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National Geographic Endeavour II: The Apogee of Expedition Cruising

8 Apr
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A larger than average fleet of Zodiacs allows guests on the Endeavour II a great deal of flexibility when choosing daily activities. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

I spied sea lions while running on the treadmill in the gym, glimpsed manta rays and sea turtles on my walk to the dining room, and ogled schools of flying fish while browsing in the gift shop. Never a dull moment.

National Geographic Endeavour II just began service in the Galápago Islands after undergoing a multi-million dollar refit — and last week, I was lucky enough to be one of the first guests on board.

(To see Ms. Hardy’s report about her Galápagos shore adventures, click here.)

I can now say with confidence that Lindblad Expeditions and National Geographic’s latest collaboration is a work of art –and the ideal base from which to explore the famous Galapagos Archipelago.

State-of-the-art equipment and homey surroundings are essential to the Endeavour II, but style plays an important supporting role — evidenced in the rich wood paneling and variegated ocean blues in the upholstery and carpeting.

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Suite C on the National Geographic Endeavour II.                   Photo by Lindblad Expeditions.

52 cabins, all with large picture window and en-suite facilities, accommodate up to 96 guests. There are nine dedicated single-use cabins, nine cabins with optional space to sleep three (in either a drop-down Murphy bed, or, in the suites, in a sofa bed), and seven sets of connecting cabins that sleep up to four between the two rooms.

Three spacious suites have an extra-large bathroom, extra closet space, and enormous floor-to-ceiling windows. The largest of these, Suite C, is located on the bridge deck and also has a separate sitting area with arm chairs and convertible sofa.

My cabin, #205, was a dedicated single-use room — comfortable and functional in every respect. The designers used every available space for storage, which meant I did not have to do any creative juggling with my things. I could have easily shared the space with another person, but traveling alone, I was able to spread out and live like a queen!

My cabin included two twin beds, short chest of drawers in between beds that doubled as a night stand, desk and chair, leather armchair, two-prong outlets, USB outlets for charging iPhone, iPad, etc., wardrobe for hanging clothes, wall hangers that fold flat when not in use, and many hooks / hangers for wet clothes.

The bathroom was small but perfectly serviceable, with biodegradable shampoo and shower gel installed in handy dispensers in the shower. Hot water and water pressure in my shower tapered off considerably at peak hours — right before lunch and again right before dinner — but this was never so pronounced as to be uncomfortable.

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The “theater-in-the-round”-style lounge on the Endeavour II. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The social center of the ship, the lounge on the third deck, was designed for a “theater-in-the-round” experience, with a podium in the center of the room, retractable video screens along the walls, and fully rotating armchairs. 360-degree windows allowed beautiful natural light in during the day. We met here for daily “re-caps,” nightly cocktail and appetizer parties before dinner, and fascinating presentations from our naturalists and guides.

The dining room was laid out to encourage mingling — four-, five-, six-, and eight-person tables abounded, with just one or two tables for two. Breakfasts and lunches were buffet-style and featured bountiful fresh produce and Ecuadorean staples like cassava rolls — a real hit. Dinners were also casual, but served at the table.

As a vegetarian, I was very well-looked after. For dinner, the cremini mushroom gnocchi and root vegetable stack were especially memorable — and bountiful salads and produce were always offered for breakfasts and lunches. Any time a meaty soup was served, I received a veggie version without having to ask. Similarly, my lactose-intolerant friend received dairy-free options.

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The lovely top deck of the Endeavour II — site of one festive barbecue dinner, a sunset wine tasting, and numerous animal sightings. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Other public areas included a library with several computers for guest use, an open-air observation deck with lounge chairs and tables, fully equipped gym, gift shop, and spa.

Finally, an “open bridge” policy allowed guests to wander in and out of the navigational heart of the ship and talk to the captain and officers about the instruments and controls aboard the Endeavour II.

