Orient Lines Reborn: Look for Marco Polo II Spring 2009

August 20, 2008

Orient Lines, the much-loved explorations-focused cruise line that was dismantled by Star Cruises in 2007, has been reborn. The company's name (along with past passenger records) has been acquired from Star Cruises by Wayne Heller, founder of Cruises Only, the Orlando-based travel agency powerhouse. Heller will handle executive responsibilities along with his wife Judy and Bruce Nierenberg, a cruise industry veteran who worked at NCL before establishing the now-defunct Premier Cruise Line.

Once Heller bought Orient (negotiations began last winter; the deal closed earlier this summer), the big challenge he faced was finding a ship to go with it. Today's announcement focused on just such an acquisition: the new flagship for the new Orient Lines is the venerable Maxim Gorkiy. More on that below.

First, a little perspective. Orient Lines belonged to Star Cruises, currently 50 percent owner of Norwegian Cruise Line, until Star sold Orient's sole vessel, Marco Polo, last year (Marco Polo is now sailing under the same name for U.K.-based Transocean Tours). Without a ship, Orient was effectively kaput.

This definitely left an empty niche in the cruise market. Orient -- and Marco Polo -- had a distinctive reputation as a product for well-traveled, value-seeking passengers who prefer enrichment activities and seeing the world's ports over the flashy onboard amenities and less destination-intensive itineraries of many of today's contemporary cruise lines. "Those big box ships serve a purpose for the beginning cruiser," Heller notes, referring of course to lines like Carnival, Royal Caribbean, NCL and Princess, for whom onboard bells and whistles can trump the splendors of exploration.

Maxim Gorkiy's itineraries will feature longer days in port and more overnights; the ship will effectively serve as a floating hotel in Barcelona, Monte Carlo, Venice, Istanbul, Lisbon and Civitavecchia, among other cities. Relatively off-the-grid ports planned for the line's first year of itineraries include Albania, Bilbao, Bordeaux, England's Lake District, Honfleur, the White Sea's Murmansk, Norway's North Cape and the Polish city of Szczecin (which is just an hour from Berlin).

Heller promises that the new Orient Lines will by and large follow in the line's fabled footsteps. Plans so far are for Orient, which will be based in Orlando, to offer 10- to 37-night voyages beginning in April 2009. Specific itineraries, which will include a blend of marquee ports and unique ones in regions such as Europe, South America and Asia, will be announced within the next month or so.

The 24,981-ton, 650-passenger Maxim Gorkiy, built in 1969, is currently sailing for the Germany-based Phoenix Seereisen tour company. It will leave that company's fleet in November.

The ship will be called Marco Polo II. The vessel is 20 percent larger than the "old" Marco Polo and -- get this -- will carry 20 percent fewer passengers.

After a two-month dry-dock in which Marco Polo II will undergo important below decks reinforcements to bring it up to the International Convention for the Safety of Life at Sea's (SOLAS) new, more stringent standards (which go into effect in 2010) and some minor cosmetic refurbishments, it'll be ready for its spring launch. In terms of staffing, Heller told us that many of the existing Russian crewmembers and officers, from below decks and on the bridge, have been working on this ship for more than two decades; he hopes to convince them to stay on. He also feels very confident that members of Orient Lines' former hotel staff, from officers to the Filipino waiters and cabin stewards (many of whom stayed on with NCL when Orient was shuttered) may return to work on the Marco Polo II.

Indeed, so intent is Heller on capturing the old Marco Polo spirit onboard and off that one of his first hires at the line's Orlando headquarters was the well respected Sharon Harlow, who use to run (and once again helms) the line's past-passenger program.

Heller traveled the world in search of a new flagship, and eyed other classic vessels such as the M/S Pacific, the former Pacific Princess now sailing for a Brazilian cruise line, and Discovery, which had since been acquired Voyages of Discovery (alas, he tells us the original Marco Polo was priced out of range). Heller chose the Maxim Gorkiy as much for its ice-strengthened hull as for its pristine, museum-like interiors. That means of course that just as in years past the ship will be able to safely offer ventures to Antarctica. Heller told us that he was also looking for a ship with a defined heritage.

Venerable it may be. "The ship is like a museum," Heller said enthusiastically. "It's meticulously maintained and so clean when I visited that I wanted to eat dinner in the engine room." Heller is so intrigued by Marco Polo II's past that a simple conversation about public rooms easily leads down corridors of the kind of fascinating details that you tend to relegate to storied Cunard ships.

For instance, Maxim Gorkiy hosted U.S. President George H.W. Bush and Soviet Leader Mikhail Gorbachev off the coast of Malta in December 1989 at summit talks to discuss the fall of the Berlin Wall (which occurred mere weeks later). The Explorers Club onboard, the primary venue for heavy-duty discourse, has literally been left untouched, Heller noted, describing its "unbelievable round globe in the center of the room as having an Austin Powers retro look to it." Marco II passengers can still retire there to check out their whereabouts on the huge globe, find a quiet nook to read a book or sip a cocktail.

All in all, Heller says, one of the biggest attractions for him was that despite being nearly 40 years old, Marco Polo II "is literally in mint condition, from engines, and deck maintenance to fabric and carpets."

Interested in more details on pricing, incentives for former Orient Line passenger members and a look at the ship itself? Stay tuned for more details later this week.

--by Carolyn Spencer Brown, Editor in Chief