|Orion for Vacations - Adventuring in Style|
It's rare that something really new comes along in travel. But the MV Orion, a spectacular new ship that arrived in Australia in April, achieves that. This 100-passenger vessel offers both luxury and adventure. It has an ambitious year-round sail plan that includes the islands of the Torres Strait, East Timor and a circumnavigation of Tasmania as well as more traditional areas like the Great Barrier Reef and the Kimberley Coast. In summer, it will be making a couple of voyages south to the rarely visited coast and islands of Antarctica below Australia and New Zealand.
In April, I took a voyage aboard Orion from Brisbane to Cairns. The itinerary featured stops each day at a mixture of known and unknown destinations. In fact, when I mentioned to a sailing friend in Brisbane that the ship had taken me to the Percy Isles he declared that he'd never met anyone other than yachties who had ever been there. The number of plaques, buoys, inscribed planks and pieces of sail and other nautical memorabilia left in the A-frame main building of Middle Percy Island attests to yachts from all over the world to have dropped anchor here.
In the cruise ship world, the trend is definitely towards bigger and bigger vessels as they develop from floating hotels to virtual aquatic towns. Orion, built in Germany in 2003, has gone in the other direction, towards a more intimate style in which you are sharing the ship -and your landing sites - with about 100 other passengers. There was a time when "adventure cruising" had overtones of basic, utilitarian cabins and meals that shared a heritage with survival rations. Those days are long gone and now expedition vessels generally offer good facilities and food is as much a priority as the destination. However, Orion has taken this to a whole new level that is unashamedly luxurious. Indeed, the cabins are more like five star hotel rooms and in the Constellation restaurant and in the library it's possible to forget that you are on a ship at all. On the other hand, indulging in a lunch barbecue at the Delphinus outdoor cafe as another coral cay glides by is a great highlight. There are similar scenic views from the gym.
A moment of truth for shipboard travel is when you come on board and see your cabin for the first time. On Orion you come up the gangway to step into gleaming marble atrium with a glass lift in the middle and small antique statues set into niches in the circular staircase. Check-in is fast and seamless and then you are taken to your cabin (though here it is called either a stateroom or suite). With rich polished wood, discreet lighting, flat screen television and very comfortable bedding, it is unlikely to disappoint. Apparently, one of the motives for building Orion was to keep German ship craftsmen in work and every corner and inlay reveals their skill. An unexpected joy is the photographic theme of beautiful old racing yachts that runs through the whole ship. There are no inside cabins so every room has a view.
The Orion has an annual schedule of various options along the Queensland coast and up to the islands of the Torres Strait from March to May and October to December. It will be in Sydney for New Year's Eve then heads down to Tasmania for January and February. That is punctuated by two voyages down to Antarctica from Tasmania to New Zealand and return.
Of course, most of the remote islands, bays and beaches that the Orion visits do not have docks or indeed any landing facilities. Rather, you go from ship to shore by inflatable rubber Zodiac craft that carry up to 10 passengers each. It sounds rather precarious to step from a vessel 100 metres long and displacing 4000 tonnes into one that is a mere five metres long but even the more elderly and unsure on my voyage achieved it with little difficulty. Even when there is some wind and waves, zodiacs are very stable craft and there are sailors waiting ashore to help you disembark. In anticipation, zodiac operations seem fraught but the reality is easy and rather fun.
During the voyage the Captain, Peter Skog, a veteran of decades of expedition cruising, takes passengers on a tour of the state-of-the-art ship's bridge. Here we can see and learn how good this ship is. The Berlitz Ocean Cruising and Cruise Ships Guide of 2004 described the Orion as "the latest in the quest to build the ideal expedition cruise ship" and gave it a rating of 1612 points out of a possible 2000. Not only is it ice strengthened (reassuring in Antarctica or indeed around reefs) but also it has bow and stern thrusters for great manoeuvrability. It also has technologically advanced stabilisers that passengers will certainly appreciate in the Southern Ocean. While most of us leave the ship technicalities to the captain and crew, we appreciate onboard cable television and internet access, though the later is not cheap.
Any inspection of the Orion and its services suggests that it is aiming for the top end of the travel market and that is reflected in its pricing. The cheapest rate per person for a seven-day voyage in Tasmania, the Top End or the Great Barrier Reef is $4550. If you'd like to consider taking an Owner's Suite for a 20-night voyage to Antarctica that will set you back $33,600 each. Most of the Kimberley voyages for this year, and the Antarctic voyages for 2006, are already booked out.
Cruise operators are very aware that ships are judged by the quality of their meals. Many, particularly those catering to the North American market, offer a seemingly endless banquet of rich meals at any time of the day and night. It is over indulgence on a grand scale. The Australian operators of the Orion have taken a different path perfectly suited to Australian travellers. The menus for the ship have been designed by the famed Serge Dansereau of "Bathers' Pavilion" at Sydney's harbourside Balmoral Beach and they are based around each region the ship visits. The meals - particularly in the evening at the Constellation restaurant - are creative without being fussy and everyone can eat at a single sitting. There is certainly no shortage of food but it's more like visiting a top restaurant every day rather than indulging in cruise ship gluttony.
Just as the onboard cuisine is distinctly Australian, so too are the itineraries. My seven-day Great Barrier Reef voyage included renowned highlights such as Kingfisher Bay on Fraser Island and Hinchinbrook Island. And Orion became the first cruise vessel to land at glorious Cape Tribulation under the very watchful eye of National Park rangers. But as well as the out-of-the-way Percy Isles, we snorkelled at quite unexplored Creal Reef in the Whitsundays, and headed well offshore to visit Willis Islet out in the Coral Sea.
Typical of expedition cruises, there is no casino or cabaret shows but instead there is an educational program throughout the voyage. Presenters with expertise in each area not only give talks but are also on hand during the landings. Matching every other aspect of the attention to detail on the Orion, the lecture hall has excellent presentation facilities including surround sound and good views of the presenter and screen from every seat.
The Orion is an exciting new addition to the Australian travel scene. So far, it appears to be well supported by the local industry and Australian travellers. It provides an unforgettable travel experience to many destinations that can only be explored by ship. But it's also a very beautiful ship, inside and out. Even if you aren't planning on voyaging anywhere, it's worth taking a look if it cruises into your home town because it represents the pinnacle of an increasingly popular facet of adventure travel.
Orion has departures out of many Australian ports as well as Lyttelton, the port for Christchurch, New Zealand. All are served by frequent scheduled flights. The state and territory tourist offices can provide more information for pre and post voyage touring.
MV Orion is operated by Orion Expedition Cruises, 26 Alfred St, Milsons Point, NSW 2061, tel: (02) 9033 8700 or 1300 361 012, orioncruises.com.au. It has a series of 7, 10, 11, 15 and 20-day voyages. There are eight categories of cabins.
The fare includes all meals and the scheduled excursions. However, optional excursions are available at extra cost at many destinations. These range from helicopter flights over the Kimberley to 4WD tours of Fraser Island or scuba diving on the reef. These optional excursions can be booked onboard. All prices onboard are in Australian dollars. Passengers are asked to bring their passports but an Australian drivers license may be identification enough to satisfy port authorities.
Orion has a comprehensive brochure/booklet with a series of lift-out pamphlets for each of its destinations. The illustration of which class of cabin is where is invaluable. For a copy, contact Orion Expedition Cruises or your travel agent.
David McGonigal © David McGonigal Pty Ltd