French luxury cruise line Ponant masters the art of gourmet food, fine wine and la belle vie on a memorable sailing from Portugal to France
Rows of crystal wine glasses glint in the light of a pale spring sunset as a battalion of waiters, dressed in gold epaulette-trimmed ship whites, welcomes us from behind magnums of 1999 Chateau Latour. Outside the window, I can see the 17th century tower that is the symbol of this legendary Bordeaux First Growth winery.
“There can be no better place to taste one of the finest wines on earth than on this Ponant ship in the Gironde Estuary right in front of our chateau,” says Latour’s marketing director, Jean Garandeau. “The Gironde plays such an important role in helping us create our wines. And the weather is always glorious when Ponant moors out front.”
Not only that, chef Pascal Feraud and his team from Alain Ducasse’s iconic Jules Verne Restaurant in the Eiffel Tower have handcrafted a sublime menu to complement the wines.
Admittedly, this is a special occasion – the 30th anniversary of the founding of French luxury cruise line Ponant. And Jean-Emmanual Sauvee, one of the company’s founders and its current CEO, is on board with his family to celebrate. Great wine, great food, great company and great views. What more could you want?
This evening, however, is just one of many extraordinary events that Ponant has curated for us. Four gala dinners, each one more remarkable than the last, knowledgeable and engaging lecturers at the pinnacle of their professions in wine, cheese and the French art de vivre, a world-class French jazz band, and specially tailored wine and cultural excursions all combine to make this a unique and memorable cruise.
Ponant has developed an enviable reputation for creating one-off, first-class, expedition-style experiences wherever they sail across the seven seas.
While this wine and food celebration may not be a trailblazing voyage to one of the far corners of the earth, it is a distillation – a drilling down, if you will – into the very essence of French savoir-faire. As such, it is as fascinating to this Australian Francophile as a cruise in the Antarctic or Amazon.
It also reveals something else quite precious, which is Ponant’s desire to share its heritage with its loyal clientele. Taken together, these elements speak volumes about the special quality of the world’s only luxury French cruise line.
The company has come a long way in 30 years. The name ‘Ponant’ has two meanings: one refers to the smattering of whimsical and windswept islands off the coast of Brittany and the other comes from the Latin term referring to the West, and by extension, parts unknown.
It was the passion project of a few young officers of the French merchant navy who had the idea to create an expedition cruise line that embodied the very best of French class. Today, it is owned by Francois Pinault’s Groupe Artemis, which also counts Gucci, Yves Saint Laurent, Christie’s auction house and Chateau Latour among its stable of luxury companies.
And, as it happens, not only does Ponant have roots in Brittany but so does its CEO Mr Sauvee, its new owner Francois Pinault and the captain of Le Soleal, Patrick Marchesseau.
Renowned as the captain of another Ponant ship that survived a Somali pirate hostage ordeal, Marchesseau is an engaging presence throughout the voyage. Wearing a wide range of always-elegant captain’s uniforms (note to self, find out if Ponant has an insider deal with Saint Laurent), he hosts guests at the captain’s table each evening, announces the sailing conditions and, as we cruise down the Gironde in the early morning, he points out the famous chateaux we pass.
Most charming of all, he hosts a personal introduction to Ile d’Aix, the Ponant island closest to his heart and where he first learned to sail.
Even the ship’s doctor embodies an enviable expertise. A pain-management specialist who did his thesis on sea sickness, Michel Guez has twice sailed around the world unassisted and is a fascinating dinner companion whose conversation ranges from Roman history and French politics to the most exotic places to go diving.
So, what specifically distinguishes Ponant amid the multitude of cruise ships that ply the oceans today?
First of all, Ponant ships are, what the company likes to call, “human size”. This 30th anniversary cruise is on Le Soleal, which at 142 metres has just 132 staterooms and suites. While this clearly makes for an intimate experience on board, it also means that Ponant ships can sail into smaller, more remote harbours that are inaccessible to larger ships. Sleek and elegant, Le Soleal attracts many admiring glances from the shore, such as when she is moored in the heart of Bordeaux, near the neo-classical Place de la Bourse.
Secondly, while this cruise may be more of a sashay through the heart of French food and wine, Ponant is a trailblazer in expedition cruising. Indeed, the company has been leading polar expeditions for 20 years. It may be surprising, but this very ship where I am savouring the finest wines with Michelin-star-quality meals, was the first French cruise ship to navigate the Northwest Passage from Greenland to Siberia in 2013.
