To feel like a child again
The Galapagos Islands feel like an ecological playground where the animals come to you, showing curiosity but no fear. It seemed extraordinary to stand within 6 feet of nesting Blue-Footed Boobies, with puffball chicks peeking out from under their mum, and for the birds to look totally unconcerned. Scaly-headed land iguanas – like pocket dinosaurs – waded across our paths, while crested marine iguanas – looking more like the punk-rock version – heaped themselves up into piles on the sand as we wandered past. Sea lions cartwheeled around us as we snorkelled, seeming puzzled by our aquatic clumsiness while they pirouetted with the grace of ballet-dancers. Galapagos seems like paradise before the fall – man and animals as one. And it feels like the biggest privilege in the world to be able to visit it.
To experience all-inclusive luxury aboard even while discovering such an amazing wilderness ashore
Silversea has just announced that the 100-passenger Silver Origin, their first ship designed specifically for Galapagos, will set sail from July 2020. This new ship will take Silversea’s existing Galapagos cruises to new heights of comfort while keeping the emphasis very much on the islands as a destination.
Every room will have a verandah or horizon balcony, seeming to shorten the distance between you and the shore. And with a crew to guest ratio that’s close to 1:1 and with the greatest number Zodiacs per guest in the region to take you ashore swiftly and in small groups, Silversea really does make their service personal.
The Ecuadorean cuisine on board hits particular high spots: the seafood is outstanding – fresh and full of flavour – while the chocolate desserts, made with 75% Ecuadorean cocoa, are heaven on a plate.
Moreover, with just about everything included in your fare, Silversea enables you to focus on what you are seeing and experiencing, not on how much any extras are going to cost. The Silversea package emcompasses international flights to Quito, pre-cruise hotel stays, the charter flight out the islands themselves, all transfers, all drinks, dining, wi-fi and tips on board and all excursions ashore.
Perhaps on account of this, I was struck by how friendly and outward-looking a mood was on board. This is Expedition Sailing rather than standard Cruising, and while it is inescapably expensive (although great value), the people on-board were not flashy. Conversation was about where you had been, what you had seen and what you were looking forward to. Casting an eye around the Explorer Lounge as we were about to go ashore one day, everyone was decked out in shorts and t-shirts with their complimentary Silversea backpack on their shoulders. The net wealth in that room was off the scale, but you would never have known it.
To learn so much without trying
Silversea hand-picks Galapagos naturalists and specialists who accompany the entire week-long-voyage, taking small groups ashore, giving insider-talks on board and always being on hand to answer questions and share their passion for such a special place. Red-Footed boobies, we learned, are sized up as a mate not for their startlingly coloured feet but how blue their bills are. Blue-Footed boobies meanwhile excel by having the bluest feet. In Galapagos, blue is the colour, it would seem!
Almost by osmosis, you acquire an understanding of the history of the islands, their role in framing Darwin’s theory of evolution, their importance as habitat for rare species and why they need to be protected for the future.
To see the islands without the crowds
Silversea does not tie-up at any point in the week-long trip – you go ashore from the ship by zodiac, a rigid inflatable boat, that carries a maximum of 16 people (you do need to be nimble enough to get in and out of these boats, but you don’t need to be super-fit). Escorted by your helpful naturalist, you are therefore only ever exploring in a small group, and things are managed so that you rarely see any other visitors – it’s just your small group, the landscape and the wildlife. You do feel properly like an explorer, not a tourist.
To experience the diversity of Galapagos
With Silversea, you bunny-hop from island to island for a week. None of the distances are great, but the differences are. Some islands are little more than bare rock. Others are dotted with scraggy trees, or cactus, or mangroves. You land on a beach the colour of Devon clay at one place, on sands as golden as castor sugar at another.
In each new environment, you meet new forms of wildlife adapted to the specific conditions. Fur seals loll on the northern beaches, sea lions sprawl on the ones to the south. The low-lying thickets of one island make the perfect nesting site for Frigate birds, their red-throats inflated like spinnakers, while Wave Albatrosses perform their beak-clicking and sky-pointing courtship dances among the scrub on another.
The poster boys of the islands, the giant tortoises, inhabit just a few of the islands – the breeding centre at San Cristobal (pleasingly un-zoo-like) giving a particularly good insight into how these ancients have come close to the brink but now roam wild in their thousands.
And just when you think you’ve seen everything, the islands seem to come up with something new and extraordinary. Penguins on the other side of a bay where you have just swum with tropical fish. A short-eared owl hunting for nesting stormy petrels along a rocky coastline. Pelicans begging for scraps at a fish market on our final day ashore, being seen off by a semi-tame sea-lion.
To enjoy the sights below the waterline as well as above it
Silversea make snorkelling easy and a pleasure, even if you’ve not tried it before. At the start of the week, everyone receives a shortie wetsuit, a mask and a snorkel (and help on how to do it if needed). The items are cleaned and stored at the stern and you pick them up daily, join your zodiac group and simply plop over the side once you arrive at the snorkel site.
The boat hovers nearby ready to pick you up once you are done, while your naturalist guides the group – often in crystal clear waters – through schools of dazzling fish. Moorish Idols with their TV aerial top fin, hump-head parrotfish looking like the bruisers of the deep, festival-crowds of orange damselfish. Plus glimpses of a passing – and totally safe – black tip shark.
Even better was to look out over the stern of our Silversea ship at night, when the glow of the galley lights attracted turtles, flying fish and – making the most of those that didn’t fly far or fast enough – a dozen Galapagos sharks. Like so much that we saw on this trip, all utterly mesmerising.
Because Galapagos has year-round appeal
Whichever month you choose, there are wonderful things to see. In January, green turtles lay their eggs. In May, when we travelled, frigate birds are in mating plumage and blue-footed, red-footed and Nasca boobies are on their nests. August is baby sea-lion season and November is noted for whale shark sightings. Broadly, December-June is the hotter rainy season (though we didn’t see any rain at all) and July-November is the dry season but with cooler seas and stronger winds. This is where a ship of Silversea’s size comes into its own – still tiny by cruise ship standards, but well equipped to deal with any rough seas, should they come. We barely felt any motion in the ship for the whole week we were on board.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Silversea.