As we approach Broutana Bay, in the Kuril Islands between Japan and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, it’s as if we are sailing in cloud. The sea is glassy calm, the air is a thick white fog and there’s nothing in sight. Then the fog lifts and volcanic Simushir Island is revealed.
The air of mystery makes a voyage to Kamchatka a fitting place for me to experience Orion II, Orion Expedition Cruises’ new (second) vessel, for the first time. I’m keen to cruise on Orion II and have high expectations but her arrival is delayed: it turns out she needs longer in drydock than intended so her first few scheduled voyages have to be cancelled, delayed or modified.
But now, finally, Orion II has arrived, having been officially named in Vancouver by Sarina Bratton, the cruise line’s founder and managing director, on June 10. She has made a maiden voyage in her new paintwork to Japan, via Canada, Alaska, the Aleutian Islands and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula and Kuril Islands. I talk to several passengers as they disembark on July 4 and their comments are uniformly enthusiastic.
Then it’s our turn to board the ship – for 14 nights from Otaru, Japan, up to Kamchatka and back to Otaru. Our original voyage would have been a 10-night itinerary, one way, from Petropavlovsk to Otaru.
In keeping with the unexpectedly adventurous nature of Orion II’s beginnings, there is even some trepidation about visiting Japan after the catastrophic earthquake and tsunami of March 11. The company has considered this but after concluding that its operations will be on the other side of the country and Japan needs all the help it can get, the ship continues as planned.
We’ve come through Tokyo before flying to Hokkaido and, despite the radiation maps in The Japan Times, it seemed very much ‘business as usual’ everywhere we went.
As always in expedition cruising, there are two sides to Orion II: the ship itself and service on board, and the expedition side of the voyage. Of course, to some extent they overlap.
On Orion II, boarding the Zodiacs to go ashore to remote beaches and for sightseeing cruises is conducted from a stern platform, not the gangway as on Orion – but it’s equally labour-intensive, with two crew in the Zodiac to help us aboard and another two crew on the gangway to make sure none of us slip or fall.
Overall, the expeditions on our voyage are excellent. Despite the company never having operated previously in the Russian Far East, Captain Mike and several of the staff have done, and they change our itinerary to make the most of every opportunity. Combined with kind seas, it results in a very special cruise.
If you’ve never been on Orion, you’ll find Orion II an excellent ship. The food and its presentation are exceptional; the menus are designed by Serge Dansereau of Sydney’s The Bathers’ Pavilion and interpreted by long-time Orion executive chef Lothar Greiner. The wine list is quite varied and reasonably priced, and service throughout the ship is friendly and attentive. Cabins are large and feature deep-blue carpets, very comfortable beds and Egyptian cotton bedding and towels. Each cabin has a flat-screen TV and a DVD player.
Those who have sailed on Orion will find that despite its superficially similar external appearance, Orion II is quite a different vessel. Built as a private yacht in Italy in 1991, she shows in some ways that she’s the older vessel. While shorter, she’s wider than her fleetmate – which makes the restaurant on Deck 2 considerably more spacious for Orion II’s maximum 100 guests than its equivalent on Orion.
The ship’s dining-area refit introduced lighter wood panels, light-coloured carpet and matching chairs, so she looks less formal and more contemporary than Orion, but her lobby, lift and stairwell are less impressive. While Orion II has neither a forward lounge nor a dedicated lecture theatre, she does have two guest lounges on Decks 3 and 4, the one on Deck 3 used mainly for presentations and shows. There’s satellite internet in every cabin and wireless internet – plus library laptops for guests’ use – in public areas, primarily in the Deck 4 lounge.
A big improvement on Orion II is that her Zodiacs have powerful yet quiet 50hp, four-stroke Yamaha outboards. Best of all, you’ll find familiar faces on board, as many of the ship’s 70 crew, from her captain to her wait staff, have moved across from Orion.
Economies of scale aside, Orion II greatly expands the company’s range. Orion has been around sufficiently long that by now, many return guests have experienced all her itineraries. Now, she can continue taking new passengers to the Kimberley, Papua New Guinea, the sub-Antarctic islands and New Zealand while Orion II explores fresh seas.
Cruise line: Orion Expedition Cruises
Vessel: Orion II
Star rating: 4 (before 2011 refit)
Max. passenger capacity:
100 in 50 suites
Total crew: 70
Passenger decks: 5
GRT: 4,077 tons
Entered service: 1991/2009/2011
Facilities: 2 sun decks (1 with jacuzzi, the other with outdoor café/bistro), 2 bars, 2 lounges, library, internet corner, wi-fi and cable internet, in-cabin flat-screen satellite TVs and CD/DVD players, open-seating restaurant, gym, day spa, hair/beauty salon, boutique, hospital, elevator, 9 Zodiac landing craft.