet from snorkeling. It was also nice having our own bathroom to use since there were no public bathrooms on this level.
The cabin was cozy but serviceable. The queen bed was quite comfortable, with 4 soft pillows, soft sheets, and a light down comforter. One downside was that it was flush against the left cabin wall, so the person who slept on that side had to crawl in and out from the bottom of the bed. On the other side of the bed was a desk that became our nightstand and general dumping ground since it was the only usable surface in the cabin. The desktop did lift up to a storage area, but we only put things in there that we didn't really need since we had to clear everything off the desktop to open it.
There was a high shelf in the corner with a US electrical outlet above it, and that became our charging station. We had brought a surge protector with 3 outlets and 2 USB ports, so we plugged that into the outlet and then plugged in the charging cords for 2 iPads and the underwater video camera and dangled them over the side of the shelf where we could reach them. The shelf was over our heads at 5.5 feet, so we had to drag the desk chair over to the shelf if we needed to plug something else in. The only other outlet in the room was behind the bed pillows, which wasn't very practical (note there were no outlets in the bathroom).
There were 2 sets of double hooks under the shelf, one of which we used to hang the life jackets we had to wear in the panga boats, and the other for the camera bags. Unlike most ships, the cabin walls were not magnetic, but there was a metal strip running down the wall between the shelf and the bathroom door, and we put a strong magnet there to hang the daily programs. Two more big hooks near the door held our hats and jackets.
The bathroom was tiny, even by ship standards, and the shower curtain billowed in and stuck to you as you were showering. The shower had a dispenser for shampoo and one for body wash as well as a soap dish. There was a dispenser for liquid hand soap and lotion by the sink, 2 cup holders, a kleenex dispenser, a hairdryer, and a small shelf above the sink plus 2 hooks on the back of the bathroom door where we hung our toiletry kits. They provided a little mesh bag with a small bar of soap, conditioner, loofah, and lip gloss. The rack for hand towels was inexplicably up near the ceiling, so you had to raise your arms over your head to dry your hands. A clothesline ran in front of the shower and over the toilet. It was hard enough to get a pair of underwear to dry in there, so we didn't attempt to reuse towels and just threw them on the floor to be replaced in one of the 3 times a day refreshing of the cabin (1 during breakfast or morning activities, 1 during afternoon activities, and a turndown service during dinner where the next day's program and delicious chocolate truffles were left on the bed). One person took care of all the even cabins and another took care of the odd cabins. They seemed to start on Deck 2 and work their way up, so our cabin got cleaned very quickly. Surprising given that the ship just came out of dry dock, but the shower curtain was very mildewy. Midway through the week we saw the cabin across the hall getting theirs replaced, so we asked, and they replaced ours right away.
The closet had plenty of space for hanging clothes along with 3 drawers, 2 low shelves, a large drawer with key lock, and a high shelf spanning the length of the closet. Since there were no cabin keys, the locked drawer was the only place to secure things. Part of the high closet shelf was used for storage of our life jackets (these are the ones for abandoning ship, not to be confused with the ones worn in the panga boats). The closet doors had full length mirrors though the overhead lighting was not great there. Above the bed were 2 cupboards with a blanket and thicker down comforter as well as 2 reading lights. Air conditioning worked great and would get the cabin down to frigid temperatures if you wanted that. Between the closet and the door was a lower cupboard with 2 shelves and then 3 upper shelves, one of which held a covered water pitcher, 2 glasses, and 2 metal water bottles.
We did take the water bottles on hikes filled with ice, and the ice melted in no time, so next time I would bring an insulated water bottle from home. Or maybe not, since the fear of not being able to go to the bathroom on the islands pretty much kept me from drinking at all on the excursions. I'm sure this would be different in the hot season, but it was pretty much cloudy and high 60s to low 70s all the time, and I'm fine going an hour or two not drinking anything in that kind of weather.
I know that food is subjective, but the consensus was that the food was overall mediocre. Breakfast, lunch, and 3 of the dinners were buffet, where the only thing that was piping hot was the soup (generally quite tasty). Even if we arrived right when breakfast started, the eggs, pancakes, and everything else was cold. This was not an eggs cooked to order station like on large cruise ships. Each day it was a different preparation (scrambled, sunny side up or over easy, Benedict, frittata), but the frittata was the only warm one. Towards the end of the week someone came up with the idea of putting the pancakes and french toast into the toasters to heat them up.
