February 2008

How I took the Beagle to Darwin's Galapagos

sea lionsMany years ago, when the South of France was the ultimate holiday location, the holiday of a lifetime was a trip to the Galapagos Islands 600 miles west of the Ecuadorian coast. This bizarre clutch of relatively recent lava formations, the consequence of volcanic eruptions, is home to a handful of unusual creatures which live in slightly bizarre surroundings. Throughout the Seventies and Eighties the Galapagos became the must-do vacation for the seriously rich.

And it still is ... ish.

Prices have tumbled and with them some of the heroic efforts to restrict tourism to the islands. Slowly, the commercial temptations are encroaching to the point where the Galapagos visit is no longer exclusive. The hot breath of the mass market is getting closer. We flew from Heathrow via Miami to Quito, the breathlessly high (33,000ft) capital of Ecuador, where we spent a night before taking another flight to the Galapagos. The small Baltra airport on the island of Santa Cruz is a former military base now overwhelmed by backpackers, the very posh and the not-so-posh (like us) keen to put clear blue water between ourselves and the airport crush.

It's a long journey to the islands so first we decompressed for three days at the Finch Bay Hotel on Santa Cruz, an intimate and elegant establishment, small enough to be a family hotel but sufficiently thought-through to provide first-class accommodation and food. We also experienced the first sight of those 'Oooh, look at the stars' evenings where the light-pollution-free equatorial sky uncloaks its full splendour after dark.

A few early and necessary tips. You're on the Equator so use at least factor 30 sunscreen. Wear a hat all the time, drink less alcohol (sorry) and don't forget deck shoes, lightweight climbing boots and plenty of T-shirts. Oh, and don't bring the children - this is not for them.

The BeagleThe Beagle - a splendid British-built 105ft twin-screw steel-hulled brigantine - was to be our home (together with ten others) for the next week. She's a beautiful craft, all lacquered wood and polished brass and the incomparable dignity of a superior vessel. Our cabins were small but intelligently designed and furnished, single bunk on top, double below, own aircon, bathroom and constant hot water from the basic but faultless shower. All six cabins were taken and, maybe it was coincidence, we found ourselves with ten like-minded Brits of similar age range and backgrounds. No one was under 50, there were no children, mobile phones, lap-tops, Walkmen or MP3s. Living amicably on board the Beagle (yes, it is named after Charles Darwin's legendary ship) and rubbing shoulders with the others make it sensible to adopt a quiet and obvious discipline. When you fall into this logical attitude, it turns the experience into a sort of extended family trip. Good manners, decorum, and civility ruled. Everyone liked each other. We gossiped, made small talk endlessly and, in the evenings when the (rather ordinary) wine flowed, spoke about love, life, art and the meaning of the cosmos.

I fell into the routine with great pleasure. We arose at 7am each morning and were in bed by 9.15pm. The rhythm of life aboard was stimulating, exhilarating and never dull. The crew were professional and unobtrusive yet never more than a call away for those who needed a hand. The food was Ecuadorian, varied, original, well-cooked - and there was always enough. The timetable was simple enough, breakfast at 7.30, first trip to an island at 8.15 then maybe a second trip, or a snorkel or a swim round the boat. Then lunch, a snooze during the heat of the afternoon (on incongruously cheap and cheerless plastic on-deck chairs) followed by the afternoon trip then more swimming and snorkelling. Sundowners were followed by early dinner and then to bed, exhausted. Some nights the Beagle travelled from island to island; sometimes she sailed during the day.

Our onboard guide was a thirtysomething professional Ecuadorian woman who knew her flora, fauna, mammals and fish. She could talk about rocky volcanic lava and bare scrub for 45 minutes without repeating herself once. She looked after us with care and was a participant and never an onlooker. There is a healthy physical element to Galapagos touring, but don't disqualify yourself for being a bit arthritic, creaky, slow or occasionally rocky. We had one lady who usually walked with a stick, and for my part, I have a metal knee and two screws in my foot, yet I survived well. It's easy enough to opt out of any strenuous walks. There are worse things than lying on the deck of the Beagle with a glass of champagne (the ship's bar is run on a help yourself 'honour' system).

This is a holiday for the reasonably fit and curious over-50s. It has solitude when required, companionship and superb weather and sunsets. The Galapagos tour on a small luxurious vessel such as the Beagle is not the cheapest holiday you will ever take but it is probably the least forgettable. Which leaves the birds and the animals and the fish and the volcanoes, all of which are, ostensibly, why you come. You will see giant land turtles and land and marine iguanas - species that time forgot. You will swim with sea lions and sea tortoises and fur seals that have no fear of man. There are no real predators, so the danger is not that you will be attacked by these Stone-Age critters, but that, in their boredom, they will allow you to step on them. This is not a twitcher's paradise. Darwin's famous finches look as if they've been nesting in a Hoover bag, and as the natural environment is black lava, most birds have the colouring of a coal mine. From our dinghy we saw curtains of blue-footed booby birds clinging to the raw perpendicular cliff faces ('big boobies but no tits' noted our retired public schoolmaster, drily) and for a treat we saw one dolphin riding our bow wave, and a couple of rare Galapagos hawks. And, in the highlands, the only really green part of the islands, we saw sink holes the size of Wembley stadium and other phenomena caused by volcanic eruptions.

What pleased me was not having to work out my schedule, never becoming bored, and having my thinking done for me by professionals. Each day brought something different and, although there is a limit to the number of boobies, iguanas and sea lions one wants to see, the time seems to hurtle by - but slowly.

But the first ominous signs are emerging of what the islands' future holds. Already 90 boats are licensed to cruise the islands, with the largest number per boat being 100. What lies in store could be imagined when our vessel and three others finished up anchored off the same beach, snorkelling in the same waters, sharing the same space with at least 60 other tourists - that's what you come to the Galapagos to avoid. The pressure on the government of Ecuador to open up the islands to mass tourism is powerful. The gigantic American short-cruise tourist liners are clamouring to come in. Tiny Baltra airport with its single runway could easily be expanded to take jumbo jets. There are political and sociological reasons for not maintaining the islands as an environmental museum. Where there are native residents, unemployment is sky-high and the standard of living poor.

The Galapagos Islands cannot be pickled in a time warp for ever just because tourists have the money and the means to ooh and aah their way through the chain.
But the islands are unique, where birds and animals have no predators or fear of man and where, figuratively, lions lie down with lambs.

These are also treasures worth protecting. It's a dilemma that will be hard to solve.

Travel Facts

The Ultimate Travel Company, - 020 7386 4646, has holidays to the Galapagos. A 12-day trip costs from £3,115 including two nights in Quito, an eight-day cruise aboard the Beagle, three nights at Finch Bay Eco Hotel on Santa Cruz Island, all flights, transfers, guided tours in Quito and most meals.

American Airlines - 020 7365 0777, flies to Quito from Heathrow via Miami. Return fares start from £563.20.

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