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HX in the Galpagos Islands - CreditAndresBallestero

The difference between a good and bad expedition cruise

Fresh off an HX cruise to the Galapagos Islands, Cruise Weekly Editor MYLES STEDMAN shares what makes expedition cruising worthy of your bucket list.

AN EXPEDITION cruise is no small undertaking, regardless of your age, level of fitness, and travel experience – this much was made clear to me on my first voyage just over two years ago.

During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, I travelled on a trip to Antarctica with Aurora Expeditions, which due to restrictions at the time, involved flying into Chile through the United States before heading into hotel quarantine.

Navigating the complexities of the pandemic limitations in a country where I did not speak the language was an intimidating experience; last week, landing in Santiago again brought back a flood of memories, both good and bad, of the adventure of my first expedition cruise – experience I was glad to have had this time around.

Rather than flying south from Santiago to Patagonia, this time I was flying north to Ecuador, from where I would board HX’s Santa Cruz II for my second expedition cruise, around the Galapagos Islands.

It was another three-flight journey, through Santiago and Lima to Quito, and even as an intrepid Australian who like the rest of us, is used to two and three flights to reach other parts of the globe, the effect the travel had on my body was profound; I was glad to have had a number of days in Quito worked into my itinerary prior to the expedition.

The two-and-a-half days on mainland Ecuador prior to flying to the Galapagos allowed my body to painstakingly adjust to the new time zone, and the higher altitude presented by Quito; if I could do it again, I would encourage a night in Santiago or Lima to break up what was a 30-plus-hour trip from door-to-door.

This is one of the keys to enjoying an expedition cruise: don’t underestimate the transit – the destination is isolated in more ways than one.

Santa Cruz II’s Expedition Leader Ramiro Tomala liked to quip “this is not a holiday” throughout the cruise, and he wasn’t kidding; as soon as passengers had landed in the Galapagos and set foot aboard the ship, we were being prepared for the afternoon’s activities, which included a zodiac tour and a hike.

HX eruditely schedules its Galapagos itineraries allowing all passengers a night in Quito prior to the cruise, and this should be considered a minimum; when you’re likely only going to visit a destination like this once in your lifetime, you want to experience it to the fullest.

Life on board a small ship (Santa Cruz II carries a maximum of 90 passengers) is unlike almost any other travel experience on the planet, particularly when the setting is an expedition cruise.

Not only will you get to know your fellow passengers, but you will also get to know the crew and staff members on board, even more so than on a medium- or large-size cruise ship, and everything they do which you love and hate will be magnified by the close quarters.

Similar to watching a play in a 50-seat theatre, you will notice the good crew members and the bad, those who have their lines memorised by heart, and those who may be fluffing through certain parts of the act.

After returning from a long day of two and three activities, including zodiacing, hiking, snorkelling, paddleboarding, and kayaking, it is noticeable difference to return to a ship where your order for dinner was taken at breakfast, and the bartender remembers your favourite drink.

This factor is even more crucial to a good expedition cruise when off the ship, as your expedition leaders chaperone you through the destination and explain the myriad natural phenomena you can and can’t see.

It is rare to meet a guide who is not among the most learned people in the world on their topic, as are the expedition leaders aboard Santa Cruz II, and it is in the minute details such as answering a question about iguana mating habits or blue-footed booby life cycles that you realise how crucial those staffing the ship are to your experience while both on board and on land.

During my time on board Santa Cruz II, as well as Aurora’s Greg Mortimer, the one uniting factor linking those who enjoyed their expedition the most was those who pushed themselves furthest out of their comfort zone.

Both ships’ expedition staff laid bare the risks and capabilities required for some of the more extreme activities available, including deepwater snorkelling and ocean kayaking, and those with who I spoke to on board who’d pushed themselves to their upper physical capabilities agreed they were right to do so.

On our first snorkel of the expedition – a deepwater excursion off the coast of Isabela Island – I encountered two guests who were originally signed up to sail on the glass-bottom boat tour, but had a FOMO-induced change-of-mind at the last minute, and after encountering sea turtles, sea lions, and blue-footed boobys on the snorkel, they reported they were thrilled with their decision.

Later on in the expedition, those who opted for the hard snorkel as opposed to the easy snorkel were treated to hammerhead sharks and ray sightings; and while on board Greg Mortimer, those who donned and wetsuit and braved the freezing Antarctic waters swum alongside a whale, which other passengers were only able to witness from the ship with a tinge of regret.

As Santa Cruz II’s expedition leader reinforced, expedition cruises are not cheap, and passenger expectations are high; when the margins are this fine, sometimes it is the little things which take your experience from great to life-changing.

 

Feature image: HX in the Galapagos Islands, Credit Andres Ballestero 2023

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