A stay on board Ponant’s relatively new icebreaker vessel, Le Commandant Charcot, reveals sophisticated technology and expedition capabilities – combined with a refined design aesthetic and all the features one would expect of a luxury hotel.
In 2021, at a time when the cruise industry continued to be in a state of uncertainty and major disruption, luxury French cruise company Ponant launched Le Commandant Charcot – the world’s only luxury icebreaker vessel.
As the first Polar Class 2 vessel ever built, the company had been carefully researching and planning her development since 2015.
During a brief stopover in Christchurch, New Zealand, at the halfway point of a round Antarctica journey from Argentina, I joined a group of Australian and New Zealand travel media, trade and senior Ponant executives including Asia Pacific Chairman Sarina Bratton, AM and newly appointed Asia Pacific CEO, Chris Hall on board for an overnight stay on the 245-guest Le Commandant Charcot at the port of Lyttelton.
In my Deluxe Suite on Deck 6, I’m enveloped in a calming colour palette of taupe, slate, mocha and Wedgewood blue. Subtle curved lines of furniture, decorative, smokey resin glass vases and detailed photos of icebergs and ice sheets adorning the walls create a subdued, elegant atmosphere.
Luxurious textures abound – from the woollen carpet beneath my feet; the premium cotton sheets; the oatmeal-coloured, leather-clad wardrobe and cabinet doors; to the fluffy white towels and robes.
The brand’s French origins permeate, with a series of luxury French brands including juices by Alain Milliat; teas by Palais des Thes from Paris; amenities by Parisian brand Diptyque; Grey Goose Vodka – and an ice bucket on the ready, with Veuve Clicquot Champagne just a call away via your butler. Still and sparkling sustainable water is available in your room, with NORDAQ filters allowing Ponant to small-batch filter seawater during their sailings to convert to drinking water, reducing its carbon footprint and emissions.
The ship’s interior design was led by two world-renowned French architectural firms: the Studio Jean-Philippe Nuel and Wilmotte & Associés. Their brief was to create a connection for guests to surrounding landscapes.
The decks are adorned with 300 contemporary artworks, including a large, circular wall sculpture on Deck 5 titled ‘Two Kinds of People’ by Corine Van Voorbergen 2021; and an impressive, vertical digital mural titled ‘Oscillations 2021’ by Miguel Chevalier which is visible from the glass lifts that transport guests between the nine decks. Walking the corridors, I pass large photographs of not only landscapes but the faces of people from the Inuit culture of the Arctic and sub-Arctic regions.
Of the ship’s 123 suites and staterooms, the top offering is the Suite de l’Armateur (Shipowner’s Suite) on Deck 8 (cabin 840), occupying a generous 115 square metres and including a dining room, living room, master bedroom, large bathroom with private soaking tub and a 186 square metre terrace that includes a Jacuzzi. On Level 6, there is also the two-level Duplex Suite at 94 square metres.
Public spaces and facilities
Tucked away on Deck 9 is a serene spa that features three treatments rooms as well as a sauna – and even a snow room. Spend your time traversing between these contrasting hot and cold zones to aid circulation etc. I’m quickly regretting that I didn’t bring my bathers!
A heated indoor swimming pool and skylight at the Nuan Wellness Lounge offers a place of relaxation, with an adjoining detox bar with recliners that overlook the ocean.
Performances and guest lectures are held in the 270-person Kita Theatre on Deck 5; while quiet moments can be found in the Observation Lounge (Anori) and Library on Deck 9; or the Cigar Lounge on Deck 5.
Due to the ship’s design, you can walk all the way around the ship and to the bow on an uninterrupted promenade that is furnished with benches heated by energy recovery.
Prior to dinner, we are treated to an afternoon of French Kaviari caviar and servings of ‘giant pavlova’ at the Main Lounge on Deck 5.
Afterwards, we head to the refined Nuna restaurant on Deck 5, with cuisine curated by acclaimed French chef, Alain Ducasse.
I’m seated on Ligne Roset furniture at the Captain’s Table, with Captain Stanislas Devorsine and Ponant Chairman Asia Pacific, Sarina Bratton AM who explains this is the first restaurant at sea by Ducasse, who comes on board regularly to oversee the culinary operations.
Addressing the group, Bratton speaks of the pioneering spirit of the French company, led by co-founder Jean Emmanuel Sauvée.
I’m also seated next to the delightful Sue Flood, award-winning wildlife photographer whose career has seen her working at the BBC and with Sir David Attenborough on wildlife documentaries. On select itineraries, Sue and fellow, photographer colleague Ian Dawson (who has photographed members of the British Royal Family) will be on board with guests to guide them in the art of photographing the dramatic landscapes and awe-inspiring wildlife encounters of the Arctic.
She recalls a recent moment at sea during a recent cruise through the Arctic where the skilled Captain saw an opening on an ice sheet that led them to quietly and safely glide through the ice to stop near a mother polar bear and cub. The mother bear, says Sue, felt so relaxed that she sat down on the ice and began to nurse her cub. Flood, who in the past has camped in the Arctic for five weeks while filming documentaries, said the moment bought tears to her eyes.
“I’ve never seen anything like it,” she passionately declares.
Breakfast is a more casual affair at Sila on Deck 9, where you can start your day by choosing from the fresh fruits, yoghurt, hot foods, cold cuts and abundant Lenôtre pastries baked daily on board – and sip on fruit juice, espresso coffee, tea – or champagne.
Ship design and sustainability
During a detailed presentation, Captain Stanislas Devorsine outlined the design, technical capabilities and numerous sustainable features of Le Commandant Charcot.
The ship features the most advanced technology of any in the Ponant fleet, with a hybrid electric Liquid Natural Gas (LNG) propulsion system.
Captain Devorsine passionately explained the cutting-edge innovations which include the latest generation of dual fuel engines; an advanced garbage and sewage treatment system that allows the ship to operate for 30 days with all waste treated and stored; the first icebreaker in the world to feature stabilisers in its hulls; rigorously tested polar survival equipment; and its superior performance and manoeuvrability in ice.
The ship, capable of reaching the geographic North Pole, is purpose-built to be completely self-sufficient in the far-reaching territories of the Arctic and the Antarctic, and is Certified ‘Cleanship’ by Bureau Veritas.
“Le Commandant Charcot is mind blowing,” said Captain Devorsine.
“I’ve been on six icebreakers during my career, and this is one of the best of my life. I’ve been amazed by its endurance, with this level of comfort, and its performance in the ice. Nothing is comparable to Le Commandant Charcot,” he said.