Orion Expedition Cruises

No longer just for the young, expedition cruising has moved into a new zone—with expedition activities ashore, but more luxurious services and amenities afloat. One rising player is Orion Expedition Cruises, a Sydney-based luxury line with one 4,000-ton vessel aptly named Orion.

orion luxury expedition cruise ship

Orion is a luxurious expedition ship that is poised to rise to the top of the charter market

Founded in 2004 by Sarina Bratton, Orion Expedition Cruises sails to destinations within Australia, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Antarctica and, new for 2009, Asia. “New destinations are always in high demand from our past guests, so we will be offering four new Asian itineraries and two itineraries focusing on the wildlife of New Zealand’s sub-Antarctic islands,” says Karen Wiseman, the cruise line’s Southern California-based general manager, global marketing and sales strategy.

Built in 2003 with an ice-strengthened hull, the sleek, 106-guest Orion offers 53 staterooms and suites, pampering service by a crew of 75, gourmet cuisine in the dining room and Zodiac explorations of exotic locales. Approximately 80 percent of passengers are Australian, with the balance composed of North American, British and other European guests.

Purchased this year by KSL Capital Partners, a private equity firm, Orion is now poised to continue its push into the North American market. “Less than 15 percent of our overall business currently comes from North America and Canada, but we are seeing a slow and steady increase as awareness—and word of mouth referral—grows,” says Wiseman. Most North American business comes from ship charters by tour operators, agencies or private organizations.

Orion is also well suited to the charter market. “We expect to see this segment will continue to grow,” Wiseman says. She also believes that increasingly, independent travelers will be drawn to published itineraries that emphasize off-the-beaten path destinations and unusual experiences.

Currently, the cruise line is offering free economy-class airfare to guests who sail on the 19-night “Norfolk & Melanesia Island Discovery” expedition sailing from Auckland, New Zealand, on February 27. Guests will depart Los Angeles on February 25. Free business-class air is included for Owners Suite guests on that sailing. At Tanna Island, guests will view an active volcano. At Nggela Island, they’ll peruse the wreck of the World Discoverer. And, in New Caledonia, they’ll explore beaches, meet indigenous Kunie tribes and tour ruins on Norfolk Island. Fares for this itinerary start at $10,306 per person double, based on exchange rates at presstime.

Although many voyages are eco-focused, others are more cultural. For example, the August 21 “Kimberley Expedition—Opera Under the Stars” sailing features Australian operatic stars in a performance at Broome’s Cable Beach Amphitheatre. For the April 25 itinerary, “Art of Arnhem Land,” the voyage’s hosts are collectors of indigenous art and expedition guests will explore remote coastal art communities.

Orion fields a mix of staterooms and suites, all with ocean views; a choice of twin or queen beds; marble bathrooms en suite and sitting areas. Staterooms boast flat-screen TVs, DVD players and Internet access. Guests dine in an elegant restaurant or on a nearby open deck. A panoramic observation lounge has a wraparound deck. Onboard facilities include a lounge; 90-seat theater; library; and health spa with a gym, sauna and whirlpool. When adventure beckons, the vessel carries 10 heavy-duty Zodiacs, as well as 10 kayaks that will whisk guests away to view flora, fauna and marine life.

orion cruise ship stateroom

An oceanview stateroom on Orion

Passenger Profile 

What clients might be a good fit? Half are non-cruisers and would never consider a traditional cruise, while the other half include cruise and small-ship enthusiasts. But overall, “luxury expedition cruising is best suited to people who are already quite well traveled and are looking for new destinations and unique experiences,” says Wiseman. “They are people who want to be engaged by their travel, not just sit and watch the scenery pass them by.”

Generally, the line’s clients are couples 50 to 60 years of age, although the line also gets singles and multi-generational family groups who have the time, money and inclination to explore with a luxury slant. Wiseman says agents might find potential guests among their existing safari or soft adventure clients. At least 30 percent of the line’s guests are repeaters.

Orion’s guests are happy to get a little grubby during the day, transferring ashore for a ‘wet landing’ in Zodiacs,” says Wiseman. Feet will get wet, but she says a smiling crew member is always standing by with a towel and bench for guests to wipe off before they go exploring.

On a typical shore outing, Orion’s guests might enjoy hiking to the top of King George Falls in the Kimberley region of North West Australia for a swim in the rock pools. They might witness a traditional dragon dance at the Watam village at the mouth of the Sepik River in Papua New Guinea. Or, they might enter the eerie atmosphere of Antarctic explorer Sir Douglas Mawson’s historic huts, preserved exactly as they were abandoned. “What our guests most have in common is a mindset, a sense of adventure, of wanting to see more and do more,” says Wiseman.

orion cruise ship constellation restaurant

The Constellation Restaurant on Orion

Orion’s onboard dress code is smart casual. And while luxury differentiates this line from many other expedition experiences, luxury has different meanings, Wiseman acknowledges. In the 2009 Berlitz Complete Guide to Cruising and Cruise Ships, Orion is classified as premium when rated against traditional luxury cruise companies. Guests do, for example, pay for alcoholic beverages and tipping if they so desire, although it’s not required. Some Zodiac excursions are complimentary while other shore trips have fees. Among luxury perks are personalized service, 24-hour room service and open-seat dining—with signature dishes by renowned Sydney chef, Serge Dansereau.

Throughout the year, guests may take advantage of Early Booking Rewards with savings of up to 15 percent off the full fare, except on Antarctic voyages. As cabins fill, the savings lessen and finally disappear; savings vary by sailing date and stateroom category. Single-traveler and multiple-voyage savings are also available.

Paying 10 percent agent commission, the line is part of the Niche Cruise Marketing Alliance and participates in NCMA’s workshop and Webinar training programs. At the upcoming Luxury Travel Expo in Las Vegas in December, Wiseman will speak at an educational session for agents. Orion also offers its own monthly agent Webinars. “We understand that our product and destinations are still relatively unknown in North America, but with a little bit of training, consultants can easily and confidently sell Orion,” stresses Wiseman.

This year, trying to convince North Americans that Australia is “not that far” is her challenge. As she points out, total air-travel time—including connections—from the U.S. to some regions of Europe and Africa is comparable to air-travel time to Australia with a direct flight. Also, “the exchange rate has been an issue for the last year, but the situation here has now reversed back to a more ‘normal’ level and at AUS$1.25 for every US$1, Australia is great value,” she says.

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