PONANT’s Arctic Expeditions Now On Sale

By Staff Writer

Guests are now able to book their cruises for PONANT’s Arctic 2021 tour on polar exploration vessel Le Commandant-Charcot. The hybrid electric ship will be the first to bring guests to the geographic North Pole at 90 degrees latitude north.

Continuing to the eastern coast of Greenland, the Northwest Passage, the Ross Sea, the Charcot and Peter I islands, the revolutionary vessel will treat guests to brand new itineraries in regions usually inaccessible to classically-designed ships. Innovative routing software makes it possible for Le Commandant-Charcot to slip through the naturally-created channels in the ice, while the ship’s powerful engines allow it to free itself, if necessary, from denser sea ice.

It has additionally been designed to minimise its environmental impact and will also host a scientific research laboratory to study the ecosystems and the biodiversity of these polar settings. This PONANT addition is the first exploration vessel to surpass the ecological standards set out by international regulations.

Itineraries include the “In the Wake of Captain Jean-Baptiste Charcot” Expedition, which commences in Le Havre, France for a 14-night voyage through the Alftanes Peninsular in Iceland, the ice floes of Greenland and more; the “Geographic North Pole” Expedition which goes from Reykjavik, Iceland to Longyearbyen, Spitsbergen and follows the direction of the North Pole; and the “Discovering the Northeast Greenland National Park” Expedition, a trek in partnership with National Geographic Expeditions, that traces the nordic landscape for 13 days starting in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Additional itineraries, pricing and sales for PONANT’s Arctic 2021 tour are open now.

 

ponant.com/arctic

The Changing Face of Expedition Cruising

By David McGonigal

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

The words of 19th century travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson certainly have a romantic edge, but he was riding a donkey. When it comes to expedition cruising, the journey is as hopeful as it is inspiring, and arriving in wonderful places aboard remarkable ships is all part of the service.

Until 1966 expedition cruising didn’t really exist. In that year Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first tourist trip to Antarctica on an Argentinean naval vessel. In 1969 he launched his own vessel, the Lindblad Explorer, to explore the world’s wildest places. However, luxury on board wasn’t a vital part of the concept. The real luxury was that you were able to visit those remote parts of the world at all. While that’s still partly true, there’s a new era in expedition cruising that combines comfort and experience.

Expedition cruises visit many parts of the world including the Galapagos, the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and Australia’s Kimberley coast. But the core area remains the polar regions.

Until 1990 the number of tourists to Antarctica was tiny – a mere few hundred each year. Then the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed. The ice-strengthened ships of the Russian fleet found themselves underfunded and many were leased to take tourists (mainly from the United States but also Australia, the UK, Germany and Canada) to the poles, helping fund their scientifc programs for the rest of the year. It was the beginning of the polar travel boom.

Today, the second stage of expedition cruising has arrived. As many of the Russian expedition ships reached the end of their working lives, or came up against new clean-fuel requirements, they were retired. Meanwhile, travellers were demanding more comfort and expeditions with a butler service became a reality.

A popular destination of choice is the Galapagos Islands (and rightfully so), yet many of the regular expedition cruise operators don’t travel there. That’s because the Ecuadorean authorities restrict Galapagos cruising to local vessels. Standards vary widely, so if you’re looking for luxury, go with one of the established international cruise lines with vessels based in the region.

Quark Expeditions

One vessel still reflects the luxury of simply being able to do it: Quark’s nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, can take you through the ice to the North Pole. The ship is comfortable, not luxurious, and the 14-day voyage costs from US$28,713 (about A$39,400) for a twin cabin up to US$43,154 (about A$59,200) for an Arktika Suite.

quarkexpeditions.com/au

 

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

Among the most highly rated cruise ships in the world, according to the authoritative Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guide, is the Hanseatic, one of the two expedition ships of Hapag-Lloyd. The line’s older expedition ship, the Bremen, is rated four-stars. Hapag-Lloyd is a distinctly German operation, from the quality of its finish to the attention to detail. Also distinctly German is the organisation of local cruisers, meaning the ships are often booked out more than a year in advance. Hapag-Lloyd expedition ships operate mainly in the Arctic and Antarctic with some cruises in more temperate zones.

hl-cruises.com

 

National Geographic Expeditions

Many Australians discovered expedition cruising aboard Orion, our own luxury cruise ship, which spent much of its operation around Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast and into exotic Papua New Guinea. The vessel is now the National Geographic Orion and forms part of the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic partnership.

