Food onboard National Geographic Orion is designed to please Australians and New Zealanders, so expect some fine cuts of meat, an emphasis on fresh and varied vegetables, an abundance of seafood and regular barbecues on deck. It's also quite adventurous, with many dishes reflecting the cuisine of the area in which the ship is sailing. On our Vietnam Explorer cruise, lunch and dinner had an intriguing fusion element, with plenty of lightly spiced dishes and an impressive range of Vietnamese cuisine, from noodle dishes to spicy salads, spring rolls and chili prawns, especially on the buffet.
Breakfasts were excellent, including bacon, sausage, hashbrowns and baked beans, eggs to order (including Eggs Benedict), a wide array of pastries and cereals, and huge platters of fresh, tropical fruit. Cappuccinos and lattes are made to order at no charge. Breakfast service times vary according to the departure time of each day's tour, but Early Bird service (continental breakfast) is usually available from 6:30 a.m., with main service, either in the Outdoor Cafe or the Restaurant, from around 7:30 a.m. on port days and a more relaxed 8:30 to 9:30 a.m. on sea days.
Lunch is a hot and cold buffet, served on deck on fine days. There's a pasta station, a salad buffet and assorted, freshly cooked dishes of the day -- noodles, spicy chicken, burgers, a hot dish, fresh fish, giant prawns (shrimp) on the barbecue, and various Vietnamese nibbles like spring rolls and savory pancakes. Service times depend entirely on the departure times of the tours.
Afternoon tea is served in the Club Lounge every day, with fresh scones, sandwiches, dainty cakes and, on one occasion, Crepes Suzette. Tea and coffee, including cappuccino, are available from the bar at no charge, and there's also a jar of cookies on the bar for anybody with the munchies.
Dinner is served in the Restaurant from 7:30 p.m. and is open-seating, with a mix of tables for two, four, six and eight. Most people gravitate toward the larger tables once friendships have formed; hardly any twos were occupied by the second half of our cruise. On fine nights, there is often an opportunity to eat on deck, but on our cruise it rained nearly every night, so we dined in the Restaurant.
Diners can choose from two menus, each of which changes every evening. One is designed by Australian celebrity chef Serge Dansereau of the Bathers Pavilion, a famous Sydney restaurant. The other is more standard cruise fare, less adventurous, but nonetheless fresh, tasty and beautifully presented. You can switch between the two menus and order from each. Each has a choice of three or four starters, a soup, salad, a choice of mains (one from the sea, one from the land and one from the sky, as the maitre d' poetically pointed out) and a range of desserts. A cheese board is also on offer -- with superb Australian and New Zealand cheeses, served at the correct temperature.
The menu included dishes like Pad Thai (spicy Thai noodles), white fish curry, vegetable samosas, Singapore noodles, rack of lamb, fish on a bed of bok choi and herbed roast chicken with vegetables. Meatier fare included Merino lamb, sirloin steak, pork tenderloin and oven-roasted venison loin. Most dishes really were excellent. It surprised us that a vegetarian main wasn't available every day, but a quick word with the maitre d', and the menu dishes were swiftly adapted.
On one night, a magnificent seafood barbecue was held on deck, while on another night, when we were sailing through a huge storm, a special "stormy" menu of comfort food was produced: Chicken noodle soup, pasta, grilled salmon and plain steak.
An inordinate number of people had special dietary needs on our sailing -- including vegetarian, seafood-free and gluten-free diets -- and every individual was carefully looked after by Gabor, the energetic maitre d'. One woman with celiac disease told me that this attention to detail in meeting her requirements was one of the reasons she always sailed with Orion.
Service at dinner was friendly and efficient, but too fast. Australians and New Zealanders, like Brits, prefer to linger over a meal, something that came up in conversation more than once. Orion's service seems more geared to American tastes, which is strange, given that the main market by far is Australia and New Zealand.
Orion II offers a decent wine list of mainly New World wines, costing on average around AU$30 a bottle. By the glass, house wines are AU$7.50, while a San Miguel beer is AU$5.50 and a cocktail around AU$10.
Room service isn't offered, although if, for example, a passenger were ill and confined to his or her cabin, the crew would provide trays of food.