Celebrity Cruises' owner Royal Caribbean acquired Sun Bay 1, a small luxury vessel, built in 2001, and launched it in June 2004. In an innovative move, Celebrity's Xpedition sub-brand created a new strata of up-market, premium-priced cruises and shore excursions offering travellers unusual cruise experiences in exotic destinations.
The start-up of the venture marked the arrival of the first mainstream cruise company to operate around the Galapagos Islands year-round. This option opened up Galapagos cruises, formerly the province of backpacking (or high-end) "adventure travellers." In essence, Xpedition combines the exotica of this type of adventure on a small vessel with some of the amenities and features -- high level of service and cuisine, for instance -- that Celebrity is known for.
And indeed, the joy of the Galapagos operation is that it combines Celebrity stylishness with local, "small ship" ambience. Crewmembers -- almost entirely Ecuadorian from the captain down -- are sunny, charming and tirelessly obliging. Destination-oriented features are incorporated into the onboard experience, such as a performance of Ecuadorian folklorique preceded by a highly personalized slide show featuring pictures of passengers meeting wildlife during the course of the trip (guests are presented as a complementary CD to take home).
Better still, all drinks (except for certain premium brands) and tips are included in the price, so the atmosphere is more relaxed and sociable than that on the big Celebrity ships, where passengers are more reluctant to mingle because of potential embarrassment over who buys drinks for whom!
On a ship with such an outdoors-based itinerary, casual is obviously the order of the day, but guests seemed to enjoy changing out of their daytime swimmers and shorts and dressing fairly smartly for dinner.
Select films are available on in-cabin televisions, and there is a decent supply of books and board games for passenger use.
Apart from daytime lectures on wildlife, early-evening tour briefings and the last-night folklorique show, formal entertainment was minimal, most guests being happy enough to enjoy a few drinks and dinner, then head off for an early night in preparation for the next day's tours.
On the top deck (Deck 6), there is a comfortable sunbathing area with cushioned sunbeds, showers, toilets and a whirlpool hot tub. There is also a small indoor gym with large windows overlooking the deck. It contains steppers, stationary cycles, weights and a massage table. There is a separate (mixed sex) sauna area with a shower.
There is a small beauty parlour adjacent to the ship's shop on deck four (not open on the inaugural cruise as the beauty therapist had not yet arrived).
Apart from the Darwin Restaurant, the only indoor public room is the large, elegant Discovery Lounge on Deck 4, which has a curved bar with indoor/outdoor seating to the rear, a small dance floor, a piano and comfortable turquoise seating.
Every evening, the ship's chief naturalist and cruise director holds briefings here on the following day's activities, using very well prepared audiovisual material. On the last night of the cruise, the lounge hosts a performance of Ecuadorian music, singing and folklorique dancing.
At other times, it is a quiet retreat for reading or playing board games. Books and games are available in the library area, at the other end from the bar. Though limited to a few bookcases, this contains some useful reference books as well as a reasonable variety of the usual novels and thrillers.
Just outside the lounge is the ship's purser's office, and opposite this is a small shop stocked with essentials like toothpaste and sun cream as well as scarves, hats and some logo goods (mainly sweatshirts and t-shirts).
All indoor areas of the ship are non-smoking, but smokers are amply catered for in the outdoor bar areas on decks four and five.
The ship's main Darwin Dining Room on Deck 3 is long and fairly narrow with large six-to-eight-seat tables, semi-couchette seating and crisp cream and navy decor. Buffets are offered at breakfast (when eggs and omelettes can be cooked to order), offering everything from muesli for the health conscious to light-as-air croissants for the hedonistic. Lunchtime fare includes a range of salads, freshly baked bread, roast chicken and excellent grilled fish.
In the evening, traditional Celebrity five-course dinners are served, though on the inaugural cruise, problems with supplies and the quality of available meat made standards variable. As a result, tasty cream soups, crisp salads and delicious asparagus risottos made some mealtimes a treat; others were marred by tough, inferior cuts of beef from local suppliers -- prompting Celebrity to arrange shipments of meat products from the U.S. on future sailings.
On this style of cruise, though, formal dining is something of an irrelevance; with two tours offered a day and so much to do and see ashore a simpler, shorter evening meal, or an alternative deck barbecue, may prove to be a better option.
The last-night barbecue served on Decks 4 and 5 was beautifully served and proved very popular; tables were prettily set with snowy tablecloths and fine china; there was a good selection of salads, baked potatoes and barbecued ribs, chops, fish and chicken pieces; the wine service was prompt and attentive and -- best of all -- we got to dine beneath the starry Galapagos sky.
The Beagle Grill, an alternative eatery, is open daily for burger and hot dog lunches, with freshly cooked pizza and crisp salads; a decent spread of puddings is available at the Darwin buffet one deck down.
In the early evening, fresh fruit and cold juices are served to guests returning from afternoon trips ashore, and savoury nibbles are provided in the Discovery Lounge and the outdoor bar on Deck 5, but some guests -- ravenous after snorkelling excursions -- remarked that they'd like to see more substantial snacks available at this time.
Room service is prompt and reliable. In theory, you can have dishes from the main restaurant delivered to your cabin in the evenings, but we found a simple toasted sandwich with a side order of crisp fresh fries fit the bill perfectly well and freed up the evening for relaxation.
And staff were very obliging about bringing a staggering order of fresh-baked cookies and ice cream with coffee half an hour after the main course!
Cabins -- all outside -- range from premium port-holed oceanview staterooms (with picture windows), and Xpedition suites (with verandahs). At the top of the price range is the Penthouse Suite, which is two Xpedition suites combined to offer one double and one single bedroom, and two balconies.
All are prettily presented in cream and blue or peach, with honey wood trims and cream and brass lamps, and have a small dressing table/desk area and small sofa. Interactive 20- inch TVs, direct-dial telephones with voicemail, hairdryers, safes and bathrobes are provided at all accommodation levels.
Bathrooms are small and narrow, but showers are reasonably roomy and there is adequate storage space for a fairly casual wardrobe. Balconies are also narrow but come equipped with teak-topped tables and sit-up chairs.