On the last night, the crew led dozens of us crammed into the bridge in a countdown as we approached the equator. Captain, officers, and guests alike burst into exuberant cheering as we finally reached zero degrees latitude on the digital chart. The camaraderie was palpable!

The Endeavour II was a phenomenal home base for my week in the Galapagos — but the ship would be nothing without the Lindblad Expeditions & National Geographic staff who work tirelessly to make each guest’s experience the “trip of a lifetime.”

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact me at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email me, click here.

Read more about the Galapagos experience itself in my companion blog here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to inform our guests.)

Following in Darwin’s Footsteps: My Adventure in the Galapagos Islands

8 Apr
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A playful Galapagos sea lion. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

“We could be standing here 500,000 years ago, and things would look exactly the same,” a fellow traveler commented during my recent Galapagos Islands adventure with Lindblad Expeditions.

I understood the sentiment.

But the Galapagos are all about change — slow, ceaseless adaptation — rather than permanence.

As Charles Darwin observed almost 200 years ago, these adaptations are nowhere more apparent than in the variety of endemic species that call the Galapagos home.

A few weeks ago, I was lucky enough to get up close and personal with many of these amazing creatures.

Along with 90-odd other guests, I was aboard the newly-refitted National Geographic Endeavour II. A Lindblad team of naturalists, crew and staff ably assisted us.

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Hot and rewarding hike on Española Island. IRT photo

“You are not on a cruise,” said Paula, our expedition leader, immediately setting the tone for the week. “You are on an expedition!”

Some of the more cynical rolled their eyes. But everyone under 18 visibly straightened their backs in excitement.

Though we were surrounded by all the modern conveniences and comforts of a traditional luxury cruise, these small linguistic flourishes helped set the stage for a cerebral and engaging week of discovery.

We guests ranged in age from six to 80. Like me, most were Americans. But there were a few Canadians, as well as a South African, two Guatemalan sisters and a Swede.

We were academics, mailmen, research scientists, poets, lawyers, pastors, salespeople, librettists, administrators of different stripes, journalists and travel advisors (me!).

What was the tie that bound this relatively diverse group of explorers? Mostly, it was a love for animals — and a palpable enthusiasm for experiencing them in the wild.

Indeed, I quickly learned the surest way to bond with fellow travelers was to excitedly point out an animal.

Animals excited all of us. And everyone went to great lengths to share their sightings with as many others as they could.

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A Sally Lightfoot crab walks delicately across the volcanic rocks of Genovesa Island.                    IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The naturalists, many of whom are themselves “endemic” to the Islands, had extensive backgrounds in chemistry, geology and biology. And no less than their guests, they were passionate about the natural world. They were eager fonts of knowledge — and never off duty.

In one of our rare “rest times” during the early afternoon, I encountered Lenin, a naturalist. I wildly gestured toward the open ocean, where I could see movement a few hundred yards away.

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A male frigate bird impressively puffs up his gular pouch in an attempt to attract a mate.             IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Handing me his binoculars, he told me they were manta rays, taking turns jumping out of the water.

“We are not certain why they come to the surface like so,” he said. “Some scientists think they are ridding themselves of parasites. Others think they are just enjoying themselves.”

I certainly was enjoying myself. I took advantage of every hiking and snorkeling opportunity I could.

Snorkeling was a vigorous, thrilling experience. Every outing was unique.

Over the course of 15 hour-long deep-water snorkels, I swam with playful sea lion pups, sea turtles and diminutive Galapagos penguins.

I saw white-tipped reef sharks, hammerhead sharks, manta rays the size of breakfast tables, graceful spotted rays and hundreds of species of tropical fish.

Hikes were challenging — largely due to the Galapagos’ unforgiving heat and humidity in March. But they also were rewarding, with each day offering a new island and a new alien landscape to explore.

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A challenging mid-day hike. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

Giant land iguanas, marine iguanas and bird species for which the Galapagos are famous — the Nazca, blue-footed and red-footed booby, to name three — added to the islands’ otherworldly vibe.

