Darwin described the Galapagos Islands as 'a little world within itself.' Thankfully for us, in terms of comfort, much has changed since his voyage on the H.M.S Beagle. This 11-day itinerary allows you to discover the archipelago's wonders while cruising in the lap of luxury. Combine with Quito, Ecuador's culture capital.
Your two-hour flight to Madrid from London departs in the early morning and you then connect on to your international flight to Quito. The journey will take approximately 11 hours, so make sure you download the latest box set series and/or have a good book to hand. Touchdown into the capital of Ecuador and a private chauffeur will be waiting to whisk you to your hotel in the city centre.
Meet your local guide (and secret weapon) who will take you to Quito's sweet spots.
Start at the indoor San Francisco market, one of the oldest in the city.
Soak up the aromas and colours of the goods on offer and marvel at the traditional healers who use the market as a base to practise their ancestral medicine. Cleanse yourself with a ceremonial healing before an amble around Independence Square, the political heart of the city.
After lunch visit the baroque La Compania de Jesus, undoubtedly one of South America's most beautiful churches resplendent in gold leaf. History buffs will no doubt be blown away by Casa de Alabado Museum, boasting over 5,000 Pre-Columbian artefacts. Quito's backdrop of the surrounding snow-capped peaks isn't bad either.
In the early morning, a private driver will take you to the airport for your three-and-a-half-hour flight to the island of San Cristobal in the Galapagos.
On arrival, transfer to your luxury boat anchored in the bay. Step on board to see your comfortable cabin and to have lunch, after which there is an island excursion to Cerro Tijeretas, or 'Frigatebird Hill', where you can see two species of frigatebird, the Great and the Magnificent. You may also spot lava lizards and the endemic San Cristobal mockingbird. Then it's back to the boat for a welcome dinner to celebrate your first night on the water.
Cruise around the east side of San Cristobal before embarking at Punta Pitt.
A hike to the top of this volcanic hill reveals various seabirds, such as rarely-spotted red-footed boobies, storm petrels and brown pelicans, nesting. Head back down for a snorkel before lunch back on board. Spend the afternoon on the white coral beach of Cerro Brujo alongside the regular residents, namely friendly sea lions who are completely unperturbed by human presence. Then take a kayak out onto the azure waters or explore a cathedral-like cave on a fun RIB inflatable dinghy ride before boarding the boat for the night.
Wake up in the extreme south of Espanola, one of the oldest volcanic islands (approximately four million years old). It's also one of the most attractive, with an idyllic-looking beach, Bahia Gardner.
In the company of your expert guide, you'll be greeted by raucous sea lions barking on the soft shingle shores. The main highlight is Punta Suarez, with its exquisite birdlife including huge colonies of blue-footed boobies and Galapagos doves. Hosting the largest breeding grounds in the region, this is also the best place to spot the waved albatross.
Today you'll disembark on the island of Floreana. The island's olivine beaches are alive with lava herons and squawking penguins.
Boot up for a leisurely stroll to a lagoon where you can see flamingos, sting rays and bright red Sally Lightfoot crabs. You then have the opportunity to snorkel at the Devil's Crown, a sunken volcanic caldera and a breeding site for pelicans brimming with exotic fish. After lunch back on board, amble over to Post Office Bay, once a pit-stop for whalers in the 18th century. In the late afternoon, take to your RIB inflatable dinghy in search of sea turtles.
It's time to explore Santa Cruz, the Galapagos' second largest island.
Disembark at Puerto Ayora and you will be taken into the highlands to spot giant tortoises roaming the undergrowth. The island was once home to the most famous tortoise of them all, Lonesome George. Head to the Darwin Research Centre where you can peruse the new exhibit dedicated to the beloved ancient tortoise. Then stop to observe Los Gemelos (twins), a pair of extinct volcanic craters, as well as the largest lava tunnels in the archipelago. Stay on shore for dinner in the port or hop on a RIB inflatable dinghy back to the boat.
Step ashore at Sombrero Chino, just off the tip of Santiago Island, for a walk around its cracked lava formations and volcanic rubble.
The dramatic, barren landscape makes it all the easier to spot Jurassic era-looking marine iguanas and oystercatchers. You'll also get the chance to snorkel in a spot frequented by Galapagos penguins. Hop back on board for lunch as your vessel skirts around the island to Bartolome on Santiago's eastern side. Walk on terrain speckled with cinder cones created by volcanic eruption, and vision of red, orange and glistening black hues. Jump back on the boat for views of Pinnacle Rock, jutting up towards the sky. The crystalline waters here are alive with parrotfish, golden rays and white-tipped reef sharks.
Stop off at South Plaza, teeming with wildlife from sea lion colonies and land iguanas to red-billed tropicbirds soaring in the skies overhead.
As you walk over black lava and white sand, you'll see carpets of bright-red sesuvium studded with giant prickly cacti. Then head to North Seymour's shores, alive with swallow-tailed gulls, blue-footed boobies and the largest colony of magnificent frigatebirds in the Galapagos. Keep an eye out for sea lions surfing in the swells. Since it's your last night, you'll be treated to a cocktail party and sumptuous farewell dinner hosted by the captain.
It's time to say goodbye to the Galapagos. Your vessel will dock in the port where you can enjoy a last meander before your flight to back to mainland Ecuador. After three-and-a-half-hours in the air, land in Quito and connect to your international flight back home. It's a 10-hour overnight journey to Madrid.
Touchdown into Madrid in the morning. Then it's a two-hour hop over to London Heathrow where you'll arrive in the afternoon.