We caught up with Leon Hand, Brand Training Manager at Celebrity Cruises, to find out all about his recent once-in-a-lifetime trip to the Galápagos Islands. Adventurers and animal lovers, this one is for you.
Leon, thanks for chatting with Into The Blue.
I think everyone shares a sense of intrigue when it comes to the Galápagos Islands. Having experienced the region first hand, could you tell us what a typical day there is like?
I was lucky enough to be sent to the Galápagos Islands with Celebrity Cruises, with the aim of being able to share my first-hand experience of this amazing and still largely undiscovered area of the globe with customers and travel agent partners alike.
I spent a week sailing on Celebrity Xpedition, which is a 100 berth mega-yacht. The ship is a comfortable and luxurious home-from-home and the perfect base from which to explore the Galápagos Islands in depth.
Each day offers a chance to discover not one but two ports of call, so it is an active and sometimes hectic schedule; this certainly isn’t the kind of holiday on which you do nothing but chill out and relax!
A sumptuous buffet breakfast precedes the first port of the day and guests normally disembark at around 9.30-10am, travelling on a high-tech zodiac boat to explore one of the 13 islands that Celebrity Cruises visit. Each zodiac takes a maximum of 14 passengers, so the groups are nice and small. Of course, an experienced and qualified Galápagos National Park naturalist guide is in charge for the whole shore experience.
Each shore excursion lasts about two hours; we had one in the morning and one in the afternoon, with a delicious lunch in between, either in the main restaurant or at the Beagle Grill up on the main deck outside, where we enjoyed freshly barbequed chicken, steak or seafood.
A choice of mild or active excursions are offered in each port of call. These can be a combination of snorkelling, hiking and swimming, or even just sunbathing and enjoying walks along the beach!
There are plenty of chances to go snorkelling and spend time in the gorgeous waters of the Pacific, getting to know the bright and beautiful rare marine life, and – if you are lucky – meeting one of the cheeky and playful sea lions. You are kitted out at the very beginning of the cruise with your own wetsuit and snorkelling gear.
Evening time on board is very chilled and relaxed. Every single night at 6.30pm, everyone gathers in the main lounge for a full and detailed brief from the Cruise Director on what to expect the following day. This lasts for about 20 minutes and you are provided with pictures of the wildlife native to that island or port of call, full maps and routes for any walks or hikes, plus lots of interesting information to whet the appetite and excite your sense of adventure and discovery. After the brief, you are then required to sign up for your choice of excursion – whether active or mild – for both morning and afternoon. It is all very well-organised, leaving you nothing to worry about except what to choose to have for dinner that evening!
You mention that Celebrity Cruises guests have a choice of excursions each morning and afternoon on many of the islands. Do these include different options to cater for varying levels of fitness?
As mentioned before, the great thing is that there is an excursion for all types, tastes and levels of fitness. I chose the active option each time as I love walking, hiking and running. However, the mild options were mainly close-up sightseeing from the comfort of a zodiac boat, followed or preceded by a gentle walk along the beach or some wildlife sighting.
There are also options on some of the larger islands, such as Santa Cruz or Isabela, to visit wildlife centres, museums and markets. Many of my fellow passengers were aged 60 years or over and I struggled at times to keep up with them!
Also, don’t forget that the 7-night Galápagos cruise is preceded by an amazing two-night stay in Quito, the stunning and fascinating capital of Ecuador. This is a unique colonial city, well preserved and offering lots to see and do. It has UNESCO World Heritage status and a visit here with Celebrity Cruises is an incredibly immersive experience, as it includes a full day tour with meals, as well as very friendly and experienced local guides, who are always there to look after you and escort you to and from the airport when you are transferring to or from the Galápagos Islands.
The marine life unique to the Galápagos Islands makes the archipelago a bucket list destination for divers. Do Celebrity Cruises offer excursions involving more advanced deep sea snorkelling, in addition to that which is suitable for novices?
That is a very good question, as I – like many – am a good swimmer but a novice snorkeler. The team on board advise everyone that those who are newer to snorkelling should stick to shallower waters, whilst those who are more experienced in snorkelling can go for a good dive and spend half-an-hour or so exploring the dazzling world beneath the waves.
Whichever category you fall into, it is just incredible to watch the rare and brilliantly coloured marine life that can only be found in the Galápagos.
The Galápagos Islands are home to over 1,900 unique species, some of which are credited with inspiring Charles Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection. What wildlife did you encounter during your own time there?
Each island has hidden treasures and delightful surprises in terms of the flora and fauna that the Galápagos are famous for.
I was not disappointed at any time, when it came to viewing up close all my favourites, such as the blue-footed booby (a colourful and entertaining bird and very rare too – 80% of the world’s population live in the Galápagos Islands) and the infamous marine iguana; the only reptile in the world to have, over millions of years, evolved and adapted to its harsh surroundings. They have learned how to hold their breath and dive deep down to the ocean floor to forage for food.
The highlight of the wildlife sightings for me were the giant Galápagos tortoises. On the island of Santa Cruz, which is the most highly populated of the five inhabited islands, you can see many wild giant tortoises roaming free in the highlands, up in the mountains and even along the island’s only main road in and out of the town! These creatures are incredible to see. They are huge in size, seem very happy and live for over a hundred years in most cases.
Santa Cruz is a must on any Galápagos itinerary. More than 20,000 people live in its biggest town, Puerto Ayora, which incidentally is where Celebrity Cruises feature the hotel and activity programme for our brand new three-night post-cruise stay.
Finally, what stands out as the most memorable moment of your trip to the Galápagos Islands?
So many experiences during my time there were unforgettable and magical, but if I had to narrow them down, I would say the following:
> Spending time in Quito, which is such an intriguing yet friendly and modern place. I loved the two-night pre-cruise stay, as it was almost like a mini holiday before the main cruise holiday began.
> Seeing the giant tortoises up close in the nature reserve on Santa Cruz and finding out that the word ‘galapago’ means ‘saddle’ in Spanish. The islands are named after these tortoises, as their upturned shell reminded the Spaniards of a horse’s saddle.
> Participating in a tree-planting/reforestation programme with local farmers.