Celebrity launches Xpedition brand in Galapagos


he Galapagos is sexy. Well, sort of. The setting was North Seymour Island. This four-day trip was the first peek Celebrity Cruises was giving into its new seven- to 11-day Xpeditions program in the Galapagos Islands.

We had exited our panga -- the local vernacular for the Zodiac boats we used for island-hopping -- on foot a few minutes earlier, giving a cranky sea lion the right of way as we gingerly maneuvered up a rocky incline and onto the sandy plateau of North Seymour.

Blue-footed boobies on North Seymour Island in the Galapagos.Soon, the group, meticulously following a trail marked with white stakes, stopped 10 yards from a male blue-footed booby looking for a date. The bird whistled at a female of the species flying overhead but soon caught the attention of another female booby who was playing it coy a couple of paces away.

And the group of been-there-done-that scribes and pic-takers watched in amusement and awe as the two birds went through their mating ritual.

First, the male puffed out his chest like an Army private, whistled, pointed to the sky and stomped around, like guys tend to do. Then, the female turned her back on the male, prompting our naturalist/tour guide to interject: "She's probably saying to him, 'Is that all you got?' "

Well, after several minutes of this feathery fandango, the female was won over and the two Galapagos natives did their thing, which they finished faster than you can say "blue-footed booby."

The imagery on the five islands our group visited on an abbreviated version of Celebrity Cruises' seven-day Galapagos Islands cruise was unforgettable.

Red-throated frigate birds zipped overhead; sea lion moms nursed their pups on the beaches; land and marine iguanas polished their tans; and flamingos worked lagoons for feed like vacuum cleaners methodically consuming a carpet.

Like the flamingos in the ponds, Celebrity Cruises has staked out this new market and likes the landscape. The cruise line, which will begin the operations of its new Xpedition brand with a Galapagos cruise June 11, assessed the concept of launching a luxury brand that features an adventure-travel twist -- and decided the idea would make a bold statement about the line's vibrancy.

To sail the Xpedition in the Galapagos region, which is tightly controlled through permits, Celebrity bought a local tour operator and replaced the operator's cruise vessel, the aging Ambasador I, with the Xpedition.

Compared with other Celebrity ventures, the seven-day Galapagos cruises -- clients also can tack on two pre- and one or two post-cruise nights in Quito, Ecuador -- likely won't be a huge moneymaker. After all, the 2,842-ton Celebrity Xpedition (which is still sailing as the Sun Bay I, its former name, until the June 11 voyage) accommodates a mere 100 passengers per trip.

The Xpedition accounts for less than 1% of Celebrity's total berth capacity.

And in another twist for Celebrity, the cruises, priced from $3,000 for the 10-day option, are pretty much all-inclusive. That includes the seven-day cruise, meals, liquor, tours and tips; air from Quito to the islands; and three nights in Quito.

But Celebrity's vice president of sales, Dondra Ritzenthaler, said the Xpeditions product line will raise Celebrity's overall profile.

"Here's what we believe Xpeditions will do: Increase brand awareness," she said. "It will go beyond the Galapagos."

Celebrity's fleet of nine ships, all carrying more than 1,300 passengers and hosting amenities like showrooms, casinos and multiple restaurants, is in stark contrast with the tiny Xpedition in the exotic waters of the Galapagos.

But if our recent preview trip onboard the Xpedition reflects the upcoming experience, then free-spirited clients who love the outdoors will find the Galapagos a natural selection, as the original survivor, Charles Darwin, did during a five-week stay in 1835.

Consider our typical outings. We boarded the pangas to San Cristobal Island or Santa Cruz Island, for example, hiked the trails for an hour or two in the heat, donned snorkel gear for some beneath-the-surface surveying, and then returned to the Xpedition, where Capt. William (Bill to the casual crowd onboard) Wright and the attentive crew awaited -- the crew with cool hand towels and fresh fruit juices.

Further unwinding took place in the ship's Sun Bay Lounge and the top-deck whirlpool, which provided spectacular views of Galapagos landmarks like Kicker Rock and various avian visitors.

With heavy shades, subdued lighting and a libation or two, the lounge was a wonderful welcome back to civilization after the morning or afternoon's island trek.

It was also a great setting for a naturalist's briefings on the next day's island tours and Ecuadoran cultural performances that framed dinners in the main dining room and the on-deck Sea Gull Buffet.

The Xpedition's midtier cabins were compact but well-appointed. The room accommodated twin- or double-bed configurations, a small settee and a triangular desk.

A TV/VCR facilitated in-room viewing of one's latest digital photos or the movies available through the concierge.

The bathroom featured sparkling tile, silver accents and clear glass, without an inch of wasted space.

But as nice as the accommodations were, the real show was outdoors after sometimes-wet and sometimes-dry landings in the Galapagos archipelago.

Celebrity provides three choices of intensity levels for each island stop, and it took pains to make the morning and afternoon sojourns suitable for all passengers.

Opting for the highest level excursion meant the longest hike -- perhaps 1.5 to 2 miles -- on that particular island, with the footing varying from sandy to muddy to rocky. Although the temperatures in March seemed to be in the mid-80s to low-90s, these treks were not taxing for those in fairly decent shape.

The middle intensity level -- Celebrity was toying with names for each category -- generally meant a slightly shorter walk. The lowest level called for a panga ride around the island instead of a hike.

Still, by its general design, Celebrity's Galapagos cruises are not for everyone.

Adventurous souls may have the cruise of a lifetime; travelers looking for a singles cruise, family-oriented services or time to laze around should look elsewhere.

The waves surrounding some of the islands were a lot rougher than I had expected; in fact, a panga I was riding in with about a dozen other passengers almost capsized one morning when it got caught in a swell as we navigated a cove for a closer look.

I wouldn't recommend the cruise for kids younger than 14 or 15 unless they have an extraordinary love of nature and wildlife. The Xpedition has a few board games and DVDs, but there are no youth-oriented facilities and services.

And the workout room and the spa were tiny.

Luckily, the daily hikes and communing with tortoises and surfing sea lions bested any treadmill experience.

To contact TravelWeekly.com Managing Editor Dennis Schaal, send e-mail to [email protected].

Packages feature Quito stays

QUITO, Ecuador -- Celebrity Cruises' Galapagos packages include overnight stays at the JW Marriott Hotel Quito and city tours of this mountainous capital.

Cruise guests can add two pre- and one or two post-night stays to their Galapagos adventure.

Ecuador is known for is its production of roses, and the JW Marriott's public spaces feature spectacular displays of the flower in huge urns packed with 100 red roses each. Managers said they change the flowers every four days.

The property, with its marble floors, marble-accented railings and glass pyramid-shaped atrium is five miles from the airport and a short tour bus ride from a handicrafts market and religious and historical attractions.

Our group enjoyed a magnificent dinner and performance by a national dance troupe inside the monastery of the Iglesia de San Francisco in a historic section of the city. -- D.S.

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