Darwin’s initial impression of the Galapagos Islands was not promising: “Nothing could be less inviting than the first appearance,” he declared when, in 1835, he arrived at this archipelago, straddling the equator, 630 miles west of Ecuador.
When I arrived last autumn with my husband and two children for a sailing trip around the islands my first impression was more positive. Sunshine, calm blue sea and the promise of wildlife of a variety and exuberance that would keep our cameras clicking throughout our trip.
We flew into Quito, Ecuador’s capital, staying overnight at the charming Café Cultura Hotel, which was a good base from which to explore the city before the next day’s early-morning flight to the island of Baltra, from which cruises depart.
Choosing which vessel to sail in is the most important decision Galapagos visitors can make, not only for the comfort and amenities, but also because the best boats tend to have the best guides.
Our top-of-the-range yacht, Isabella II, was an excellent choice, with luxurious accommodation for 40 guests in 21 comfortable cabins, and a crew of 27. The three public decks had a smart lounge-cum-bar, a well-stocked library with two internet-connected computers, a dining room and a spacious sun-deck with a mini gym and a Jacuzzi from which to soak up the sea view.
An on-board briefing each evening by the three knowledgeable English-speaking guides prepared us for the following day’s excursions, for which we were divided into three groups of around a dozen. This meant that we could all go off at the same time rather than wait on board for earlier groups to come back, which is how many of the larger boats operate.
With some 97 per cent of the Galapagos Islands within the National Park of Ecuador, a priority is to protect the environment and the fragile ecosystems. That means that all meals — which on our yacht included vast buffet breakfasts and lunches (with plenty of fish and vegetarian options) and formal, waiter-service dinners — must be taken on board.
Each island is the summit of a huge, undersea volcano that broke the surface between one and five million years ago, and each island is different in terms of altitude, terrain and wildlife colonisation.
The islands to the east, like Espanola, Santa Fé and Floreana belong to the oldest group, created three to five million years ago, while Santiago, Santa Cruz and Bartolome are two to three million years old and, to the west, Isabela and Fernandina are a mere million years old.
Our eight-day tour taking in 10 of the islands began with a gentle afternoon walk on North Seymour Island where we strolled among nesting colonies of magnificent frigate birds, with their distinctive black bodies and huge red throat pouches that make them look as thought they have a balloon under their chin. We stepped over basking sea lions and around the famous Blue-Footed boobies.
Sailing south through the night, we arrived early at Espanola Island where, on a beautiful stretch of white, sandy beach at Gardener Bay, we lazed in the sun alongside sea lions.
Taking care not to tread on the mottled, red-and-black marine iguanas, we took a walk over boulder-strewn terrain, spotting yellow warblers and mockingbirds which, it turns out, are the main predator of the Galapagos as they feed on seabirds’ eggs. The mockingbird — for those who haven’t read On the Origin of Species — helped Darwin formulate his theories, since the different varieties on San Cristobel and Floreana — two of the four islands he visited — prompted him to think about how species evolve.
Sailing east, we landed at Punta Cormorant on Floreana Island, arriving at a tranquil lagoon where we saw ballerina-like flamingos balance on one leg as they fed on the shrimp larvae which gives them their pink colour.
We marvelled at the huge, scuttling Sally Lightfoot crabs with their bright orange bodies, dorsal stripes and red claws and, paddling furiously in our kayaks, tried to keep pace with a group of Galapagos penguins, one of the smallest varieties in the world.
On a trip aboard a glass-bottom boat off Champion Islet, we peered through the transparent hull, watching red cardinal and king angelfish darting by, and a white-tip reef shark languidly head for a group of snorkelers and divers.
Our next stop, after sailing north overnight, was Santa Cruz, second largest of the islands and home to biggest human population in the Galapagos, as well as home to the famous Giant Tortoises who live in the lush highlands.
Laster, on a tour of the island’s Charles Darwin Research Station, we saw cute baby tortoises and heard about the programme, launched in 1976 to breed and release into the wild Giant Tortoises, land iguana and other threatened species.
Back on the yacht, we crowded into the wheel-house to see the compass dial turn to triple zero as we crossed the equator en route to our next stop, Tower Island. Its more northerly location, its isolation and the effect of northern currents mean it has the biggest variety of seabirds including Nazca, Red-Footed boobies, herons, finches and the short-eared owl, which feeds during the day.
The following day, after an early start to watch the sun rise as we sailed through the Bolivar Canal, we anchored at Tagus Cove on Isabela, the largest of the islands. Snorkelling in the warm sea, we came close to the graceful sealions and toy-sized penguins and kept a respectful distance from a couple of mating turtles, while a pair of Galapagos Flightless Cormorants looked down from the cliffs.
On Fernandina, the most westerly island — and the most ecologically fragile due to the absence of introduced predators — we landed at Punta Espinoza where the rugged landscape teems with wildlife, including basking land iguanas, sea lions and their pups, penguins and sparrowhawks. As we watched, a giant turtle lumbered, with agonizing slowness, out of the water and up the beach. Back on the yacht, sailing towards Bartolome Island, we watched a family of killer whales with a convoy of frigates and albatrosses flying in their wake.
Finally, off the coast of San Salvador, on a last snorkel before the trip ended, we found ourselves face to face with a Giant Turtle. It was the last, magical sight before heading home, but one that would keep the Galapagos visit alive for us for a long time.
● In 1904 there were four Jewish families in Ecuador. After 1924, when the USA established its immigration quota system, more arrived but it was only after the Holocaust that larger numbers arrived. By 1950 there were 4,000
● There is a Jewish school in Quito, the Colegio Experimental Alberto Einstein
● A Jewish community Centre is located at Calle Roberto Andrade (00593 2 2483 800
● Beit Jabad del Ecuador is a Chabad centre, on Los Cabildos, Quito (www.jabad.org.ec; 00593 2 243 3481).
Metropolitan Touring (www.metropolitan-touring.com; 00 593 3 398 8200) offers a full-board, eight-day tour on Isabella II from $3,998 (£2,747) per person based on two sharing; flights from Quito to Baltra costs $410 (£281) with an additional fuel charge of $203 (£139). Continental Airlines (www.continental.com; 0845 607 6760) flies from London Gatwick via Houston to Quito, from £888 return. Café Cultura (www.cafecultura.com; 00 593 2 256 49 56) has double rooms from $99 (£68). Entry to the Galapagos National Park costs $100 (£68) per adult ($50/£34, under 12s)