The island’s creatures acted as if we didn’t exist, not bothering to move off the trail even when we stepped within inches of them.

Some guests struggled with the most punishing midday hikes. But the vast majority seemed to know what they were in for.

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And the kids on our departure (more than usual, I was told, because it was spring break for many school systems in the U.S.) really enjoyed themselves.

That was thanks in no small part to a pilot program that the National Geographic Society introduced on our trip specifically geared towards young people — and their constant need for stimulation and apparent inability to nap. Their parents, all nappers themselves, seemed thrilled.

The snorkeling and hiking schedule left me little time to sleep in my comfortable cabin. And I had just enough time to enjoy the bountiful meals served in the ship’s dining room.

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One last hike on Genovesa Island. IRT Photo

Other memorable snapshots that underscored the amazingness of the Lindblad operation:

  1. Stargazing with Jean Roche, a naturalist, on the top deck when the moon was still hidden under the horizon. (I can now use the Southern Cross for navigation, if I ever find myself lost in the Southern Hemisphere!);
  2. Enjoying delicious, freshly-squeezed naranjilla juice that was waiting for us as we re-boarded the ship after long outings;
  3. The head waiter, Carlos, greeting every guest by name, three times a day, in the dining room, starting with our very first dinner (he also knew our dietary restrictions by heart);
  4. Crossing the equator on our last night. A slew of us crowded into the “open bridge,” the ship’s navigational heart, to which guests have 24/7 access. (And, Captain Garces, here’s a big “thank you” for always being so friendly and welcoming!)
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Marine iguanas — endemic to the Galapagos Islands — are incredible underwater swimmers, diving to depths of 9 meters. Here, they pile on each other and rest. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy.

The only glitch — if you could call it that — occurred on our last day, just before our flight to Ecuador’s mainland. A few wayward land iguanas had wandered onto the tarmac, delaying our takeoff.

No one seemed to mind.

After all, we had only a few more hours to enjoy our newfound friends. And Lindblad had seen to it that we were well fed, watered and “WiFi-ed” in the VIP airport lounge.

Three hours later, the iguanas abruptly wandered away.

So off we flew, the Galapagos Islands rapidly shrinking as we rose, until they disappeared completely beneath the cloud cover.

I was already planning my return.

Click here for the second part of my blog about the newly-refitted Endeavour II.

To see our Lindblad Galapagos Islands cruise itinerary, please click here. For more information or to book, contact us at (502) 897-1725, (800) 478-4881; to email us, click here.

(Rachel M. Hardy, travel consultant and marketing associate with The Society of International Railway Travelers, has traveled the world testing out adventures — all the better to advise you!)

Rocky Mountaineer Travel Tips

10 Oct

 

For Rachel Hardy’s story on her Rocky Mountaineer dream trip, please click here.

  • The author, bundled in her winter coat, scarf and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo by Belinda

    The author, bundled in her winter coat, scarf and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo courtesy of Rachel Hardy.

    Canadian weather can be unpredictable and dramatically different from place to place – pack accordingly. Over the span of my week-long trip in early October, I wore shorts on a hot day in Calgary and an extreme cold-weather down parka on the train’s open-air platform. Some who hadn’t packed with an eye to cold weather actually tried to buy my coat from me as they couldn’t spend any time outside. (I declined all offers!)

  • Exclusive IRT offer: book your Rocky Mountaineer journey with The Society of International Railway Travelers and receive a free one-way limo transfer to/from Seattle or Vancouver airports. Some trips eligible for free two-way limo transfers. Up to $200 US dollar value.
  • IMG_798_Conductor_Platform SmallReceive up to $600 per couple in added value when you book your 2017 Rocky Mountaineer journey by Dec. 16. This offer can be used for extra hotel nights in Seattle, Vancouver, Victoria, or Calgary, city sightseeing tours and other activities, additional hotel meals, and airport transfers.

Book an itinerary of 8 or more days, and receive $600 of added value per couple (or $300 per person).

