Fantastic voyage: Travels with Charles Darwin
As Britain celebrates Charles Darwin's 200th birthday, Simon Calder and Ben Ross chart the great naturalist's journey aboard the Beagle – a voyage that took in a natural selection of the world's top travel destinations
Saturday 14 February 2009
On the 6th of January we reached Teneriffe, but were prevented landing," wrote Charles Darwin. In the winter of 1831-32, 10 days out of Plymouth, the first shore excursion from his "ten-gun brig", HMS Beagle, was thwarted. Not because of bad weather, but on the grounds that the crew presented a health risk to the islanders; the authorities feared "our bringing the cholera".
Darwin was born 200 years ago this week, which means he was only 22 when he was taken on for a five-year voyage as companion to Captain Robert FitzRoy. Despite his youth, the scientist proved a remarkable trailblazer for 21st-century globetrotters.
Most travellers know that the extraordinary islands of the Galápagos were where Darwin's theories evolved. But, as the map shows, the course of the Beagle incorporated many of the planet's present travel hot spots: from package-holiday pimples such as the Canaries and Cape Verde to the sultry francophone islands of Tahiti and Mauritius; and such still-hidden gems as St Helena and the Azores.
Darwin despised the time spent aboard his maritime home. "What are the boasted glories of the illimitable ocean. A tedious waste, a desert of water." He was also chronically sea-sick. Yet his sense of wonder seldom wavers. Even after being turned away from Santa Cruz in Tenerife, and having to make do with the view of the island from the ocean, his wide-eyed enthusiasm for the world is apparent: "This was the first of many delightful days never to be forgotten."
Never mind the origin of species: with the journey chronicled in The Voyage of the Beagle, the great man inadvertently sets the parameters for the evolution of travel. We travellers can revel in "delightful days never to be forgotten" in the very same places that he explored.
How to make the most of Charles Darwin's natural selection of outstanding locations? You could take a world cruise, departing next January aboard Queen Mary 2. Cunard is quoting £12,790 for three-and-a-half months, calling in at many of the places he visited, from St Helena to New Zealand's Bay of Islands. For a cut-price alternative, take advantage of the UK's status as world capital of cheap travel and make a series of trips: the entry-level journey, to Tenerife, with another great 19th-century figure, Thomas Cook, costs just £234.
Darwin was, like 21st-century British travellers, value-conscious. He was impressed with how far his pound stretched in Uruguay: "I paid only two dollars a day, or eight shillings, for two men, together with a troop of about a dozen riding-horses." He also dishes out top travel tips: "Almost every house in Chile will receive you for the night, but a trifle is expected to be given in the morning; even a rich man will accept two or three shillings." And he proved a shrewd negotiator, spending £25 on six beasts of burden for a 420-mile trek through South America,and selling them at the far end for a net loss of only £2.
The mission of the Beagle was "to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego ... to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific, and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the World". Darwin was free to go ashore to investigate the geology, zoology and botany. His anthropology, though, was, questionable; Brazilian slaves, he concluded, "Pass happy and contented lives", while he seems to have accepted the ill-treatment ofAboriginals in Tasmania (victims of colonial ethnic-cleansing) as inevitable.
Darwin was immensely proud of his origins: "To hoist the British flag seems to draw with it as a certain consequence, wealth, prosperity, and civilisation".
After almost five years away, Darwin returned to Falmouth and fame. His account ends with a message to the future traveller to "Discover many truly kind-hearted people there are, with whom he never before had, or ever again will have any further communication, who yet are ready to offer him the most disinterested assistance."
Had Darwin made landfall on Tenerife, he would have been in the vanguard of British tourism. Last year, 1.6 million of us visited the island, although the beaches have been transformed since Darwin's day from volcanic black sand to imported white.
Darwin's geography of the Canaries may be a little shaky: "The next morning we saw the sun rise behind the rugged outline of the Grand Canary island, and suddenly illuminate the Peak of Teneriffe." He implies that the islands of Tenerife and Gran Canaria are one and the same. But his description of Mount Teide, which is definitely on Tenerife, is unmistakeable for anyone who has been: "The lower parts were veiled in fleecy clouds."
Thomas Cook (0871 895 0055; thomascook.com) offers a seven-night holiday at Malibu Park self-catering flats in Playa de las Americas for £234, departing Gatwick on 13 March
This series of 10 volcanic islands pops up from the Atlantic, 300 miles off the coast of Senegal, more or less halfway between Africa and South America.
