I’ll be the first to admit that I may have been a little judgemental when it came to the idea of cruising. In my mind, I pictured giant 30-story, all-inclusive floating resorts that were filled with loud partygoers, screaming children, irritable and snappy vacationers, or singles trying to “hook up” or find their next victim, er… I mean partner.
Even before I turned 50, the idea of sharing a ship with thousands of strangers intent on eating and drinking themselves into a stupor while bombarding little destinations with drunken reveling and entitled behavior was torturous. I would rather not travel than travel on a cruise ship.
Boy, was I wrong… and more than a little close-minded and judgy about the idea of cruising. Like so many other aspects of travel and life, cruising is not a blanket, one-size-fits-all way to vacation. Yes, party boats do exist, but so do smaller excursion-style ships. Yes, a Disney Cruise may be filled with children howling in delight while high on sugar, but another cruise may cater to the quiet, more mature crowd.
Let’s face it. I didn’t know squat about what a cruise was like until I took my first one at 50 years old. I wish I had done it sooner and here’s why.
Size Does Matter
When I was invited as a hosted guest for Hurtigruten Expeditions’ inaugural cruise to the Galapagos Islands this January, I was one of the few guests on the ship who had never taken a cruise in their life. I had met Anders Lindstrom, who represented Hurtigruten, at an industry event this past fall, and he explained just how different a small-ship, expedition-style cruise was from what I had pictured in my mind.
So, when he invited me to hop on board, I was thrilled to try my first cruise, sailing throughout the eastern Galapagos Islands off the coast of Ecuador.
Finding a cruise ship that fits your style and that caters to your vacation goals can be the difference between an experience that is alright and one that is memorable and fantastic. The most noticeable difference between cruises is size. And those differences, between small ships that hold anywhere from 25 to a few hundred people on an expedition cruise and the large ships through major lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, and Disney, are vast.
For instance, one of the major cruise lines (Royal Caribbean) has some of the largest ships in the world and, when fully booked, can carry roughly 7,000 people. That’s the population of most suburbs!
Expedition-style, small-ship cruises, however, usually have, at most, maybe 200 people. The Hurtigruten cruise to the Galapagos I took sailed on the MS Santa Cruz II, a newly-renovated ship that has a maximum capacity of 90 passengers.
While I’m as social as it gets and all for a big party, I think that size of ship was more suited to what I wanted. While the larger cruise lines seem, to me, to be “amusement parks on the water” with a ton of activities to do every hour, the Santa Cruz II was less hectic with no shortage of quiet places to get away from the crowds.
On our cruise, the MS Santa Cruz II had only 35 passengers for its inaugural cruise, which meant I was able to meet each one of my fellow sailors and make new friends.
Pro Tip: As I said, I’ve never been on a giant cruise with one of the major cruise lines, so I may be completely misguided on my perceptions. Please don’t take my hesitation as reasons not to go on a large cruise. I have dozens of trusted friends who swear by them and love taking cruises. But, know your style, your abilities, and your tolerances, and choose what fits your dream vacation.
Exploration Over Partying
One of my favorite aspects of the Hurtigruten Expeditions cruise to the Galapagos was the conservation, education, and science that was embedded into all of our activities. Don’t get me wrong — having unlimited free beer and wine every day on the ship certainly made some days a real party. But for the most part, this cruise was a deep dive into the history and ecology of the Galapagos Islands.
Hurtigruten teamed up with Ecuador’s Metropolitan Touring, which has blazed the way for tours in Ecuador for more than 60 years, and our tour guides on the ship were naturalists from Galapagos Islands National Park.
When the English naturalist Charles Darwin first explored the Galapagos on the H.M.S. Beagle in 1835, he described and studied species here that evolved differently because of their remote habitat, including giant tortoises and land iguanas. That observation led him to write On the Origin of Species, which changed the world through the subject of evolution.
On this science-oriented cruise, we learned about Darwin’s discoveries through daily hikes and excursions, on-board lectures, and by visiting science stations that continue the study of these unique species.
Every day of the 6-day cruise, we either took short hikes on the various islands in the Eastern Galapagos to spot red- and blue-footed boobys, wander amongst lazy and unpreturbed sea lions, and watch the famous swimming marine iguanas.
We visited The Charles Darwin Research Center at Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island and the The Cerro Colorado Tortoise Reserve on San Cristobal Island, both working on captive breeding to boost the numbers of these giant reptiles and bring them back from the brink of extinction.
One day, we also visited a local sugarcane/cacao plantation on Santa Cruz, where we learned about raising sugarcane and making sugarcane moonshine. We also explored the remote and unpopulated Santa Fe and South Plaza Islands, both of which have unique landscapes and iguanas that can only be found in those locations.
The cruise wasn’t all science, though. We had plenty of time to lounge in the on-board hot tubs, snorkel in the waters of the Galapagos, take leisurely boat rides to see wildlife, and taste some amazing food on board.
Pro Tip: Water shoes are a must on this Hurtigruten experience. Most of our landings were in pangas — small inflatable boats — and a few of them were what are called “wet” landings. In other words, you step out of the panga into the water to get to shore, so make sure you have a good set of water shoes.
What I Liked Best
My first cruise at age 50 was a delightful experience. What I liked most about it was the organization of the trip from start to finish. When I arrived in Quito, Ecuador, the staff of Metropolitan Touring and Hurtigruten arranged everything from start to finish, from the flights to get to the Galapagos and handling luggage to making sure all dietary needs were met.
The crew made sure our luggage was waiting in our cabins as we did the mandatory safety meeting, and each day, we were debriefed about the schedule for the next day. Basically, all I had to do was make sure I had my life jacket, remember to check out everytime we left the ship, and eat and drink whatever I wanted.
The rooms on the MS Santa Cruz II were roomy enough for me, and the beds were ridiculously comfortable. I liked having a trip to a foreign country that was planned out so well that all I had to do was show up and enjoy myself.
Will I take another cruise? You bet. While the idea of taking a cruise on one of those massive ships still doesn’t appeal to me, I’m really excited about future small ship excursions, river cruises, etc.
And the best part? I didn’t get seasick once!
Pro Tip: For more information about various cruises offered by Hurtigruten Expeditions, click here.
For more information on cruises and sailing, check out these articles: