Aegean Odyssey On The ORIENT QUEEN, Part One

Peter Knego embarks on a classic seven night journey from Piraeus to the Greek Islands and Turkey aboard Louis Cruises’ ORIENT QUEEN, the former NCL STARWARD, with a windy departure from Lavrion and a visit to Istanbul (including Taksim Square).

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Friday, June 21, 2013

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MV STARWARD departs Los Angeles on July 18, 1993.

Even in 1993, I admired the racy lines and unusual architecture of NCL’s 1968-built STARWARD. When the 16,000-gross ton ship spent a season of cruises out of Los Angeles, my only complaint was that the recently added stern sponson and extension of her aft decks somewhat spoiled her original edgy profile.

BOLERO, Norway. Photo © Martin Cox 1997
BOLERO, Norway. Photo © Martin Cox 1997.

Within a mere two years of that visit, STARWARD was jettisoned from the NCL fleet and sold to Festival Cruises in 1995, who renamed her BOLERO. In her second incarnation, she roamed European waters with mainly British and European passengers. In 2003, I encountered BOLERO in Ajaccio, Corsica while on P&O VICTORIA’s final voyage but co-editor Martin Cox enjoyed a full cruise in her with his family in 1997. “Such memories. I was so young!” he recently recalled. Weren’t we all, including the ships, dear Martin!

Following the collapse of Festival, Lebanese-based Abou Mehri Cruises bought the BOLERO in 2004. The new owners spent more than twice the ship’s $9 million purchase cost refitting her for deluxe cruise service. In the process, the now-named ORIENT QUEEN was given a helipad on her bow, new forward bulwarks and, most importantly, an entire deck of suites, each created by combining two or more of the ship’s old staterooms. Public spaces were also revamped and the midships lounge and casino were fitted with a massive aquarium. ORIENT QUEEN had been intended to start an entirely new market of cruising from Lebanon but the 2006 crisis intervened. Instead of making headlines for her exciting itineraries and unique features, she became known to an international audience for rescuing trapped U.S. citizens from Lebanon and ferrying them to safety in Cyprus. The following month, she was sold to Louis Cruises.

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During the four days prior to my boarding the ship, I had been stalking the ORIENT QUEEN via her larger fleetmate, Louis Cruises’ LOUIS OLYMPIA. Both ships will spend the summer traversing the Greek Isles, with the OLYMPIA currently based in Piraeus and the ORIENT QUEEN out of Lavrion (on the eastern flanks of Athens), where I found her snugly moored in a backdrop of wind-whipped whitecaps.

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Junior Suite 7045, facing aft.

After dropping my bags with a porter and checking in at the terminal, I climbed up the gangway and headed directly to spacious Junior Suite 7045 on port Deck 5. Four picture windows were all that was left of the original two cabins that formed this comfortable space, furnished with a firm queen bed, sofa, glass-topped end tables, a flatscreen television, a cocktail table and a chair. Curiously, there were no dressers or writing tables or even bedside drawers. As a matter of fact, there were no drawers of any kind, although the triple closet at the entry would prove sufficient for my two weeks’ worth of clothing.

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Cabin 7045 WC.

The large bathroom came with a full tub, sink and loo. Again, no storage cabinets but that was compensated for with a sink top large enough to accommodate my toiletries and those supplied by Louis. I also enjoyed the handy towel folding skills of my wonderful Egyptian steward Khaled, who sculpted a daily soap dish.

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Ready for its close up: Cleopatra Suite, facing forward.

As the stewards cleaned, I had a chance to wander, deck-by-deck and locate various staterooms that were being prepped to receive their new occupants. In the top category Cleopatra Suite down the passage, the stewardess demurely asked me to return “in a few minutes” so she could finish up her towel animal before I took photos. She did and I did.

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The Calm Before The Storm?

Out on the open decks, the wind was so fierce, I kept the video camera stowed. Beyond that breakwater, the Aegean was being whipped into a Homeric frenzy.

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Force 7 in the Aegean.

After boat drill and just before ORIENT QUEEN cast her lines, the captain announced that we would be entering Force 7-to-8 conditions and that being out on deck was “not recommended” for the early part of the afternoon. In the meantime, he assured that the stabilizers would be deployed.

Not wanting to repeat my prior experiences with storm-tossed seas (see STAR FLYER To Iberia blog), I immediately descended to Stateroom 7045 and popped a dramamine. As the ORIENT QUEEN steadily chugged her way through Poseidon’s wrath, I was out like a light, occasionally popping up to peek out of my salt-sprayed picture windows.

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Gym, facing port.

Had I known just how well the ORIENT QUEEN would handle those ominous seas, I would have deferred on the meds. The fastest cure for the perpetual drowsiness was a romp on the elliptical machine in the ship’s gym, a pleasantly air conditioned, clean and well-equipped space, especially for a small, elderly ship like the ORIENT QUEEN.

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Mermaid Restaurant, facing aft.

