January: the month of return-to-work blues, the New Year detox, the attempt not to break one’s New Year resolutions. It all sounds awfully dull. Which is probably why so many of us begin to plan our holidays this month too. While you may be toying with Tuscany, mulling over the Maldives or considering the Caribbean, you will get unrivalled dinner-party kudos by visiting somewhere a touch more exotic, and we may have just the ticket…
With the grip of globalisation closing in on the natural world, there are precious few areas and habitats on this planet where it is possible for the average man to go (unless armed, with a guided escort and sherpas carrying supplies for six weeks) to see nature in its most unadulterated form. The opportunities to exercise a sense of discovery and elicit real adventure have become diluted by the information age and, even once you’ve found your wilderness, you can bet that a Starbucks is just around the corner, on the corner – but there is one exception: the Galapagos Islands.
Six hundred miles off the coast of Ecuador the archipelago of 19 islands is truly one of the last wildernesses on earth. As a National Park and UNESCO World Heritage site, their conservation is paramount and, as you can imagine, having remained little changed since Darwin first saw them, stepping onto the Galapagos Islands is akin to stepping back in time.
As a result, given their preservation, visits to the islands are strictly controlled; the only opportunity to visit the islands is with a registered tourist company. And there’s only one operator that comes close to matching the Arbuturian’s precision standards.
Of the few select tour operators licensed to operate the Galapagos, Sanctuary Retreats eclipses the competition. And their ship, fittingly, is called Eclipse. A converted expedition vessel, it has been re-appointed with a bespoke interior designed to offer a significantly more personalised experience for such a tour. It accommodates just half of the passengers found on a ship this size, serving instead to offer its clientele an unrivalled experience when touring the islands.
Comprising 24 spacious ‘staterooms’, each with a sizeable window to the sea (there are no interior only P&O-esque cabins on this boat), the Eclipse features both indoor and al fresco dining areas from which to enjoy the sumptuous buffet (and I mean ‘sumptuous’, I’ve seen the pictures), a viewing platform and sundeck, and with the highest crew-to-passenger ratio of any other boat there, the personalised service is truly bespoke.
But it’s not just about the boat. Eclipse’s itinerary is designed to show the very best of the islands. Only one stop through the 8-day tour is made at a populated settlement, ensuring the majority of the trip is spent within the protected areas of the Galapagos National Park and Marine Reserve. What’s more, the guides resident on board are the very best of the islands; selected not only for their knowledge of the islands, their geography, geology, biology and topography but also with the context of evolution and they’re gifted with an infectious enthusiasm – the sort of teacher you wish you’d had at school.
That said, if you’re thinking that snorkelling with sea lions or tracking a giant tortoise into the jungle is still exploitative of nature and we should leave well alone, I shall remind you of the preservation bit. You can’t visit the Galapagos without an approved tour and Sanctuary’s modus operandi is ‘responsible travel’. There are hugely stringent codes of practice in place for the islands and Eclipse has every certificate going in pursuit of its policy towards protecting the fragile ecosystems there. As if that’s not enough, they make annual contributions to the various causes devoted to the islands all designed to preserve the Galapagos for generations to come.
If your idea of such a trip is milking the buffet, eyes glazing over ten minutes into a tour as you pine for your next pilsner at the bar and passing out to turn lobster pink on the sun deck (and I’ve seen such people on similar trips) then this probably isn’t for you (besides, you couldn’t afford it). Equally, if you’re wondering where the sense of adventure is, I didn’t necessarily mean you have to rough it but, if you really wanted to, they can set you up in a tree house to bed down with arachnids, if that’s your thing. Then again, chances are you’d be pining for your cabin and that bed within minutes.
If, however, you want to go where few have been, to see things the likes of which may not be around for much longer, to understand something meaningful and experience a world that is nowhere else to be found, and do it in the most personal way possible, wouldn’t you go here? Think of the dinner-party kudos.
In November 2008, the Natural History Museum in London opened an exhibition to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. When I visited, I had every layman’s basic grasp of what it entailed, taking for granted as we do the now universally-accepted theory of evolution. It’s impossible for us to fathom, however, quite what an impact the publication of that book had on the world at the time and our understanding of it. It quite literally turned things upside down. Similarly, that exhibition was both fascinating and enlightening; the intrigue surrounding the rival theories and Darwin’s competition, the consequences for religious-based preconceptions and, of particular interest to me, the circumstances of how Darwin came to be on the ship, The Beagle, and the adventure that voyage must have entailed…oh, to have been a travel correspondent in 1835! Stepping foot on the Galapagos, I could well be.
Sanctuary Retreats offer week-long cruises, including family tours, year-round on the AV Eclipse expedition vessel. For more information, itineraries and prices, visit their website.