By Steve Faber, Cruise Critic contributor
Editor's note: Orion Expedition Cruises will become part of Lindblad Expedition's existing fleet starting with March 2014 itineraries.
Fusion and hybrids are 21st-century buzzwords for combining two disparate things or qualities to create a third with the best aspects of each, as in the fusion of French and Pacific Rim cuisines or hybrid automobiles combining the environmental positives of electric propulsion with the power and convenience of gasoline. In cruising, the hot hybrid is the combination of expedition cruising with elevated levels of comfort, service, cuisine and amenities more indicative of what you'd find on conventional upper-echelon ships.
I am pleased to report that Australia-based Orion Expedition Cruises, which in 2003 launched its first vessel, the self-named 106-passenger Orion, exceeded my expectations in most regards.
Based in Australia, Orion offers wide-ranging itineraries that ply Australia's coastline, as well as the surrounding waters and beyond, including the islands of the Great Barrier Reef, and, to the north, East Timor, Papua New Guinea and the Solomon Islands. Others head south to Tasmania and, at the peak of down under summer, Antarctica.
From the moment a guest strides across the gangway into Orion's reception area, it is clear that this is a luxury vessel. Rich woods, burnished brass and rich carpeting, accented sensibly by art pieces ranging from pre-Columbian to 21st-century contemporary, abound. Rich, dense-pile carpeting abuts inlaid floors of cream and russet edged with brass strips in a top-to-bottom-deck atrium surrounding a central glass elevator -- a unique architectural feature for a vessel of such diminutive size. A hand-painted mural portraying a map of the Western Hemisphere from north to south poles runs the full height of the atrium. Structurally, however, it is important to note that despite the attention to luxury, this is a ship purpose-built for expedition cruising: For every ounce of marble, there are pounds of steel reinforcing the hull to the highest ice-strengthening level available, and one of the most popular public rooms is the mud room, where passengers can swap cruise daywear for boots and parkas after spraying the latter with built-in high-pressure hoses.
Also pleasing is the top-notch level of service from the crew and staff of 75, nearly three quarters the maximum passenger load. Not only is the service incredibly attentive, but from master to Zodiac driver there is a strong feeling of warmth and friendliness.
Regardless of the level of luxury, it's important to remember that this is still an expedition ship, and may not be appropriate for all. Though we found passengers from every age group, even the eldest were fairly ambulatory and tolerant of challenging weather and terrain. One keystone of expedition cruising is the extensive use of Zodiac inflatable rafts instead of conventional tenders. Not only does this require more agility transferring to and from the ship's stern platform, but most of the time the destination is a beach, requiring a "wet landing" (having to jump over the side into the water and wade to the beach). Once ashore the explorations demand a modicum of dexterity and endurance, and except for caveats written or broadcast by the expedition leaders, there is little coddling or special treatment for those who may have difficulty keeping up.
Even those Orion sailings that offer diving as an optional shore excursion feature relatively limited opportunities (and, frankly, we missed the chance to have more exposure). Moreover, there are many places visited by Orion -- such as the Kimberleys -- whose striking natural assets are unfamiliar to the average Yank (which is not necessarily a bad thing!). Lastly, we recommend either choosing an itinerary longer than seven nights, or booking two seven-night sailings back to back; otherwise the trip will seem too short for the taxing flights back and forth.
Orion Fellow Passengers
Eighty percent of Orion's guests are Australian, and by their own assertion, in the rather nebulous age range dubbed "baby boomers." We found that there were very few passengers under the age of 40 -- the one couple we met below that age were honeymooners who had met while both working at Cruise West, the Alaska expedition cruise line!
However, as for upper age, we found the boundary came from attitude and spirit rather than from chronological age. We saw septuagenarians gamely climbing the rugged trail to Australia's northernmost point on Cape York when we were caught in a brutal tropical squall. Drenched to the bone, they slogged down with us in the blinding wind and painfully pelting rain laughing and joking about the experience the whole way. In short, this was hands down the most tolerant, undemanding group of passengers we've encountered on any ship.
Orion Dress Code
Casual, casual, casual. Collared shirts and long pants for the guys, equivalent garb for the ladies. There is a Captain's Welcome Aboard night, but you could count the number of sport coats on one hand, and ties were not to be found at all.
Gratuities are neither expected nor encouraged -- even on bar tabs. For those who wish to single out specific crewmembers, there is a pooled tip container set up in reception on the final day of the cruise (but no guidelines are offered).
I have been travelling for more than 50 years and this was truly a unique destination but with special "Orion" touches that made it a "Once in a lifetime " travel experience.The ship "Orion" is a beautiful vessel,and our suite ( whilst not top of ...continue
Travel to Darwin is by plane.However recommend overland rail travel from
Adelaide to Darwin on the GHAN.
Orion a splendid ship 5 star.
The embarkation process was flawless.Welcome refreshments while undergoing
embarkation formalities.Luggage was ...continue
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The Orion experience is extraordinary. The cabins are spacious and well furnished.Every aspect of cruising on Orion is exceptional. From the ever present crew who guide and help with the zodiac expeditions to the expedition leaders themselves who ...continue