I recently returned from an Orion Expeditions cruise along the Kimberley Coast of northwestern Australia. I have traveled on small, luxury cruise ships before, so my expectations were high, but MS Orion exceeded those expectations with several notable features.
First, as we got out of the taxi to board the ship, Orion looked quite lovely as a luxury cruise ship of this caliber might: shiny white with sleek lines, every part polished or painted. But what a delight to be greeted by name on the dock by the Hotel Manager, Ivan, as he personally invited us into his “home.” As I stepped aboard, I felt like I had been dropped into a bowl of caramel ice cream – warm colored wood walls, cool cream-colored paint and shiny brass trimmings – all were soothing and lovely. As I later noticed, the whole ship was immaculate; everything seemed to be freshly polished and painted.
We were shown to our cabin, a two-room suite. The living room was small, but had comfortable, upholstered furniture, the usual flat-screen TV, DVD player, desk, big mirror and lovely paintings on the walls. The bedroom was cozy, and big enough to comfortably hold a king size bed, side tables and had good bedside lamps for in-bed reading. The marble bathroom was efficiently organized for two persons. Our suite did not have a balcony, but there are four cabins on the ship that do. Another feature: our cabin had more closets and cabinets than I have ever seen in a cabin of this class. The bed held two persons, but there was storage space for four!
After settling in we set out to explore the ship. We found a beautifully decorated dining room, large enough to accommodate all the passengers at one seating, plus an outdoor deck for dining. There is a comfortable lounge, with a bar, a small dance floor and large screen for video presentations. We also found the theater, which comfortably seated all passengers for the many lectures and documentary films that we were to see over the next 10 days. There was a smaller lounge and bar at the bow that we used when we wanted to be quiet, update our diary or read. The large stern deck held many lounge chairs, both in and out of the sun, and a small Jacuzzi pool. We found a small library stocked with a number of books that I wanted to read, DVDs, games, maps and guidebooks. Lots to entertain ourselves if we ever got bored! Plus there is a small gift shop, exercise room and spa.
We quickly got to know our 90+ other shipmates. Another notable feature -- Australians! While there were five other passengers from the US and a few from South Africa, Singapore, New Zealand and Great Britain, most of the passengers were Aussies. Unlike the passengers on many upscale ships, the Australians, while well educated and well traveled, were very casual and open, friendly and hospitable; not at all pretentious. They were fun loving, and always had a ready story or joke to tell. Companionship onboard was, as the Aussies would say, "lovely."
Orion is an expedition ship and ideal for visiting The Kimberley's rugged, almost roadless coast. Orion carries ten Zodiac boats, allowing all the passengers to be off the ship exploring at every stop. This feature allowed us to explore parts of Australia almost completely inaccessible by any other means. In the Zodiacs we cruised up narrow inlets and rivers to visit waterfalls, caves, peaks, numerous pre-historic rock-art sites and a WWII aircraft crash site. A highlight was an early morning visit to Montgomery Reef which magically appeared to rise from the sea as we watched -- thanks to the almost 10 meter tide. While cruising in the zodiacs, we also saw an amazing amount of wildlife including whales, rock wallabies, crocodiles (both "freshies" and "salties"), peregrine falcons and sea eagles.
Because most of the exploration was done in the six or eight -person Zodiac boats, each exploration was an intimate experience. And because The Kimberley is so remote, the sites we visited were uncrowded and not worn by tourist foot traffic. The anglers onboard got special attention each day with their own boat and fishing guide. Most seemed to get their limit each day.
We received a great deal of information from Orion's expedition staff and lecturers – about the history of Australia and the Aborigines; about the European immigrants and their settlement; about the flora and fauna; the discovery of the pre-historic art and the current interpretation; and much, much more. This information added significantly to our appreciation of what we were seeing.
Another very special feature - every evening, along with our cocktails, we were treated to a slide show of the day’s activities, accompanied by a humorous narration. We were quite impressed with the speed and skill with which these daily shows were prepared and presented by the expedition staff. And then, as icing on the cake, every passenger received a goodbye gift of a DVD of all the shows from the entire trip.
Continuing our cruise, we received really great service from every support person onboard and we never heard a single complaint from the other passengers. The standard answer to every request was, “yes, of course.” I started wondering how I was going to tip everyone who had been so good to me. Not to worry, tipping is not the norm in Australia. Nevertheless, we did want to express our thanks and were able to make a contribution to their employee fund.
Early on we noticed how good the food was. The variety of fruits and vegetables, main dishes, soups, breads and, of course, desserts were impressive, always delicious and beautifully served. Some meals were taken in the dining room and some at a buffet on an outside deck. (Room service was available, but we never used it – preferring to dine with our new “mates.”) Unlike any other cruise we have been on, the chef was present at every meal (even at breakfast!) circulating through the tables or responding to a request for gluten-free something or other. And, most unusual for a cruise ship - the chef prepared fish caught by that day's anglers, and personally served it for their evening meal!
Alas, our 10-day trip came to an end and we disembarked in the western, outback town of Broome, with its frontier atmosphere, fabulous white sand beaches and camel rides. But long before we disembarked, we were talking about other exotic cruises with Orion Expeditions to Borneo, or Papua New Guinea or New Zealand, or... Sweet dreams and great memories! As an experienced cruise travel agent with good contacts with Orion, let me know if I can assist with your expedition cruise arrangements.