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Galapagos 1209
Galapagos 1209

Cruising (again) on the Xpedition

Quito (3 days) - Galapagos Islands (7 days) - Quito (2 days)

 
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Rating (out of 5):     Ship +    Food +    Service +    Itinerary +

Since doing this trip in 2006 with Michael, I couldn't wait to get Marjorie to the Galapagos Islands to experience the same things I had seen then. We booked in January 2008 (almost 2 years before sailing!). Joan and Dave signed up to sail with us and then a couple from our Greek Islands trip (Lee and Lynn) and their friends (John and Sue) signed up as well. We added a day at either end of the cruise/tour so that we could do some touring around Quito, or just relax at the Marriott Hotel. Unfortunately, Dave came down with a heart problem the week before sailing, so J&D had to cancel out. We really missed having them with us!

I am taking a different tack in this diary as compared to the other trip diaries. The overall cruise/tour was almost the same as what Michael and I did in 2006. Hence, I will only address the differences in this diary rather than repeat the same things from our previous trip. Please read the 2006 Galapagos diary first to get the bulk of the trip and ship details.

I was really blown away again by the ship, the staff and the food. Hence the 5+ star rating for all aspects of the cruise.

The Galapagos Cruise Experience

The cruise experience was very similar to 3 years ago.The following points summarize changes and additional notes for 2009.

The staff are one happy family. On the regular cruise ships, there is a lot of staff turnover, and if you sail the same ship several years apart, there are few (if any) staff that you recognize. On the Xpedition I was amazed - about 1/2 of the 50 or so employees were on the ship in 2006! It was an amazing feeling to step on the ship and recognize so many of the staff. I think this is a testament to the way the staff are treated and to their dedication to the ship.

Who says tipping is an incentive? This cruise is still a "non tipping" cruise. Many would say that the level of service would deteriorate in this case as there is no longer any incentive for providing excellent service. Not so! The staff were happy as they went about their jobs, management worked right alongside the staff, and nothing was to much for them to do for you. The service and the morale were as high as on any of the cruise ships where tipping is expected.

Elite benefits are available. Because this is a non-typical cruise setup (free excursions, free booze, no tipping), we did not expect any special treatment for Elite cruisers. However, we received fruit baskets and canapes every day, plus got a bottle of champagne on two separate occasions. We also got 3 hours of complimentary internet. We didn't use the internet very much (no time or interest), so let our travel mates use some of our time. The best perk though was that we each got a free one half hour massage. It was wonderful, and the masseuse was excellent.

Open water snorkels are gone. Our 2006 cruise featured 3 "open water" snorkel excursions that were fantastic. These are snorkel sites that can only be reached by Zodiac. Apparently the Parks people decided that the habitat could not support the larger ships, so these sites are now limited to the smaller ships. We did one new open water site but it wasn't very good. All of our other snorkeling adventures were from the beach, of which a couple of them were excellent.

Starlight dinners are gone. Our 2006 cruise featured 2 "starlight" dinners out on deck, plus a BBQ night. This time the dinners were all served in the dining room except for the BBQ night. I did not ask why this was changed. The cloudy weather may have been a factor, or it may have been a cost cutting initiative. It was a lot of work setting up for dinner outside, plus cleaning up afterwards.

Cost cutting #1 - 16 guests per naturalist. In 2006, each naturalist was allowed to take up to 15 guests. If the Xpedition was full (~95 passengers), this meant 7 naturalists were required. Since then, the limit has been raised to 16 guests per naturalist (I wonder who lobbied for this?) so that only 6 naturalists are required. At $300 per day per naturalist, this is a significant saving. Having groups of 16 rather than 15 is not really noticable, so the level of interaction on the tours is about the same. If you investigate some of the smaller ships in the islands, that magic number of 16 is really prevalent. Most of the small ships take 16 passengers.

Cost cutting #2 - no folkloric show. In 2006 a folkloric group came on board in Puerto Ayora. They were excellent. There was a four piece band and several dancing girls (in native costume). Unfortunately this practice has been chopped in a cost cutting effort, which is really too bad. There is very little interaction with the locals during the cruise so it was really nice to see something cultural for a change. I hope that they reinstate this as it was really a great touch for the cruise.