Like many places on Darwin's epic, the archipelago was uninhabited until very late in human history. The Portuguese showed up in 1456. During the Apartheid era, the international airport at Sal served as a refuelling stop for South African Airways, whose planes to Europe were banned from black African countries. By the early 21st century, an alternative source of income became clear: northern European holidaymakers, or those seeking cheap property in Africa's offshore sun.
The island's favourite daughter is Cesaria Evora, the grandmotherly "barefoot diva" with a haunting voice, especially when singing about her "islands of the wind, islands of my love".
Thomson (0845 071 3082; thomson.co.uk) offers holidays to several Cape Verde Islands. Boa Vista is known for its dunes and marine life. A 14-night stay at the Club Hotel Riu Karamboa, from 13 March, is £910 per person, including flights, meals and transfers
Rio de Janeiro
From the top of Sugarloaf mountain, towering over Brazil's spectacular former capital, you can see why they call Rio the Marvellous City – not least the way the mountains clad with tropical forest tumble right down to the beach, compressing the city into a narrow strip.
Ribbons of silver separate the ocean from the high-intensity metropolis that crowds along the shores, filling every available flat space up to and including the skirts of Sugarloaf itself. This district, Botofago, was where Darwin resided. He wrote with great excitement about the flora crowding down to the shore: "In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous that he is scarcely able to walk at all."
At the time, the population of Rio was counted in tens of thousands, rather than the five million-plus who call themselves Cariocas today. Yet wilderness remains easily accessible. Rio has rainforest within the city limits, and going from the urban jungle to the real thing involves nothing trickier than boarding the train to the top of Corcovado, the mountain known as the "Pinnacle of Temptation" to early mariners, perhaps including the crew of the Beagle. It is now crowned by one of the "new seven wonders of the world", the statue of Christ the Redeemer. Halfway up you can hop off and get as close as is comfortable to Nature in all her slimy glory.
"I'm hearing the light from the window. I'm seeing the sound of the sea. My feet have come loose from their moorings. I'm feeling quite wonderfully free."
That wasn't Charles Darwin after a magic mushroom or two; it was Michael Nesmith. But our man was equally enthusiastic: "It was impossible to wish for anything more delightful than thus to spend some weeks in so magnificent a country."
To fly to Rio more quickly than Charles and more comfortably than Michael, bag a bargain in BA's Club World sale; £2,019 will get you a flat bed on the only non-stop London-Rio flight; book at ba.com, before 24 February.
Darwin spent twice as long in the Falkland Islands as he did in the Galápagos during his voyage, managing month-long stops in 1833 and 1834. A settlement was later named after him on East Falkland.
But Darwin's first impressions were unfavourable: after noting that the islands had long been the subject of dispute between Buenos Aires and London, he described "an undulating land, with a desolate and wretched aspect [that] is every where covered by a peaty soil and wiry grass, or one monotonous brown colour."
The Falklands conflict in 1982 returned the islands to the British consciousness, but these days the islands' visitors are of a much more peaceful variety. The Falklands are known for impressive variety of marine and bird life including elephant seals, sea lions and colonies of penguins.
Steppes Travel (01285 885 333; steppestravel.co.uk) offers a seven-night Falklands Wildlife journey from £1,550 per person, excluding international flights. Visitors can reach the Falklands on the weekly LAN (lan.com) flight from Chile, or on the charter flight operated from RAF Brize Norton in the UK by the Ministry of Defence, which runs twice weekly (020-7222 2542; email@example.com)
"The Plata looks like a noble estuary on the map; but is in truth a poor affair. A wide expanse of muddy water has neither grandeur nor beauty." Darwin was quite right about the river Plate, which forms the great divide between Argentina and Uruguay. But he had the sense to take advantage of a hydrographic hiatus on the Beagle to visit the loveliest place on the estuary: Colonia.
Expedia.co.uk will get you from to Buenos Aires via Sao Paulo on TAM next month for £508 return. Buquebus (buquebus.com) runs ferries to Colonia for £19 each way.
"All nature seemed sparkling with life," wrote Darwin when he arrived in Chile's leading seaport. "The view from the anchorage is very pretty. The town is built at the very foot of a range of hills. ...It consists of one long, straggling street, which runs parallel to the beach, and wherever a ravine comes down, the houses are piled up on each side of it."
