Giant soaring Frigatebirds are circling overhead, gliding back and forth between the Jurassic-looking, rocky Tower Island and our sleek, luxury Galapagos cruise yacht. The hazy sun is shimmering off the soft, rippling waves and the only noise to be heard as we bob calmly in the Pacific Ocean is that of gentle, contented snoring. Lunch is being digested aboard the Isabella II, and all is well…
Having dreamt about visiting the islands since childhood, my journey finally began early yesterday morning from a small hotel in Quito. I was collected by Juan, my driver, and taken to the airport for my morning flight to Baltra, in the Galapagos Islands. Juan, like every Ecuadorian I’d met in the last four weeks, expressed his sheer awe and pride in the islands. In fact, he’ll be booking a Galapagos holiday cruise for the first time, next year. He can’t wait.
Having paid the National Park fees and left my luggage for the guys at Metropolitan Touring to take care of and bring directly to the cruise ship itself, the 15 of us sporting ‘Isabella II’ badges were whisked by bus, boat and then mini bus to the highlands of Santa Cruz Island. We were all busy exchanging initial pleasantries and introductions when, suddenly, “Stop! – Wild Giant Tortoises!” came the cry from our Naturalist, John. And so, within 30 minutes of landing on these islands, famous the world over for their unique and fascinating wildlife, we were standing right next to this gigantic, prehistoric reptile.
Side-by-side, and consumed with sheer excitement, stood a small Japanese boy of about six and a bearded, wise-looking Italian man of sixty-six. It was vividly apparent how, regardless of age or origin, animals – pure wild life — captivates us all.
Lunch – fresh, varied and enjoyable, reflected the conversation around the table as we began to get to know one another. Satisfied, we headed south to the largest town on the Islands, Puerto Ayora, from where we strolled to the Charles Darwin Research Centre to observe (the now not so) Lonely George and the passionate, innovative conservation work carried out on the islands. This is a great introduction to a Galapagos cruise. Before you even step aboard your luxury Galapagos cruise yacht, unpack and put your feet up to unwind, you get to witness, first hand, just how rare, delicate and important these Islands and their flora and fauna are.
Within an hour we were aboard, settled in and relishing our stylish, cosy Galapagos cruise yacht. A briefing on the following day’s activities followed, whetting our appetites for the adventure ahead, another appetite was then quite comprehensively squashed with a delicious four-course meal. This did not feel like a cruise ship, but a restaurant of the highest order with attentive, efficient service, fine food and an excited atmosphere. A beer or two on deck, under Equatorial stars, later and the first day of my Galapagos Islands holiday cruise came to an end. I retired to my room, content, happy and eager to see what the morning would bring.
The gentle sway of the yacht as we travelled through the night across the Equator made for a pleasant, dreamy night. Breakfast continued the way dinner had left off and then, following our safety talk for the day’s snorkelling, we were in the ‘pangas’ (dinghies) heading for shore.
Tower Island looks wild. Jagged, fearsome rocks soar upwards from the dark ocean to a plateaued surface gripped by coarse, shrubby plantation. Above, an infinite number of seabirds; Frigates, Boobies and Storm Petrels glided, dipped and flew with abandon. The birds indicated thriving life upon the island but, from a distance, it looked it looked as though there would be anything but.
Onshore the novelty continued. Blue-footed boobies, Red-footed boobies, Nazca boobies, Red-tailed tropic birds, Galapagos doves, Great frigates and Galapagos mockingbirds flooded the small, sandy bay and surrounding rockery. Soft-spiked cacti, a species native only to this island, gave the sharp rocky outcrop splashes of colour while the pastel-blue beaks and rose-red feet of the Boobies leant the final touches to Nature’s painting. We wandered back to the pangas across the fine white coral sand, more laden with footprints of birds than those of man. And, as many times as I’d been told before coming here that the wildlife really does not flinch when approached by a human, I’d challenge anyone not to be moved the first time they crouch down, shuffle forward and look a gorgeous wild animal such as a fluffy baby Frigate deep in the eyes from two paces.
Some of us now headed for the water. ‘Deep water snorkelling’ had been advertised the night before and I wasn’t going to miss it. Clad with wetsuits and expectancy we plopped over the edge of the panga into the calm, silky sea. As on land, the ocean was saturated with life. Parrotfish, Morays, Wrasse, Triggerfish, Boxfish, Starfish and Chub brought the dark intimidating rocks to life with their explosions of colour. Above the water, sea lions basked lazily upon rocks, glancing occasionally at the strange Homo sapiens floating past. And again, from the six year old to the oldest member of our group, pure, natural fascination absorbed us.
And so, following a morning of the most magical sights, we boarded Isabella II, warmed ourselves in the on-deck Jacuzzi and dined. The contentment seen now, all about the ship, is not simply down to the cuisine. This is a special, enchanting place….