This weeks Cruise Blog is by our guest blogger Dave Warne. Dave is the Commercial Director for WEXAS, our parent company, and this was his first cruise experience. Join him onboard Orion II on his recent trip and discover the amazing ports of call.
Day 1 - Tawau
I had never considered a cruise holiday. The thought of travelling on a large ship with potentially thousands of other people, where the experience of visiting each port of call is limited to a few hours in a large group, isn't my cup of tea. Of course, many people have told me that my preconceptions of cruising are outdated but it was always going to take something a bit different to persuade me to try a cruise.
Orion Expedition Cruises claim to be different; not only are they small ship cruises (around 100 passengers) but they promise to take "A Path Less Travelled", offering more adventurous cruises to places that larger cruise ships simply can't visit.
So, I decide to put aside my prejudices and my wife and I embark upon our first ever cruise. "Across the Wallace Line" is a brand new itinerary aboard Orion II, the recently launched second ship in the Orion Expedition Cruises fleet. This itinerary is part of a series around South East Asia that covers a range of destinations, some of which no cruise ship has ever visited before.
Our 10 day itinerary starts in Sabah, Borneo and goes on to visit locations on the east coast of Kalimantan, before crossing the Wallace Line (more about that later) to Sulawesi, finally ending in Bali. The ports of call, such as Balikpapan, Pare Pare and Makassar, suggest that this isn't going to be a mainstream cruise experience. Indeed, as the pre-departure documentation makes clear, many excursions will be in remote areas using zodiacs, with several 'wet landings' promised. No place for high heels or black tie on this trip then.
The itinerary promises a range of wildlife and cultural encounters. We should have the chance to snorkel with Mantarays and see orang-utans, proboscis monkeys and varied birdlife. However, the real draw for me is the chance to experience the incredible Tana Toraja culture in Sulawesi.
Unfortunately, Orion II is delayed coming into embarkation port of Tawau due to engine trouble in the previous port of Sandakan and we have to spend one night in Tawau. The Orion II crew handle the delay in an exemplary manner, arranging overnight accommodation and dinner for all passengers at the best hotel in town. The ship arrives the following morning after getting the all clear and we board the following morning.
Orion II has a reassuringly 'expeditionary' feel; stylish design - with all the creature comforts I would expect of a luxury cruise vessel - but not overly manicured. My suite has traditional nautical feel with dark wood veneer and brass fittings. Space is used effectively and the suite is well equipped, with plenty of storage and hanging space. The en-suite bathrooms are compact but nicely designed and a good range of toiletries by L'Occitane is available. The small balcony in my suite is functional, with a couple of chairs and a small table. Given that much of the itinerary follows the coastline of Kalimantan and Sulawesi the balcony should have more than just cosmetic value and seems to be a worthwhile upgrade.
My fellow passengers are predominantly Australian and American. The number of repeat Orion Expedition Cruises guests is astonishing; of the 74 guests aboard Orion II, 51 have cruised with Orion before. That only tells part of the story though, as many guests have been on several Orion cruises, with several having done 6 or 7 and one couple an amazing 10 previous Orion cruises. Many of these customers were individually recognised and welcomed by the crew, which was a really nice touch.
The style on board is professional but very relaxed and informal right from the start. The dress code is also informal - no jackets required - all of which is in keeping with the expeditionary nature of the cruise. The crew are obviously very experienced and many of them are known to the guests who have travelled with Orion before.
After the usual safety drill and introductions to the key crew members we're soon after settling in to our cabins.
The evening meal is obviously an important part of the day and is served 'from 7.30pm'. There is a single sitting but everyone is invited to arrive whatever time they like. Most guests arrive typically between 7.30pm and 8pm but the flexibility to arrive later is appreciated. One the first evening we are treated to a 4-course 'degustation menu' created by Serge Dansereau of the Bathers Pavilion restaurant in Sydney. The set menu includes fois gras terrine, seafood risotto, slow cooked beef and a lime panacotta. A range of alternative dishes for each course is available. Each course is genuinely delicious and the service slick.
Wine is provided with the compliments of Orion Expedition Cruises this evening but it is worth noting at this point that the wines menu offers a decent selection. Prices are surprisingly reasonable, with bottles available for as little as £20. At the other end of the scale anyone hankering after a wide selection of fine wines may have been a little disappointed but there should be plenty of choice for most people. Australian and New Zealand wines tended to dominate but there was a fair sprinkling of European and other new world wines.