I showered, then headed to the Mermaid Restaurant on aft Deck 6. This space was extended in its latter NCL days, encompassing the aft pool basin and has a most unusual focal point with “windows” that look into the pool, itself. I was seated at a table with a Greek family who ignored any attempt at communication. Since I was in a daze, maybe it was better that way but I must say, aside from this early encounter, the ORIENT QUEEN’s multi-national passenger mix quite has been friendly and engaging.

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Fresh and Hellenic!
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Tomatoes appetized.

LOUIS OLYMPIA set a pretty formidable bar for her authentic Greek cuisine the prior week, so my expectations were already high when my first course, an appetizer of olive oil-drizzled tomatoes and soft Greek cheese arrived.

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With walnuts…

I continued the degustation with the usual (and always fabulous) horiatiki (Greek salad) and a lemon chicken main course, ending with an “always available” Greek yogurt topped with honey and walnuts.

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Stars Show Lounge, facing aft.

Located on forward Deck 6, the ORIENT QUEEN’s comfortable Stars Show Lounge is the go-to for the mainstage shows, cooking demos (yes, Louis does these, too!), and a wide range of events.

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Rock Me, Leonardo!

Although I was still sleepy from the pill, I had to see the “singing Leonardo di Caprio” whom Romanian cruise director Danny mentioned in his welcome talk earlier in the day. Actually, the singer’s name is Ivan but even from the rafters (the room was packed) and in a Mozart costume, there was a resemblance to the latest Gatsby. And the show, a most interesting melange of pop hits, ranging from “Dreamgirls” to “Rock Me, Amadeus”, was rendered with ballet-trained Eastern European precision and vocals that, despite the occasional accent, would put most cruise ship entertainers to task.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

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Horizon Cafe, facing starboard.
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My body begged “no” but my cameras insisted that I awake at 7:30 for our Istanbul arrival. I went “continental” with brekky in the Horizon Court on Deck 7 by the aft pool, self-sating with a fat bowl of Greek yogurt, raisins and honey. For a continental breakfast, Louis’ spread is quite nice with cold cuts, cereals, and even salad ingredients, as well.

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Early morning observation.

Up on the wide forward observation platform on Deck 7 (ORIENT QUEEN and LOUIS OLYMPIA are among the few ships left with fabulous, fully-encircling promenades and forward observation, by the way), I staked out a spot.

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Prepping the caprails.

I peered over a perfectly polished, solid mahogany caprail down to the fo’c’sle, where crew were sanding and varnishing the rails freshly removed from the observation platform on Deck 8.

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As we neared, a SOLSTICE Class Celebrity ship and one of the new Seabourn triplets came into view at the cruise terminal.

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Sultan Ahmet.

The 16th-century built Sultan Ahmet or Blue Mosque and its six minarets were aglow in the morning sun.

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Hagia Sofia.

Nearby, Hagia Sofia, once one of the world’s most revered religious sites, beamed in pink.

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Next, it was Topkapi’s time in the light. The legendary palace of Ottoman sultans houses one of the world’s largest collection of jewels.

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Masts along the waterfront.

When ORIENT QUEEN rounded the Golden Horn, she had some well-rigged company in the form of Windstar’s WIND SPIRIT and Star Clipper’s STAR CLIPPER. The captain gradually nudged ORIENT QUEEN into her berth, which was separated from the pier by two pontoons. I later learned that these pontoons are used to keep visiting ships “clear” of mud and silt that gathers along the base of the terminal.

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Directly off our port side, Istanbul’s fascinating architecture beckoned. As guests filed off on tour, the ship was prepped for an embarking group of 300 more (there would be 800 guests on the ship for the rest of the cruise).

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ORIENT QUEEN Venus Bar, facing starboard.

My first priority was to document all the public spaces that I could but one area, the wide, funnel-shaped dome that tops the ship, deserves special attention. Cantilevered around a tripod formed from the base of the ship’s mast and two diagonal steel beams, it is a fascinating space, the likes of which have only been seen on the STARWARD and her near-sister SKYWARD of 1969. Inside, there is the double deck Venus Bar (connected by a spiral staircase) and a sheltered games deck surrounding the hexagonal midships pool. Its an impressive bit of MidCentury maritime architecture and seems to be well-enjoyed and utilized on the ORIENT QUEEN.

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ORIENT QUEEN Reception, facing aft.

A couple hours later, when I finished my documentation with the Reception foyer on Deck 5 (now featuring a centerpiece fountain with fiberoptic lighting and a large frieze of Ariadne), I was free to roam Istanbul. In the five or six hours before the ship sailed, my goals were, in order: visit Taksim Square; find the Basilica Cistern and hit a local internet cafe to upload a blog from last week.

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A Hotel To Remember.