Every day there was a different fresh made juice (particularly loved the coconut juice!) and pitchers of pourable yogurt. The milk did not taste good, so I only had it the first day, but they did have whole, nonfat, and lactose-free milk. The oatmeal looked really gluey so did not even attempt it. There were jars of breakfast cereals and some not very good breakfast pastries. Surprising that these were not good given that the same pastry chef made cinnamon palm fronds for the treats table that rivaled the best I've ever had from French bakeries. These only show up once during the week, so grab a bunch!
The best meals were a couple of lunches that focused on Ecuadorean or Mexican food. Absolute worst was dinner the last night, which was basically inedible. Luckily, we had filled up at the Mexican lunch that day so just ended up pushing the food around on our plates at dinner. All of the dinner options were tried at our table of 8, and no one ended up eating their dinner that night.
Clothes and Shoes
I had heavily researched what to bring for clothes and shoes, and here's how it turned out. The closest thing I brought to a true shoe was a pair of Teva clogs that had a mesh covering over the front part of the foot and a lightweight plastic sole. These were surprisingly warm to wear on the plane and a comfortable thing to slip on and wear around the ship. The true workhorses were a light, rugged sandal that I wore on all of the walking excursions. I brought a pair of Teva water sandals with a closed toe since there seemed to be so much written about needing closed-toe shoes, and I wore them on the very first day for a wet landing. As I got out of the panga boat, sand got stuck inside the toe area. I tried rinsing them out and using a towel to get the sand off my feet but this was not entirely successful, and the sand was chafing, so I ended up just going barefoot on the beach. Those sandals remained in the closet untouched for the rest of the week. My Teva water socks did see some wear on beach days when my feet needed some protection, but for most water landings I went barefoot, then dried my feet with the towels the guides brought to shore, and then put my sandals on. Rounding out the shoe collection was a pair of Teva flip flops, which were great for wearing around the ship or in the panga boats when we were not landing. For snorkeling trips I didn't wear any shoes at all since we were just heading out to the snorkeling spot where we put our fins on.
Given that the weather was mostly in the 60s to low 70s, the shorts and short-sleeved tops mostly stayed in the drawer. What I ended up wearing every day was a Royal Robbins, Columbia, or Magellan’s shirt with long sleeves that could be buttoned up to three-quarter sleeves. The shirts were made of lightweight polyester and had ventilation slits. To go with the shirts I wore Royal Robbins or Columbia polyester capris or pants that could be rolled up to capris for water landings. In the evenings I would often put on some comfy terry cloth capris or pants with a cotton three-quarter sleeve shirt.
My research had showed that I needed a hat with a chinstrap to prevent blowing off in the wind and a flap at the back to prevent sunburn on the neck, so I found a hat like that at Costco and brought it. It was the right hat for several of the excursions, but on other excursions I would have been happier with a basic baseball cap, so I wish I had brought both.
I had read that the shortie wetsuits provided by the ship did not keep people warm enough, so I got a long-sleeved swim shirt at Costco to wear underneath. As the trip got closer, I worried that would not be enough and went online to Amazon to get a full-length Lycra skinsuit. It definitely helped keep me warm in the 70 degree water and also helped slide the wetsuit on and off. I did not get a skinsuit that covered the head because it looked uncomfortable, and I found myself coveting the neoprene dive caps that a couple of people were wearing. I actually tried to find one the day we were in Santa Cruz with no success, and if I had it to do over I would definitely bring one of these. The other find at Amazon was a pair of pink Lycra snorkeling socks, which helped keep my feet warm and slide the fins on, and also made me easier to pick out of a crowd in the water. I brought 2 bathing suits, but since I was wearing the skinsuit and swim shirt for snorkeling every day, I never used the swim suits except for our afternoon at the hotel pool in Guayaquil the day the cruise ended.
We took our old Canon SX210 point-and-shoot camera that had 14x zoom. It worked fine for most of the photos we were snapping since the animals let us get up close and personal. It didn’t quite cut it on the action shots of birds flying from a distance or for the flamingos around the lagoon since they were a ways off. Since everyone on board was generously sharing their photos, we snagged some good ones of these too.
