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March 21, 2004
Detroit Free Press

Great Ships for the Great Lakes: The Orion, the latest vessel to cruise the Midwest, brings a new level of luxury

by Gerry Volgenau
Free Press Special Writer

First it dodged ice floes and weathered stormy seas in Antarctica. Right now, it's motoring up the Amazon River.

But the next high-adventure destination for the new luxury expedition ship Orion might come as a surprise.

It's the Great Lakes.

The Orion, completed just four months ago in Germany, will become the seventh, the newest and the most luxurious ship to cruise the Great Lakes this season.

Think of the Orion as a floating version of a Mercedes S class, equipped for the wild. The 106-passenger ship is fit for adventure with a specially reinforced hull to endure arctic ice, the latest stabilizers to cope with rough seas and lots of high-tech communications gear.

But for passengers, the 337-foot Orion is close to regal with 24 large outside staterooms and 29 suites -- each with a panoramic view, a sitting room and a marble bathroom. Those who have been on it already also report the meals are excellent.

"I recommend it absolutely, and I have done a lot of cruising," said Geoff Le Plastrier, a real estate developer from Newport Beach, Calif., who took an antarctic cruise.

His raves were echoed by other Orion passengers.

The Orion joins five other cruise ships on the Great Lakes for the 2004 season, which runs roughly from June through early October.

This will be a record-setting season, said Christopher Wright, director of the Ontario-based Cruising the Great Lakes, a coordinating agency for these inland cruises.

"The ships will make 63 cruises and are expected to carry 7,360 passengers," he said. If his estimates are correct, it would represent an all-time high for the recent era of Great Lakes cruising, which began in 1997.

One ship that has sailed in northern Lake Huron for the last half-dozen years will not be running this season, however. The tiny 18-passenger Georgian Clipper succumbed to the downturn in the economy, Wright said.

But on the upside, Wright said the ships that remain will stop at a number of new ports on lakes Huron and Superior in Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario.

Admittedly, for sheer exotica of Orion cruise destinations, Mackinac Island, even with its horse-drawn carriages and turn-of-the-century charm, can't compare with the likes of McMurdo Station in Antarctica or the famed opera house in Manaus, deep in the Amazon jungle.

But the slim Orion, with its seven decks, is perfect for slipping through the canals and narrow locks in the Great Lakes and for taking in some fascinating sights that even Midwesterners might have missed.

Passengers will see Niagara Falls; Greenfield Village (docking in Windsor); Indian tribal dances on Manitoulin Island in Lake Huron, the world's largest island in fresh water; the 224-year-old British fort on Mackinac Island or, at Whitefish Point, the bell from the Edmund Fitzgerald, made famous by the Gordon Lightfoot song in the 1970s.

The Orion will make a series of 7-night cruises, starting in late June and running until October. Sailing between Montreal and Chicago, the Orion will make stops in all five Great Lakes. Prices start at about $4,500 per person.

Passengers on the Orion's first cruises raved about the ship, its staff and services.

"I have to put to put these guys right on top," Le Plastrier said. "It has an extremely professional crew and the ship is run like a first-class hotel, which it is."

The ship's crew is German and the service staff is Armenian.

Passengers noted the lecture hall is able to hold every passenger, unusual for a ship that small. What's more, the talks can be piped into the staterooms if you decide to stay in your cabin.

"The food was terrific," said Susan Berke, of Bethlehem, Conn. "It was a mix of American and European with some Indonesian influences. Lots of fresh fruits and vegetables. And, weather permitting, lunch was served on the deck." All meals are served with complimentary wines and beer.

"It was very, very nicely done," said Berke, who took the ship's maiden cruise from the Canary Islands to the southern tip of South America.

Other ship amenities include cable TV, Internet access, a spa with exercise equipment, a masseuse, a three-piece band that plays nightly and first-rate lecturers and naturalists to answer every question.

Susan Tomley, a corporate attorney from Santa Cruz, Calif., loved her trip to antarctica.

"The Orion was great. It's a small ship. You get to know the other passengers. And everything was pretty luxurious," she said.

Contact Gerry Volgenau at gvolgenau@yahoo.com

Copyright © 2004 Detroit Free Press Inc.

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