“More Bordeaux, madame, to go with your langouste sabayon?”
Perhaps we could please have just a little more of that Brie and goat cheese too?
The French cheeses and wines alone are worth cruising on this very French little ship!
How could we not start off our Ponant Cruises review by raving about the wining and dining?
Ponant Cruises review
We write a lot about cruises and cruise travel.
We’d been invited (along with other travel writers and agents) to tour L’Austral and enjoy lunch aboard the ship while it was in port in Vancouver for the day.
Since then, we’ve cruised on Le Boreal from Vancouver to Acapulco.
Both ships are operated by Ponant (Compagnie du Ponant).
Now, if you’re French, you may know about the Ponant cruise line, which is a French cruise line. It’s the world’s only French cruise line, with a fleet of small cruise ships all flying under the French flag.
(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.
That’s because they haven’t made too huge an effort to make themselves known here in North America until recently.
Here’s our Ponant Cruises review:
Good things come in small Ponant ships
The Ponant fleet has several small deluxe ships.
Original sailing ship
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!
Traditional power yachts
Then there are four 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 (Le Soleal and Le Boreal) are all the same size, with 132 staterooms each.
Ponant Explorer class ships
In 2018 and 2019, Ponant launched four new luxury expedition ships – Le Laperouse, Le Champlain, Le Bougainville and Le Dumont d’Urville.
The newest ships in the Explorer class are the two expedition ships, Le Jacques Cartier and Le Bellot, each with a passenger capacity of 180. Their Ponant maiden voyages were in 2020 and 2022, respectively.
These six Explorer ships have 92 staterooms and suites each.
Ponant Polar Explorer ship
A new ice-breaking expedition vessel, Le Commandant-Charcot, debuted in September, 2021.
Named after Jean-Baptiste Charcot (who led the first French Antarctic expedition in the early 1900s), she can take you to the North and South Poles.
She is the world’s first hybrid-electric polar exploration ship, powered by liquified natural gas.
Drinking water is produced from seawater using a sophisticated water conversion process, and no waste is discharged at sea.
In lay speak, this all means the expediton ship is very “clean” and eco-friendly.
During polar expeditions, she also hosts scientific researchers onboard to help in the study of polar exploration and preservation.
Paul Gauguin Cruises
Ponant also operates the Paul Gauguin cruise ship in Tahiti and French Polynesia. The cruise company took over Paul Gauguin Cruises in 2019.
(To read what it’s like on Paul Gaugin Cruises, see our post on the best Tahiti cruises.)
Ponant review: L’Austral
The L’Austral ship is like a smartly-dressed Parisian.
No flashy colors or bling. This beautiful ship is dressed in taupe and cream.
Accessory décor is minimal and stylish. We especially 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”?
The Ponant cruise line 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.
All Ponant staterooms on the six Explorer class ships have balconies or terraces.
On L’Austral, all except eight staterooms have a balcony. And those without a balcony are bigger (so there).
Also, on L’Austral, all the staterooms are the same too (a good-sized 200 square feet), except for four cabins. (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 on the Ponant cruise ships.
Let’s take L’Austral again.
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.
The Ponant underwater lounge
Oh, we love this – it’s a world first for cruising…
The six Explorer class ships boast an underwater multi-sensory lounge (aka the Blue Eye lounge).
Peer out two huge glass portholes (shaped like the eyes of a whale) while sipping drinks and reliving the day’s cruising adventures.
The sounds of the sea are also transmitted into the lounge through hydrophones.
Where do they not cruise?
Ponant covers the globe.
Alaska. Antarctica. The Northwest Passage and the North Pole. Along the Andes Cordillera mountain ranges. The Cape Verde islands off the western coast of Africa. Around Japan. Ports of call around Japan. New Zealand. To the glaciers and geysers of Iceland.
Ponant offers some of the most unusual and exciting itineraries we’ve seen!
As the fleet only has smaller ships, they can go places larger cruise ships simply can’t reach.
Expect cruises to be experientially rich. Many include all shore excursions.
And they have great guest lecturers too.
They’ve featured Michel Rocard, the former French prime minister and ambassador for International Negotiations on the Poles.
Emmy award-winning violinist Richard O’Neil has been a guest lecturer too.
And let’s not forget the 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. The Explorer class ships use Zodiacs too.
But comfort, soft-touch service and luxury are emphasized.
We expect the Antarctic, South Georgia and other expedition cruises shouldn’t be too physically challenging. (You won’t be rolling around on the high seas like on a Russian ice-breaker.)
You can have your cake – and eat it too
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).
Trust us. You’ll want to work out. The classic French cuisine onboard is simply too good to resist. It’s fine dining of the highest quality.
Then after you’ve worked off those calories in the fitness center, 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 mentioned above that Ponant’s new Le Commandant Charcot is particularly eco-friendly.
Actually, all ships in Ponant’s fleet have made great efforts to be friendly to the environment.
They’ve all been awarded the international “Clean Ship” label.
They use less heavy fuel oil (and favor liquified natural gas) and the refrigerant gas used for air-conditioning has no impact on the ozone layer.
“We have very clean ships,” explains Navin Sawhney, Ponant’s CEO for the Americas.
“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.
Other Ponant cruise reviews
We think L’Austral and Le Boreal are pretty bon chic, bon genre (French slang for “good style, good attitude”).
Don’t just take our word for it though. Other people think so too.
Check out other Ponant reviews and comments by guests here.
Ponant has also won a slew of awards.
The line was the top winner in the “Best Small Ship” category in Conde Nast Traveler’s 2022 Readers’ Choice Awards. And it made Travel + Leisure’s list of “10 Best Intimate-Ship Ocean Cruise Lines” (2022).
In 2020, it captured a spot among the “Top 10 Boutique Ships” (for Le Bougainville, Le Dumont D’Urville and Le Champlain) from the Berlitz cruising guide.
Ponant was also recognized as the “Best Luxury Cruise Line for Adventure” in 2019 by CruiseCritic.
That wraps up our review of Ponant Cruises!
We’re ready to stow away on another Ponant cruise ship.
Want to join us?
Photo credits: 17, 19 © Janice and George Mucalov, SandInMySuitcase | Remaining images Ponant