Book an itinerary of 5 to 7 days and receive $350 of added value per couple (or $175 per person).

  • Strong U.S. Dollar, Euro: There’s never been a better time for both Americans and Europeans to travel to Canada. The strength of the U.S. dollar and the Euro versus the Canadian dollar make Canada an especially affordable destination.
  • Customize your tour: In addition to the more than 65 packaged itineraries the Rocky Mountaineer offers, there are virtually limitless options for travelers to tailor their vacation: extra hotel nights, hotel upgrades, and trip extensions are just a few of the possibilities.
  • Gold Leaf Service is the most popular level of service aboard the train, but Silver Leaf Service is also a good choice for those on a budget. The main differences between the levels of service: windows are slightly smaller in the single-level Silver Leaf car, meals are served at your seat, and hotel accommodations are booked in three-star hotels as opposed to the four-star historic hotels that are included with Gold Leaf Service.
  • You can also mix and match: you can choose to book Gold Leaf Service on the train and Silver Leaf Service hotels (or the reverse). Gold Leaf Deluxe Service offers all the benefits of Gold Leaf Service but also includes significant hotel upgrades.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers®. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com or call (800)  478-4881; (502) 897-1725.

The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ curated list of Rocky Mountaineer itineraries is here.

Mountaineering in Luxury: Canadian Rockies by Train

10 Oct
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The author enjoying the fresh air on the Rocky Mountaineer Gold Leaf dome viewing platform. IRT photo courtesy of Rachel Hardy.

“Fifty Switzerlands in one” is how legendary British mountaineer Edward Whymper (conqueror of the Matterhorn) allegedly described the Canadian Rockies.

Whymper’s assessment is spot on – but Canada’s Rocky Mountaineer lavished me with added benefits: cozy nights at historic four-star hotels and gourmet meals and snacks.

Most important, though, were two days’ worth of panoramic views of the Canadian Rockies from the comfort of my  double-decked Gold Leaf dome car.

My itinerary was the Canadian Rockies Highlights, running between Calgary and Vancouver. It’s one of more than 65 Rocky Mountaineer packages.

I spent my first night at Calgary’s luxurious Fairmont Palliser Hotel, built by the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1914 as a way-station for weary travelers on their way to the remote Rockies.

After exploring Calgary, we boarded our coach to Lake Louise.

Winding through the Coast Mountains. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Winding through the Coast Mountains. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

For some, bus tours conjure up visions of cramped, nausea-inducing drives that are light on photo opportunities and heavy on boredom. I’m thrilled to report this was NOT the case.

Never were we in the bus longer than 45 minutes at a stretch. And our entertaining guide made those stretches fly by.

The day’s highlights included a thrilling 12-minute helicopter ride over the edge of the Rockies, a ride on the Banff gondola, and stops at Lake Minnewanka and a platform overlooking the otherworldly rock spires called ‘hoodoos.’

The author, bundled in her winter coat and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo by Belinda

The author, bundled in her winter coat and hat, at Lake Louise. IRT photo courtesy Rachel Hardy.

The next night we spent at the stunningly aquamarine Lake Louise. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, the lake is picturesquely framed by the towering glaciers that feed it and give it its uncommon color.

Dozens of hiking trails crisscross the surrounding area, giving me an opportunity to stretch my legs.

One highlight of our afternoon coach tour was the Spiral Tunnels, a marvel of railway engineering. We also basked in the majesty of the natural rock bridge at Kicking Horse River before overnighting in Banff.

Delicious lunch in the Gold Leaf dining room. (Photo by Rachel Hardy)

Delicious lunch in the Gold Leaf dining room. (IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy)

The next morning, we began our two-day adventure aboard the Rocky Mountaineer with a champagne toast by the train’s warm and professional on-board staff.

Within the hour, they invited us down to the car’s dining area, where we enjoyed a hot gourmet breakfast prepared on board. Eggs benedict, mozerella omelettes with smoked bacon, and roasted almond granola parfaits were among the menu choices.

