It’s a wishlist destination and then some. Sara Macefield and her family embark on a Celebrity Xpedition Galápagos cruise.
I’ve been to a few markets in my time, but none have been quite like the one on my Celebrity Xpedition Galápagos cruise. Waiting patiently at the fish stall, whiskers twitching inquisitively and eyes alive with expectation, is a large sea lion sitting devotedly at the feet of the fishmonger like a pet dog and intently watching her every move.
It’s not the only one.
Further along the counter, a pelican is perched on top, impassively eyeing up each transaction, waiting for its chance. When the stallholder tosses a chunk of fish towards the sea lion (which it deftly grabs) a heron suddenly appears out of nowhere, strutting past to snap up the scraps.
It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before, but then we are on the main isle of Santa Cruz in the Galápagos Islands where the animal population rubs shoulders with its human neighbours – and no one bats an eyelid, apart from the tourists.
Whatever you’ve read or heard about this legendary Pacific archipelago, and its wealth of wildlife which famously has no fear of humans, it still doesn’t prepare you for the mind-blowing reality.
It hits us as soon as we land on the isle of Baltra, where my husband, daughters and I are joining a week-long Celebrity Xpedition Galápagos cruise.
Our five-minute journey to the dock resembles more of a nature tour as we come across a dozing marine iguana slap-bang in the middle of the dusty road, forcing our driver to steer gently around it.
On arriving at the dock, we’re greeted by a trio of barking sea lions as a clutch of beady-eyed blue-footed boobies stand and stare as we board tenders taking us out to our ship, moored off the coast in the bay.
Not bad for starters – but there are many more mesmerising moments to come as we explore this remote archipelago which lies 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador.
Daily hikes and nature walks bring us into contact with tiny mockingbirds which hop fearlessly around our feet, bright scarlet crabs scuttling in their hundreds over black volcanic rocks and heart-meltingly cute sealion pups suckling from their mothers.
But for us, it’s the snorkelling trips that bring some of the most electrifying experiences of the cruise as we spy reef sharks skulking along the seabed; vast shoals of grey and yellow Surgeonfish which swoosh around us like a rippling curtain; and turtles ponderously paddling along the ocean floor, pausing to nibble on gently-wafting seaweed.
But the real stars of this underwater show are the sea lions who prove to be the ultimate marine playmates, effortlessly diving through the water and clearly revelling in their new human friends as they skilfully twist and somersault around us.
Such amazing encounters make the long journey to the Galápagos worthwhile, though the 14 hours to Ecuador’s capital Quito, including a plane change, and the two-hour onward flight over the Andes Mountains to the islands, combined with the time difference and resulting jetlag, make it no easy option.
But our well-organised 10-night package with Celebrity Cruises starts with a two-night stay in Quito that not only helps us to acclimatise, but includes an excellent full-day tour that delves into its colonial heart.
A walking tour of the 16th-century Old Town reveals unassuming stone churches hiding interiors dripping in gold, a legacy of the wealth discovered by early Spanish conquistadors.
Just outside the city is the Intinan Solar Museum, which claims to be situated on the equator, represented by a painted red line where we pose for photos with a foot in each hemisphere.
It’s an ideal introduction before joining the 100-passenger Celebrity Xpedition, our comfortable home for the week with its house-party ambience that means we soon get to know our fellow passengers, who hail from a wider age range than I expect, spanning from as young as seven years old up to 86.
As our twin daughters are 15, I’m pleased to see other youngsters on board; there are about 15 in all, and a fair sprinkling of youngish couples.
While most guests are from North America, there are 15 Brits and we make up the second-largest grouping, and with shared dining tables, everyone soon bonds over flavoursome meals in the main Darwin Restaurant and al fresco Beagle Grill on deck, which is an ideal lunch spot.
Having travelled all this way, I wonder if the physicality of early starts, hilltop hikes, boat excursions and snorkelling trips might prompt a few over-tired teenage tantrums from our daughters Dani and Holly.
But the thrill of exploring this natural wonderland on our Celebrity Xpedition Galápagos cruise outweighs any negatives, though I’m relieved the girls are old enough, and strong enough, to keep up as each day brings another island to explore.
We’re soon following in the footsteps of legendary naturalist Charles Darwin when we step on shore in Puerto Egas on the isle of Santiago, where he landed in 1835, and I wonder if he was as excited as we are at spotting a group of sea lions slumbering on the sands, completely unbothered by our presence.
One of them lumbers into the shallows and, as if to celebrate our arrival, gives an exuberant display, arching out of the waves in a series of leaps that has us all transfixed.
On another morning, we struggle out of bed in the pitch black at 5am to be rewarded with views of the erupting Sierra Negra volcano on Isabela Island. In scenes reminiscent of Dante’s Inferno, we watch in awe as this cauldron of geothermal turmoil shoots jets of molten lava into the air along with billowing plumes of sulphur curling upwards into heavy clouds having overheated.
A few hours later, we’re floating through mangroves in a Zodiac boat, spotting manta rays, blue-footed boobies and waddles of curious Galápagos penguins that plop off rocky outcrops to swim over to our boat and dive underneath.
We quickly fall into the daily routine of tours on our Celebrity Xpedition Galápagos cruise as everything is so well-organised. The process of kitting everyone out with wetsuits, getting them into Zodiacs and then escorting the groups is a smooth-running operation. The Ecuadorian crew, who match friendliness with efficiency, are another big plus.
After such early starts, evenings are relatively low key, with talks and presentations by the onboard team of naturalist guides. Most guests turn in just after 9pm, though a fun quiz and karaoke tempts some to linger for longer in the main Discovery Lounge which is the hub of the ship.
The islands’ rugged landscapes and stunning viewpoints are a draw in themselves, though our final day is spent on Santa Cruz, the capital and most developed of the Galápagos with a 20,000-strong population.
We can’t resist the smattering of souvenir shops, art galleries and restaurants along the main Charles Darwin Avenue, and the girls enthusiastically splash their US dollars (the official currency here) on silver charms of seals and turtles.
Having done our bit for the island’s retail economy, we drive into the lush highlands to take part in Celebrity’s reforestation programme; slipping on wellies to wade into the undergrowth and plant Scalesia tree seedlings, adding to the 30,000 that have already taken root thanks to the line’s guests over the last five years.
I’m keeping an eye out for the giant tortoises that reside here as around 40,000 of these hulking creatures still roam freely, and we soon spot them in surrounding fields and ambling along country tracks, oblivious to the cars forced to drive around them.
Seeing the tortoises’ distinctive cone-like shells dotting the lush landscape as they graze alongside cows adds a surreal finale to an adventure where nature has called the shots from start to finish.
Our fleeting taste of this special world has given us a unique flavour of the animal kingdom while serving up a host of life-affirming experiences.
Was it the trip of a lifetime? You bet it was.
A 10-night package departing on 19 March 2020 and comprising the one-week Galapagos Northern Loop cruise, two nights in Quito pre-cruise and one night post-cruise costs from £6,419pp including flights, drinks, excursions and gratuities.
For more information or to book, visit celebritycruises.co.uk.