Galápagos Found

Some 600 miles off the coast of Ecuador, Darwin's paradise still rules.

"No question about it, the Parranda is the boat for you. It's the ultimate Departures boat. The boat you want."

Like many people, I depend on the smart, knowing advice of colleagues, wives, brokers, experts, and travel insiders like my pal Sophy. So when I called Steven Chew, the booker in London she had recommended for my Galápagos trip, I was devastated. The Parranda, all eight cabins with their shellacked tropical-wood trim and spit-polish brass fixtures (even the mahogany deck chairs in blue-and-white canvas seemed plucked from a Ralph Lauren catalogue), had been booked by an Englishman—at $40,000 a week—for a family reunion.

But there were other great adventures awaiting this father and his 11-year-old son, right? Spin the globe to a new and even more fabulous part of the world. Other great adventures in even more fabulous parts of the world, however, weren't what I wanted. To be honest, I had dreamed of Galápagos tortoises and blue-footed boobies and swimming with the penguins since I was . . . well, Zachary's age. And as a boat is the only way to experience the islands, the right boat is very important.

"Ah, forget the whatever it's called," said my friend Reggie in that inimitable style of hers a couple of days later. "Don't give up so easily. There are other boats, better boats, I bet."

But what did she know? She hadn't been there, or seen the glossy brochure for the Parranda ("perfect for those who want to experience the Galápagos in comfort and refinement . . . who wish to cruise in their own privacy"), or spoken to Sophy, who'd spent a week on the boat.

I decided to make one last call to George Morgan-Grenville, president of Abercrombie & Kent, the luxury outfitter that sent me rafting on the Salmon River a few years back.

"What you want is the Eclipse," he said after hearing my saga. The Eclipse, he explained, has 27 cabins and carries a maximum of 48 people.

"But isn't that awfully big?" I asked naively.

"No," he answered emphatically.

The Eclipse, he went on, also has the biggest staterooms in the Galápagos. I immediately conjured up images of chintz-curtained windows and tables laden with high tea afloat in the middle of the sea.

"Bigger than the Parranda?" I asked.

"Much bigger," he said.

I could hear the tapping of computer keys as he checked to see if there was a cabin available. "The Eclipse is a luxury vessel that's ideal for a number of families. The Parranda is a beauty, but it's not for kids. It's really for a single family or a group of friends who want to be alone together. As a tagalong," he said, without needing to add that is exactly what Zach and I would be, "I would have serious reservations. You want room to get away from one another, read a book, hide out, do nothing. If I wasn't taking my kids skiing in Aspen next month, I'd join you on this one," he said. "It's a trip I've always wanted to do."

The Galápagos Islands are hell to get to—but then paradise often is. New York to Miami, Miami to Quito for two nights, then on to Guayaquil and another hour and 45 minutes to the island of Baltra. But the very remoteness and isolation, their utter inaccessibility, are, after all, what made them the perfect laboratory for Darwin's evolutionary studies aboard the Beagle in 1835 and, 168 years later, the quintessential destination.

The Eclipse is a 210-foot former expedition vessel. During the time we were at sea I made it my mission to visit as many other boats as possible, including the Diamante, a 112-foot beauty of a brigantine schooner recently booked by Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins; the M/S Lammer Law, a trimaran for serious divers; and the Alta, a three-masted staysail schooner that Michelle Pfeiffer sailed on last year but that seemed cramped and unkempt to me. The Eclipse, neither the most expensive nor most exclusive boat, is still the one I'd choose. Its cabins are neat, surprisingly roomy, and mercifully well air-conditioned. While the bathrooms may be small, they work (i.e., there is always plenty of hot water). I loved the clubbiness of the dining room and only wish the food had been as consistently good as it was on a few memorable occasions. There was a library, a sundeck, and even a hot tub that was much more appealing and refreshing than its name would suggest. In other words, the Voyage of the Eclipse, as we'll call it, was nothing like the Voyage of the Beagle.

Our trip was that of a father and son accompanied by 45 other passengers, half of them kids under the age of 15. In a publication that will remain nameless, I was startled to read just before I left that the only real way to truly experience the Galápagos was by kayak. The Pacific waters, the author reported, had become so crowded with cruise ships bulging with camera-laden tourists that the scene was like Disneyland. That surely is one of the more inaccurate, irresponsible, and deeply dishonest travel dispatches. Since 1968, when the Galápagos Islands were declared a national park by Ecuador, fierce restrictions have kept tourists at a comfortable minimum and preserved a fragile environmental balance—often to the economic disadvantage of the government. We never saw more than two other ships at sea outside a major harbor, and only twice crossed paths with other groups—this during the height of the season. To even suggest that one could somehow explore the Galápagos only by kayak—as though a kayak could be dropped from the sky and navigated for a week without the backup of a larger vessel—is ludicrous. It would be like recommending a visit on the backside of a Geochelone elephantopus, one of the giant tortoises whose shells inspired explorers to name these islands Galápago, Spanish for saddle.

