By Madeleine Stratton
I flew from Sydney to Noumea to join Compagnie du Ponant’s ship L’Austral for part of the New Caledonia to Australia leg of a voyage that commenced from Marseille. I arrived at lunchtime on Saturday, a few hours before L’Austral’s embarkation commenced at 4pm, to a tropical ghost town. Most of the shops closed, hardly any people about, Noumea was having a siesta – so I was itching to explore the ship and get out onto open water.
Stepping out of the tropical heat of Noumea onto the sleek, grey and air-conditioned L’Austral was heavenly. Although L’Austral was built in Italy, she is thoroughly French (the friendly “Bonjour”s echoing from the sta are a dead giveaway) and so too were most of the guests on board (over 90 per cent during our seven-night voyage). The staff speak French (and many of them are) but they do also speak English, and it wasn’t long before most of them were reverting to a “hello” for me instead.
L’Austral is built in the style of a super-yacht and has been internationally recognised with a “Green Ship” label for its eco-friendly practices like reduced exhaust emissions, onboard waste treatment and a dynamic positioning system which allows it to avoid dropping anchor in sensitive marine areas. With only 132 staterooms and suites onboard she carries no more than 264 passengers meaning you receive plenty of attention from the staff, and there’s always someone nearby who can attend to any query or whim you might have.
The ship’s interiors, designed by architect Jean-Philippe Nuel, are elegant with luxurious details, from the chandelier at reception comprised of threaded crystals suspended between two decks, to the twinkling Swarovski Pearl ceiling of Le Coromandel restaurant on deck two. And from within the ship’s restaurants, bars and guest rooms, a muted neutral palette is the chorus behind the lead, expansive views of the richly blue coral sea.
My Prestige Stateroom was elegantly appointed and comfortable, albeit more snug than your average five-star hotel room at 200 square feet (about 18.5 square metres). Plenty of storage space and cleverly arranged furniture means you stop noticing very quickly (and if you require or desire more space two staterooms can be converted into a suite with one remaining a bedroom and the other becoming a lounge area). A special mention has to go out to the supremely comfortable bed – that, combined with the gentle rocking of the docked ship, was a recipe for a heavenly sleep on the first night. And all but eight of the staterooms and suites have private balconies, mine was the perfect spot for relaxed reading and an opportunity to enjoy the fresh air and refreshing salty spray from the sea.
Throughout the journey the days would be peppered with loudspeaker announcements from Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire or cruise director Kamel Hamitouche, keeping guests aware of the times, meeting points and procedures for onshore activities (each night after dinner I’d return to my room to and the next day’s schedule waiting for me). After a night and another day in Noumea our first stop and onshore activity was the stunningly beautiful Ile des Pins. I grabbed a snorkel and flippers from Kamel and headed out on a tender across the clear turquoise water and was greeted on the dock with a traditional dance by the local islanders. The island is lush and green, the waters are warm and the snorkelling fantastic, particularly in the waters of sheltered Kanumera Bay where tropical fish were teeming amongst an array of coral formations.
Having worked up a suffcient appetite, it was back on board for lunch at Le Rodrigues, the ship’s second restaurant up on deck six (the pool deck). Lunch is buffet-style and themed daily – one day I was dining on Mediterranean style cuisine and the next day it was Asian (breakfast at both restaurants is also buffet).
Everything is freshly made onboard (even down to the croissants and pain au chocolat at breakfast) and fresh produce is sourced at nearly every port. There’s an extensive wine selection (and there are some excellent house wines included in the fare). Le Coromandel is down below on deck two, and its windows are just above the water level, making for one particularly exciting dinner when the ship was making a sharp turn and the waves were crashing against them. Le Coromandel was my favourite of the two restaurants – the dinners there are à la carte and the menu changes daily. Highlights for me were the Potage Parisien parfume au gingembre (ginger, leek and potato cream soup) and the mignon de veau de lait (milk veal tenderloin, served with mushroom ragout and port wine veal jus).
L’Austral spent three days at sea after Ile des Pins. She may be a small ship but I certainly had no trouble keeping myself occupied. Between the fine dining there were trips to the hammam at the ship’s Sothys Spa, sessions with the Nintendo Wii in the gaming area, several good books and organised fun like “Bingo bingo bingo”. (I thought it might be a bit cheesy but it turned out to be good fun, and my fiercely competitive streak took over leaving me disappointed when I did not emerge from the lounge with the jackpot winnings.)
The ship was due to arrive first at Townsville but had to change course as a mini-tornado had passed through the city causing damage. It was straight on to Cairns, and there I said my goodbyes to L’Austral – the ship would go on through the Great Barrier Reef and up to Darwin over another seven nights but for me, tanned and thoroughly relaxed, it was time for a short flight back home.