Others in the National Geographic fleet are National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion. Together, this fleet covers the polar regions, Patagonia, South America, Europe, the UK, Alaska, Central America and beyond. National Geographic Endeavour II and National Geographic Islander operate in the Galapagos Islands. Their most recently launched vessel, National Geographic Quest, tours Alaska and Costa Rica. National Geographic Venture is currently being constructed and set to launch October of 2018. These vessels all boast the unique selling point of having National Geographic photographers on board, which means plenty of expert advice.

au.expeditions.com

 

True North Adventure Cruises

Australia’s Kimberley does have an excellent vessel with a wealth of experience in these waters. True North, the only vessel in the True North Adventure Cruises (formerly North Star Cruises) fleet, is best known for carrying its own helicopter on board, opening up even more exploring options. Besides the Kimberley, True North also offers regular voyages in West Papua and Papua New Guinea as well as occasional cruises around the Australian coastline.

truenorth.com.au

 

Silversea

Silversea has four expedition vessels. The Silver Cloud was extensively refurbished and ice-strengthened last year, and in November will head to destinations such as Chile, Antarctica, and Argentina, carrying up to 260 passengers. As her name implies, the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos offers a series of seven-day voyages around the Galapagos Islands. The ice-strengthened 130-passenger Silver Explorer is a familiar sight in Antarctica and the Arctic, but turns up in Easter Island and Tahiti too. The 120-passenger Silver Discoverer includes the Kimberley in its largely Pacific schedule that extends from Kamchatka to Guadalcanal.

silversea.com

 

Ponant

French line Ponant is certainly visible in the Australian market these days. Indeed, Ponant can be found everywhere from the poles to Borneo and the Amazon. With four expedition ships, each accommodating about 260 guests, and characteristic French air, Ponant is rapidly gaining a strong Australian following. Ponant ships can be found in Alaska and Russia as well as the Arctic, Antarctica, throughout the Pacific and in Latin America.

au.ponant.com

Chasing the Sun in the Mediterranean

By Rob Mills

It’s a perfect spring evening on the Adriatic as our ship pulls away from the ancient preserved medieval Montenegrin port of Kotor bound for Dubrovnik, just 83 kilometres up the Croatian coast.

We’re sipping champagne at the pool deck bar, watching the fortified old town at the foot of the limestone Dinaric Alps grow smaller, when the gentle words of Captain Etienne Garcia are broadcast, urging his 250 “dear guests” to savour this “beautiful navigation”.

His ship, the French small luxury liner, Le Soléal, glides through the glassy, turquoise waters of the 28-kilometre long Bay of Kotor. It may look like a fjord but is, in fact, a ria or submerged river canyon. As we continue, two exquisite islets can be seen from the port side. One is Our Lady of the Rocks, which bears the 17th-century church of the same name. The other, Ostrvo Sveti Đorđe, is home to the 12th-century Saint George Benedictine monastery. Both are important pilgrim destinations.

Captain Garcia circles the striking islands before leaving the Bay of Kotor via the Verige Strait and its narrow 230-metre wide opening, giving some idea of the strategic importance of what was once thought to be Europe’s southernmost fjord. Fourteen days aboard Le Soléal exploring the ancient ruins of Southern Europe from Istanbul to Venice is a feast for the eyes, the intellect and – because this is a sophisticated French ship after all – a feast of the literal kind.

We are in fact being enthusiastically spoiled on APT’s 17-day Ancient Mediterranean luxury cruise from Athens and Istanbul to Venice. As well as two nights at Athens’ magnificent Hotel Grande Bretagne with its Parthenon, Parliament, Syntagma Square and Mount Lycabettus views, a packed itinerary includes Santorini, Mykonos, Canakkale, Gallipoli, Troy, Assos, Istanbul, Kepez, Kusadasi, Ephesus, the Corinth, Canal, Itea, Delphi, Kotor, Montenegro, Dubrovnik and Venice.

