Apparently, I have a thing with sea lions. I learned this on my first trip to the Galápagos a decade ago when I was snorkeling and a young sea lion swam over to check me out, the way curious animals do in the remote Ecuadorian islands. On my latest visit in early March, I met up with a teenage sea lion, coming out of the water right next to my double-kayak to show off his catch of the day, an octopus.
I owe the most recent encounter in large part to the fact that I was visiting the Galápagos National Park, which protects the mostly uninhabited islands in the Pacific, on the 100-passenger Silver Origin. Since my traveling partner does not kayak, the ship’s owner, ultraluxury line Silversea Cruises, provided me with my own local naturalist guide, and it was just us exploring the mangroves when we came upon the sea lion.
On Silver Origin, Silversea’s first destination-focused expedition ship, for about $12,000 per person per week, passengers get a suite and have the privilege of visiting natural wonders from a luxurious ship.
Experiences like seeing a sea lion eat an octopus, however, are what make the cruise priceless.
What you will see on a Galápagos cruise
The Galápagos National Park is one of those unique places where the only way to explore is by water. Come here and you need to get over any notions you have that you are not a cruise person. In fact, many of the passengers I met on Silver Origin had never cruised before.
Several highly respected cruise lines sail in the Galápagos, including soft-adventure ships operated by Lindblad Expeditions and Hurtigruten (in partnership with Metropolitan Touring) and the 20-passenger Relais & Châteaux ships (complete with French-trained head chef) of Ecuadorian line Ecoventura. Debuting this summer is a 16-passenger superyacht operated by Ecuadorian-owned Aqua Expeditions, known for its river ships on the Amazon.
Several people I talked with on Silver Origin said they had chosen this slightly larger vessel because there is room to spread out and they were afraid they would be seasick on a smaller ship. Celebrity Cruises, sister line to Silversea, has a luxury 100-passenger ship, Celebrity Flora, in the market too, sans butlers.
The park limits ships to 100 passengers, and visitors can only go onshore, snorkel, or kayak when accompanied by a park-certified naturalist guide, the allowable ratio being one guide to 16 travelers. By comparison, Silver Origin has a 1:10 ratio. The fact the ship has eight inflatable Zodiacs for exploration is also a bonus—you are never landing on shore, or heading off on snorkeling or kayaking adventures, or looking for wildlife along the shoreline with more than 12 people sharing your boat.
For crowd control, and to make sure the wildlife and flora are as undisturbed as possible, where ships go is determined by the park each week, so itineraries are subject to change. When you book a week, you vaguely go either east or west. Cruise lines list itineraries, but they are subject to change.
There are some differences in the routes. The east, in my experience, offers more opportunities to see birdlife, including the notorious blue-footed boobies. My western itinerary on Silver Origin brought very exciting snorkeling—on one outing I swam with sea lions, sea turtles, colorful schools of fish, and five whitetip reef sharks. On both itineraries you’ll view many sea lions, iguanas, and giant tortoises at a nature preserve. (In the case of Silversea’s itineraries, passengers see tortoises at Montemar, a private preserve and coffee plantation on the island of Santa Cruz.)
Silver Origin’s focus on locally sourced goods and lower emissions
When sailing in the sensitive and protected areas of the Galápagos, cruise lines have been increasingly addressing their impact and are making at least some strides to lessen it. Unfortunately, the Galápagos has yet to see such advances as ships that can operate entirely on liquefied natural gas or on battery power. But with Silver Origin, Silversea Cruises was able to cut fuel consumption by 15 percent compared to Silver Galápagos, the ship the line previously had in the market, by making changes that include specially developed diesel engines and a new hull configuration.
Another welcome development is the dynamic positioning system that allows Silver Origin to hover over delicate sea beds without having to drop anchor and disturb marine life.
Care has been taken to stock cabins with locally made beauty products including SPF 50 reef-safe sunscreen. While onboard, passengers snack on complimentary fair-trade organic chocolate from the Andes, drink organic coffee grown in the Galápagos, dine on pork raised by a local farmer who reportedly sings to his pigs, and eat fish such as the Galápagos scorpionfish, caught by local fishermen.
What life is like onboard the Silver Origin
Luxury hotel designer Hirsch Bedner Associates is behind the soothing stone and cream interiors of the Silver Origin, a defining element of which is ample windows so passengers never miss views of the sea and volcanic islands. There are also comfortable, cushy furnishings indoors and out from which to view either the passing scenery or take in the collection of Ecuadorian-themed art and knickknacks curated by a London-based art conservancy.
The attention to detail is impressive. Everyone gathers for cocktails and a daily briefing in a windowed Explorer Lounge laid out with conversation seating areas and video screens throughout the room. The idea is if a naturalist is giving a presentation on, say, botany, you never need to strain your neck to look at the photos from wherever you are sitting.
In the windowed Observation Lounge and Library, as you sink into a club chair, you may find yourself dozing off rather than reading the book on Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution you have on your lap—the chairs are that comfortable and inviting. At night, head up to the stargazing deck to spot the Southern Cross constellation or exchange stories around the ship’s outdoor firepit.
An exciting innovation is in the Basecamp Lounge right off the marina on the lower deck. You may feel like Captain Kirk in Star Trek as you stand at a touchscreen podium that controls an entire interactive digital wall on which you can zoom into photos and videos of wildlife and factoids about the Galápagos.
For meals, passengers are dispersed between the main restaurant and a covered open-air grill so that you never feel part of a crowd. An enthusiastic head chef waxes poetic about his international- and Ecuadorian-influenced creations. A passenger favorite is the daily selection of soup-like Ecuadorian ceviche served with plantain chips and popcorn, in flavors such as tuna, fish broth and peanut paste. The chef leads a cooking class with take-home recipes. In addition to fresh fish, the vegetarian dishes, such as grilled cabbage atop celery root, are among the highlights.
The smallest suite is a generous 325 square feet and the largest is apartment size. Two top suites can be combined for nearly 2,000 square feet of space for families or groups. All have an open-air feature, ranging from a proper step-out balcony to a balcony effect that you can create by pushing a button to open the top half of a floor-to-ceiling window.
Silversea includes nearly everything in the cruise fare—you can spend extra on a massage or blowout if you desire. A personal butler is available to answer requests should you want a bottle of Belvedere vodka or your hiking boots cleaned.
While the wildlife is what you will remember most from your Galápagos cruise aboard the Silver Origin, the fact that nature explorations are complemented by as much pampering as you can imagine onboard certainly doesn’t detract from the experience. After a day spent spotting sea lions, you will disembark your Zodiac at the ship’s marina and peel off your wetsuit, then head to your suite in a designer bathrobe provided by the waiting crew. Have your butler bring you a cappuccino or a cocktail as you relax in the ship’s hot tub watching the sun go down. Finally, you’ll snuggle into bed under fine European linens. Not a bad way to end the day.
>> Next: What I Learned From the Famously Fearless Creatures of the Galápagos Islands