Dispatches from Bali to Borneo to Singapore on the Orion II

  • Taking in a sunset seascape from the bow of the Orion II, en route to Kuching, Sarawak.

    Taking in a sunset seascape from the bow of the Orion II, en route to Kuching, Sarawak.

  • An island in the Anambas archipelago.

    An island in the Anambas archipelago.

  • On the boardwalk at Camp Leakey, founded in 1971 for the study and preservation of the orangutan.

    On the boardwalk at Camp Leakey, founded in 1971 for the study and preservation of the orangutan.

  • Biruté Galdikas, the cruise’s guest lecturer.

    Biruté Galdikas, the cruise’s guest lecturer.

  • Wildlife spotting on the Sekonyer River.

    Wildlife spotting on the Sekonyer River.

  • Passengers returning to the Orion II aboard a klotok riverboat.

    Passengers returning to the Orion II aboard a klotok riverboat.

  • A black-handed gibbon spotted in the trees of Indonesian Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park.

    A black-handed gibbon spotted in the trees of Indonesian Borneo's Tanjung Puting National Park.

  • A palm-fringed beach on the uninhabited island of Setaih.

    A palm-fringed beach on the uninhabited island of Setaih.

  • A young dancer taking a break between performances at Tanjung Sembik village, in the Natuna Islands.

    A young dancer taking a break between performances at Tanjung Sembik village, in the Natuna Islands.

  • The passage to Setaih Island.

    The passage to Setaih Island.

  • Filipino waiter Emil Manlapas.

    Filipino waiter Emil Manlapas.

  • Arriving at Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, in the South China Sea.

    Arriving at Indonesia’s Natuna Islands, in the South China Sea.

  • The Orion II’s 50 suites are appointed for seagoing luxury, complete with plush beds, separate sitting areas, and in some cases, balconies.

    The Orion II’s 50 suites are appointed for seagoing luxury, complete with plush beds, separate sitting areas, and in some cases, balconies.

  • The ship’s aft-deck café.

    The ship’s aft-deck café.

  • At anchor off Masalembu, a group of islands in the middle of the Java Sea.

    At anchor off Masalembu, a group of islands in the middle of the Java Sea.

  • The Orion II’s gourmet cuisine includes dishes such as this black-cod fillet with saffron risotto, wild rice, and Australian crayfish.

    The Orion II’s gourmet cuisine includes dishes such as this black-cod fillet with saffron risotto, wild rice, and Australian crayfish.

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The ship was the Orion II, a sleek, sexy 88-meter craft operated by Sydney-based Orion Expedition Cruises. Built in Italy two decades ago as a zillionaire’s bespoke superyacht—this is an actual shipbuilder’s category; megayachts start at 100 meters—and refitted last year for expedition travel in Asia, the ship is registered in Malta, captained by a Frenchman, and crewed by Filipinos. But it’s Australian from stem to stern, with a team of sunny-faced, khaki-clad explorers supervised by expedition leader Max McGuire, a Tasmanian who earned his sea legs on dive boats in northern Queensland. Most of my fellow passengers were also Australian.

The Orion II offers every comfort of a luxury hotel, with spacious cabins fitted out in polished mahogany and gleaming brass. But there’s nothing fussy here: passengers are advised to leave their tiaras and tuxedoes at home. The ship has 50 staterooms for a maximum of 100 passengers, which is just the right number, affording adequate ground cover to escape from bores at the breakfast buffet, but not enough to permit bridge tournaments or bingo. In any case, I needn’t have worried: the cruise’s itinerary was very much focused on wilderness exploration and wildlife encounters, and the passengers were a smart, independent-minded group. They were also less elderly than I expected, with the under-60-year-olds in a bare majority. Given the cost (almost US$8,000 per person) and length (10 nights) of the voyage, that’s young.

In some ways, the cruise was run like a true expedition. Owing to tide and current conditions, the ship encountered a delay of a few hours before it could land in Borneo, so it made an impromptu stop along the way at Masalembu, a tiny archipelago in the middle of the Java Sea. Our intrepid Aussie hosts did a predawn recce of Masalembu Kecil, the smallest island in the group, in hopes of finding a good beach for swimming and snorkeling. Though the coastline proved to be rocky and inhospitable, the locals were very inviting, so we went ashore on Zodiac tenders for a brisk tour.

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