Six brand new luxury Explorer ships, each with world-first underwater ship lounges, will be launched over the next several years and the first luxury ice-breaker on the planet (an environmentally sensitive electric hybrid ship) will come into service in 2021.
Last but not least, there is that intangible element of savoir-faire called “the French touch”. Starting with the cuisine and the wine (9000 bottles are on board Le Soleal) as well as Veuve Clicquot champagne, Ladurée pastries and a remarkable array of specially selected artisanal cheeses, gourmet fare is standard on all Ponant ships.
From the contemporary elegance of the décor to the smart blue-and-white crew uniforms, an understated French style permeates all elements of shipboard life. Hermès products are used exclusively in the cabins and the spa – with its serene treatment rooms, hair salon, hammam and exercise room – features skin care from Sothys Paris.
The staff are bilingual and all presentations are made in both French and English (except for a few English-speaking-only cruises in Australia and the South Pacific). This bilingual context attracts a broader multinational clientele – on our cruise, 17 different nationalities are on board – which means that cross-cultural experiences start the moment you leave your cabin.
For the past two years, the consulting team from multiple-Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse has overseen the restaurants on all Ponant ships. From home-made salmon gravlax with honey-dill mustard sauce or seaweed steamed seabass with shellfish and potatoes to lamb shank simmered in sweet spices followed by a chocolate tart with coffee Chantilly cream, every meal is sublime. And there are always surprises such as a sparkling fresh seafood buffet or barbecue lunch served poolside, not to mention the luxury of breakfast in bed whenever you want.
Charming and eloquent cruise director Axelle Lion introduces and supervises each of the gourmet and cultural excursions as well as the fascinating lectures on board. Between our embarkation in Lisbon and debarkation in Lorient on the southern coast of Brittany, we have stops in Porto and Bilbao before an extended stay in the wine mecca of Bordeaux and a relaxing day on Ile d’Aix.
And when we are sailing the high seas, Professor Jean Robert Pitte entertains passengers with his fascinating discourses on the role wine plays in mythology and culture, sommelier Pierre Charles Gandilhon offers a tasting of sublime Burgundian Chardonnays, and master cheese-ager Bernard Antony tantalises us with the finest French cheeses.
In Bordeaux, we can choose expeditions such as a private dinner at art-filled chateau Smith Haut Lafitte, an exclusive visit to Second Growth Cos d’Estournel in the Medoc, a wine and chocolate tasting at chateau de Ferrand and the opportunity to explore the UNESCO World Heritage-listed wine village of Saint Emilion.
The Porto stop includes a city tour plus visit and tasting at Taylor’s Port. There is a choice of visiting Frank Gehry’s Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao or touring the Rioja wine-making region with a visit and tasting at Bodega Marques de Riscal and lunch in the medieval village of La Guardia.
And always, Le Soleal’s serene luxury yacht-like ambiance welcomes us home. Our beige on beige, space-efficient cabin is immaculately maintained by our delightful Balinese cabin attendant, tea and pastries await in the Main Lounge, and when it’s warm and sunny we relax by the pool, indulge in our “open” mini-bar champagne on our cabin’s private deck, or sip a gin and tonic in the Observation Lounge with its 180-degree views.
Then, there’s time to freshen up and slip into something elegant for cocktails to the swinging sounds of the Christian Morin jazz band before dinner.
One gala dinner stands out above the rest. Chef Stéphane Duchiron and the staff from Ducasse’s Ore restaurant at Chateau de Versailles offer an exquisite re-imagining of what the Sun King Louis XIV might have served his guests. Purple-jacketed waiters offer chilled langoustines with gold-leaf caviar and tiny vegetables in sorrel sauce, guinea fowl and duck foie gras with black truffles in pastry, and a gold-leaf chocolate bar alongside wild strawberries and lemon sorbet.
A sublime 2012 Bordeaux Second Growth chateau Gruaud Larose, the so-called “wine of kings and the king of wines” is just one of the fine wines served.
Several days later, we feast on freshly shucked oysters with local white wine outside a simple oyster shack on Ile d’Aix. Captain Marchesseau and his wife are laughing at the next table with Ponant’s CEO and his family. All’s right with the world in the spring sunshine beside the shimmering sea.
There is always a place for gold-leaf service in the luxury travel world. And Ponant has certainly earned its stripes offering experiential luxury in the most remote regions of the planet.
But, drawing aside the curtain and inviting guests to share a much-loved, tucked-away island takes the concept of what is worth valuing to another level entirely. In its very name after all, Ponant is about savouring the soul of seafaring, both close to home and on far horizons.