CRUISING THE GREEK ISLANDS ON THE ORIENT QUEEN

ImageThere are times in the world of cruising when ‘less’ can most definitely be ‘more’. While the big, brimming new ships can entertain you like never before, they are often pretty restricted when it comes to the places where they can actually dock, especially in a limited amount of time. This is not such a big deal if you are doing the ‘greatest hits’ of the region such as Barcelona, Florence and Rome. But if you are looking to see the smaller, more intimate yacht harbours that make the region so truly darned compelling, then the truth is that you have to go down several layers in terms of size.

That’s largely why I picked the venerable Orient Queen for my recent short cruise from Cyprus to Rhodes and Symi. At just over 15,000 tons, she is a baby beside the modern behemoths, at least in terms of size. Yet in terms of age, she is from an entirely different era completely.

She was originally built as the MS. Starward in 1968, the first brand new ship for the fledgling Norwegian Caribbean Lines (NCL). With her, the company pioneered the concept of the fly /cruise that we now take for granted. For almost three decades, she enjoyed remarkable success, cruising from Miami to the sun splashed Caribbean islands.

As times and tastes changed and ships grew bigger, NCL dispensed with the veteran trooper. She went to the now defunct Festival cruises as the Bolero, and spent a few years with them before going over to Louis Cruises in 2005 to operate short cruises in the Greek Islands, where she gained worldwide fame evacuating civilians from Beirut during the war of 2006.

Now, the Orient Queen cruises more peaceful waters, and a legion of former fans will recognise her instantly. The unchanged silhouette with the central glass dome and the twin, swept back funnels is like something from another age and time. The sharply raked bow and snow white hull are a complete anachronism in terms of modern cruise ship architecture.

Inside, there is one main deck full of public rooms, beginning with the Stars Lounge right forward, the cabaret venue on the ship. This leads aft into the Reflections Lounge, with it’s boulevard effect of floor to ceiling windows. Behind here, the two-sitting Mermaid Restaurant spans the full width of the ship, with a lovely sweep of glass windows overlooking the ship’s wake, an aquarium full of idle, moon eyed fish, and glass ports that look into the illuminated tank of a swimming pool.

Food has a Greek emphasis, and is generally very good for the size and star rating of the ship. Breads in particular were very good, as was fish and pork. The other dining option- at least for breakfast and lunch- is the Horizon Buffet, located one deck above. This indoor/outdoor venue opens out onto the stern deck, and is set around the aft pool.

There is no alternative evening buffet here, although fast food such as pizzas and BLTs can be ordered at extra cost, around the clock. Ditto for cabin service breakfast, a continental affair that comes in at around four euros.

Cabins are small and compact, with toilet and shower, a/c and limited storage space. That said, on destination oriented cruises like these, you’re unlikely to spend much time in them. None come with balconies, but the small and intimate nature of the Orient Queen means the entire ship is your own private balcony in effect. The dress code is pretty casual- you can safely leave the ballgowns and tuxedos at home.

There are good deals on inclusive drinks packages on board, but prices in general are not expensive.Tips run at about four euros a day for a crew composed largely of Filipino and Eastern European service staff. While there might be the odd communication problem, the crew as a whole is happy to help passengers in any way they can.

The whole ship is suffused with a happy, cheerful vibe. The Orient Queen has no pretensions to be a luxury ship. Instead, she is an honest, workmanlike lady that remains extremely comfortable and- just as important in these waters- nimble enough to scoot into the sweet little spots that the bigger vessels have to pass by at a distance.

The signature venue on the Queen is the three level, steel and glass disco, the Venus Lounge, that opens out onto the centre pool. The centre level contains a rectangular, sit up bar surrounded by table groupings that flank the large, floor to ceiling windows. For the brave, a spiral staircase leads to a kind of VIP level that offers fabulous views down to the pool, as well as out over the bow. This almost unique little venue was the late night heart of the ship, and hugely popular with the mostly young local Cypriot crowd on board to enjoy a well known local rock band. Be aware that they smoke a lot, and everywhere at that.

There was also a small, bi level casino indoors, amidships, that did a good trade, and a small, charming little upper deck health spa that offered various treatments at extra cost. These include a sublime, Balinese themed indoor Jacuzzi area that feels like a different world entirely. It was pure bliss wallowing in the tub after a hard day drinking wine ashore, while the rest of the world outside got up to whatever craziness was currently taking its fancy.

The Orient Queen sauntered out into the late afternoon Limassol sunshine with around 680 passengers aboard, just over 100 short of a full load. Though the sun was fierce, a conga line of whitecaps soon began rocking and rolling us to such an extent that our call in Santorini was, wisely, abandoned. Putting tender boats into the sea in such conditions would have been rash indeed.

Now the nifty size of the ship really came into play. We were diverted instead to an early, overnight call in Rhodes, and a short but sweet visit to the delightful little idyll called Symi. As it turned out, this deftly amended short trip turned out to be a real winner.

We were the only cruise ship in Rhodes, with its massive, brooding turrets, towers and walls bleached almost blond by decades of exposure to a pitiless Aegean sun. Here, in the winding, cobbled streets where the Knights Templar once made their doomed last stand, modern tourists sit at over priced cafes that throng the central fountain. These days, their feet are surrounded by nothing more deadly than a rising tide of shopping bags ,their podgy fingers gingerly grasping glasses of the deadly, deceptive local ouzo.

Night time brought out the bright lights, the milling crowds, and the chance to sample some gorgeous local wine while savouring some platinum chip people watching, with just the ghost of a warm breeze rippling in from the ink black Aegean. The sounds of bouzouki and thumping base from nearby bars was overlaid with the constant, rhythmic chirruping of hundreds of tree frogs. The result was the most bizarre and delightful soundtrack I can ever remember. It was not a bad way to spend Saturday night at all.

Back aboard the relative calm of the Orient Queen, there was time to enjoy one last strawberry margarita in the VIP level of the Venus Lounge, looking back over the lights of old Rhodes Town. While I was calling it a night, the Orient Queen stole silently away into the darkness, destination Symi.

I woke in what I thought was the middle of an amazingly vivid dream. Serried tiers of whitewashed houses and restaurants stood almost close enough to touch from the deck, brilliant against an early morning, petrol blue sky studded with almost ethereal wisps of cloud. A gently curving stone pier lay below, with early morning wanderers sauntering in and out of a line of cafes that had been splashed across the quayside, with gently flapping umbrellas in reds, blues and vivid greens. From the windows above, coloured shutters were tethered to stone walls in shades of canary yellow, blue and rich terracotta. The whole place was like an incredible audio visual assault on the senses.

The hills surrounding the port were low, rolling and arid, scattered with random clusters of gaunt, spindly pine trees that stood out sharp against the blue sky. Yachts and trawlers bobbed lethargically at anchor, like an armada of snoozing swans. And yet this dream was very, very real.

Winding alleyways led to small tavernas, with checker cloth topped tables surrounded by rickety, electric blue wooden chairs, suffused with the smell and taste of melt-in-the mouth souvlaki, and fabulous, freshly pressed orange juice. A few hours here was more than enough to make me want to come back for much, much longer.

Back aboard the Queen, the memories of a glorious long weekend drifted idly through my mind as we cantered back to Limassol on a sea of liquid glass. There was fresh fruit and red wine on the table in front of me, shaded from the glare of the sun. Overhead, the famous, angled twin funnels stood like sentinels. I felt quite wonderfully free, totally chilled out. All things considered, it was not a bad way to spend a weekend.

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