As we finished our meal, a lucky few spotted a large black bear amidst the morning fog.

Back up top in the full-length dome, we enjoyed unparalleled views. We saw plenty of wildlife, including bald eagles, big horned sheep and caribou.

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The outdoor viewing platform was the place to be. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

Our three dedicated hosts made sure we never went thirsty. The Rocky Mountaineer’s well-stocked bar includes top shelf liquors and spirits, local craft beers and regional wines (all included in the fare) as well as many nonalcoholic choices.

Our hosts entertained and educated us along our route. Highlights today included the Continental Divide, Kicking Horse Canyon, and Craigellachie, where the last spike of the Canadian Pacific Railway was driven.

Rocky Mountaineer steward poses for a quick shot. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Rocky Mountaineer steward poses for a quick shot. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

And although it was quite chilly outside, the Gold Leaf dome’s open-air viewing platform offered us an unmissable opportunity for photography. And it was great knowing that hot toddies, tea, and hot chocolate were waiting for us when it was time to thaw out! Many hours of comfortable Rockies sightseeing later, we arrived at our overnight destination of Kamloops.

The culinary team aboard the Rocky Mountaineer stayed, for the most part, out of sight. But our on-board meals in the first-level dining area were so impressive that the executive chef and his dedicated staff were never far from our minds.

An emphasis on locally sourced ingredients and regional cuisine fit perfectly with our surroundings.

The three-course lunch menu was completely different each day. It included entrée favorites like wild salmon with shaved fennel and roasted potato salad and Alberta beef short-ribs with garlic mashed potatoes and seasonal vegetables.

And though the staff prefers to know about dietary restrictions ahead of time, they excel at “thinking on their feet.” They’ll bend over backwards to make your meal just as you like it.

Gluten free, vegetarian, and ‘light choice’ options came standard on the menu, but they’re eager to accommodate any preference or food allergy you have.

Shadows lengthen late in the day as a Rocky Mountaineer attendant looks from the viewing platform. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

Shadows lengthen late in the day as a Rocky Mountaineer attendant looks from the viewing platform. IRT photo by Rachel Hardy

The second day aboard the train was every bit as exciting as the first. Dramatic changes in scenery unfolded outside our windows, as the desert-like environment around Kamloops gave way to mountains, river canyons, and fir forests dotted with the beautiful gold of changing larch trees (fir trees that ‘think they’re deciduous’: they lose their needles annually after turning a stunning shade of yellow).

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There’s no better way to photograph the soaring Rockies than from the outdoor viewing platform. IRT Photo by Rachel Hardy

The Coast and Cascade Mountains and the Thompson River afforded nonstop beauty, but the dizzying heights above Hell’s Gate — the narrowest portion of the Fraser River and an extreme obstacle to early river explorers and marine wildlife alike — was our favorite sight of the day.

Our bellies full of delicious food and our memory cards full of scenic images, we disembarked in Vancouver for one last hotel stay at the fabulous Fairmont Vancouver before returning home in the morning.

For more information or to book, contact The Society of International Railway Travelers. Email tourdesk@irtsociety.com or call (800)  478-4881; (502) 897-1725. The Society of International Railway Travelers®’ curated list of Rocky Mountaineer itineraries is here.

For Ms. Hardy’s “Rocky Mountaineer Travelers’ Tips,” please click here.

We welcome Rachel Hardy to Track 25.  Ms. Hardy, IRT’s sales & marketing associate & our newest employee, is a graduate of College of Charleston in political science, has traveled thousands of miles — from backpacking  with a Eurail pass across Europe to luxury hotels in Rome and India. Her favorite recent travels include an adventure cruise in the Peruvian Amazon, “ice-hiking” in Chilean Patagonia, and a Micato safari in Kenya. Her first train trip was the Empire Builder, and she first rode the Rocky Mountaineer and Canadian when she was 8. 

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