Masalembu Kecil isn’t the most remarkable island in Indonesia by any reckoning; coconut gathering seemed to be its inhabitants’ principal occupation. Yet there was an inherent fascination in visiting such a remote place, little more than a dot on the charts. It reminded me of my early days of wandering across the archipelago, when I was as much the object of curiosity to the locals as the other way around. Improbably, a paved road wended through a patch of heavy forest to a headland that offered a sparkling view of the sea and our ship at anchor.
The sense of adventure was only heightened by returning to the ship for a dinner that would satisfy the most demanding palate. It was surely the first time that a mess of grass-fed tenderloin of beef parmentière with braised oxtail and mushroom duxelles, finished with shallot confit and Shiraz sauce, was served in the waters off Masalembu. The menus of the Orion II were created by Serge Dansereau, the Quebec-born chef whose Bathers’ Pavilion in Sydney has been a landmark restaurant since 1999. The ship’s cookery shone with the flawless service of the genial waitstaff, who learned all the passengers’ names far more quickly than we did ourselves, and remembered even fine points of personal preference.
The ship’s restaurant soon began to resemble a high-school lunchroom, with discernible cliques emerging. The group sorted itself along predictable lines, though not necessarily by nationality. The youngest passengers gravitated to each other, as did the ancient mariners; there was a table for the glamorous and well dressed and a table for the brains. A charming lady of a certain age from California with a girlish, silvery laugh was Miss Popular; everyone tried to lure her to join their table. Two extroverted Australian wags competed good-naturedly for the title of class clown.
Once the high school metaphor occurred to me, it explained everything. A cruise is a little world in itself, with no interest in what lies beyond its own narrow confines. Gossip was endemic, though never malicious; if someone let slip an interesting facet about their life on land at breakfast, it was passed along at lunch and common knowledge by the cocktail hour. Intense friendships sprang up, especially between couples. And, of course, the main reason we were here was to learn.