The Orient Express at Venice. Click all images for a larger version.
The arrival yesterday off Piraeus of the Arberia (ex-Wasa Queen), newly acquired by Halkydon Shipping (see pictures from shipfriends here
), marked a belated return to very familiar waters for the ship. Built in 1975 as Bore Line’s Silja ship the Bore Star
, she later passed to Silja partners Effoa but remained on the Baltic routes until a sale in early 1986 to a company within the Sea Containers group. Although subsidiary Sealink British Ferries were in need of replacement tonnage on several routes, it was announced that the vessel would be deployed under the name Orient Express on a ‘cruise ferry’ service on which the ship performed a weekly round trip on the circuit Venice-(Corinth)-Piraeus-Istanbul-Kusadasi-Patmos-Katakolon-Venice. Painted in a modified Sealink livery, the ship met with a degree of success and operated for five Summers in this trade (1986-90 inclusive).
Bridging the ferry-cruise ship divide (although back then for smaller ships it was still sometimes more real than imagined) proved a challenge. Different markets received different messages; for example, the 1988 brochure for the Venice Simplon Orient-Express (the luxury train) carried the following text in a one page summary about the ship’s services:
NOW THE MV ‘ORIENT EXPRESS’ STARTS WHERE THE TRAIN LEAVES OFF
The Orient Express passenger to Venice may now extend his journey not only to Istanbul, the train’s original destination, but far, far beyond.
The mv ‘Orient Express’ commissioned just two seasons ago sails from Venice every Saturday evening. With three bars, four restaurants, two pools, sun decks, a beauty salon, cinema and casino, dancing and cabaret, even a children’s playroom, the eight gleaming decks are dedicated to your convenience and pleasure.
Every cabin, from the simplest to the grandest, has air conditioning and en-suite shower and WC.
The Captain and Officers are British, the crew multi-lingual, the service – like the food – superb.
And the itinerary, whether you prefer simply to cruise, with excursions, for seven glorious nights or stop off for a week (or two, or three) at one of the ports and rejoin the ship on a later sailing, matches the ship herself.
The breath-holding squeeze at dawn between the vertical walls of the Corinth Canal; Piraeus and the Parthenon, the teeming pleasures of Istanbul; Kusadasi for the beaches of southern Turkey and the fabulous excavations at Ephesus; gentle, undiscovered Patmos to see, perhaps the cavern where St John the Divine wrote his Book of Revelations; Katakolon for Olympia and back, of course, to Venice.
Entirely missing from that account of the ship’s operations was the ‘F’ word, which presumably might not have entirely been what VSOE passengers had in mind as a continuation of their journey, other post-train options in the brochure including the 5 star Hotel Gritti Palace, or Michael Winner’s favourite, the then Sea Con-owned Cipriani. On the other hand, they had just been willing to overnight on an excruciatingly expensive train with no en-suite facilities whatsoever.
The Orient Express and the Venice Simplon Orient Express together at Venice.
Sliding through the Corinth Canal.
In contrast, the main brochures for the ship herself brought the matter to the forefront and the 1989 version contained the following as its very first paragraph:
When you think of a car ferry, you think of a vessel that provides, essentially, a service. When you think of a cruise ship, you think of carefree, sun-filled days punctuated by the pleasures of the table, the entertainment and the ports of call.
When you consider mv ‘Orient Express’ you must start again and think of both.
For both is exactly what she is. Below decks a car ferry, her hold lined with the cars of travellers and holidaymakers bound for Athens, Istanbul and the beaches of southern Turkey. Above, a fully stabilised, uncompromising 12,500 ton cruise liner equipped to take you – with car or without – on a very special voyage.
The Orient Express: part car ferry...
...part cruise ship.
In 1987 the US brochure for the ship had included some interesting comments amongst a series of passenger testimonials:
“Some of the cabins are a little small. Typical of a North Sea ferry. But what you’ve done to the rest of the ship is just amazing”
“We didn’t know what to expect. A cruise ship that carries cars? But you never see them. They just sit in the hold keeping the prices down.”
“They say the (VSOE) train is far more elegant than the ship. It’s hard to believe. These are some of the loveliest public rooms of any ship of its size.”
“A British-run ship. It’s just what they needed in these waters. No one does it with as much class as the British”.
Winter months were generally spent either on charter or operating cruises around the Canary Islands, including calls at Agadir in Morocco. It was at the latter port that I had the unexpected chance to visit the ship in 1988, having espied the distinctive funnel colours from across town on the beach near to the Hotel Europa, harangued the family into jumping into a taxi and taken the chance to ask for a look around. She was certainly an interesting vessel, and had most definitely been spruced up for service in her cruise-cum-ferry role. Significant sums had been spent on refurbishment, including the installation of a moderately-sized outside swimming pool, and a look around the facilities showed that they were clearly more luxurious than Sealink’s English Channel norm.
Orient Express - 1989 deckplan
Insert to the 1987 brochure.
On Deck 7, in an area previously occupied by conference facilities, eight new staterooms were constructed, named after eight of the (then) ten carriages in the British Pullman rake which formed the UK side of the VSOE. The other two, the Lucille and Vera suites, were found on the deck below.
The ten staterooms featured 'TV and video... for those who want to enjoy the Mediterranean in real style'.
A more compact 'A Category' cabin.
The second-lowest grade, 'C Category' cabin, inside but above the car deck. Fares per person for the seven day cruise in this class of accommodation were as high as Â£510 for the seven day trip in 1989, and Â£200 for a Venice-Piraeus single, excluding car. Twenty years later, a peak-season sailing in equivalent accommodation (via Venice-Patras using the Zeus Palace) costs approx. Â£185 per person.
The Sultan's Bar could be found on Deck 6 amidships.
The Sultan's Bar.
The Ã la carte VSOE restaurant, starboard side on Deck 6.
The floor show in the Olympia Bar, aft on Deck 6.
Shipboard prices were in sterling and in 1988 a Gin & Tonic in the Olympia Bar would set you back Â£1.40, a Tia Maria Â£1.30 and a cup of tea, 50p.
The small library, starboard amidships, deck 5.
Meals in the Savini Restaurant, aft on Deck 5, were included in the price of the fare.
The outdoor swimming pool, at the stern on deck 5.
Down on Deck 1, the ship had been built with a swimming pool and sauna complex, and these were retained for use in the new service.
Shuttle service in Istanbul.
The Orient Express at Kusadasi, alongside the Aegean Dolphin.
There was some surprise that, when Sea Con acquired the ship in 1986, she was not deployed on Sealink's core ex-UK routes (although it is debatable which she would have been suited for, she would certainly have been a formidable presence in the passenger market on the Western Channel). She did however make a cameo appearance, mocked up in full SBF livery on the cover of the 1987 car ferry guide. complete with her cocktail-drinking passengers.
The marginal nature of the business and Sea Con’s need to generate cash urgently to fend off the Temple Holdings (Stena & Tiphook) takeover bid saw the ship sold in late 1989 back to Effjohn (formed by a merger from the ship’s former owners Effoa and Silja partners Johnson Line). One final season as the Orient Express preceded a brief period in Singapore operation before returning to the Effjohn fold as the Wasa Star for subsidiary Wasa Line in 1992. The ship was significantly rebuilt but remained in service through the merger of Wasa Line into Silja in 1993 and remained back with her original operators until 2001. Sold to Star Cruises she forged a new career operating out of Hong Kong, latterly on gambling cruises. Displaced from this role in 2007 she spent a brief period sailing in Malaysian waters but was purchased from lay up by Halkydon for operation between Italy (Trieste or Bari) to Durres in Albania.