A Silversea cruise around the Galapagos Islands is the ultimate wildlife adventure, and the opportunity to discover a world that time has largely forgotten, says Cruise International Editor Liz Jarvis
We are being circled by sharks; there are at least 10 of them in the azure blue water below, their dark grey torpedo-shaped bodies tantalisingly close. As I lean over the side of Silversea’s Silver Galapagos for a closer look, a flock of frigatebirds suddenly swoop overhead, red gular sacs flopping in the breeze, and with their magnificent wings and forked-tails they look like pterodactyls. Welcome to the Galápagos.
Located 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, South America, these volcanic islands are satisfyingly remote, involving several plane changes and an overnight stay at a hotel in Quito on the mainland to get there.
It’s more than worth it. From the moment we arrive at our first port of call, Darwin Bay on the island of Genovesa, to be greeted by a baby sea lion, bright orange crabs and an impressive array of blue and red-footed booby birds, we’re all open-mouthed with wonder. No wonder amateur naturalist Charles Darwin discovered the biological origins of life here nearly 160 years ago: this is proper Attenborough territory, and everything we see and experience over the next seven days is precious and unforgettable.
Each day brings new islands to discover and constantly changing landscapes. The scenery in the archipelago ranges from dramatic cliffs and cacti-covered lava rocks to red sand and, unexpectedly, idyllic caster sugar sand beaches with water so clear you can see every fish below it, and sometimes turtles bobbing up and down on the waves.
And every island yields different treasures: penguins, albatross; short-eared owls; vibrantly coloured marine iguana (some the size of small dogs) as well as smaller marine iguanas, which are slightly scary en masse. And, of course, lots of tiny Darwin’s finches, so called because they led the great man to develop his theory of evolution.
The one constant, apart from perhaps the boobies, are the sea lions. They are everywhere, all shapes, sizes and every colour from orange and gold to shiny jet black; they are often noisy, too, although some just lie prostrate on the sand, turning their mournful brown eyes towards you as if to reproach you for invading their turf (we’re reminded to keep a respectful distance at all times). When they’re feeling slightly more energetic they are a joy to watch: playing, fighting, mating, in labour and even giving birth. It’s like being in a never-ending wildlife documentary, a constant feast for the senses.
One of my personal favourite moments is seeing a young sea lion searching for its mother like a child who has lost their mum in a supermarket, waddling up to nearly every sea lion on the beach, crying and nudging them in vain until it finally locates its missing parent.
We also see Galápagos fur seals (the biggest differences between these and sea lions, in case you were wondering, is that seals are smaller, quieter, don’t have visible ears and can’t use their flippers to ‘walk’ like sea lions can); lava lizards; and, bizarrely, a small herd of goats, although we discover these are not actually endemic and will meet an untimely end to eradicate their population, similar to the method the islands used to deal with a rat infestation some years before. A brutal but necessary intervention to ensure the ecology of the islands is preserved.
We learn that nearly everything is called the Galápagos something or other (Galápagos turtle, Galápagos seagull, and so on), which provokes much hilarity (“Is that a Galápagos butterfly?” “Is that Galápagos seaweed?”).
There’s a soothing rhythm to adventure cruising and we settle into a pattern of waiting for our ship to anchor every morning and afternoon, then donning our life jackets to climb into the waiting zodiacs and get ferried across to land for our next adventure. Everything is perfectly coordinated, and our daily schedules advise us how strenuous the activities on offer will be, and whether it will be a ‘dry landing’ or a wet one (meaning you’ll wade through sea water to land. Fortunately it’s always warm, but wet suits, snorkels and flippers are provided).
The Silver Galapagos guests are a lively bunch; while I’m still eating my avocado toast many of them are already kayaking, before I join them on the first expedition of the day. Then it’s a very good lunch either on deck, in the ship’s only restaurant or your suite, then maybe a lecture before heading out again for the afternoon. After dinner the ship tends to get a little quiet, no doubt partly due to the fact that the Silver Galapagos beds are incredibly comfortable, with Italian custom-made linen. But sharing experiences on an intimate cruise like this, with just 100 guests on board, creates a natural bond. Everyone is united in a quest to get closer to nature, and friendships are quickly formed.
As I discover, the joy of luxury adventure cruising is that after you’ve spent the day exploring, or hiking on what can sometimes be fairly tricky terrain in search of wildlife (and, trust me, despite aching limbs this quickly becomes addictive), or snorkelling with sea lions and tropical fish, you return to the comfort of Silver Galapagos, where you’re plied with sparkling wine and cocktails and canapés before dinner under the stars.The other advantage is that no one expects you to dress up for dinner, so it’s incredibly relaxing. There’s also the added bonus of a Jacuzzi, gym and beauty salon just in case you do feel the need for some pampering.
Our itinerary includes the opportunity to explore a few of the towns, including San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz; while they have chic boutiques, and I’m always happy to support the local economy, really I’m more interested in the sea lions hanging out at the ports. We even see one sleeping on a park bench, as though he’s had a rough night out.
All of our Silversea guides are superb, their knowledge of the wildlife and terrain utterly faultless. As the Galápagos is in fact a National Park, you’re only allowed to explore the islands if you’re with an official guide; you never know which one you’re going to get, but somehow we end up spending time with them all, and they’re all equally fascinating to listen to, with an infectious enthusiasm for their subject.
I’m enthralled by the boobies, particularly the blue-footed variety. We also visit giant tortoise in their natural habitat; as well as watching younger ones clamber out of mud pools with the agility and speed of bulldozers, we encounter several who are more than 100 years old, and it feels like an enormous privilege to be in their presence.
My final night is spent al fresco in the company of new (human) friends, cooking fresh lobster and steak on the individual Hot Rocks grills and exchanging anecdcotes from our favourite expeditions, while Silver Galapagos gently sails along in the balmy South American breeze.
This has been a cruise like no other; it’s a life-affirming adventure that will remind you what’s really important. Definitely one for your wish list.
GETTING THERE: A seven-day voyage departing 8 September 2018 on Silversea’s Silver Galapagos from Baltra, Galápagos, to San Cristóbal starts from £6,800pp based on two people sharing an Explorer Suite. The fare includes internal flights, national park fees, a highly qualified expedition team, excursions and activities, complimentary expedition gear, a butler in all suites, comfortable amenities with the largest expedition suites at sea, fine dining, beverages in-suite and throughout the ship, wifi and onboard gratuities. For more information, call 0844 251 0837 or visit silversea.com.