The volcanic islands of the Galápagos and frozen wilderness of Antarctica have more in common than you may think. Isolated, unique and mythologised, both are ultimate bucket-list destinations and, as Gary Buchanan explains, accessible for cruise passengers.
Straddling the Equator some 620 miles off Ecuador’s Pacific coast, the fascinating ecological time-warp that is the Galápagos archipelago comprises 19 islands and several dozen islets and reefs. Home to creatures found nowhere else on Earth, it was the variation of unique species of birds and mammals that caught the imagination of Charles Darwin who based his work On The Origin Of Species on the natural selection he witnessed on these isolated, actively volcanic islands.
Visitors to the Galápagos Islands need to understand this is not a destination of palm trees and piña coladas; each island boasts its own unique landscape, ranging from barren black, volcanic rocks to swaths of white sand beaches melting into gemstone-blue waters. By far and away the best way to visit this natural kaleidoscope is by a variety of cruise packages that are on offer from operators catering for independent travellers as well as those who seek luxury throughout their cruise-tour.
The flight to this isolated sanctuary of natural history is via Quito, the capital of Ecuador. Here a two-day visit to the Spanish colonial district of broad cobbled plazas, whitewashed buildings and golden churches is a perfect contrast to one of the most astounding and unforgettable places on Earth that lies just a 90-minute flight away.
After landing at the airport island of Baltra passengers are taken by Zodiacs to their ship and prepare to explore this isolated sanctuary of biodiversity. Depending on permissions from the Directorate of the Galápagos National Park, visits are made to the islands of South Plaza, Española, Punta Suarez, Floreana, Puerto Ayora, Genovesa, Punta Espinoza and Bartolomé.
Who sails there?
Celebrity Cruises offer four seven-night itineraries through this awe-inspiring land of fire aboard the 100-passenger Celebrity Xpedition. This well-appointed vessel offers ocean view staterooms and suites. In June the company announced the imminent deployment of the 48-passenger Celebrity Xperience and the 16-guest Celebrity Xploration to offer an even greater range of options to explore this showcase of evolution.
Silversea Cruises operate the most luxurious vessel around the ‘Islas Encantadas’. The 100-passenger Silver Galápagos boasts a range of luxurious suites as well as all the indulgent appointments that are a signature of Silversea Expeditions which has just announced two new seven-night Galápagos itineraries.
Other operators include Metropolitan Touring with the 90-passenger Santa Cruz, 40-passenger Isabella II and 48-passenger La Pinta; there is also Lindblad Expeditions, which bases the 96-passenger National Geographic Endeavor and the 48-passenger National Geographic Islander here.
Busiest months for tourism tend to be June, July and August, as well as December to February; the cooler, dryer season is June to November. At any time of year you need protection from the weather. A degree of pre-cruise research will also pay dividends. Visitors who are not part of a cruise package have to pay a $100 National Park entrance fee.
At the bottom of the globe lies a frozen continent separated from the rest of the world by the Southern Ocean. It is encircled by pack-ice and covered by an ice-sheet several miles deep. Tourism to Antarctica began in 1969 when the naturalist Lars-Eric Lindblad designed the Lindblad Explorer, the forerunner of today’s expedition cruising.
Ships visit the ice-free coastal areas and sub-Antarctic islands during the Austral Summer season which runs from November to March. The weather is variable but it is generally cold, dry and windy, with up to 20 hours of daylight. Cruises, ranging from one week to three, call at points of interest on the Antarctic Peninsula and sometimes South Georgia and the Falkland Islands.
After crossing the often tempestuous Drake’s Passage, to the south of Argentina and Chile, the stark beauty of Antarctica is revealed. First landfall for cruisers is often the Chilean research station of González Videla in Paradise Bay.
As the cruise unfolds, the narrow Lemaire Channel – nicknamed ‘Kodak Gap’ due to its delphinium-blue glaciers – is a highlight. Explorations on board Zodiacs allow passengers to see the continent’s residents at close quarters: Adélie, gentoo and chin-strap penguins, snow petrels and pintado petrels, as well as crabeater and Weddell seals; while in the distance humpback whales breach the surface of the ice-strewn water.
There are three types of ships that visit Antarctica and the experience varies depending on the type of vessel. For clients for whom Antarctica takes pride of place on their bucket list, expedition ships with ice-strengthened hulls offer a peerless experiential cruise with high-quality onboard service and appointments. Ice-breaking Russian Ships – built for polar research with basic accommodation and facilities – offer programmes to remote parts of the Antarctic Peninsula. Larger cruise ships ‘sail-by’ sub-Antarctic Islands as part of a South American odyssey, but there are no landings on the frozen continent.
Most expedition ships for the British market depart from Ushuaia at the southern tip of Patagonia. Passengers fly to Buenos Aires before continuing on by domestic carriers. Specialised trips depart from South Africa, New Zealand and Australia to visit the Ross Sea and McMurdo Sound.
Who sails there?
In addition to the comprehensive series of Antarctica cruises aboard the all-suite, 132-passenger Silver Explorer, Silversea Cruises recently announced Silver Cloud will be converted into an ice-class ship and transition to its luxury expedition fleet in November 2017. For Antarctic itineraries the all-suite vessel will be restricted to 200 guests.
Another major player for polar safaris, Ponant has 16 departures this coming season on board their luxury cruise-yachts.
Hurtigruten has announced an order for up to four new explorer ships to meet demand for their highly-popular programme of Antarctic explorations.
Quark Expeditions, a leader in adventures to Antarctica, has announced the largest-ever portfolio of cruises, as well as introducing the popular Island Sky to its fleet.