Where we splurged was on the just-released Sony HDR-GW77 waterproof video camera with 17x extended zoom. This took amazing footage on the snorkeling trips and was much easier to point where we wanted it than the GoPro that a fellow passenger had.
After learning more than I ever wanted to know about binoculars, I settled on the Carson 8x26 waterproof/fogproof binoculars that Lindblad had on their gear website. They seemed to provide a good balance between being able to see what we wanted to see without having to lug a really heavy pair of binoculars or worry about getting them wet or irrevocably fog-damaged as we had happen to an earlier pair on an Amazon cruise.
One tip is to get your whole group together for the panga rides to wherever you are going. Each panga has 1 naturalist aboard, and you stay with that same group for the duration of the excursion (boat ride, snorkeling, or hike).
San Cristobal: All of the ship passengers flew from Guayaquil Ecuador to San Cristobal on Aerogal airlines. Once there the passports were reviewed. They won’t automatically stamp your passport since you are still in the same country, but if you ask you can get a cool turtle stamp saying Galapagos National Park. In hindsight this was the least impressive port, but the afternoon wet landing was our first chance to see some of the birds (including my favorite brightly colored yellow warbler), lizards, and sea lions that would become old hat by the end of the week, so our little beach walk with the naturalists was exciting nonetheless.
Espanola: A high point was not the morning snorkeling and beach time watching the sea lions but the dolphins spotted during lunch. I’m from Southern California, and I’ve certainly seen my share of dolphins, but after the first spotting the captain angled the boat to follow them, and we found ourselves in the midst of a pod of around 200 dolphins leaping in and out of the water. Magnificent! The afternoon hike featured blue-footed and Nazca boobies as well as waved albatrosses doing mating dances and 2 males beak clacking to win the heart of the fair maiden plus some very young albatrosses still covered in fluff, so it was a pretty awesome day all the way around.
Floreana: Here is where it paid off to do the early morning wet landing (and especially to be on the first panga boat!). On the boat ride we saw 2 penguins and a sea turtle swimming, but when we got to the lagoon we found 22 flamingos (much more than usual, we were told) and just stood watching them for a long time. Then a dozen of them took off in flight, and we watched them circle and soar (you don’t get that in a zoo!). Lunchtime was a viewing bonanza that day too. Three blue whales repeatedly spouted, breached, and dove while we looked on, everyone trying to capture the perfect photo of the tail disappearing into the water.
Santa Cruz: This was the one day back in civilization. Dry landing and a short walk to the tortoise breeding center, where we saw tortoises of all sizes. Even better was seeing them in the wild that afternoon. We spotted dozens on the bus ride to the farm where they roamed freely and then saw them up close as we walked around (they will pull their heads in and hiss if you get too close). If you aren’t wearing closed shoes, definitely bring a pair of socks with you and borrow some rubber boots from their stack. Even if you are wearing closed shoes, you are better off using the boots because your shoes will get all muddy. Before catching the panga back to the ship there is just enough time to grab a couple of T-shirts and visit the grocery store for a very limited selection of alcohol.
South Plaza and Santa Fe: Morning was a dry landing for a rocky walk where we saw land iguanas galore, a just-born sea lion, and a Galapagos shark. Snorkeling in the afternoon we saw a ray and 2 sea turtles (1 of which I swam with, matching it stroke for stroke).
Sombrero Chino and Santiago: By far the best snorkeling was this morning, with a cove of 3 white-tipped reef sharks, penguins swimming, a sea cucumber, ray, starfish, and octopus. Afternoon walk was a dry landing for a walk over the sharp lava flows (very desolate looking).
Genovesa: This morning we did the short walk and were really glad we did because we got to stay and watch a swallowtail gull hatching in a nest on the ground. It was also our first glimpse of red-footed boobies after seeing the blue-footed boobies all week. In the afternoon there was a choice between a rigorous walk up Prince Philip’s Steps or a panga ride to see the sites. We opted for the panga and got to see fur seals, sea turtles, tropic birds, and frigate birds.
Baltra: Nothing exciting here, just disembarking the ship for a short bus ride to the airport. Be warned, though, that there is a 1-hour difference between ship time and island time. We almost missed our flight since we were meandering around the airport T-shirt shops thinking we had plenty of time. Read Less