Volcanoes, blue-footed boobies, and Lonesome George
Knowing that his wife, Beth Beloff, loves nature, science and photography, Marc Geller gave her the ideal 60th birthday present—a Galapagos Islands cruise. This trip was also the completion of a study cruise that Beth and her mother took eight years ago from Argentina to Chile, around Patagonia, when they retraced Darwin’s historic voyage on the HMS Beagle.
“The Galapagos was where Darwin codified his theory of evolution, but it all percolated when he took the Beagle around the southern tip of South America,” says Beth.
Marc’s next quest was finding a ship that would suit both of them. While Beth would be happy with a small National Geographic photographic ship, he preferred a ship with great food, a roomy stateroom, and a private balcony from which Beth could photograph the islands. Manned by naturalist experts with master’s degrees, the luxurious mid-size Galapagos Explorer II was the answer. They snagged the last of the four balcony staterooms for its August 25th voyage (www.galapagos-explorer.com).
On their weeklong cruise, they received daily presentations on the natural history and culture of the Galapagos and visited nine different islands. The 80 passengers were divided into five groups, which were each assigned a required naturalist expert who guided them on shore excursions throughout the trip via inflatable Zodiac boats. There are many other National Park regulations, which protect this unique and magical archipelago consisting of 13 large islands, six smaller islands, and over 40 islets with official names.
“There are six active volcanoes, and each island has a different ecology with dramatic landscapes—from forest to desert, from volcanic swirling stone to spewn volcanic rock, from black beaches to red beaches to white coral beaches,” says Beth, describing the Galapagos.
While on their balcony one afternoon, Marc saw a rockslide on the island they had just visited, and Beth captured it on film. They later discovered that they had witnessed a volcanic eruption triggered by a minor earthquake. Because they were floating on the ocean during this singular experience, they didn’t feel the tremors.
The wildlife of the Galapagos is also fascinating. Beth and Marc saw sea lions with brand new babies, colorful crabs and iguanas, and a variety of distinctive birds. Notable birds include the unique blue-footed boobie and the iridescent frigatebird. They also saw the renowned Galapagos sea turtles and tortoises, including the last of a distinct tortoise line, Lonesome George, who is stubbornly refusing to mate.
“What was so amazing to me was how alive these islands are—they’re very much evolving, and you can just see the changes,” says Beth, “It is so stunningly obvious that these animals have adapted to their environment.”
The Galapagos Islands are about 600 miles west of Ecuador, and before flying there to board their ship, they spent three nights in Quito. Beth’s 23-year-old son, Justin Randolph, flew to Ecuador from New York City to celebrate his mother’s special birthday with her. The three visited the snowcapped Antisana volcano in the Andes in northeast Ecuador, observed wild horses and magnificent condors, and shopped for handcrafted indigenous goods at the celebrated Otavala marketplace. They also celebrated by dining on Ecuadorian food at La Ronda restaurant while being entertained by Andean flute players.
Beth says that the trip to the Galapagos Islands was the “best,” and adds that she and Marc will never forget the people they met onboard. Many were from other countries, and all had similar interests.
“We made some friends for life on this trip,” says Beth.
PRAGUE TO AMSTERDAM via AUSTRIA
River cruise, scenic drives, and The Sound of Music
Cheryl Brady and Susan Daniel took their daughters, Olivia Brady, 9, and Emily and Audrey Daniel, 9 and 12, to Provence last year. This past summer, the friends explored Europe for 10 days, starting in Prague where Cheryl’s sister, Analise Hellman, lives. They determined their itinerary by looking at a map and seeing what was nearby.
“My sister had a car that we could drive, so we decided to drive to Vienna and Salzburg,” says Cheryl. “Olivia and I were returning to Houston from Amsterdam, so we also thought we’d stay there.”
The drive from Prague to Vienna was beautiful, but the Vienna-to-Salzburg segment was even more spectacular. The “TomTom” GPS device in the car made both three-hour drives easy. However, the drive from Salzburg back to Prague via backroads and multiple detours took them almost six hours.
Cheryl and Susan agree that Prague would be a great destination for anyone. Prices are reasonable, and though the Old Town can get crowded, Susan feels that “it’s not touristy because it’s not well-known yet.”
Their girls especially enjoyed taking a lunch cruise on the Vltava River in the middle of town and touring the castle. Their favorite restaurant was Oliva, where Analise often entertains clients. Susan adds that Don Pedro’s has great Mexican food and margaritas, noting laughingly that “it’s not easy finding a good margarita in Europe.”
The group stayed only one night in Vienna, and the concierge in their centrally located Hotel Austria mapped out a walking route for them to see some of the major sights. The cathedral was beautiful, but the nearby street performers painted silver to look like statues were the big attraction for the kids.
Susan and Cheryl describe Vienna as being cosmopolitan and perhaps more of a destination for adults with time to enjoy the musical offerings. They preferred the quaint old-world charm of Salzburg where they recommend taking the funicular to the hilltop fortress with its amazing view over the city, strolling among the shops of the Getreidegasse with their distinctive wrought-iron signs, and savoring Austrian coffee and sweets on the flower filled terrace of the 18th-century Café Tomaselli.
But touring the underground Durrnberg Salt Mine near Salzburg was a trip highlight for all. The girls and their moms slid down wooden chutes, rafted across a salt lake, and even crossed over to Germany while underground. Taking the bus tour to see places featured in The Sound of Music was also a favorite excursion.
In Amsterdam, everyone was delighted by the Loes Olden Bed and Breakfast, conveniently located on a canal near the lovely, arty Jordaan neighborhood. The Anne Frank house, the Rijksmuseum, and the Van Gogh museum were highlights, while the flowerless floating flower market and rush hour bicycle traffic were not.
They spent their last two nights in Europe as a group in Brugge, Belgium. Observing lace and chocolate being made in various shops was entertaining, and the Bistro Kok au Vin competed with Oliva as the best restaurant on the trip.
Cheryl and Olivia flew home in time to spend July Fourth with Ben and Jack Brady, 4 and 6, and dad, Kevin Brady. Susan and her girls went on to France to visit friends who live near Paris, and also spent two nights in the City of Light before rejoining husband and dad, Steve, in Houston.
“They’re pretty accomplished travelers now,” says Susan about Audrey, Emily, and Olivia. “It was such an experience just to get to go where everything is so different from here.”
Editor’s Note: Each month staff writer Laura Bellows features travel highlights from Buzz neighborhood residents in her column. If you have a travel scoop, travel tip, or advice you’d like to share with Buzz readers, please e-mail Laura at (email@example.com) laura (at) thebuzzmagazines (dot) com for possible inclusion in an upcoming issue.