Cruise Critic contributor Doug Newman weighs in on a cruise-related matter surrounding the tragic situation between Israel and Lebanon:
"I am sure the ongoing situation in Lebanon and Israel is on all our minds right now.
"Today, news reports have indicated that the U.S. government has chartered a cruise ship to assist in the evacuation of U.S. citizens from Beirut.
"I have heard this vessel incorrectly described as a Greek or a German cruise ship. In fact, the ship in question, Orient Queen, is owned by a Lebanese company, Abou Merhi Cruises, which is a subsidiary of the Lebanese car carrier owner Abou Merhi Lines. She is managed by Osterreichischer Lloyd Cyprus, the Cyprus subsidiary of the Austrian ship management firm Osterreichischer Lloyd.
"Orient Queen was built in Germany in 1968 as Starward for Kloster Rederi, parent-company of the then-Norwegian Caribbean Line. She was the second NCL ship, following Sunward (I) of 1966 which was originally built for an unsuccessful Southampton-Vigo-Lisbon-Gibraltar service, but soon transferred to the newly formed NCL, a joint venture between Knut Kloster and Ted Arison (later of Carnival fame). The success of NCL led Kloster to order the larger Starward for Caribbean service. She is often considered the first cruise ship purpose-built for Caribbean cruising from Miami, but this is not strictly correct as she was originally fitted with a car deck, mainly for carrying trucks from Miami to her Caribbean ports. Her sister Skyward was delivered one year later without a car deck and Starward's car deck was replaced with cabins in 1976, marking the end of NCL's passenger-cargo service.
"NCL retained Starward until 1995 when she was sold to Festival Cruises, which had started operations two years earlier with The Azur (originally the P&O ferry Eagle). In 2001, Bolero became the first ship for Spanish Cruise Line, a joint venture between Festival, the Spanish tour operator Iberojet, and the Spanish ferry company Trasmediterranea. She continued in this capacity until Festival went under in 2004. She spent the better part of 2004 laid-up at Gibraltar until she was sold to Abou Merhi Lines at the end of the year and renamed Orient Queen. Following a very extensive refurbishment, she debuted on cruises from Beirut to the Greek Isles in the spring of 2005. This was apparently a success, and in autumn of 2005 she transferred to Dubai for a winter season of cruises. However, these were not successful and she was returned to Beirut and laid-up after only a few cruises. She was intended to return to service on her Beirut-based cruises this summer but obviously other events have intervened to prevent this from happening.
"Of note, recently a Florida-based start-up company called Paradise Caribbean Cruises claimed to be chartering the ship for Florida-based cruises in the winter 2006-2007 season. It is unknown if this was legitimate or if it will occur, especially given the current situation in Lebanon.
"It is interesting to note that while Bolero wound up in Lebanese hands, her former Festival Cruises running-mate The Azur found new employment as Royal Iris, the flagship of Mano Cruises, the leading Israeli cruise operator (www.mano.co.il).
"Orient Queen has capacity for 876 passengers in 349 cabins. In general, most cruise ships are legally certified to carry more passengers than they actually have berths for. Press reports indicate that the U.S. government is hoping to evacuate approximately 5,000 U.S. citizens from Lebanon. I have not been able to find Orient Queen's maximum certified passenger capacity, but I suspect it is in the region of 1,000 passengers. Obviously this presents something of an issue if there are 5,000 people who need to be evacuated, as either multiple voyages will need to be made or other means of transport will have to be found for the majority of evacuees.
"As of now, no other cruise ships are reported to have been used for evacuation purposes. Most countries seem to be relying on naval vessels, though the French and Norwegian governments are reported to have jointly chartered a Greek ferry. Orient Queen Queen will apparently be escorted by at least one U.S. naval vessel, and a French naval vessel is apparently escorting the aforementioned Greek ferry.
"I wish Orient Queen the best of luck on this important mission, along with all others who are attempting to evacuate foreign civilians from Lebanon during this crisis situation. Let us hope that these missions are successful and that a peaceful resolution to this crisis can be found soon."
Editor's Note: Newman is working on a story for Cruise Critic on Europe-oriented cruise ferries, which are a wonderful way to both cruise and hop from country to country with ease. Long popular with Europeans, these cruise ships are largely unfamiliar to most American travelers. So stay tuned.