The drill aboard the Eclipse was the same every day: Wake-up music was played throughout the boat at 6:45, breakfast served between seven and eight. The first panga launched at eight. In groups of no more than 12 we were taken by a staff of educated and experienced naturalists to one of the islands, where we could hike, swim, snorkel, or just observe. As the sun is intense in these equatorial environs, it was back to the boat for lunch by noon. Afternoon outings began around three and ended by 5:30. A gathering in the lounge before dinner included a lecture by one of the naturalists and a briefing on the next day's itinerary. Dinner was at eight sharp. Many of us were in bed by ten. I was told the kids watched movies and played games and had generally fallen into their beds by midnight. All I know is that Zachary was sound asleep when I woke up each morning.

The Island of Birds was not, to be perfectly honest, as I had expected. Scruffy and bare, its tall gray cliffs were streaked with bird dung. More surprising was the ubiquitous stench of birds. The crystal-blue waters on which one approaches its shores were covered with feathers, leaves, twigs, and other debris. "Ugh," said Zachary as he looked around, seemingly horrified. "Looks like pizza toppings." I couldn't argue with him. Actually, these are the materials for nest building, dropped en route during the mating season by single-minded boobies (red-footed, blue-footed, and brown among them) and swallow-tailed gulls, by common noddies, storm-petrels, and red-billed tropicbirds. Genovesa, as this island is more properly known, is alive with birds—flying, nesting, eating, feeding their young, sitting quietly, squawking fiercely. The whole place explodes with the eerie, disconcerting soundtrack of birds. Hitchcock and Wagner together could not have created a more vivid locale.

On Fernandina, the youngest of the islands, there's the startling panorama of hundreds of marine iguanas spread across outcroppings of prehistoric lava. That these creatures are the only sea-living lizards in creation was one of the many discoveries Darwin made here. As he tells it, a sailor aboard the Beagle threw an iguana into the sea "with a heavy weight attached to it, thinking thus to kill it directly; but when an hour afterwards he drew up the line, it was quite active." One gasps at these mini Godzillas, taciturn as they bask in 100-degree temperatures. Again, Darwin ca. 1843: "The rocks on the coast abounded with great black lizards, between three and four feet long. It is a hideous-looking creature of a dirty-black colour; stupid and sluggish in its movements." But astonishing too.

The days went by in a rush of heart-stopping images and emotions. We climbed the 375 wood steps constructed among the barren lava fields to Pinnacle Rock, and swam alongside the giant sea lions splayed like a colony of overly indulged bathers across the white sands of Gardner Beach, off Española. On our last morning a few of us rose one last time at 6:45 for the "optional" panga ride in Black Turtle Cove, off Santa Cruz. Quietly motoring our way through still waters, lush outcroppings, and tangled mangroves, one felt not only the hushed beginnings of morning but those of primordial life itself. Through clear pine-green waters we saw a school of golden rays and a chocolate-chip starfish. In the distance a great blue heron stood majestically—a sentinel guarding our departure. As we headed out to the Eclipse, a guide pointed to a school of baby blacktip sharks making their way into a darkened cove. I thought to myself: This is indeed the destination of our time—remote, untouched, unchanged—just as it was for Darwin nearly two centuries ago; as it is for Zachary; and, God willing, as it will be for those who come after him.

The Galápagos in Style

With Abercrombie & Kent every last detail is taken care of, including navigating the Quito and Baltra airports (no easy feat). A&K offers two to three trips per month aboard the Eclipse.

Prices range from $3,950 to $4,365 per person, double occupancy, and include seven nights on the Eclipse, three nights at Swissôtel in Quito, all meals, sightseeing, naturalist guides, and Galápagos National Park fees.

The Galápagos trip is rigorous, and you should be realistic about your physical limitations and expectations. Temperatures and humidity are high; so too are the steep stairways, uneven terrain, and rocky slopes. January through April are usually the warmest months; they also can be the rainiest. From March 20-29, when I visited, the days were cloudless and in the nineties. And the waters were definitely warm enough to swim and snorkel in without a wet suit.

Caveat: If your idea of a living hell is being trapped at sea with young children and their adoring parents, do not book during holiday vacation. My advice: Discuss with Abercrombie & Kent the type of group you feel comfortable with before signing on.

For further information, contact Abercrombie & Kent at 800-323-7308;