Cost cutting #3 - no Celebrity match for donations. The Galapagos Conservancy donation system is still in place. Celebrity will still send you a future cruise credit matching every dollar you donate up to $250 (which makes your donation free!). On the donation form however, the future cruise credit is mentioned in tiny, tiny print, and there is no mention at all about Celebrity matching the donated amount. The forms were delivered to our cabins, but nothing was mentioned about them by the staff. It seemed like Celebrity wasn't interested in promoting this feature. That's just how I saw it and I could be wrong.


Pre-cruise (Thur, Dec 3) - Travel to Quito

We were up at 3:45 AM for our 4:30 shuttle pick up. Early mornings suck! We got to the airport with hours to spare for our 7:00 flight. We were a bit delayed for de-icing, but made up the time on the way to Houston. We had a couple of hours in Houston and had lunch at a BBQ fast food place. We were late again leaving houston as it was determined that the plane was overweight. Several people were kicked off the flight and their luggage removed as well. That delayed us about an hour. We arrived in Quito at 11:00 PM, went through customs and got our luggage. We got to the hotel around midnight. But this was OK as we could sleep in the next morning.

Pre-cruise (Fri, Sat, Dec 4,5) - Two Days in Quito

We had planned to do an all day private tour to Otavalo, but with Dave and Joan not coming, we decided to cancel it. Instead we decided to just have a relaxing day around the hotel. We had checked the weather report for Quito on the Web before leaving Calgary, and it had forecasted cool, cloud and rain each day. Boy, was it ever wrong! We did have some cloud, but it was generally sunny and very warm. We spent the day walking around the nearby streets, swimming in the pool and reading our books. We ate dinner in the hotel dining room (the Hacienda).

The following day was the "Celebrity" day. We had an early breakfast and then boarded the celebrity bus for an all day tour of the city and the surrounding area. The tour was almost identical to the 2006 trip, However, the large Quito Basilica was closed, and the St. Francis Monastery was closed as well. I'm glad I had photos from the previous trip. Our lunch at the volcano and visit to the equatorial monument was just as in 2006. In the evening we did the same Opera House restaurant as before. Once again the neighbouring plaza was jumping in a double celebration. First of all it was the December 6 annual festival for the founding of Quito City in 1585, and second of all Deportiva Quito had won the Ecuadorian football championship that day. So, there were native dancers and football fans crammed into the plaza with music being provided from a large stage. At one point in the dinner we headed out onto a balcony overlooking the thousands of people in the plaza. It was amazing. After dinner, we had to thread our way through the crowd to the buses. While waiting for the bus, a firetruck carrying the football team went past us. What a riot!!

Day 1 (Sun, Dec 10) - Baltra, North Seymour

Today was our departure to the islands. The whole process was the same as 2006. The only difference was in our flight. Previously we had travelled on Tame Airlines (737-300) sharing a public flight with other Galapagos visitors (ie. not Celebrity). This time we were on AeroGal (737-300) which was exclusively booked for Xpedition passengers. The seat headrests had Celebrity logos, our tray tables were draped in Celebrity linen and the lunch we were served was marked with the Celebrity logo. It was a very nice touch. The plane was maybe 2/3 full, so we had empty seats around us and we didn't feel crowded at all. We touched down in Guayaquil for about 40 minutes along the way.

At the Baltra docking area we were once again greeted by sea lions. The folks waiting for the Zodiacs had to stand as all of the bench seats were occupied by sea lions. We shuttled out to the ship and checked out our cabin. Looking good! At 3:00 PM we had a briefing on the upcoming shore excursion and at 4:00 we had the lifeboat drill. At 4:30 we did our first excursion, to North Seymour Island. It was a wonderful day.

Day 2 (Mon, Dec 11) - San Cristóbal, Española

Today we had 3 excursions. The first was at 7:00 AM and was a panga tour around Kicker rock. There were sea lions, frigate birds and boobies. Following that we visited the port town of Puerto Baquerizo Moreno on San Cristobal Island. When Mike and I were there in 2006, they were in the midst of renovating the streets, sidewalks and waterfront. Now it is all completed and looks really nice. The "water map" of the islands was now filled with water, but there were no sea lions nearby. That answers that question. We did the tour of the interpretive center where there is some new construction going on. Not sure what they are building.