There’s another aspect to this 3,471-kilometre experience. APT has chartered Le Soléal, one of French cruise company Ponant’s four exploration and discovery ships, for Gallipoli’s 100th anniversary. This means Gallipoli is front and centre for a few days, before Le Soléal continues her Aegean (Aegean) and Adriatic exploration.

But while this cruise is a one-off, it is also a dry-run for APT’s 2016 Boutique Collection Cruising program between Venice and Istanbul, which includes the 15-day Aegean and Adriatic Seas cruise aboard Ponant’s newest ship, Le Lyrial (almost identical to Le Soléal), and the 15-day Adriatic & Aegean Odyssey aboard APT’s even smaller, 114-passenger luxury ship, MS Island Sky.

Gallipoli will still be on the itinerary but the emphasis will swing towards the Aegean and Adriatic ports, with an itinerary very similar to Le Soléal’s. It’s tempting to lounge around this sleek ship – thankfully casino-free – but Le Soléal and APT, with its “Freedom of Choice” excursions, focus on providing a sophisticated experience that includes an active engagement with its destinations.

And so we find ourselves diving from a traditional wooden caïque into the bracing Mediterranean to swim 60 metres into Santorini’s Nea Kameni, where sulphurous gases heat the water to 37 degrees. Next, we’re hiking to the top of nearby Palia Kameni, an active volcanic centre in Santorini’s circular archipelago. The awe-inspiring site was once a single volcano that erupted catastrophically 3600 years ago.

In Montenegro, we choose between kayaking, swimming and snorkelling in the picturesque Bay of Kotor, speedboating to the Lustica peninsula’s luminous Blue Caves to swim and sunbathe, walking the walled old town of Kotor, then climbing the zigzag path to St John’s church.

In Croatia, we must decide between a fascinating cycle in the wine and olive-growing valley outside Dubrovnik (including lunch, wine tasting and a crash course on Croatian history and culture), walking the old town, or navigating the ramparts Game of Thrones aficionados might recognise. It’s serious FOMO territory.

And don’t get me started on Istanbul. From the moment we glide into the Golden Horn, with the city’s minarets silhouetted against the sunrise, and dock beneath Topkapi Palace, we’re offered a cornucopia of choices.

Something we can all experience is a dawn crossing of the Corinth Canal. Our 18-metre-wide ship navigates the 21.4-metre wide, 6.4-kilometre high-walled channel that cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, slicing the Greek mainland from the Peloponnesian peninsula. Few cruise ships are small enough to manage the journey, making this a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be remiss to omit what some consider the raison d’etre of this cruise – the total immersion in the ancient world’s diverse civilisations that produced such wonders as Ephesus, Troy, Delphi, Assos and Delos. Not to mention Athens’ Acropolis, Parthenon, Emperor Hadrian’s Temple of Zeus, the Temple of Poseidon and many more.

It would be equally lax to gloss over shipboard life. Le Soléal’s interiors are sophisticated, with good use of neutral colours – sand, caramel, chocolate, pale aqua and cream. Paintings and sculptures have a nautical or galactic theme, with an eye-catching, two-deck sculptural “shoal of fish” in the role of central atrium light. And I defy you to stay awake in the theatre’s luxurious armchairs.

The 132 private-balcony cabins spread over four decks accommodate 264 guests (there’s lift access). Prestige staterooms are 22.6 square metres, with decent storage space, flat screen TV, desk, safe, air-conditioning, fridge and a shower with an optional glass screen so you can enjoy the view and your L’Occitane products simultaneously.

There’s butler service for Deck 6 guests and room service for all others. The ship’s spa operates in association with French beauty brand Sothys As the Med races past, Restaurant L’Eclipse serves excellent degustation-style a la carte dinners, with matched European wines and champagnes. Restaurant Le Pytheas, boasting outdoor seating on the pool deck, is more casual. Buffet-style dining is complemented by made-to-order hot meals and to-die-for desserts including delicate crèmes brulees and, a piece de resistance, chocolate and sugared-pistachio tart.

