A Different Approach to Cruising: New Zealand and the Orion Expedition

Guest contributor David Wishart, a well-known international travel writer and cruise expert, shares his recent New Zealand travel experience aboard the Orion. Be sure to check back in with us for some more insightful reviews from David’s travel exploits.

Cruising has reached an interesting crossroads.

It used to be you went on a cruise to, er, go on a cruise. The plan was not to go anywhere in particular, just enjoy being on a ship – deck chairs and dinner suits and all that.

Then voyages were the thing – see the world and all that.

Now what’s raising the waterline are very big ships with up to 6,200 passengers who choose to be cast off in entertainment and shopping complexes that just happen to float. Fine – each to his own.

But as the market has matured, an interesting niche has begun to grow quietly; the expedition cruise.

The vessels are so small some don’t have swimming pools, let alone wave-making machines. They don’t advertise children “go free”, and you don’t have to limbo your way into the captain’s party.

But that’s not to say the proceedings are predictable. In fact they are anything but boring; like the time I rode in a rubber boat in South New Zealand’s spectacular Milford Sound. A passing vessel tossed two large crayfish into one of our boats (not mine sadly), which certainly beats lining up for lunch with 3,000 others and then finding the waiter with warm white wine, and a check that demands a 15 per cent tip!

The lucky recipients of the fresh dinner were guests of the Orion, an Australian-based vessel that carries just 100 passengers in great comfort. It is a combination that has a lot going for it. You can spend part of the day walking on Antarctic ice with penguins, exploring a river in Borneo, or cruising Australia’s dramatic Kimberley territory, and afterward return to a vessel that is fitted out like a matinee idol’s private yacht.

And it seems that I am not the only one who is impressed. The combination works so well that Orion Expedition Cruises now has a second vessel cruising south-east Asia.

Things to See on a New Zealand Cruise

I personally sampled Orion on a 10-day New Zealand cruise that started at Bluff, which is famous for its oysters, and ended around the fjords of Milford Sound and Dusky Sound.

As a believer in approaching interesting places from the sea, I got a big kick out of turning around Taiaroa Head into the 20-mile waterway that leads up to Dunedin. Near the head is the world’s only land-based colony of Royal Albatrosses – monsters of the air that we were able to see up close in all their magnificence. The inlet also has the world’s rarest penguins, the yellow-eyed variety.

Dunedin, which grew from an original party of 344 Scottish settlers in 1848, has the oldest university in the country as well as handsome heritage buildings. Vineyards near to here produce fine Otago pinot noir wines.

Akaroa, near Christchurch, whose bay is a volcanic crater, is a delightful slice of French whimsy that dates back to 1840, when two ships filled with French settlers arrived on shore to find that they had been beaten by a treaty that put all of New Zealand under the Union Jack. But they stayed with their “rues” rather than streets, made baguettes, but didn’t bother with berets. It’s a good place to swim with Hector’s dolphins, or just go for a stroll and have a coffee at the C’est La Vie Bistro.

Kaikoura has a stunning sea and mountain location for 4,000 friendly people. It’s a great outdoors centre, popular for fishing, whale watching, and best of all, I thought, for a cracking crayfish lunch.

In Wellington you can step off the ship and stroll around the harbor to Te Papa, the national museum celebrating the country’s heritage and natural history. We stayed late here, some venturing to the city’s restaurant row nearby.

Next day we slipped back across the Cook Strait to Marlborough Sound with visits to Motuara Island wildlife reserve and Ship Cove, with its fine memorial to Cook.

Napier has something for everyone – wine tasting, a gannet colony and world class golf at Cape Kidnappers.

About the Orion

The German-built Orion has a lot in a small package. Weighing in at 4,050 tons, it boasts a hull with ice hardening, 10 Zodiacs, oversize stabilizers and a team of outstanding naturalists. And the new vessel, Orion 11, is almost identical.

Being a very small ship the Orion has only one restaurant, but every effort is made to cater guests on the open stern deck, including breakfasts, lunches and two dinners.

Orion will be cruising New Zealand on February 16, with a golf itinerary that includes Cape Kidnappers. It will also be setting sail late next year for a tour of the Antipodes.

To keep up with David and his travels, you can find him on Twitter @dcwishart or on his blog Cruise Plus.

Featured Image: Moeraki Boulders, South Island, New Zealand (Shutterstock.com)

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