Sara Macefield, along with her husband and teenage daughters, joins Celebrity Cruises in the Galápagos Islands and finds that the incredible wildlife more than justifies the long journey
The mockingbird gazes at us curiously, its flamboyant tail feathers waving gently in the breeze as it swiftly hops across the rocks to where we are standing.
My heart is in my mouth as it comes ever closer, almost within touching distance, and in an instant, flits boldly between our feet as I stand rooted to the spot in astonishment.
I shouldn’t be so surprised. After all, this is the Galápagos, where animals famously have no fear of humans – but nothing can prepare you for that feeling of wonder when they treat you as one of their own.
Hikes over the islands’ volcanic terrain turn into magical experiences as we wander past heart-meltingly cute sea lion pups, just two weeks old, some of which are suckling from their mothers just a couple of metres away, completely unbothered by our presence.
Large fluffy frigatebird chicks eye us impassively from oversized nests of straggly twigs where they wait patiently for their parents to return; prehistoric-looking marine iguanas slumber in the warm sunshine; and thousands of scarlet crabs scuttle across black volcanic rocks.
But on this Galápagos voyage with Celebrity Cruises, it’s the sea that holds the biggest thrills. As I take the plunge on snorkelling adventures with my husband and twin 15-year-old daughters, we spot skulking reef sharks and revel in some thrilling encounters with the cute Galápagos penguins which speed past us like sleek bullets.
I’ve never seen such a profusion of marine life, with giant shoals of silvery fish thousands-strong that envelop me like a rippling curtain and turtles ponderously paddling along the ocean floor, stopping only to nibble on gently-wafting seaweed.
Yet the real stars of this underwater show are the playful sea lions who prove to be the ultimate aquatic playmates; effortlessly ducking and diving through the water and clearly revelling in their new human friends as they skilfully twist and somersault all around us.
Such mind-blowing experiences more than make up for the long journey to this remote archipelago, which sits in the Pacific, 1,000km off the coast of Ecuador.
The Galápagos may have long been top of our bucket-list, but the 12-hour flight to Ecuador’s capital, Quito, via Amsterdam, and two-hour onward journey over the Andes mountains to the islands, combined with the time difference and resultant jet lag make it no easy option.
With an active programme of early starts followed by hilltop hikes, boat trips and deep-water snorkelling, I’d wondered if it all might be too much for my daughters, Holly and Dani.
However, the thrill of exploring this natural treasure chest more than outweighs any negatives.
By the time we arrive in the islands, we have enjoyed a two-night stay in Quito which enables us to get acclimatised and explore this mountainous city on a day-trip that takes us into its colonial heart.
A walking tour of the 16th century Old Town reveals unassuming stone churches hiding interiors literally dripping in gold, a legacy of the wealth that was discovered by early Spanish conquistadors.
Just outside the city lies the Intiñan Solar Museum, where it is claimed the equator passes through, represented by a painted red line where everyone poses for pictures with a foot in each hemisphere.
On arriving at the Galápagos isle of Baltra the following afternoon, we board Celebrity Xpedition and, with its cosy house-party ambience, we soon get to know the other passengers spanning all ages from seven up to 86, with a sprinkling of families and youngsters.
Most hail from North America, although Brits make up the second-largest number and, with shared dining tables, we soon bond over meals of fine food in the main Darwin’s Restaurant and also the al fresco Beagle Grill, which is an ideal lunch spot.
Mornings and afternoons are taken up with tours, which are efficiently organised with the procedure of kitting everyone out with wetsuits, getting into Zodiac boats and escorting the tours a smooth-running operation.
Our final day is spent on land as we venture into Santa Cruz for a fascinating visit to the giant tortoise breeding centre, but an unexpected highlight comes as we wander past the town’s busy fish stand where, waiting patiently at the feet of the server rather like a begging dog, is a sea lion clearly hoping for fishy titbits.
A few metres away is a pelican carefully eyeing proceedings, while a heron stalks the floor nearby pecking up tasty scraps.
Customers come and go without a second glance, but I could stay all day, relishing this unique scene which truly sums up the animal magic of these islands.
An 11-night package comprising the one-week Galápagos Northern Loop cruise, two nights in Quito pre-cruise and one night post-cruise costs from £6,094pp including all flights, drinks, excursions and gratuities. It departs on July 27, 2019, (0800 441 4054; celebritycruises.co.uk)
When it all comes down to it, why risk it by waiting?
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Read the February 2019 issue of Cruise Adviser. In a recent survey of holidaymakers’ habits, 48 per cent of Britons put the northern lights at the top of their bucket list – placing the natural phenomenon above the Pyramids, African safaris and the Great Barrier Reef. We sent Sara Macefield on Viking Cruises’ very first In Search of the Northern Lights sailing from London Tilbury to Bergen to find out why it’s so high on so many lists – read her feature here. Elsewhere in the magazine, we have an interview with Larry Pimentel, president and CEO of Azamara Club Cruises; plus we look at why it pays to book early.