Breakfast is another treat – one you can order to your bed! Amazing croissants and pastries are a highlight. Room service is also available for dinner, though the lure of fine food and good conversation beyond your door is strong, which brings me to the bars. Galilee resides in the main lounge but it’s the airy Observation bar that lures us most strongly. Its huge skylight and wraparound glass offer the perfect setting for Bruno’s magnificent pre- and post-dinner cocktails and hors d’oeuvres, accompanied by the delicate sounds of concert pianist, Valentyn Smolianinoff

Le Soléal’s name is a combination of the French “sun” and “the one who shows the way.” It’s appropriate for this wonderful experience.

A Food Affair with Ponant

Ponant Le Soleal

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.

“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.”

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.

The Details

A nine-night Gastronomy, Vineyards and Grand Crus sailing from Lisbon to Portsmouth in a Superior Stateroom on board L’Austral (departing April 13, 2019) costs from AU$5960 per person, twin share. This includes a 25 per cent early booking saving. Rates for a Prestige Stateroom with balcony start at A$7170 per person, twin share. Prices include accommodation, all meals on board, 24-hour room service, port taxes and open bar. For bookings and more information, visit au.ponant.com.

Ponant unveils multi-sensory underwater experience on board Le Laperouse

French cruise line Ponant has announced the world’s first multi-sensory underwater lounge, which will debut on their expedition ship Le Laperouse next year. Located beneath the water line, the Blue Eye Underwater Lounge is designed to emulate the surrounding ocean, allowing guests “to ‘feel’ and be at the heart of an underwater world,” says the lounge architect Jacques Rougerie.

At the core of the experience are the visual displays. Two portholes shaped like whale’s eyes transform the ocean outside into a living aquarium, allowing guests to watch as the subaquatic world passes by. Integrated digital screens are also placed around the lounge, projecting live footage taken by the ship’s strategically placed underwater cameras. These enable observation of the seabed beneath the ship and spectacles above the water line such as dolphins playing in the bow waves.

[video:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PrrtltxvXU0 autoplay:0]

The walls will feature imagery of jellyfish

Guests can also listen to the underwater world thanks to hydrophones integrated beneath the keel which capture and transmit the sounds of marine animals throughout the lounge. To complete the multi-sensory experience, the lounge offers Body Listening sofas that produce vibrations in sync with the subaquatic soundtrack, allowing guests to feel even closer to the marine life they are observing.

After debuting on Le Laperouse the Blue Lounge will roll out on the three other yachts in the Ponant Explorer series and will be available to all guests at no extra charge.

en.ponant.com/

The Changing Face of Expedition Cruising

“To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive.”

The words of 19th century travel writer Robert Louis Stevenson certainly have a romantic edge, but he was riding a donkey. When it comes to expedition cruising, the journey is as hopeful as it is inspiring, and arriving in wonderful places aboard remarkable ships is all part of the service.

Until 1966 expedition cruising didn’t really exist. In that year Lars-Eric Lindblad led the first tourist trip to Antarctica on an Argentinean naval vessel. In 1969 he launched his own vessel, the Lindblad Explorer, to explore the world’s wildest places. However, luxury on board wasn’t a vital part of the concept. The real luxury was that you were able to visit those remote parts of the world at all. While that’s still partly true, there’s a new era in expedition cruising that combines comfort and experience.

Expedition cruises visit many parts of the world including the Galapagos, the Amazon, Papua New Guinea and Australia’s Kimberley coast. But the core area remains the polar regions.

Until 1990 the number of tourists to Antarctica was tiny – a mere few hundred each year.  Thn the Berlin Wall came down and the Soviet empire collapsed. The ice-strengthened ships of the Russian fleet found themselves underfunded and many were leased to take tourists (mainly from the United States but also Australia, the UK, Germany and Canada) to the poles, helping fund their scientifc programs for the rest of the year. It was the beginning of the polar travel boom.

Today the second stage of expedition cruising has arrived. As many of the Russian expedition ships reached the end of their working lives, or came up against new clean-fuel requirements, they were retired. Meanwhile, travellers were demanding more comfort and expeditions with a butler service became a reality.

