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Orion's New Star

Susan Clayton highlights an emotional return to Japanese tourism on the brand-new Orion II of Orion Expedition Cruises

Enthusiastic Taiko drummers in animal masks, high school bands, dancers in bright costumes, magicians and singers; they all poured on to the quayside at every port to welcome our ship to Japan.

The Orion II was new to the region this year, the latest five-star adventure-style ship operated by Australia-based Orion Expedition Cruises. But that wasn’t the reason for the fervent greeting.

The country regularly puts on quayside displays for visitors but we received an especially tumultuous reception as the first cruise vessel to visit since the terrible Tsunami of last March. It represented a beacon of hope at the end of a long period of mourning.

The entertainers were simply relieved to see tourism returning to their country, but also celebrated Orion II’s inaugural journey down the east coast of Russia to Borneo via the Philippines, Vietnam, Cambodia and Thailand.

Orion’s mantra is ‘a path less travelled,’ and it specialises in mentally and physically stimulating excursions to places well away from mainstream tourism. Most explore outstanding landscapes, close encounters with wildlife and authentic interaction with remote communities.

But always with the knowledge that, at the end of the day, you return to luxury accommodation, gourmet food and impeccable service on the 50-suite ship.

I found it hard to choose between Orion’s new voyages to Russia’s so-called ‘Ring of Fire’; Borneo’s rainforests, pygmy elephants and orangutans; Vietnam’s Ha Long Bay; remote tribes in Papua New Guinea; the immensity of the Great Barrier Reef; and the remote vastness of Antarctica.

However, in the end I chose a culturally oriented, more traditional style of cruise, the 10-day ‘Discovery of an Ancient Culture’ to the Inland Sea of Japan. It included visits to three top Japanese gardens, ancient Samurai and tea houses, Matsue’s five-story wooden castle and the Torii shrine at Miyajima, the one that appears to float on water at high tide.

One of the many advantages of an Orion cruise is that a full programme of excursions is included in the price. Some alternatives are offered for a fee but, on my cruise, there were few takers. The inclusive programme was too good to miss.

All expeditions were exceptionally well planned and managed by chief expedition leader Alastair Newton and his colleagues. The atmosphere was also helped by this being a small ship; everyone is off within in minutes and expedition leaders have time to learn your name, interests and preferences.

Of all the excursions, I particularly enjoyed the geisha performance of music and dance at Higashi Chayagai, Kanazawa. I have always been intrigued by the elaborate kimonos, white makeup and secretive lives of geishas but did not expect to be so bowled over by their graceful movements and charming engagement with us.

At Aomori, I was entertained by Hayakawa Sensei, a man claiming to be one of Japan’s last real Samurai. Dressed in elaborate armour designed to strike fear in the enemy, he demonstrated his prowess. As he flashed his long, curved sword it was clear he would have no difficulty removing the head of anyone who troubled him.

One of the few pretentions Orion does permit itself is reference to suites as guests’ ‘staterooms’. I dislike the term but admit it is a fair description of Orion II’s magnificent accommodations.

They are generous, from 215-286sq ft, and all have an ocean view, sitting area, DVD/CD player, satellite TV, telephone, safe, mini-bar and Internet connection.

As I entered, I was immediately struck by the warm American cherry-wood wall-panelling, the French window opening on to a balcony, comfortable chairs, large mirrors, fine-thread Brussels linen and marble washstand.

The bottle of decent sparkling wine and plump strawberries dipped in chocolate were also appreciated. Later, I came to appreciate the bedside reading lights and effective blackout curtains. Sixteen of the 50 cabins have balconies, a luxury it is difficult to give up once you have had the experience.

The ship’s two lounges and main dining room are best described as warm, welcoming and restful. Look carefully and you see gold curtains, ivory wallpaper, soft recessed lighting, comfortable sofas, decorative polished copper panels and modern sculpture. The tropical flower displays were so perfect that, one evening, we were almost taking bets on whether the displays of birds-of-paradise, bromeliad and strelitzia were real. They were.

Superb meals featured the freshest local ingredients, whatever the conditions or location allowed. The style is modern gourmet Australian, with French overtones.

Breakfast is served from six to nine and available in your cabin. In good weather, a buffet lunch, and sometimes dinner, is laid outside on deck five. In the evening, there is a single sitting of a four-course meal.

At dinner, I particularly enjoyed the succulent filet of beef tenderloin parmentiere with braised oxtail and mushroom duxelles, pearl onion confit and Shiraz sauce, and the pan-roasted perch with oven roasted tomato, mushroom and edamame ragout.

Regional foods included Kumamoto oysters served with wasabi dressing, ko ebi on seaweed salad, nigiri sushi of kingfisher and chilled green tea noodle salad. Another night it was tuna sashimi with yam sauce nori and spring onions.

The wine list has a strong showing of Australia and New Zealand wines, priced from £15 a bottle. Though there were some wines from California and Europe, I would have liked to see a few more European options.

Most tables seat six or eight and everyone is free to sit where they like. One of the highlights for me was the quality of conversation at dinner. With just one sitting, there is no pressure to move on quickly from the table.

Australians made up the largest group of my companions, followed a British contingent, some Americans, New Zealanders and a smattering of Europeans. More than half had travelled with Orion before, and a third had been on board the previous cruise.

Entertainments on board are relatively low key – relaxing on a sun deck, music from versatile pianist Glenn O’Neill, a book or DVD from the library, or a trip to the fitness centre, Jacuzzi or one of three bars. Being a small ship, there is no casino, disco, movie theatre, video arcade or facilities for children. In the beauty salon, I had a remedial deep muscle workout. I also enjoyed a make-up lesson.

In support of eco-sustainability it was good to learn heavy fuel oil has been swapped for diesel; palm oil-based toiletries are shunned; on-board water purification cuts use of plastic bottles; and the waste management systems meets the exacting new standards required for entry to pristine Antarctic waters. The company also supports a reforestation project in Borneo and several orangutan sanctuaries.

Despite its relatively recent beginnings, Orion is already the leading expedition cruise operator in Asia-Pacific, with 74 different routes, visiting 17 countries and 174 destinations. If my cruise is the ideal judge, their claims to fame are likely to spread far – and fast.

History of Orion II

Cantiere Navale Ferrari of Italy built the ship for Renaissance Cruises in 1991.

Its original name, Renaissance IV, was changed to Clelia II when it became the private home of Clelia, the sister of EasyJet owner Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou.

In 2009, the ship received a £13m refit and was briefly operated by Travel Dynamics International, an American company.

In 2011, Orion Expedition Cruises took it over, did further refurbishment and renamed it Orion II.

The company only started in 2004 yet its original ship, Orion, has already won a fistful of awards. Founder and managing director Sarina Bratton (former Vice President and General Manager Asia Pacific for Cunard Line) is determined Orion II will be the best of its class in the world.

The quality of the ship; the high ratio of 70 well-trained staff for just 100 guests; top-quality food and fascinating excursions are all the order of the day.

But Bratton is also strongly committed to eco-tourism and forging close partnerships with the communities guests visit, some of whom have no prior experience of tourism.

Read more about Orion Expeditions
Read more about the Orion II