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Cruise of a Lifetime
This evening, I’m beginning my long journey to an utterly fascinating part of the world: The Galapagos Islands and Silversea’s Silver Galapagos, which I will embark in San Cristobal, Ecuador on Saturday. She’s fresh from a month-long drydock, and I can’t wait to experience both the ship and the destination for the very first time.
Silver Galapagos is an important ship in Silversea’s history. When she entered service last September, she became the line’s second luxury expedition cruise ship, after the highly-successful Silver Explorer. Just months later, Silversea announced their third luxury expedition ship – Silver Discoverer. Between the three, Silversea is able to offer luxury expeditions to nearly every corner of the globe to complement their existing “classic” fleet: Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and the elegant Silver Spirit.
Before we even set foot aboard the Silver Galapagos, it’s worth mentioning a few of the challenges that face both guests – and Silversea – in the Galapagos Islands.
To start with, getting to the Galapagos – even from North America – can be a bit challenging. My own routing will take me from Vancouver to Seattle, Miami, and finally, Quito, Ecuador, where I will overnight at the J.W. Marriott Quito.
As with any destination, a successful trip is all about knowing what to expect – so here’s what you can expect of Quito: in February of last year, the new Mariscal Sucre Airport opened about 32 kilometres (25 miles) outside of the heart of Quito. Confusingly, it replaced the old airport – also named Mariscal Sucre – which was located smack in the center of the city.
Conversely, many websites and older guide books still state that the airport is a convenient fifteen minutes away from practically everywhere. Guess what? It isn’t. It’s a mammoth two-hour drive from the city, and local officials didn’t see fit to build any airport hotels.
The stay in Quito is necessary for most guests as an “operational overnight”, which roughly means there’s no way you could fly directly to Baltra or San Cristobal in a single day. The next morning, around eight, my flight leaves Quito Mariscal Sucre for San Cristobal and the Silver Galapagos, with an intermediary stop in Guayaquil. So! If my LAN Ecuador flight takes off at eight, and you have to be there two hours early – that’s six in the morning – and it takes two hours to get there – that’s four in the morning – I assume my wakeup call will be somewhere in the neighbourhood of three in the morning. But, I am expecting it – so it’s not a surprise.
It will also be well worth it to visit the Galapagos Islands and Silver Galapagos.
One of the most heavily protected and regulated regions in the entire world, setting up shop in the Galapagos isn’t as simple as purchasing a ship and refitting her to your exacting standards. Everything is regulated almost to the point of being farcical. Ships can carry no more than 100 guests, and they cannot call on the same port twice in 14 days; hence the Western Route and the North Central Route itineraries.
If you’ve peeked at Silversea’s beautiful Silver Galapagos brochure, you may have noticed the ship’s Officers are listed as Ecuadorian instead of Italian. This, too, has its roots in regulations: almost all of the crew is required to be Ecuadorian. As are almost all of the food and beverages onboard.
Translation: if you’re used to saying hello to your favorite Silversea crew members, mentally steel yourself for the fact that they likely won’t be able to serve aboard Silver Galapagos anytime soon.
How strict are these regulations? Competitor Celebrity Cruises found out the hard way last year. Local authorities discovered 12 kilograms of frozen, out-of-season lobster tails onboard the ship during a routine inspection. The lobster tails were acquired legally during the permissible season, but a new regulation came into effect that spring that stated all lobster had to be consumed prior to the end of the season. There’s just one catch: the Ecuadorians neglected to tell Celebrity that, preferring to fine them on-the-spot instead. When Celebrity protested, the Ecuadorian government revoked their operations license. When a judge sided with the company, he was swiftly replaced with a hard-line official who enforced the revocation. Celebrity had to cancel nearly a months’ worth of cruises before their license was reinstated.
Authorities concerns are not without cause; if it wasn’t for strict regulations governing the Galapagos National Park, chances are it wouldn’t be long before someone opened up a Margaritaville location on Baltra and started running amphibious duck tours.
On the Galapagos Islands, tour guides that serve aboard luxury vessels like Silver Galapagos are known as Class Three guides. The highest-attainable level, Class Three guides are certified by the Galapagos National Park Service and must hold a degree in natural sciences and speak fluent English. They’re also required to pass examinations every three years, and must requalify for their license every six. The result: they know their stuff.
Regulating the number of guests a particular ship can carry also prevents this unique ecosystem from being overrun, not just from bigger vessels but also from smaller, fly-by-night operators who may be more concerned with profit than with ecological sustainability.
I’m not a big purchaser of tour books, but I did buy a copy of Moon’s Galapagos Islands Handbook last year, and I am glad I did. It’s a great supplement to the information provided by Silversea, and it’s enabled me to learn a lot more about the diversity of these islands.
There is one very nifty fact about the Galapagos Islands: taking a cruise here is actually recommended over land options, which are afforded access to less islands and which must utilise a complicated network of air, ferry and bus connections.
Another noteworthy revelation: sea lions are the largest cause of injuries to humans in the Galapagos, particularly bull sea lions, which tend to be very territorial. Most guides will mandate a distance of two metres (6.5 feet) from all animals, but Galapagos Islands author Ben Westwood recommends doubling that for bull sea lions.
Silversea’s Silver Galapagos could very well end up being as much of a highlight as the Galapagos. Originally constructed in 1990 as Renaissance Three for now-defunct Renaissance Cruises, she was rather famous for her lavishly-appointed staterooms and public areas, many of which made extensive use of polished wood panelling and decidedly ocean-liner-esque touches. Following her transfer from the Renaissance fleet in 1998, she ended up operating in the Galapagos for Ecuadorian operator Canodros S.A. as their Galapagos Explorer II until Silversea purchased the vessel.
Silver Galapagos has been in service for one year now, and Silversea has just had her in drydock up in Panama for the entire month of September, undergoing some extensive refit work that’s designed to make her look less like a product of the old Renaissance, and more like a vessel worthy of the Silversea name. The colour scheme on the soft furnishings (carpet, upholstery) onboard are also changing to better align with Silversea’s two other luxury expedition vessels, Silver Explorer and Silver Discoverer.
The final refit involves the Explorer Lounge which, it seems, went universally un-loved by guests who sailed during the first season. It’s being given a complete retooling.
So come along with us as we sail to the Galapagos and discover what’s new and improved aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos!
Our Live Voyage Report aboard Silversea’s Silver Galapagos will continues on Saturday as we embark our ship in San Cristobal, Ecuador! Be sure to follow along on twitter by following @deckchairblog or the hashtag #LiveVoyageReport.
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