A popular destination of choice is the Galapagos Islands (and rightfully so), yet many of the regular expedition cruise operators don’t travel there. That’s because the Ecuadorean authorities restrict Galapagos cruising to local vessels. Standards vary widely, so if you’re looking for luxury, go with one of the established international cruise lines with vessels based in the region.

 

The expedition crew

Quark Expeditions

One vessel still reflects the luxury of simply being able to do it: Quark’s nuclear-powered Russian icebreaker, 50 Years of Victory, can take you through the ice to the North Pole. The ship is comfortable, not luxurious, and the 14-day voyage costs from US$40,000 (about A$53,333) for a twin cabin up to US$60,000 (about A$80,000) for a suite. quarkexpeditions.com/au

 

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises

Among the most highly rated cruise ships in the world, according to the authoritative Berlitz Cruising and Cruise Ships guide, is the Hanseatic, one of the two expedition ships of Hapag-Lloyd. The line’s older expedition ship, the Bremen, is rated four-stars. Hapag-Lloyd is a distinctly German operation, from the quality of its finish to the attention to detail. Also distinctly German is the organisation of local cruisers, meaning the ships are often booked out more than a year in advance. Hapag-Lloyd expedition ships operate mainly in the Arctic and Antarctic with some cruises in more temperate zones. hl-cruises.com

 

National Geographic Expeditions

Many Australians discovered expedition cruising aboard Orion, our own luxury cruise ship, which spent much of its operation around Western Australia’s Kimberley Coast and into exotic Papua New Guinea. The vessel is now the National Geographic Orion and forms part of the Lindblad Expeditions/National Geographic partnership.

Others in the National Geographic fleet are National Geographic Explorer, National Geographic Sea Bird and National Geographic Sea Lion. Together, this fleet covers the polar regions, Patagonia, South America, Europe, the UK, Alaska, Central America and beyond. National Geographic Endeavour II and National Geographic Islander operate in the Galapagos Islands. Two new vessels are being constructed: National Geographic Quest (expected to be in Alaska by mid-year) and National Geographic Venture (due to launch in 2018). These vessels all boast the unique selling point of having National Geographic photographers on board, which means plenty of expert advice. au.expeditions.com

 

True North Adventure Cruises

Australia’s Kimberley does have an excellent vessel with a wealth of experience in these waters. True North, the only vessel in the True North Adventure Cruises (formerly North Star Cruises) fleet, is best known for carrying its own helicopter on board, opening up even more exploring options. Besides the Kimberley, True North also offers regular voyages in West Papua and Papua New Guinea as well as occasional cruises around the Australian coastline. truenorth.com.au

 

Silversea

Silversea has three expedition vessels and a fourth on the way. As her name implies, the 100-passenger Silver Galapagos offers a series of seven-day voyages around the Galapagos Islands. The ice-strengthened 130-passenger Silver Explorer is a familiar sight in Antarctica and the Arctic, but turns up in Easter Island and Tahiti too. The 120-passenger Silver Discoverer includes the Kimberley in its largely Pacific schedule that extends from Kamchatka to Guadalcanal. In November the extensively refurbished and ice-strengthened Silver Cloud will be heading to Antarctica for the season with just 200 passengers (though it will carry up to 260 else- where). Then, after some voyages in Europe, she will be in Spitsbergen before returning to Antarctica. silversea.com

 

Ponant

French line Ponant is certainly visible in the Australian market these days. Indeed, Ponant can be found everywhere from the poles to Borneo and the Amazon. With four expedition ships, each accommodating about 260 guests, and characteristic French air, Ponant is rapidly gaining a strong Australian following. Ponant ships can be found in Alaska and Russia as well as the Arctic, Antarctica, throughout the Pacific and in Latin America. au.ponant.com

Penguin sighting

On the horizon

The trend in expedition cruising has shifted from providing acceptable accommodation in exotic places to excellent service everywhere. Stand by for what’s next.

At least 12 new expedition ship builds have been ordered in the past 12 months. Two of these have been for Hapag-Lloyd, three for Crystal Cruises and four for Ponant. Last year, Crystal Cruises announced it will launch “the world’s first purpose-built polar class megayacht” to sail in August 2018. This will be the 200-passenger Crystal Endeavor and it will be as functional as it is beautiful.