The new Lonely Planet guide to Chile shares Darwin's high opinion . "The whole of Valparaíso is a sight worth seeing", and recommends "just walking the city streets." Chile's national poet, Pablo Neruda, sums up its endearing muddle: "You never comb yourself/You have never had time to dress yourself.",
One attraction Darwin missed – but not by much – are the funiculars that help citizens cope with their three-dimensional city. Even more enticing is trolleybus route No 801, reputed to use the oldest fully functioning vehicles in the world (dating from 1947).
Journey Latin America (020-8622 8479; tiny.cc/w9oey) has flights to Santiago on TAM via Sao Paulo for £590 return in March; from the Chilean capital, buses leave every 15 minutes or so for Valparaiso, taking around 90 minutes for a fare of about £5
Lima was Spain's colonial HQ for South America, but Darwin grumbles that "during almost every day of our visit there was a thick drizzling mist, which was sufficient to make the streets muddy and one's clothes damp: this the people are pleased to call Peruvian dew."
Travellers to Peru's capital who buy a £574 flight on American Airlines from Heathrow via Miami with Ebookers.com will probably encounter the same haze, but they will also discover a capital that has reclaimed its beauty and makes an excellent start and end to a journey to Machu Picchu, the Amazon and the Nazca Lines.
French Polynesia comprises 110 islands scattered across a vast tranche of the South Pacific, but the Beagle headed for Tahiti – "an island which must for ever remain classical to the voyager in the South Sea", according to Darwin. The vessel moored in the port of Papeete, which at the time was the royal residence.
This was more than a courtesy visit. Captain FitzRoy had been ordered to try to claim an overdue debt for the Crown: "the sum of nearly three thousand dollars" in settlement for the plundering of a British vessel. So they called upon Queen Pomarre. Darwin described her as "a large awkward woman, without any beauty, grace or dignity". It remains unclear whether the debt was ever settled.
By the end of the 19th century, Tahiti was established as a dream destination for Europeans; Paul Gauguin spent the last 12 years of his life here. The artist's house is no longer standing, but his grandson, Marcel Tai, has a gallery in Papeete.
Flights to Papeete are scarce, but Air France (0870 142 4343; airfrance.com/uk) has a fare of £1,036 from London via Paris to the Tahitian capital
Darwin's theory of evolution is entwined with the history of the Galápagos Islands. Indeed, the location has become the geographical embodiment of his idea of "natural selection".
The archipelago lies on the equator, around 1,000km to the west of mainland Ecuador, and consists of a dozen main islands, only five of which (Baltra, Floreana, Isabela, San Cristóbal and Santa Cruz) are now inhabited.
Much here has changed since FitzRoy, Darwin and co arrived on 15 September 1835 – not least the granting of Unesco World Heritage status to the region in 1978 in an attempt to preserve its unique status. However, a first glimpse of these brooding, isolated spots of land, lost in the Pacific, is still captivating. And the wildlife? "The natural history of this archipelago is very remarkable," wrote Darwin. "The greater number of its inhabitants, both vegetable and animal, being found nowhere else."
The treatment of all that natural history has certainly changed for the better since Darwin's time. He took advantage of the extraordinary tameness of the endemic species of birds – finches, mockingbirds and doves – to trap them as specimens, which were sent back to England for study. The islands' giant tortoises, meanwhile, were devoured by the naturalist and his shipmates for food. Darwin noted that "single vessels have taken away as many as 700 of these animals", for eating en route to their next destination.
It's a nice irony, then, that the Charles Darwin Research Station (galapagos.org) on Santa Cruz now provides sanctuary for examples of the 11 remaining subspecies of Galápagos tortoise, including Lonesome George, the only survivor from the island of La Pinta, who is often described as "the rarest animal in the world". A visit to the Galápagos Islands is all about rarity value – not least because of the cost involved in getting there. There's the chance to see flightless cormorants, Galápagos penguins and marine and land iguanas, all of which occupy evolutionary niches specific to Galápagos. And, as in Darwin's time, they are utterly tame.
Each island feels different from its neighbours: the red sand of Rabida contrasts with the greenery of Santiago; five volcanoes form the spine of Isabela, the largest island in the group; while Fernandina, the youngest (geologically speaking) of the Galápagos Islands, is riven with dark, pitted lava.
Darwin sailed with a sense of regret travellers will recognise: "It is the fate of most voyagers, no sooner to discover what is most interesting in any locality, than they are hurried from it."
