Late in December of 2005, I was struggling to find a unique and meaningful Christmas gift for my dad when a close friend suggested I invite him on a cruise to the Galapagos Islands. I loved the idea -- a father-son adventure was the perfect way to thank my dad.
A few days before Christmas (when I normally buy gifts), I booked us on a 10-night Galapagos cruise tour with Celebrity Cruises, then hurriedly wrapped a brochure and stuck it under the tree with a card. When he opened his present Christmas Day, I knew I had made the perfect choice. You can't go wrong with the gift of travel, especially from son to father.
Waiting for the trip to start was agonizing, but when our 757 finally lifted off the runway my dad and I were smiling ear-to-ear as we toasted the start of our exciting journey.
Five hours later we landed in Quito, capital of Ecuador, the South American country named for its location astride the equator. After 36 hours exploring this picturesque Andean city, we boarded a plane for Baltra Island, the main entry point for cruises of the Galapagos Islands, and touched down in 1.5 hours. Just off the runway, a three-foot-long land iguana lumbered by, unfazed by the whirring jet engines.
The Galapagos archipelago sits 600 miles west of Ecuador in the eastern Pacific Ocean, at about the same longitude as New Orleans, LA. Like the Hawaiian Islands, it was formed millions of years ago by undersea volcanic eruptions that eventually broke the surface (for more on the geology of the Galapagos, click here).
The climate in the archipelago is unexpectedly mild considering the islands sit right smack on the equator. Cold currents from Antarctica flow up the South American coast and upwell at the Galapagos, keeping temperatures moderate despite the strong sun.
Celebrity's ship, the 98-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, is a purpose-built expedition vessel that is ideal for cruising the Galapagos Islands, a destination where you must embark and debark via Zodiac landing craft at every port and excursion location. The ship also has a very shallow draft, enabling it to enter the small coves and shallow coastlines that we explored daily.
While the Xpedition's design is imminently practical, creature comforts were certainly not forgotten. Common areas are spacious, massages are available at no extra charge, and the Ecuadorian chef prepared delicious local cuisine daily. The octopus and snapper ceviche was my personal favorite. Stewards awaited our return from shore excursions with ice-cold towels and chilled glasses of fresh tropical juice, a level of service usually reserved for six-star cruising. With a crew of 60, the ship has a crew-to-guest ratio better than some luxury ships.
Xpedition passengers typically participate in two shore excursions per day, so the naturalists play a critical role in your overall cruise experience. Trained in the geology, biology, history and zoology of the islands, our guides opened our eyes to the unique nature of the Galapagos, turning oceans, beaches and hiking trails into classrooms.
The animals of the Galapagos are uniquely tame as a result of living for millennia on islands with few land predators, and with no contact from man until very recently.
Giant tortoises are the icons of the Galapagos. In fact, "galapago" is the old Spanish word for "saddle" that Spanish sailors assigned the archipelago after seeing the saddle-shaped shells of some giant tortoises. Today, 11 subspecies of tortoise live in the Galapagos -- the largest weigh over 600 pounds and are estimated to live 200 years. For years pirates and whalers captured Galapagos tortoises for food, because they could live for up to two years at sea without food or water. As a result, tortoise populations plummeted on most islands, and three subspecies disappeared altogether. A fourth variety has only one member left, known as Lonesome George, who was the last surviving tortoise found on the island of Pinta. But I am delighted to say that today the tortoise population is rebounding, thanks to the breeding program at the Charles Darwin Research Station.
Other beautiful and fascinating creatures include the playful Galapagos sea lion, our ever-present snorkeling companion; the colorful sally lightfoot crab; the odd-looking flightless cormorant, who seems to be at a physically unflattering place in its evolution; the elegant waved albatross, who nests in an unusually rugged terrain; the Galapagos penguin, a bird you'd not expect to see at the equator; the curious marine iguana, which eats algae off the seafloor and can hold its breath for up to one hour; and lava lizards, frigate birds, the swallow-tailed gull and the lava heron.
Almost 200 years earlier, Darwin explored the same beaches and probably observed the ancestors of the very animals I saw as he collected specimens to support his groundbreaking theory of natural selection. If you'd like to visit the Galapagos to follow in Darwin's footsteps, Celebrity sails the archipelago year-round. Prices are not inexpensive, but considering the level of luxury onboard and the extra amenities that are included, the cruise is a tremendous value.
Special thanks to my dad and Richard and Linda Campbell for contributing photos.
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