Editor's note: Orion Expeditions was acquired by Lindblad Expeditions in 2013, and Orion II is no longer in service.
Orion II is a sleek little vessel, with a smart navy blue hull and white superstructure. Although it's 21 years old, it has a timeless, comfortable-but-classy feel, thanks to plenty of highly polished wood and neutral decor in blues, greens and golds. The atmosphere onboard is intentionally informal, a style appreciated by the mainly Australian and New Zealand passengers.
It joined Australian-owned Orion Expedition Cruises in 2011, effectively doubling the size of the fleet; the line has operated with just one ship, 106-passenger Orion, since its startup in 2004. The new ship was acquired on a charter basis from a private owner; previously, it had sailed as Clelia II and was operated by New York-based Travel Dynamics International. It underwent a refit in 2009, and further enhancements were made by Orion before the relaunch. Originally, the vessel was built for Renaissance Cruises as one in a series of six; three of its original sisters now sail as Travel Dynamics International's Corinthian II and British tour operator Noble Caledonia's two ships, Island Sky and Caledonian Sky.
The atmosphere onboard is social and informal. The open-seating dining in the Restaurant (the main dining room) makes it easy to make friends, and on our trip, the larger tables became more and more in-demand toward the end of the voyage, as groups of new friends wanted to dine together. Although it offers the trappings of luxury (top-notch service, generously proportioned cabins and fine food), the ship is comfortable and contemporary, rather than opulent or flashy. The lounge and bar are places to kick back and relax, and you won't feel a need to dress up or make an impression.
Orion II's itineraries include some serious exotic destinations: Antarctica, Australia's Kimberley, Papua New Guinea and South Georgia and the Falkland Islands, to name a few -- and all in a high degree of luxury.
The big selling point of Orion II is its included shore excursions, and the emphasis is on getting under the skin of a destination. Everybody explores together, so friendships are quickly formed. Most passengers are ashore all day, and a lot of the tours include extras like lunch in local restaurants. Wherever possible, landings are by Zodiac inflatable, which gives every outing a feeling of adventure. It also turns a shuttle service into a sightseeing opportunity, as you're perched on the edge of the Zodiac, open to the elements, skimming across the water.