Hurtigruten Expeditions/Clara Tuma
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Santa Cruz II

Our Ship Review
Deal Expert / Travel Blogger

Let’s get this out of the way: Hurtigruten’s Santa Cruz II is not a cruise ship in the traditional sense; it’s an expedition ship (now part of HX, as Hurtigruten’s expedition division has been rebranded). And that’s exactly why you’re on it. Don’t expect glitzy late-night shows or limbo on the lido deck. The thrill of Santa Cruz II is experiencing the Galapagos Islands.

The adventure begins in Quito, Ecuador, where guests are privy to a private tour through the Cotopaxi National Park. The next day, it’s off to the Galapagos Islands on the western itinerary, making port calls at Isabela and Floreana (two of the four islands visited by Charles Darwin), the volcanic island of Fernandina (considered one of the most pristine islands on earth), and Santa Cruz Island (home to the Charles Darwin Research Station and giant tortoises).

Onboard, the ship has 50 cabins (47 Explorer Cabins and 3 Darwin Suites), an expedition lounge and library, a cozy bar, a sky deck, a gym, and two hot tubs that overlook the water below. 

Expert tip: Book this itinerary in the off-season for far fewer crowds. The weather was perfect (cool and sunny) and the water temps were easily accommodated by a short wetsuit. 

What We Love

Fresh, Local Food: The food onboard the Santa Cruz II was a highlight. It’s a delicate balance to create a menu that satisfies all passengers and doesn’t get repetitive or heavy after three meals a day over five days, and HX has managed to execute this perfectly. Simple buffet breakfasts feature items like smoked salmon, fresh local fruit, and made-to-order omelets, while lunches and dinners are pre-selected and offer three courses that often consist of appetizers like a tuna tartare over quinoa or tropical ceviche; entrees that include local fish or handmade pasta; and a dessert of light passionfruit mousse or chocolate cake. Wine and beer are free-flowing with lunch and dinner, with South American wines often being a stand-out to complement the meals. 

An Active Itinerary: This cruise is ideal for those who want to get off the ship and take full advantage of the stunning nature of the Galapagos Islands. The guides do everything in their power to ensure that guests can check off the coveted “Galapagos 15.”  During a hike, you’re sure to hear one shout out “Blue-Footed Boobie to the right!” or “Galapagos shark to the left!” They are equally as apt to stop in the middle of a snorkel and dive down to point to a perfectly camouflaged sea turtle (how did they even see that?!). Expect hiking, kayaking, SUPing, and plenty of snorkeling.  

Best Known For

Sustainability Credentials: Hurtigruten and HX continue to make sustainability a priority and recent initiatives include the world’s first battery hybrid-powered cruise ship in 2019; now with four in the fleet and more to come. Hurtigruten/HX boasts a few important firsts, paving the way for more lines to take action including the first to ban single-use plastics and heavy fuel oil, along with using food waste to produce biodiesel for select ships. Additionally, the line is the first to commit to the Science Based Targets, which provide plans to become carbon neutral by 2040 and net zero by 2050, as well as the launch of the first zero-emission cruise ship by 2030. 

Lots of Inclusions: Something we loved about sailing on the Santa Cruz II was how much is included, starting with a two-night pre-sail stay in Quito (we stayed at the JW Marriott Quito, which included breakfast and dinner), a full-day nature tour while in Quito, economy round trip flights from Quito to the Galapagos Islands with lounge access, transfers, park admission fees, and transit control cards. Once onboard, breakfast, lunch, and dinner, along with beer and wine, are included, along with a coffee/tea station, Wi-Fi, reusable water bottles, and welcome and farewell cocktails. Activities included are hikes, coastal exploration, and excursions like kayaking, snorkeling, and glass-bottom boat rides. A wetsuit is also provided along with an expert guide. What’s not included are international flights and travel insurance (ours was $20 total). 

Who It's Best For

Active Cruisers: As this is an expedition cruise, expect many of the excursions to be for those with good mobility. Hikes often cross uneven volcanic terrain and elevated grounds. There are alternative options when it comes to excursions (such as a glass-bottom boat ride instead of snorkeling) and guests are welcome to skip something entirely, but that defeats the purpose of this style of cruising. For active guests, this cruise provides plenty of daily excursions to keep you fit and fulfilled (as in, you can sleep when you get home).

Animal Lovers: Whether you're a birder or lover of sea creatures, you will be spoiled for options. The islands have their own “Galapagos 15” (which guests have fun checking off in a provided book or app) and include the Galápagos Giant Tortoise, Flightless Cormorant, Red-Footed Booby, Land Iguana, Galápagos Fur Seal, Greater Frigate Bird, Galápagos Penguin, Galápagos Hawk, Marine Iguana, Galápagos Flamingo, Galápagos Albatross, Blue-Footed Booby, Galápagos Sea Lion, Santa Fe Iguana, and the Nazca Booby. The 15 (and so many more) can easily be spotted during a daily hike or playfully swimming just feet away during a snorkel session. 

Don't Say We Didn't Warn You

Lack of Entertainment: Don’t expect late-night shows or dinging casinos on this ship — which is the reason many choose the Santa Cruz II. The only entertainment here is in the form of daily lectures, which are well-researched and fascinating, and animal sightings. Lots of animal sightings. Guests might be found sipping cocktails and eating canapes in the bar while listening to the next day’s excursion plans, and most hit the sack after the three-course dinner. This is an active, action-packed trip and most of the time is spent off the ship. Come evening, you’re ready for a good night’s rest.   

Weak Wi-Fi: The Wi-Fi aboard the Santa Cruz II has limited connection in remote areas — and the Galapagos would be considered a remote area. That said, we could easily text, use WhatsApp, and access email, but streaming is not possible. In a nutshell: Don’t schedule an important Zoom meeting during this cruise.