“More Bordeaux, madame, to go with your langouste sabayon?”
(Wonder if we could have just a little more of that Brie and goat cheese too?) The French cheeses alone would be worth cruising on this vessel!
And, for a moment, lunching on this very French little ship, it feels as if we really are cruising on L’Austral.
We’ve been invited (along with other travel writers and agents) to tour L’Austral while it’s in port in Vancouver for the day. The ship is operated by Ponant.
Now, if you’re French, you may know about the Ponant cruise line, which is a French cruise line. (But if you’re French, you’re probably not reading this, nes’t ce pas?)
If you’re Canadian (or American – we like to be inclusive), you may not have heard of Ponant, because they haven’t made a big effort to make themselves known here in North America until recently.
Here’s a little of what we learned about Ponant Cruises:
Good things come in small ships
Ponant Cruises has several small ships. Le Ponant is the company’s first ship and the smallest – she’s a three-masted yacht accommodating just 64 passengers. And, yes, she actually sails.
Others are more traditional power yachts that look like cruise ships (but really small ones). Le Lyrial has 122 staterooms; L’Austral and its two other sister ships are all the same size, with 132 staterooms each.
New to the scene are luxury expedition ships like Le Laperouse (launched in 2018).
L’Austral is like a smartly-dressed Parisian.
No flashy colors or bling. She’s dressed in taupe and cream. Accessory décor is minimal and stylish (we love the leather-covered closet doors with leather straps for handles).
Ponant calls the design “sober elegance.” If you were to ask us though, it’s not really sober – perhaps they mean “subdued elegance”?
Ponant Cruises is egalitarian
You know how some cruise ships have a whole range of accommodations, from “inside” cabins with no portholes or windows to splashy suites with large balconies and butlers bringing you champagne and appies at 5:00 pm?
If you’re one of those inside cabin passengers, you tell yourself you’re a happy camper because you saved a pile of dough by snagging the cheapest berth. But truth be told, you feel like a mole. And you kinda envy all those people who get to lounge around in their bathrobes, waking up slowly as they sip their morning café au lait on their balcony, breathing in the fresh sea air, because if you want a coffee, you have to shower and get dressed and climb six flights of stairs to reach the dining room, and that just seems a little unfair.
Well, there’s no cabin-envy on Ponant’s ships – if L’Austral is any indication.
Because all staterooms, except for eight, have a balcony. And those without a balcony are bigger (so there). All the staterooms are the same too (a good-sized 200 square feet), except for four (and one of those is the owner’s suite, which doesn’t count, because you usually have to be the owner to stay there).
You can shower with a view
The bathrooms are very nifty (at least on L’Austral). First, there are two separate rooms – one for la toilette and one for the shower and sink. And second, the shower-and-sink room has a glass window separating it from the stateroom, so you can see right through your balcony door to the outside.
Imagine singing in the shower while watching icebergs in Antarctica float by!
And if you’re modest, no worries – there’s a privacy screen you can close to cover the glass window.
Where do they not cruise?
Ponant covers the globe. Alaska. Antarctica. Along the Andes Cordillera mountain ranges. The Cape Verde islands off the western coast of Africa. Around Japan. To the glaciers and geysers of Iceland.
Ponant offers some of the most unusual and exciting itineraries we’ve seen.
Expect cruises to be experientally rich.
Many include all shore excursions and have great guest lecturers too (like Michel Rocard, the former French prime minister and ambassador for International Negotiations on the Poles; Emmy Award winning violinist Richard O’Neil; international bestselling writer and journalist Simon Winchester; and Luc Ferry, a political scientist, philosopher and former French Minister of Youth, Education and Research – ladies, take note, Luc is very easy on the eyes).
The power yachts are ice-rated to cruise in the polar regions, and they use Zodiacs for landings.
But comfort, soft-touch service and luxury are emphasized, so we expect the Antarctic, South Georgia and other expedition cruises wouldn’t be too physically challenging. (You shouldn’t be rolling around on high seas like on a Russian ice-breaker.)
You can have your cake – and eat it too
No excuses! Last night’s dessert may be a Grand Cru Valrhona dark chocolate delight. But it doesn’t have to pad your hips.
On all of Ponant’s power yachts, the gyms are large and inviting. They have panoramic views of the horizon, with state-of-the-art equipment (including a fancy Kenesis Wall – a station where you can pump up your muscles).
Then after you’ve worked off those calories, you can reward yourself in the Turkish hammam or balneotherapy room (on Le Boreal and L’Austral) – or with a good old-fashioned massage if you prefer.
“We have very clean ships,” says Navin Sawhney, Ponant’s chief operating officer, who has flown in from New York for today’s event.
“We don’t discharge black water into the ocean. We use sonar – if we come across a pod of whales, we turn the engines off so we don’t disturb them. All our lighting is LED. And if we’re in the Great Barrier Reef or a national park with ice gardens, we don’t drop anchor and damage the coral or seabed. We put on the dynamic positioning system to stay steady and keep our mooring.”
Part of the reason Ponant is so green is that they have the youngest fleet afloat.
Don’t just take our word for it though
We think L’Austral is pretty bon chic, bon genre (French slang for “good style, good attitude”).
Other people think so too. Ponant has won a slew of awards, like “Best Cruise Line (Expedition)” in the 2018 Gold List Awards and “Best Small Cruise Ship (Line)” in the 2017 Travel Weekly Magellan Awards.