Cruising the Galapagos Islands puts you in the front-row seat of the ultimate nature lesson. This Celebrity Xpedition cruise is the journey of a lifetime, says Susan Barker

Celebrity XpeditionIt’s 200 years since Charles Darwin was born, on 12 February 1809, so where better to visit than the Galapagos, a vital part in his seminal work On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection and where, in 1835, he spent five weeks. Darwin left the UK in 1831 as a 22-year-old heading for the clergy, and returned, five years later, an established naturalist.

Fortunately for us, his father, who was initially against the trip on HMS Beagle, was persuaded to give it his blessing by the boy’s uncle Jos Wedgwood, whose daughter, Emma, Darwin later married. And contrary to popular belief it was the mocking birds and not the finches that demonstrated to Darwin that species change and so inspired his theory of evolution. In spotting that they differed on different islands and on hearing from the English Governor, Nicholas Lawson, that tortoises did likewise, the seed was sown.

Darwin wondered if species had reached the islands from South America and then adapted to that particular environment, but it wasn’t until 24 November 1859 that On the Origin of Species finally went on sale. On that day all 1,250 copies printed were sold, and since then the theory of evolution by natural selection hasn’t been seriously challenged by any other scientific explanation.

Nothing and nobody prepares you for the Galapagos. On our very first Zodiac ride, before we’d even gone ashore, a green turtle popped up just feet away from us and that was only the beginning. Minutes later we stepped ashore with the assuring presence of one of the six naturalists on board – you can’t visit without one – and almost tripped over a sea lion feeding her pup. These two incidents set the tone for what was a truly remarkable week. Where else could you sit happily in a rubber dinghy surrounded by a school of 80 dolphins interspersed with sea lions at times only an arm’s length away?

A happier band of faces I don’t think any cruise line could hope to see as we piled back to 92-passenger Celebrity Xpedition for breakfast. Yes, by nine in the morning we’d already been treated to a slice of Galapagos magic.

Here there are numerous sightings. If you miss the mating ritual of a pair of Blue-Footed Boobies or Waved Albatrosses, all is not lost. There’s sure to be another pair just around the corner. Hawk and chick. Sea lion and pup. Land and Marine Iguanas. Flightless cormorant and Galapagos penguin. The wildlife is abundant and entirely comfortable in its supremacy.

Just as when Darwin visited in 1836, the human here is not an association with fear. Up close and personal is the order of the day but be sure not to overstep the boundaries. It’s tempting to touch a sea lion pup but just the scent of a human on one of these cute creatures will mean it’s abandoned by its mother.

Where else in the world are we merely guests? Every day I felt privileged to be accepted among the wildlife of a particular place and every day I felt glad that we were leaving it as it was meant to be, not that much changed from Darwin’s day. While there are certainly concerns in the Galapagos archipelago about its sustainability and the effect of humans upon it, we can only hope that the age-old battle between the environment and commercialism can strike a balance which maintains this precious place and all that it has to teach the world.

If you want to make sure this unique environment is preserved, travel with a cruise line that’s putting something back and so contributing to their ongoing survival. Celebrity Xpedition matches all passenger donations (up to $500 each) while on board, which amounts to about $150,000 and more annually, and various projects are underway into which the company has direct input.

Back on board, the Ecuadorian crew of 45 was all smiles and friendliness. The public spaces consist of the aptly named Darwin’s Restaurant: the Beagle Grill out on the stern deck and the Blue Finch Bar which is a pleasant outside space away from the main activity.

There’s a spa for every sort of massage imaginable, and a few exercise machines. And for those wanting to keep in touch there are opportunities along the way. I saw a number of our group in the internet cafes ashore, but for the most part we enjoyed the chance to sit back, take in this incredible place and have time to think.

There’s a natural rhythm to each day that gives a sense that you’ve relaxed as well as achieved. There’s an activity of low, medium or high intensity in the morning and another one at about four. In between lunch is served on deck or in the restaurant and thereafter the time is yours to relax or perhaps take in one of the educational films on the region. The ‘mother ship’ came to represent something supremely comfortable at the end of each day. Our life jackets were taken from us, we were given wet towels to refresh and then it was up to the Beagle Grill. After dinner – the food was excellent – there was the time for some truly outstanding stargazing.

Whatever you do, don’t let anyone tell you it’s only for the fit – we had two couples in their 80s and beyond on board. There’s plenty to see from both the ship and the Zodiacs, if you don’t want to go ashore, but coming up close and personal with a 150-year-old tortoise made our 92-year-old passenger look like a spring chicken!

Children of all ages are very welcome but the advice is that those over 10 are more likely to make the most of the opportunity. For families it really is a fantastic bonding experience as everything is done together.

Fact file

Who travels?

About 75 per cent of those on Celebrity Xpedition are North Americans but these days more Brits are making the journey.

Climate
Gentle sub-tropical climate with temperatures rarely rising above 80°F. January to April is the rainy season.

Currency
US dollars on board and in Quito and Galapagos airport.

Accommodation
The stateroom options are a choice of three suite categories – Penthouse with two personal verandas, Xpedition and Xpedition Junior, and three ocean view categories – Premium, Deluxe and Ocean View.

What & where?
The Galapagos Islands are between three and five million years old, and 1,000 km from mainland Ecuador. There are 13 main islands of which five are inhabited. From the UK the best route is via Miami, from where American Airlines flies to Quito in four hours, 10 minutes. Flights operate daily from Quito to Isla Baltra.

Whether you’re looking for a cultural holiday or relaxing break, find your perfect cruise here.