Our naturalist for the excursion was William (who we had met in 2006) and his parents live in PBM. He quickly dropped us off at the interpretive center and then hustled off. We did the center and then wandered around the town. We caught the last (11:30) panga back to the ship. As we navigated the harbour, there were lots of sea lions resting on anchored boats. Our panga driver zigzagged through the boats so that we could take photos of the sea lions. Then, suddenly we were heading back to the dock. Assuming one or more passengers had missed the last panga we were surprised to see William standing alone at the dock. Yes, we razzed him!

Right after lunch there was a snorkelling orientation where we were handed out our equipment for the week and given an introductory lesson about what to expect. Later we we motored to Española island and walked through the seabird nesting area. This time it wasn't raining so the rocks weren't as slippery. There were a few waved albatross there. Seeming as they live about 40 years and mate for life, these could have been the same birds we saw in 2006! My big discovery of the day occured at the Discovery Lounge where I was introduced to the "BBC" - Bailey's Banana Colada. Yum!

Day 3 (Tue, Dec 12) - Floreana

Today we had 3 excursions, including our first (and only) deep water snorkel. We were at the island of Floreana. Once again our tours did not include Post Office Bay where Fank and Lynne had left us something at the post office in 2006. The 8:00 morning walk was similar to before, the highlight being the pink flamingos. Following this at 10:30 was our deep water snorkel at Champion Island. The previous time we had snorkelled Devil's Crown and it was excellent. However, the larger ships were no longer allowed to snorkel there, so we did Champion Island instead. The snorkelling there was good, but nothing like Devil's Crown.

The afternoon excursion was a 3:30 walk up to the top of Baroness Lookout. There is a really good view of the bay from up there. Dinner was served indoors. Last time we had a "Sounds of Silence" dinner served on the back decks. About 10 PM we gathered out on deck. The bright anchoring lights were turned on attracting the flying fish. This in turn attracted pelicans, sea lions and sharks. Lots of action in the water!
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Day 4 (Wed, Dec 13) - Santa Cruz, Bartolomé

This morning's excursion was a walk on Bachas Beach on Santa Cruz Island. We saw lots of sea lions, Sally Lightfoot crabs, marine iguanas and flamingos. There was a sea turtle nesting area on the beach with lots of flipper tracks leading up to the nests. After the walk we did a snorkel from the beach. The water was quite murky and we didn't see a lot. After lunch we motored over to Bartolomé Island. I did the volcano hike while Marj opted for a panga ride. The hike took us to the viewpoint looking over Pinacle Rock. Marjorie visited a colony of Galapagos penguins from the panga.

In the evening we crossed the Equator while heading to Isabela island. There was a celebration in the lounge where the naturalists dressed up as pirates and entertained (and harrased) the passengers. Great fun!

Day 5 (Thur, Dec 14) - Isabela, Fernandina

This morning we anchored near Isabela Island. We had travelled aound to the west side near to Fernandina Island. Isabela and Fernandina are the two newest and volcanically active islands in the archipelago. The previous trip we had done a panga ride around a shallow mangrove lagoon called Elizabeth Bay. This time our landing was changed to Urbina Bay. We did a wet landing and then walked through the bushes looking for land iguanas. We saw several iguana and enjoyed the hike. This was followed by a snorkel which was quite good. Back on the ship we had lunch and then attended a culinary demonstration. Then we did a tour of the kitchen facilities. Lots of chrome!

In the afternoon, we landed at Fernandina Island. Saw lots of marine iguanas and some flightless cormorants. Very similar to last time. Back on the ship, we ate indoors, the "Dinner Under the Stars" no longer being featured. Another great day!

Day 6 (Fri, Dec 15) - Santiago, Santa Cruz

Today we returned to the middle of the archipelago to visit Santiago and Santa Cruz Islands. In the morning we anchored at James Bay on Santiago Island. After a wet landing we hiked over lava fields along the shoreline. I think this is my favorite hike of all the islands. We saw lots of fur seals and hundreds of marine iguana. There are several collapsed lava tubes forming tide pools where the ocean swells cause the water to rise and fall with a great sucking or whooshing sound. We saw a sea lion eating a large fish he had caught. They have no molars for chewing, so they bite into the fish and then whip their head around to rip a chunk off to swallow. I had never seen that before. We finished the morning with an excellent snorkel from the beach.

