Small, cold rain is drenching me and about twenty other passengers ready to embark on an Orion expedition cruise out of Launceston, Tasmania. We are standing on the wharf at Beauty Point, kittycorner to the Platypus House or, if you don’t know where that is, directly across from Seahorse World (“Where you can discover the secret life of the Seahorse!” according to the sign on the side). The problem is there’s a short, stout young Tassie maritime security guard, wearing a very bright yellow vest that assures us he is “OFFICIAL SECURITY,” who will not let us on board the Orion without a) our passport and b) our boarding papers. Which isn’t a problem for me since I have both but is a problem for just about everyone else in the group, most from Melbourne or Sydney, who are not traveling with a passport in their own country.
And this stout little fellow with the neon yellow vest is refusing to budge on his demands so in the rain we stand. Until this very tall, very elegant, very blond young woman comes barreling down the gangplank and pulls the stout little fellow aside and in a pleasant but very firm tone, such as a mom might use on a naughty toddler in a grocery store, tells him to let her passengers on board. “This instant.” And so he does.
The tall elegant blond is named Lobke Verburg (“Doesn’t exactly roll off your tongue, does it?” she says to me self-deprecatingly when I ask her her name) and she’s not the boarding officer or any such thing but, oddly enough, the ship’s maitre d’, which I take to be a very good sign: If the maitre d’ is willing to take control of the embarkation process than surely the entire crew is ready and willing to do whatever is necessary to make our expedition a success. And this is an expedition, not just a cruise, with roughly a dozen more crew members (about 75) than passengers (63 on this trip). I like that as well.
So back to Miss Lobke: While my bags are being brought on board, she solicitously offers me a glass of Ninth Island Tasmania sparkling wine, jumping behind the bar to pop the cork herself, and refills the glass, without the slightest coaxing from me, while I pepper her with questions about the ship (German-built, eight years old, just out of drydock with some new amenities) and herself (from South Africa, “but that’s over with and after this cruise I need to find an apartment in Sydney”).
Another glass of the dry, yeasty Ninth Island (this is a Tasmania food and wine expedition, so it’s lovely to start off with a local product) and then a few minutes spent with the girls at reception — Gide, Sashah, and Leah (who double as the boutique manager, masseuse, and hair dresser, respectively) — filling out liability forms, taking a ship I.D. photo, and handing over the ol’ VISA card, and I’m shown to my French balcony suite where not only is my luggage waiting for me but so is a plate of chocolate-covered strawberries and my very own well-chilled bottle of Ninth Island sparkler.
I slip off my wet shoes and clothes and put on slippers and a robe, open the sliding glass doors to let in the bracing sea air, and pop the Tasmanian bubbly, thinking, rain or no rain we’re off to a good start, the Orion and I.
Tomorrow: Igor’s Chocolate Factory