By Sue Bryant, Cruise Critic contributing editor
Editor's note: Orion II will be returned to its owner at the end of 2012, after its current cruise season in Asia. Despite the ship's charm, Orion has cited technical difficulties as one of the reasons for the charter being terminated. The line intends to look for a replacement ship.
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.
Orion II joined Australian-owned Orion Expedition Cruises in 2011, effectively doubling the size of the fleet until it leaves at the end of 2012; 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 complement those of the original Orion, which is best known for its cruises along the remote Kimberley Coast in northern Australia and to Papua New Guinea and Antarctica. The new ship, in contrast, will sail mainly in Asia, exploring lesser-known regions like Borneo, smaller ports in Japan and the Russian Kamchatka peninsula, as well as Indochina. This gives Orion's many repeat passengers (more than 50 percent on our cruise) new options to explore.
The big selling point of Orion is its included shore excursions; the company's motto is "a path less travelled," 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.
Orion II Fellow Passengers
Orion attracts mainly Australians and New Zealanders, with a smattering of Brits and Americans. There is a high percentage of repeaters, some with many cruises under their belts, and an easy rapport with the crew, whom they treat like family. Most passengers on our Vietnam Explorer cruise were older than 50, mainly couples, although there were a few permutations of multigenerational groups, including a grandmother treating two of her adult grandsons, as well as a young British woman travelling with an aunt.
There's a great camaraderie onboard; the open-seating dining gives rise to big, loud, jolly tables at dinner. The ship had little to offer in the way of nightlife, though; apart from one night when passengers danced after the crew show, most people were in bed by 11 p.m.
Orion II Dress Code
Dress code is casual throughout, although not so casual that people wore shorts to dinner. Ladies tend to dress up a little, particularly after visits to Hoi An, a Vietnamese town known for its tailors, who run up an outfit in a day. Generally, smart trousers and shirts with collars for men and cocktail dresses or smart-casual attire for women were the order of the day.
Nobody sunbathed on deck (Australians just don't, as they're brought up learning to avoid sunburn), and everybody wears big hats, shades and cover-ups when outside.
As the crew aims to ferry passengers around as much as possible in the Zodiacs, plan on doing a lot of jumping into knee-deep water. For this reason, it's important to take shoes that can get wet.
Orion II Gratuity
The onboard currency is the Australian dollar. Gratuities are included in the fare and are not solicited at all onboard. Guides on tours didn't hint that they expected tips, either.
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Now we have experienced an Orion Expedition, we won't be going back to a large cruise line!
The Orion II reminded me of a grand, old lady -- elegant, stylish, but still warm and inviting. The cabins were luxurious and exceptionally comfortable. ...continue