Back on the ship and after lunch, Marj and I visited the spa for a massage. One of the Elite perks is a free 25 minute massage (for each of us). It was great. Then we headed out for our afternoon excursion to Dragon hill. It was really hot, so Marjorie decided to just do the beach snorkel. I headed off with the group for the hike around Dragon Hill. Last time we didn't see any land iguanas, but this time we saw 3 or 4 of them. However, we were skunked at the flamingo pond which was empty. When we got back to the beach for our snorkel, Marjorie was just getting into the panga to return to the ship. She said that the water was very murkey with not much to see. So, we skipped our final chance to snorkel. Back on the ship we handed in our snorkel stuff as there would be no more swimming opportunities. After dinner there was a karaoke contest, but we didn't participate.

Day 7 (Sat, Dec 16) - Santa Cruz

Today was a full day at the port of Puerto Ayora. Last time, the ship provided morning and afternoon tours to both the highlands and the Charles Darwin research Station (CDRS). This time there was only one tour to the CDRS (in the morning) and one to the highlands (in the afternoon). I was really hoping to see Lonesome George this time (we missed him last time), but once again he was hiding somewhere in his enclosure. He must have appeared shortly after we were there as one of the other groups saw him. We did lunch back at the ship and then participated in a Galapagos trivia contest. Our wonderful team of me, Marjorie and John combined our brain power and actually won!

Later, we did the bus trip up to the highlands in the afternoon. We saw lots of large tortoises up in the rain forest and a couple of barn owls in the lava tubes. That evening there was an Ecuadorian Beer festival (now you're talking!). This was followed by a slideshow of photos taken during the trip, and a farwell cocktail party. Finally, the evening wrapped up with a BBQ dinner served on the back decks under the stars. A great way to wrap up a wonderful trip.

On the previous cruise we had been entertained by a folkloric band and dance group for the evening (from Puerto Ayora). This is no longer available due to cost cutting.

Day 8 (Sun, Dec 17) - Baltra, Quito

Today was the final day of the cruise. We anchored at Baltra Island. Before we headed to breakfast I noticed that all of our suitcases were on the back deck ready to be loaded into the pangas. By the time we had finished our meal, the suitcases were all gone. We shuttled to the island and were bused to the airport. The bus dropped us at a row of souvenier stalls, so we browsed for a while. It was quite a long wait until our flight to the mainland departed. We flew through Guayaquil to Quito. The weather was clear and sunny, so we got some nice photos as we landed in Quito. Lunch was served on the plane.

We were shuttled to the hotel and then headed out for a shopping trip to the Artisan Market (cheap stuff) and the Gallerie Latino (expensive stuff). We bought another table cloth as the two I had bought previously had stood up so well. Marj also got a couple of t-shirts. We had a special farewell dinner at the hotel and then spent the evening having a beer with our Calgary friends. John and Sue were heading home tomorrow, while Lee and Lynn were traveling to the Ecuadorian jungle for 4 days.

Post-cruise (Mon, Tue, Dec 18, 19) - Return from Quito

Today was a do nothing day as we planned to stay around the hotel and relax. There were about 16 people who had opted for an extra day in Quito. Most of them headed off on private tours for the day. It was a beautiful sunny day and I was kicking myself for not making the effort to book a tour. We talked to a number of the people when they returned in the afternoon and they all seemed to really enjoy their tours. We walked back to the Artisan Market and ended up getting a huge table cloth for our dining room table. For lunch we did some pointing and handwaving at the nearby Burger King and managed to order the right things. In the afternoon we did the swimming pool and read our books.

The next day we had to be up at 3:45 so that we could catch the 4:30 shuttle to the airport. The airport wasn't too busy so we had a couple hour wait for the flight. The airport waiting room was freezing, so I bought myself an "Ecuador" sweatshirt from one of the airport souvenir shops. The flight to Houston was fine, but we had a 6 hour layover there. That dragged somewhat, but we chummed around with a couple heading back to Nanaimo so that helped to pass the time. Chrissy was waiting in Calgary to drive us home. It was a shock going from +25C to -25C in the same day!