Sailing on the Orion

THE NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC ORION was designed and purpose built to navigate waters inaccessible for cruise ships.
The National Geographic Orion was designed and purpose built to navigate waters inaccessible to cruise ships.

The never-ending tedium for travel advisors to get through a daily list of unappetizing tasks like clearing space, noting time changes, altering seating assignments, checking on transfers, dinner, spa, etc., etc., makes it ever so easy to forget that for most people, travel means fun and adventure. Those of you who think about travel day and night have to remember your customers who fantasize about it always but only act on it occasionally. They expect you to share their sense of excitement. Alas, it is time to switch gears and wave your magic wand.

If your customer is an experienced traveler, respectful of your advice with a healthy understanding of costs involved, this may be the perfect time to introduce an exciting new way to see the world. A trusted travel advisor can open doors. Do not be hesitant to suggest the unexpected.

WATCHING ORANGUTANS in their natural habitat is among the highlights of an Orion cruise.
Watching orangutans in their natural habitat is among the highlights of an Orion cruise.

Recently, I had the great pleasure of sailing aboard the Lindblad ExpeditionsNational Geographic Orion. I am not what one might describe as a traditional cruiser. I have, however, found myself on ships many times, primarily due to where they went and how one had to travel to get there. The general category is expedition ships, with an emphasis on exploration and soft adventure. They are smaller in size, carry fewer passengers and are designed to navigate waters often inaccessible for cruise ships. Almost all the shore landings and much of the sightseeing are from those reliable seaworthy zodiacs. I have viewed and touched much of the best on this planet sitting in a zodiac, possibly bundled up to weather the cold in Antarctica or stripped down to tolerate jungle heat in New Guinea.

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CATEGORY 3 SUITES are on the Upper Deck, and most come with a sofa in the sitting area with a large window.
Category 3 Suites are on the Upper Deck, and most come with a sofa in the sitting area with a large window.

If the morning activity includes a landing, passengers are carefully assisted in and out of the zodiacs by the skillful drivers. One day I watched a seriously disabled and uncomfortably overweight couple get out of a zodiac with all hands helping. The temperature was hovering around 90 degrees and the air resembled a steam room. This couple, each with big binoculars around their necks, strapped on as much photography equipment as a CNN crew, proclaiming they loved taking videos and pictures. As we hiked on a narrow path through the dense, vine-laden jungle path best designed for Tarzan, I periodically caught a glimpse of these intrepid trekkers carefully assisted by the caring arms of some of our guides. Returning to the ship a few hours later, flushed a crimson red and soaking wet, but with triumphant smiles, the couple told me they felt wonderful fulfilling a wish to see and be among orangutans, the highlight of that morning’s activity. I was somewhat exhausted, ready for a shower and a relaxing lunch.

Until recently, the Orion was an Australian company continuing to maintain a loyal base of Australians. Expedition ships, in general, have an amazing degree of customer loyalty, with a majority of passengers becoming return customers. It is not unusual to meet people onboard who plan their travel around where their favorite ship goes each year, putting the pressure on the ship to offer new, interesting and varied itineraries. My recent trip, which began in Bali, crossed the Java Sea and covered part of the coastline of Borneo, ending in Singapore. The highlight of the trip was the rare opportunity to see orangutans in their natural habitat. To learn about this member of the ape family from the undisputed world expert who joined our voyage for a few days and led us through the preserved habitats as well as the research and quarantine stations was an experience we will all remember.

THE TOP DECK offers a vantage point to appreciate the setting sun.
The top deck offers a vantage point to appreciate the setting sun.

Let me not forget to mention, as on all expedition ships, passengers have the opportunity to meet and hear from world-class experts in fields related to history, local customs and geography. Can you imagine anything more enjoyable than sitting in the lounge and having a top National Geographic photographer give you pointers to finally make your pictures memorable? Wait till you see my shots of those comical proboscis monkeys.

The naturalists on expedition ships make all the difference. While many of them are generalists, their knowledge and passion for their specialties is inspiring. If ever you want to understand why we need to cherish our continents — its oceans, its forests, its animals — spend a little time with these devoted caretakers of our planet.

IN BORNEO our Editor-at-Large, Priscilla Alexander, and fellow Orion passengers, visit with the children from the area.
In Borneo our Editor-at-Large, Priscilla Alexander, and fellow Orion passengers, visit with the children from the area.

In spite of the diversity of passengers — geographically and age-wise — on expedition trips, they have much in common. All are seasoned travelers, curious learners and enthusiastic explorers. They enjoy being the actors in a travelogue rather than armchair voyeurs, but without seriously sacrificing comfort or safety. Make no mistake, they are luxury travelers — generally front-of-the-plane fliers and five-star hotel guests. They are also travelers who adapt, changing their expectations of comfort. These ships all have well-appointed cabins in a number of categories including suites, good dining experiences paired with interesting wine lists and consistently stellar service. The service level is as good or better than what one finds in the best hotels.

On boarding a ship, each passenger receives a name badge, generally first name only. You are immediately identified as an individual. What a welcome change for single travelers. Women, in particular, search to find trips to feel comfortable and included. Expedition ships are a natural choice. Dining onboard has truly random sitting. Where you sit on a zodiac depends on what time you line up. Every venue encourages camaraderie, beginning with someone immediately saying, “Hi, I’m Pat, how did you like the snorkeling today? Where are you from?” (Not who are you with). Until I ended my Orion trip and studied the passenger list, I was unaware of how many men and women had single cabins. I just know there was an unusual amount of hugging as we all disembarked in Singapore. I am still in touch with a number of delightful people I met on the cruise, even went out dining in New York with some Australians who were in town on a visit.

A PROBOSCIS MONKEY is one of the amazing locals Alexander met up with in Borneo.
A proboscis monkey is one of the amazing locals Alexander met up with in Borneo.

Is this category of travel a good choice for children? That’s a tough one. It all depends on the destination, the duration of the trip and the discipline of the child. There is nothing set up for children. Often there are days at sea that adults seem to relish, but are not entertaining for most children. Actually, children would love the hikes and the birds, the fish and the animals. They may not be keen about the discipline that accompanies these activities. Today, the Galapagos trips are true family affairs. Years ago it was rare to bring children along. So who knows what will happen in the future. For now, these are well-suited trips for adults who like activity and, if not young, are young in spirit.

One note of caution: You may have customers who you assume are devoted to you but do not use you for this type of travel. I have heard the often-repeated comment that I have a lovely agent but when it comes to unusual travel, I do it myself — not believing the agent is capable or knowledgeable enough to intelligently discuss exotic travel. Some do not use agents because they actually love the research and planning. It is half the fun for them. If you never offer or let your customers know you are ready and able to participate in the selection and booking of off-the-beaten-path trips, you are diminishing your value. It’s best to be a pitcher of ideas than a catcher. If I am any example of the loyalty to this style of travel, I am already booked to board Aqua Expeditions on the Mekong Delta in a few weeks. There are always new places to visit and new people to meet. 

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