I was advised against going to Taksim Square for safety reasons but being in Istanbul at such an important cultural and historic impasse and not going to its epicenter would have nagged at me forever. I was also told it was easy to find, to just “go up the road for ten minutes and you will run into it”. After about forty minutes in the searing sun, I asked several locals and they pointed me up a hill. When I got there, a heavy police presence indicated I was in the right area. While en route, I encountered a rather swank-looking hotel named for a certain White Star Liner that sank in 1912.

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Monumental day in Taksim Square.

Finally, as the singe of a “farmer’s tan” stung the back of my neck, I entered a wide open space near a monument I had seen on recent newscasts. At first, I was reluctant to pull out the cameras but then noticed several people taking photos.

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Taksim Square protesters.

The night prior, cable news was broadcasting skirmishes in the square but the only evidence of protest I found was peaceful and moving — a small enclave of people gathered around a cluster of photos and Turkish flags. On the building behind them, two huge Turkish flags framed a banner depicting Prime Minister Erdogan, whose increasingly right wing and fundamental policies are considered by many as a threat to Turkey’s cultural and secular freedom.

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OJ with Turkitude.

Wilting legs notwithstanding, I still had time to seek out those Cisterns! Now, many of you are probably asking why I just didn’t buy a map and in hindsight, I have to agree that would have made things much easier. I retraced my steps past the cruise terminal and across the Galata Bridge, then dodged the crowds at the local ferry terminal and headed up the hill towards Hagia Sofia. On the way, there was a mandatory pit stop for a fresh-squeezed orange juice and cold water refresher.

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Hagia Sophia and the liquid minarets.

During my many prior trips to Istanbul, I had seen and documented most of its great monuments but the one place that always eluded me was the Basilica Cisterns, which were constructed by Roman Emperor Justinianus in the 6th Century. I finally found them near the entrance to Hagia Sofia.

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3:00 PM Cisternal.

After waiting in line for a half hour, I was told at the entry that only Turkish Lira (!) was accepted for admission. The guard let me run to a nearby exchange and come back to the front; otherwise, this part of the mission would have been aborted. After the short detour, I clutched that hard-earned ticket and descended the stairs in awe.

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Cistern column.
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Turn to Stone.

I wandered through the walkways, past twelve rows with a total of 336 marble columns. Tossed coins and the occasional surfacing carp stirred the dark waters, which were originally sourced from the Belgrad forest some 15 miles away. At the far end of the Cistern, crowds flocked around two Medusa carvings. I waited my turn to take photos, then headed back up to daylight.

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Wing over Istanbul.

On my way walk back to the Golden Horn, I detoured through a huge park and then back along the waterfront. Back on the ORIENT QUEEN, I grabbed a handful of Greek cookies at the Horizon Court tea, then re-debarked, hopping through various internet cafes in search of a good wifi signal. After filing a blog at the friendly San Marino, it was back to the ship with minutes to spare. I was just in time to head to the wheelhouse to marvel at the sail-away under the command of Captain Kostas Gritzelis!

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Much more on the good captain will follow but suffice it to say, he is another master mariner (along with the OLYMPIA’s Captain Romeos) and a man who has sailed with many celebrated ships, including the STELLA SOLARIS and VICTORIA. As with the LOUIS OLYMPIA, the ORIENT QUEEN was brimming with polished brass fixtures and woodwork that looked as though the ship had just been delivered for her maiden season. On the starboard wing, a small but original STARWARD bell glinted in the sun as we pushed away from the pier, headed easterly against the Bosphorus current and then arced back on a westerly course into the Sea Of Marmara.

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Moon rising.

By the time I pried myself away from the wings, the sun had dimmed and the moon had begun her ascent. To be on a ship like the ORIENT QUEEN in these particular waters was the ultimate paradise.

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Moon over Marmara.

After dinner, I headed topsides to gaze at the brilliant moon.

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Disco dome.

Nearby, that “wonder dome” thundered with Disco lights and pulsating house music. The ORIENT QUEEN was far from done with her day…

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Hava Nagila!

On my way back to the 7045, I could not resist visiting the Stars Show Lounge where “Mediterranean Night” festivities were well under way. The entire room was clapping and stomping to “Hava Nagila”. For me, cruising really doesn’t get much better.

End Of Aegean Odyssey Aboard The ORIENT QUEEN, Part One.

Much More To Come…

Very special thanks: Martin Cox, Nicholas Filippides, Captain Kostas Gritzelis, Captain George Koumpenas, Michalis Maratheftis, Nic Spanoudes

Peter Knego

Peter Knego

Having documented over 400 passenger ships and taken more than 200 cruises, MaritimeMatters’ co-editor Peter Knego is a leading freelance cruise writer, a respected ocean liner historian and frequent maritime lecturer both on land and at sea.  With his work regularly featured in cruise industry trades and consumer publications.  Knego also runs the website which offers MidCentury cruise ship furniture, artwork and fittings rescued from the shipbreaking yards of Alang, India.  He has produced several videos on the subject, including his latest, The Sands Of Alang and the best-selling On The Road To Alang."
Peter Knego

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