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Cruising in Indonesia’s lesser-known islands on board Orion is an eye-opening experience. Words: Sally Macmillan.

Could there be a better way to begin a cruise through the ‘forgotten’ islands of Indonesia than staying for a day or two at the Four Seasons Jimbaran Bay Resort in Bali? I haven’t thought of one yet. Set on the hill overlooking the ocean, this collection of beautifully designed Balinese villas is a tropical haven of zen-like calm and natural elegance. The attention to detail is exquisite: from the Japanese-style gardens and private plunge pool to the bath scattered with frangipani blossoms, carvings, paintings and ceramic pots filled with lotions and potions, nothing has been overlooked. You could spend a week here and discover something new every day – the spa alone offers enough rejuvenating treatments to keep you fully occupied.

FASCINATING STORIES

However, we had a ship to board and islands to explore. Seeing Orion for the first time, berthed at Benoa harbour, was incredibly exciting and my husband, Geoff (a sailor but a first-time cruiser) was equally impressed. Debonair hotel manager Ian Vella welcomed us aboard and showed us through the accommodation decks, Constellation dining room, Leda Lounge and outdoor Delphinius café, Galaxy Lounge and Cosmos Lecture Theatre.

She really is a magnificent ship: light and airy with gleaming brass balustrades between the decks, fascinating artworks on the walls and classically stylish decor and furniture in all the public and staterooms. As for our Owner’s Suite, we could be in a five-star hotel – huge bedroom, a sitting room big enough to entertain a dozen people, lots of storage space and an opulent marble bathroom. Floor-to-ceiling windows and a shallow balcony complete the picture.

At Sailaway drinks on the Sunset Deck we met many of our fellow passengers and what fascinating stories they told over the next 10 days. A crocodile hunter, an 87-year-old WWII flying-boat captain, farmers and former captains of industry were among the group. Sailing veteran, author and TV commentator Rob Mundle was also on board and, like Geoff, was a cruise virgin who took to the cruising life with gusto.

We were introduced to Captain Mike Taylor, a charming and humorous Irishman, and the expedition crew at our first briefing. The ebullient, articulate Justin Friend was expedition leader and there was a palpable sense of excitement among the passengers as he described some of the remote, barely known destinations we would be visiting.

DRAGON ENCOUNTER

Our first stop was Pink Beach in the Komodo National Park. Zodiacs ferried us to the beach, which really is pink, due to the red organ pipe coral that makes up the sand. The corals and fish we saw while snorkelling for several hours exceeded all expectations: marine biologist and expedition crew member Mick Fogg said this part of the coral triangle is a shining example of reef recovery because the National Park is channelling funds into its preservation.

The next day we had a wet landing at Loh Liang, the entry point to the Komodo National Park. Local guides led small parties on a four-kilometre walk through dry bush and we were lucky enough to encounter the famous komodo dragons within the first 10 minutes. These giant, carnivorous lizards weigh up to 80 kilos and kill their prey with a venomous bite – it was surprising to see deer, their favourite meal, grazing so close by and we humans kept a respectful distance. The dragons only eat once a month and we were assured that they had dined very recently.

SPICE TRADE HISTORY

We spent Melbourne Cup day traversing the Savu Sea and celebrating in true Australian style. Bets were placed, Champagne was served to toast the winners of the hat parade and a performance by some of the crew was so entertaining I ached from laughing. It was amazing to see this multi-talented crew in action: the maître d’ turned his expert hand to comedy and the expedition team appeared equally at home singing and dancing as delivering fascinating, informative lectures on everything from Austronesian migration to Indonesian biodiversity.

Our next stop was Kisar Maluku, an island that has a long history of spice trading and strong ties culturally and linguistically to East Timor. The Dutch East India Company’s warehouse still stands in the village of Wonreli. We were greeted at the village by a colourful display of dancing in the square and the island’s governor officially welcomed Orion’s founder and managing director, Sarina Bratton, with a speech and gifts. We were only the second group of tourists to visit the island and as we were driven in a calvacade of government cars and bemos to the village of Oombasa, we were accompanied by dozens of hooting, tooting motorcyclists.

In Oombasa, the ruins of a 400-year-old Dutch church sit next door to the home of the Rajah’s widow. She and her sister graciously invited us into their house for a light snack of fried sukun (like jackfruit) with chilli jam and glasses of palm wine and sopi, a strong, clear spirit. It was definitely the first time I had literally rubbed noses with royalty!

TANIMBAR ISLANDER’S HERITAGE

En route to Yamdena, one of the 65 islands in the Tanimbar group in Maluku, we spotted half a dozen sperm whales. Captain Mike changed course and we spent some 45 minutes watching these magnificent creatures breaching and diving at close quarters.

The ship anchored some way off the beach at Sangliat Dol, Yamdena (the tide was the lowest for a year) and as we waded through warm water over sand and coral we heard singing from the villagers who had gathered under the palm trees to meet us. Sangliat Dol is a typically beautiful tropical-island location, complete with white sand, turquoise waters and lush vegetation, but the Tanimbar people have a very distinct heritage. In a nutshell, their society is structured along the lines of a boat’s crew: at the head is the captain who ‘steers’ the village and other positions roughly translate to various boat-related positions. The other two leaders are the ‘herald’, who is father of the village and speaks on behalf of its people (traditionally in times of war) and the ‘sacrificer’, or mother of the village. They work together as in a marriage to ensure the society’s continuity. The stone boat at the heart of the village is the site of traditional rituals and meetings.

Once we were all on the beach, the hereditary chief welcomed Sarina and Justin with a speech and ceremony that included marking their foreheads with sand as a sign of respect. We were then escorted up a steep stone staircase to the village, where we witnessed a series of dances performed by villagers adorned in bird of paradise head-dresses and spectacular traditional clothing. The elders gathered for a ceremony on the stone boat, in which Sarina and Justin were given the village names of Arat and Arid, and were apparently married. We were all given status of children of the village and were taken into family homes for a visit. We also looked around the old wooden Dutch colonial Catholic Church that overlooks the stone boat, and saw a hangi-type feast being prepared in the square.

The welcome we received and the hospitality of the Sangliat Dol people was incredibly moving, an experience that will stay with us forever – and one they are probably still laughing about among themselves.

After Sangliat Dol we called in to Weluan Beach for a swim and bus ride to the giant Christ statues that overlook the coastline, and then it was full steam ahead through the Torres Strait and on to Thursday Island.

Luxury, expedition, adventure – which category does an Orion cruise fit best? As my first voyage on this beautiful vessel comes to an end en route to Cairns, I would have to say ‘all of the above’. But what I hadn’t anticipated was just how much sheer good fun it was, too. Orion is truly a happy ship.

Fact File

Cruise Line: Orion Expedition Cruises

Vessel: Orion

Star rating: 4.5

Max passenger capacity: 106

Passenger decks: 4

GRT: 4,000 tons

Total crew: 75

Entered service: 2003

Facilities: 4 passenger decks, 22 staterooms, 31 suites, Galaxy Lounge, Vega Health Spa, Cosmos Lecture Theatre, sun deck with jacuzzi, hairdresser, boutique, library, Leda Lounge, outdoor café, Constellation restaurant, medical centre, 10 Zodiacs.

Sally Macmillan was a guest of Orion Expedition Cruises.

Highs

Executive chef Serge Dansereau’s ‘Gastronomic Tour of Italy and France’ presentations; variety and quality of menus; Helga Lucas’s introduction to Paspaley pearls; friendly, professional service at all levels.

Lows

Er … only one I can think of was the long, hot wait on arrival at Denpasar airport in Bali.