Bales Worldwide (0845 057 0600; balesworldwide.com) has a 13-day Small Boat Galápagos Cruising holiday, from £3,175 per person. The price includes return flights from Heathrow via Guayaquil and Quito on the Ecuadorian mainland, B&B and sightseeing in Quito, a seven-day cruise with all meals, and all official fees
Bay of Islands, New Zealand
The handsome restored redbrick headquarters of Tourism New Zealand in Auckland may have had an unusually sombre mood at the start of this week. For once the country at the other end of the planet (from our point of view) did not top a poll to find the favourite nation on earth: readers of Wanderlust supplanted their usual choice of country with a surprise victory for Japan.
Had any TNZ executive happened to have leafed through The Voyage of the Beagle, their humour may have deteriorated still further. "I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand," wrote Charles Darwin. "It is not a pleasant place."
He based his view on time spent in the Bay of Islands, in the far north of the North Island. This is New Zealand at its most tropical, and – for many backpackers – its most beautiful, with an archipelago of around 150 tranquil islands scattered across a corner of the blue Pacific. The locals are friendly, too – though Darwin reported "Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found in Tahiti".
Darwin came to the original European settlement in New Zealand, now known as Russell, which at the time was a whaling port with plenty of lowlife: "The greater part of the English are the very refuse of society."
To try to improve the place, Darwin reputedly made a financial contribution to the building of Christ Church, which was completed long after he sailed into the sunset and which still stands. Five years after he passed through, the Treaty of Waitangi was signed on the shore opposite Russell. It was a remarkable agreement that has sustained nearly two centuries of reasonably peaceful coexistence between the Maori people and later arrivals.
"Neither is the country itself attractive," grumbled Darwin, who plainly couldn't wait to leave. Today, the Bay of Islands attracts plenty of scuba divers – not least because of wrecks such as the doomed Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior, towed here after French spies sank it in 1985.
Meanwhile, even if other countries occasionally pop upin most-popular-nation surveys, New Zealand remains the dream destination for many, for both its countryside and its delightful people.
Air New Zealand (0800 028 4149; airnz.co.uk) is the only truly round-the-world airline. A London-Hong Kong-Auckland-Los Angeles-London trip in late April (a good time to be in the Bay of Islands) will cost £810. The bus north to the Bay of Islands costs about £20 and takes four hours.
Australia's largest city is a place to fall in love, and Darwin seems to have been smitten by Sydney itself from day one: "I walked through the town, and returned full of admiration at the whole scene. It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation... My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman."
Today the city celebrates the start of the annual Mardi Gras Festival, which has grown beyond its original roots as a celebration for the gay and lesbian community to a three-week fiesta encompassing parades, parties and cultural events. Between now and the closing parade on 7 March, Qantas (08457 747 767; qantas.co.uk) has a deal offering flights and a week at the Vibe Hotel for £1,239, including transfers.
Goodness knows what Darwin would have made of the exotic costumes on display the final night, but he made an accurate observation about Australia's tendency to celebrate:
"In all respects there was a close resemblance to England: perhaps the alehouses here were more numerous."
"Late in the evening we anchored in the snug cove, on the shores of which stands the capital of Tasmania, as Van Diemen's Land is now called... In the morning I walked on shore. The streets are fine and broad; but the houses rather scattered: the shops appeared good. It stands at the base of Mount Wellington, a mountain 3,100ft high... Hobart Town, from the census of 1835, contained 13,826 inhabitants, and the whole of Tasmania 36,505."
The Beagle remained in Tasmania for 10 days, during which time Darwin made "several pleasant little excursions" into the interior. One of the main preoccupations in his writings, however, was with the recent removal of the entire aboriginal population, a "most cruel step" that "originated in the infamous conduct of some of our countrymen". However, he felt that it "seems to have been quite unavoidable, as the only means of stopping a fearful succession of robberies, burnings, and murders, committed by the blacks."
The modern-day tourist will agree that Hobart's "shops appear good", particularly if they visit Salamanca Market, a lively craft fair held every Saturday morning. Mount Wellington, too, is still an awesome presence. The long road to the top is worth following simply for the astonishing views out over Storm Bay, where contestants in the Sydney to Hobart Yacht race battle it out with the elements each December.
