Q I'm planning a vacation for 15 and wonder if you consider Galapagos to still be a desirable eco-tour destination. If so, can you suggest how to select from the many cruise operators available?
A The Galapagos, the Darwinian land of blue-footed boobies and Lonesome George the giant tortoise, is never out of style, nor will its ecology ever go the way of the dodo bird. Besides being a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Ecuador's government is highly protective of its natural treasures and employs various safeguards to preserve the 13 major islands, of which 97 percent is national park land. To guard its biodiversity -- and maintain 95 percent of its original species -- visitors eat and sleep on boats and must stay close to their tour guide when on land.
"It is a very tightly controlled experience, but because of that, there has been relatively little interruption of animal behavior," says Johannah Barry, president of the Charles Darwin Foundation Inc. (703-538-6833, www.galapagos.org), a nonprofit in Falls Church. "Animals show no fear of man. You can swim with the sharks and penguins, walk between the nests of the blue-footed boobies and have a mockingbird land at your feet. To them, you are just a bump on the landscape." By comparison, other popular eco-tour destinations require you to "search, look and happen upon" the wildlife, says Barry.
A variety of operators offer the land/sea tours, and choosing one really depends upon your taste in travel. First, though, you will want to find a dependable company with a good boat safety record and strong conservation cred. The foundation and the International Galapagos Tour Operators Association (www.igtoa.org) list tour companies of such ilk. You will also want to dedicate at least a week to exploring the islands, since it takes a couple of days to travel there from the States.
For ships, the selection is wide. You can cruise in relative luxury aboard a vessel that fits about 90 passengers (the maximum) or set sail on a catamaran with a small crew. Regardless of size and amenities, though, to get the most of your Galapagos experience, look for a ship with dedicated naturalists and a strong educational bent, so you can fill your off-island time with wildlife lectures and slide shows. Says Barry, "You are going to the Galapagos, not Club Med."
My granddaughter and I want to take a train through the Alps from Switzerland to Italy. I understand that one can stand on the upper deck and virtually touch the Alps. How can I get information on it ?
Unless you're a daredevil, you can't exactly tap the Alpine peaks from the rails, but you can board a train that has no fear of heights. Rail Europe (877-257-2887, www.raileurope.com) has a foot-long list of scenic rail routes that wind through mountain passes surrounded by dizzying natural sights. For example, on the 21/2-hour Bernina Express, which chugs from Chur, Switzerland, to Tirano, Italy, you'll roll by dramatic gorges, vast snowfields and, according to Rail Europe's Web site, "white glaciers close enough to reach out and touch." Cost is $91 first-class, $60 second-class, plus a $12 reservation fee.
Another option is to focus solely on Switzerland. The rail company has panoramic theme rides, such as the Chocolate Train (Montreux to Gruyeres, home of cheese and chocolate) and the Glacier Express (Zermatt to St. Moritz, with glimpses of the Matterhorn), which has first-class viewing cars with windows up to the roof. In addition, Swiss rail passes let you tack on such vertiginous excursions as a ride on the longest aerial cable car in the Alps (you might recognize the stirring view atop the Schilthorn from the James Bond flick "On Her Majesty's Secret Service") or on one of the world's steepest cogwheel railways (to 7,000-foot Mount Pilatus). The Swiss Saverpass (from $153), for one, offers traveling companions discounted rates on multi-day travel by train, lake steamer and city transportation. You can also expand your Alps adventure with a three-country, multi-day pass, and add Austrian or French summits. Cost varies according to length of trip, but a five-day pass goes for $370.
And if you really want to climb into the clouds, go to the Top of Europe, considered the highest train station on the continent. From the 11,698-foot Jungfraujoch perch, you can scan the high-altitude scene from the Sphinx observation deck, tour research exhibits, grab a hot snack, take a dog-drawn sleigh ride and, yes, touch the snow with your bare hand. Info: Jungfrau Railways, 011-41-33-828-7233, www.jungfraubahn.ch/en. For train and other info on Switzerland: Switzerland Tourism, 877-794-8037, www.myswitzerland.com
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