The recent sale of Orient Lines' only ship, the Marco Polo, seemed to signal the death knell for the exploration cruise line.
That is, until Wayne Heller, the founder of the Cruises Only agency, surfaced last month with the news that he had purchased the Orient brand and was on the lookout for a ship.
Heller, despite years in the travel industry, at first glance seems an unlikely figure to lead the renaissance of the shipless line. The 51-year-old Floridian was most recently running a 48-acre, standardbred horse training facility north of Orlando.
But, Heller said: "My lifelong ambition has always been to own a cruise line.
"I'm from South Florida, and I happened to be around in the '60s when the birth of the cruise industry occurred."
The delay in realizing his dream was a noncompete clause he was bound to when he left Cruises Only in 2000. He had sold the company, which he started in 1984, to a U.K.-based firm, MyTravel, in 1997, and stayed on for three years as president and board member.
Once he was able to, he started looking for a cruise brand. He inquired about Windstar Cruises, but it was sold to Ambassadors International. Shortly after that, he read an article about NCL Corp. selling the Marco Polo. Once the ship was sold, to U.K-based Transocean Tours, he approached Star Cruises about the brand.
"They were willing to allow it to continue," Heller said. "My only goal was to continue the brand. I didn't want it to die."
Heller opened the line's new offices in Orlando last week, and he said he would make an announcement about a new flagship for the line in the next month.
Orient, founded in 1991, made its name by taking its small, upscale cruise ship to far-flung destinations such as Antarctica and Asia. It operated the 42-year-old Marco Polo; for a time it also operated the Crown Odyssey, the former Norwegian Crown.
Heller said he planned to revitalize, not reinvent, the line. His plan is to acquire two or three 600- to 800-passenger ships. He hopes to have a Philippine crew, which he said former Orient guests raved about, and to continue to be a destination specialist.
The line is expected to begin service in April, Heller said, with itineraries in Europe and North Africa. He plans to take the ship to less-visited destinations, like England's Lake District and Szczecin, a Polish city an hour from Berlin.
"One of the things I like about Orient is we really don't have a competitor," he said. "We will be a four-star product, but we will be a lot less expensive than Oceania. Who else has 600- to 800-passenger ships? They are out there but not catering to U.S. guests at the value we will offer."
Among the planned changes will be three or four restaurants, including a bar that serves sandwiches and snacks, rather than one main dining room.
As for any fears about starting a line during shaky economic times, Heller's entrepreneurial spirit has not died. "Every cruise line has had to take risks," he said.