Tasmania's brutal history is also in evidence: aside from the abuse of the native population, the island also served as a floating penitentiary for Prisoners of Her Majesty (Poms for short). A visit to Port Arthur reveals a prison building (portarthur.org. au), where the harsh facts of convict life are related during guided tours. Higher up the peninsula a statue marks the point where ferocious dogs were kept, ready to attack escaping convicts.
Just as in Darwin's time, Tasmania is still sparsely populated, a benefit to tourists, particularly when travelling around the National Parks. Try Freycinet in the east, perfect hiking country, with the white sand of Wine Glass Bay on hand, or the wilds of Cradle Mountain in the west.
Qantas (0845 7 747 767; qantas.co.uk) flies from Heathrow to Hobart via Melbourne from £780 return. Edinburgh Gallery (00 61 3 6224 9229; artaccom.com.au) offers B&B accommodation near the central business district of Hobart. Doubles from A$120 (£55).
"In the morning we passed round the northern end of Mauritius, or the Isle of France." Charles Darwin was well past the honeymoon phase of his voyage by then – he had been at sea for over four years – but he saw in Mauritius the same attractions that make the isle the destination of choice for newlyweds: "The whole island, with its sloping border and central mountains, was adorned with an air of perfect elegance," he wrote.
The island is the size of Surrey, but rather more sultry. It emerged from the Indian Ocean less than 10m years ago, and blossomed into a land of virgin forest and unique animal life. Since man arrived – just five centuries ago – it has become one of the most multicultural places on earth. The capital, Port Louis, was founded by the Dutch, named after the French king Louis XV and provided the colonial base for the British. Its people are Indian, Arab, African and Chinese, and they all speak French. With diversity comes interesting quirks: they venerate the Duke of Edinburgh (a main avenue is named after him) and the capital is twinned with Tripoli in Libya.
Virgin Holidays (0871 222 5825; virginholidays.co.uk) offers two weeks at the three-star Silver Beach Hotel, departing 17 March, for £1,276 per person including all meals and transfers
The Beagle arrived at Simon's Bay, 20 miles south of Cape Town, on the last day of May, 1836. By now Darwin was running out of steam; his book carries almost no information about his stay, and according to his diary he felt miffed about the prevailing attitude to the British – perhaps an early precursor of apartheid: "In the country universally there is one price for a Dutchman, and another and much higher one for an Englishman." He also wrote: "There is only one good hotel, so that all strangers live in boarding houses – a very uncomfortable fashion to which I was obliged to conform." Sadly for Darwin, the Mount Nelson Hotel (00 27 21 483 1000; mountnelson.co.za) was still a lifetime from opening. Next month the superb five-star hotel celebrates its 110th anniversary. A double room here costs the equivalent of £156. To enjoy South Africa's most beautiful and cosmopolitan city more economically, Trailfinders (08450 585858; trailfinders.com) has a deal in May and June offering return flights from Heathrow on Qatar Airways via Doha and four nights at the three-star Camps Bay Resort for £515.
20 September 1836: "In the morning we were off the East end of the Island of Terceira, and a little after noon reached the town of Angra." The Azores had long been a handy pit-stop for adventurers and traders, and the city fathers of Angra do Heroismo – as it is now known – made the most of their location. Blessed with wealth and vision, the settlers created a town for this new age, and constructed in as regular a grid pattern as the topography would allow.
The cross atop Monte Brasil stands sentinel over the town and is the ideal place to begin a Darwinian day-trip: the steely Atlantic in the foreground, the rolling hills as a backdrop. And, sandwiched between them, the main town, with a ripple of red roofs over the terrain as it slides down to meet the ocean.
Architecturally, the town has a foot in both Europe and America. The hub is the Praca Velha, whose eastern side is occupied by the town hall and the lovely Angra Garden Hotel. The history of the town is inscribed on Rua da Se, the main street, whose iron balconies have the delicacy of embroidery – and whose retail offerings contradict Darwin's "no good shops".
In 1980, an earthquake flattened some buildings and damaged others, but painstaking reconstruction helped the town achieve Unesco World Heritage status three years later.
The usual route to Terceira is on TAP Portugal (0845 601 0932; flytap.com), which flies from Heathrow and Gatwick to Lisbon, with onward connections on the same airline or its partner SATA (0870 606 6664; sata.pt). Simon Calder paid £495 for a trip to Terceira as part of a wider itinerary taking in other islands. Several tour operators offer packages from Britain to the Azores, including Sunvil Discovery (020-8758 4722; sunvil.co.uk)
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