Orient Queen / Louis Aura
This ship began life in 1968 as the M/V Starward for Norwegian Cruise Lines until 1995. It became the M/V Bolero until 2004. A full refit and it became Orient Queen until being renamed Louis Aura in September 2013. Most of its life it was registered in Panama until the 2013 renaming when its registry was transferred to Valletta, Malta. It is owned by Abou Merhi Cruises d/b/a Louis Cruises (once called Louis Hellenic Cruises). Louis is an old company dating back to 1935. Louis now specializes in buying second-hand ships.
Before I begin my criticisms, let me say that I am not a newcomer to traveling or cruising. I have traveled in 47 countries and have been on 19 cruises with 6 different cruise lines. I know what a well-run cruise ship should be like.
The reception area is quite pretty. It has a unique fiber optic “chandelier” and a pretty little fountain. Lounges and the library have a worn look to them: stains on fabrics, cuts in chairs, and chips in glass-top tables.
The shops carry standard cruise ship kitsch.
Our “premium outside cabin” was cramped, at best. Two of us could not stand between the narrow cots at the same time. The bathroom was approximately the size of an airliner’s lavatory with a shower attached. The outside view was through two ten-inch portholes. There was neither chair nor desk, only an oversized hassock which was just in the way. The closet was so shallow that a man’s sport coat dragged the shelves below. Storage consisted of two shelves and no drawers. We did have a refrigerator which was filled with drinks and snacks for purchase. We did have a built-in safe which we could use for a charge of 14Euro ($18.50) for six days. The cabin also had two drop-down bunks. Placing four people in this tiny space would be impossible.
Among our traveling companions were two couple who had booked standard cabins’ One couple paid $100 extra to upgrade to a premium cabin. Their cabins were identical.
Another couple paid $500 extra for a balcony. Their cabin was identical to ours. There are no balconies on the Louis Aura.
The upper deck did have larger cabins, but this could not be determined in advance as there is no printed deck plan available on-line or even aboard the ship. The only deck plan to be seen was in the stairwells and could be photographed if you want one.
The ship’s staff was half-hearted at best. When concerns or complaints were made to senior staff, there was little or slow response. Waiters were grudging in giving service. Requests for coffee or tea with dinner were seldom filled; even glasses of water were filled only upon repeated requests.
Prices for bar items were comparable to upper to middle priced hotels, but orders were often filled with incorrect liquors (pomegranate juice was delivered to an order for Drambuie) or incorrectly made (Vanilla caramel iced cappuccino was so bitter it was undrinkable). When complaints were made, no action was taken.
Pastries were excellent. We have never seen the equal of some of them.
Meats were highly variable. Lamb was invariably excellent and chicken and veal were always good. Fish was usually good. Beef was usually poor and pork was indelibly overcooked.
In the cruise industry, 24 hour free food is universal. Except on the Louis Aura. Outside of scheduled meals and teatime, everything cost extra, a lot extra. In the Mermaid Restaurant dining room, if you want a steak for dinner, it costs an additional 11 Euro ($14.50). If you go to the Horizon Buffet outside mealtimes, an individual pizza costs 6 Euro ($8). Don’t order a grilled cheese sandwich; it will be three slices of bread with a very thin smear of cheese-like glue.
The Mermaid restaurant has the appearance of a mid-priced hotel restaurant. It does have a neat feature: a swimming pool on the deck above extends into the center of the restaurant with oval windows to watch the swimmers. The Horizon Café has all the ambiance of an elementary school lunch room.
The stage shows were pretty good, but no better than you would see at mid-priced cabarets. Las Vegas they are not.
Corridors on cabin decks were daily blocked by service carts tied to handrails. Passage beside them was adequate for a single slim person at a time. An individual with a large frame or one using a walking aid could not pass; a serious impediment to evacuation.
Of the four exits from the Mermaid restaurant, two were marked “Crew Only, Emergency exit only”. A third, principle exit was almost totally blocked by multiple stacks of extra chairs. Space was left for a single person to pass at a time. When the danger of this was pointed out to the headwaiter, he demonstrated little interest. Four days later, their solution was to transfer all the extra chairs to one side of the exit passage, which opened it to possibly two people at a time. An emergency in the dining room would result in a disastrous pile-up of bodies.
A loose sill plate in the only interior entrance to the Horizon Buffet posed a severe tripping hazard. It was being examined by two ship’s officers on the first day. Two days later, as I was photographing the hazard, I was observed by a third ship’s officer. Two further days later, I was demonstrating the hazard to a friend and was observed by the headwaiter. Finally, after five days, it was repaired with five rivets within the hour.
The life jackets in the cabins are the same ones originally placed on the ship when built. All four names of the ship were on each one and merely covered up with the new name. One still had the original Seasafe certification of 1969. I don’t know what SOLAS says about age of life jackets, but I distrust a 44 year-old life vest. I inquired of the U.S. Coast Guard’s Safe Boating Council about the legal age of a life jacket. Their reply included, “There's no cut and dry answer to that question, but our recommendation would be to replace a life jacket that old… For a life jacket to be that old, even if it looks "good and serviceable," chances are the foam inside it has broken down….”
We were instructed, in writing, in the daily newsletter, that due to the age of the sewerage system, we were not to flush used toilet tissue in the toilets, but to place it in the trash can. Disgusting! This is supposed to be a premium luxury liner, not a third world country. We flushed.
Rust and filth and mildew were everywhere. The corners of bathrooms, public and private, were filled with dirt and mildew. Old plumbing connections were not removed, but covered with several inches of latex caulk.
Door and cabinet latches in restrooms and dining rooms were repaired, not with proper cabinetry fixtures, but cheap hardware hasps and slide locks.
The tiling around the swimming pool was filled with mildew-blackened grout. And this after a crewman spent an hour carefully scrubbing it.
Rust on outside stairways and fittings is common. A small amount of paint would, at least, hide it.
In the cabin bath, a small bump caused the towel rack to fall off the wall. It was not repaired while we sailed. In the shower, the safety grab-bar was so loosely attached to the wall that it was unsafe and unusable.
Several of our traveling companions had their credit cards refused. All had informed their card issuers of their itinerary. We must wonder where the billing is coming from that major credit cards did not recognize the origin of the charges.
My bill was clearly incomplete and inaccurate. It did not cover all days of the cruise. I was charged for an excursion I did not take and was not charged for three I did take. As my bill had not been delivered to my cabin as promised, I had to grab a copy as I rushed to disembark and had no time to examine and correct it. Other cruises have been scrupulously exact so I did not think it necessary.
Everything extra costs extra. Unlike the cruise industry standards of Carnival or Princess or Royal Caribbean, there are no 24-hour pizza parlors, no late night buffets, no quaint little specialty restaurants for a modest extra charge. If you want tap water, it is free. If you want iced tea or coffee, they are at bar prices.
A package deal for drinks is available at exorbitant prices and all persons in a cabin must buy the package. A package of unlimited non-alcoholic drinks is 20 Euro ($26) per person per day ($156 per person for the six day cruise). A package of unlimited alcoholic drinks (no premium brands) cost 40 Euro ($52) per person per day ($312 per person for the cruise).
I had looked forward to “small ship cruising” as I had heard of the wonderful, individual attention and service in this setting. This did not compare to the hotels I had recently visited in Albania, Bulgaria, and Turkey. How well known tour companies, such as Globus, Trafalgar, Insight, and Contiki, chose such an inferior ship, I cannot imagine.