An incredible journey aboard the newest and most luxurious ship to sail in the protected archipelago
As I push the postcard through the makeshift slot it falls to the bottom of the wooden barrel. The small pile of correspondence that’s just been removed from the unusual post box is now balanced on a rock alongside. Our expedition guide and a fellow passenger sift through to see if any of the cards, all of them without stamps, are addressed to people living near anyone in our group. If so, the idea is you deliver or post them when you get back home.
It might seem like a bit of a novelty. But like everything in the Galapagos Islands we’re experiencing living history, most of it natural and in this instance man-made. We’re in Post Office Bay on Floreana, one of four inhabited islands in the remote archipelago lying 600 miles off the western coast of Ecuador. With its freshwater springs and supply of fresh meat, in the form of giant tortoises, Floreana became a popular stopover for passing sailors, including English and American whalers, during the 18th century.
Often away for months and years at a time, they developed the ingenious mailing system to stay in touch with their families. Mariners heading back, and finding letters addressed to their hometown, would become self-styled postmen.
Every day in the Galapagos brings one-of-a-kind experiences. Our week-long journey began at San Cristobal, another of the populated islands, where we were taken by tender to board Silversea’s brand-new Silver Origin. Shining in the late morning sunlight the sleek ship cut an impressive sight as we drew alongside, and crew members welcomed us aboard.
Carrying 100 passengers, Silver Origin is the largest and most luxurious ship to sail through the islands that became a National Park in 1959. Much of our route and wildlife encounters mirrored the journey taken by naturalist Charles Darwin. Little has changed since he visited in 1835 on the ground-breaking voyage that inspired his theory of evolution and subsequent book, On the Origin of Species.
That said, any similarity ends on Silver Origin which bears no resemblance to HMS Beagle, the cramped Royal Navy gunship turned scientific expedition vessel that carried Darwin.
It’s the first ship built by Silversea to sail in a specific destination. All suites are ocean-view and come with butler service. There’s extra space to store expedition equipment and a novel addition is a sliding bathroom mirror that turns into a window, so you don’t miss any passing views. It also features the line’s first-ever all-weather horizon balconies. A large panoramic window drops down halfway at the touch of a button to form an ‘indoor’ patio, with table and chairs, which can be sectioned off from the rest of the cabin. A new area on the open deck is a cosy ‘fire pit’ where you can keep warm on cooler evenings.
The hub of the ship is Basecamp, which is home to another innovation, the largest LED screen in the Galapagos. The interactive screen is a mine of information about the extraordinary geographical diversity of the islands shaped by volcanic eruptions. There’s also the chance to chat with members of the expedition team. Basecamp leads to the marina platform which is the gateway to the daily choice of excursions including hikes and snorkelling tours, with a beginner’s lesson and refresher session for the latter so nobody misses out.
As Silver Origin never moors at any ports, all expeditions are by Zodiac. There are eight in total and tours are staggered so you always travel in a small group and things are never crowded. Tourism is also strictly controlled in the Galapagos, so ships are only allowed to call at the uninhabited islands one at a time.
You certainly don’t have to wait long for the ‘wow factor’ moments to come along. As we left San Cristobal to join the ship, we had to carefully step past sea lions basking contentedly in the sunshine on public walkways, even on benches, totally unfazed by all the passing interest. Now whaling and hunting has, thankfully, been consigned to the history books this is one part of the world where wildlife can live without fear of human predators.
Of course, these animals are wild, and you have to keep a respectful distance but the close-up encounters are incredible.
On our first Zodiac expedition along a craggy headland, we see one of the bird icons of the Galapagos, the unmistakable blue-footed boobies with their incongruously bright feet. Further along a languid marine iguana sits on a rock next to a Galapagos penguin. The expedition leaders explain the engrossing stories about every creature and how, as observed by Darwin, they have adapted over the centuries to survive in the region. For example, the penguins carried over from Antarctica on the Humboldt Current, have far less plumage than their cold-climate cousins, hold out their wings to keep cool and lean forward to protect their feet from the sun. The flightless cormorants, which look ungainly on land as they hop from rock to rock using their stumpy wings for balance, no longer need to fly to escape danger and have evolved into swift arrow-like divers to hunt for fish.
On snorkel trips, sea lions, turtles and shoals of fish are just feet away in the warm, clear water. On dry land we encounter dragon-like golden land iguanas, lava lizards that communicate through a series of gymnastic push-ups and the biggest sight of them all; the giant Galapagos tortoise that can live to well over 100 years.
Back on board there are excited conversations about the day’s adventures over cocktails and dinner. Meals are another highlight, as Silversea places a big emphasis on sustainability and 50 per cent of the food is sourced from the islands, such as delicious artisan cheeses from a small producer on San Cristobal, and the rest comes from the Ecuadorian mainland. This means you get a real taste of authentic local dishes. The chef also hosts a cookery class, using the freshest ingredients, on how to make the South American staple ceviche.
The week provided so many lasting memories. And if the cards I posted in the barrel ever make it back, that would be another anecdote to add to add to the trip of a lifetime.
Silver Origin sails year-round on two alternating seven-day expedition cruises in the Galapagos Islands which can also be booked back to back. All-inclusive fares start from £8,800 and include door-to-door transfers, flights, full-board accommodation with all drinks, Wi-Fi, watersports equipment and gratuities. A selection of fully escorted pre and post-cruise extensions to destinations including Quito and Machu Picchu are also available. For further information, prices and dates please call +44 (0)844 251 0837 or visit www.silversea.com.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Jeannine Williamson and courtesy of Silversea Cruises