The Crystal Endeavor will offer extreme adventures by air, sea and land with a complete range of toys not commonly found on today’s megayachts, including two helicopters and two landing pads for flightseeing expeditions, as well as two seven-person submarines, eight electric amphibious zodiacs, jet skis, wave runners, kayaks, paddleboards, snorkelling and scuba equipment, recompression chamber, dive support tender and a multi-person ATV. The Crystal Endeavor will also be equipped with SEABOBs – the world’s most technically advanced and powerful underwater scooter – that allow you to move gracefully underwater. crystalcruises.com

While Scenic is mainly known for luxury river cruises, it will be launching the very futuristic Scenic Eclipse in August 2018. It will operate at both ends of the earth as well as the Mediterranean and the Americas. A retractable glass roof and helicopters will ensure the 228 guests (restricted to 200 in Antarctica) make the most of their surrounds. scenic.com.au

 

Luxury Travel Hotspot: Cuba

Relaxed travel and trade restrictions between Cuba and the United States over the past two years have resulted in fervent interest in the previously isolated Caribbean island. While the main beneficiaries of the agreement have been American travellers, the launch of regularly scheduled commercial flights between the two countries is a reward reaped by all international tourists looking to tick Cuba off their bucket list.

But despite the increasing ease of travel there remains limited luxury resort and hotel offerings throughout the country. So, how can you travel to Cuba in style?
In late 2016, luxury cruise lines including North American cruise operator Regent Seven Seas and the French brand Ponant, received approval to offer voyages to Cuba. The resultant itineraries are a combination of offshore excursions that promise travellers an “authentic Cuban experience” from an all-inclusive luxury setting on board. Premier charter yacht company The Moorings has also launched an all-inclusive itinerary that will host up to 10 guests on a 58-foot sail catamaran, taking them from Marina Hemingway in Havana to Gaviota Marina in Varadero.

 The Moorings Yacht

For land-based experiences, luxury travel company Abercrombie & Kent has launched five distinct Cuba itineraries that see travellers accompanied by an expert local guide as they experience the cities through intimate resident encounters and informative tours.
And while Airbnb has been operating high-end self-contained rentals in the country since 2014, this year heralds the arrival of luxury hotels in Cuba. Among the first of the five-star properties to open will be the luxurious Gran Hotel Manzana Kempinski La Habana, scheduled for completion in the coming months. Housed in the 20th-Century building Manzana de Gómez, the 246-room property is in the heart of old Havana and will feature a specialty cigar lounge and rooftop pool with spectacular views over the city.

 

A Cut Above: The Difference Between Premium and Luxury Cruises

Back in the old days sorting out the differences in cruising was easy. Either your servant carried your steamer trunks to your suite or you were shovelling coal into the boiler of the African Queen with Humphrey Bogart.

Today, the introduction of experiential cruises means you can spend about $30,000 per person for a two-week cruise to the North Pole on a Russian nuclear icebreaker that is comfortable but not luxurious. That amount would buy you absolute luxury in lower latitudes.

To understand top-end cruising, we need to distinguish between mainstream, premium and luxury ocean cruises – and premium areas aboard mainstream cruise ships. 

In mainstream cruising, bigger ships have become destinations in their own right. They are great for family holidays and the fares can be very reasonable but expect to pay for anything that can be classified as an extra. It’s well-run, assembly-line cruising and the food is mass produced unless you pay extra to dine at the onboard signature restaurants. Think fun rather than sophisticated.

Premium cruise lines can be a significant step up from mainstream. They cater for more mature travellers but still welcome families. The atmosphere is more refined with additional space although the ships still tend to be mid-sized to large. Cabins may not be much larger, but are better equipped – and there are still likely to be inside cabins with no view available for a cheaper fare. The food will be better but you’ll still be paying for drinks. There are likely to be more quiet zones or adult-only areas.

A recent development in cruising is, in fact, a step back to a shipboard class system. It was only in the 1970s that one-class cruising was introduced. Now you may be offered a premium-class section on a mainstream vessel, effectively a ship within a ship. Your keycard unlocks the chance to escape the crowds and queues, find some peace and quiet, and dine in a private restaurant. 

Luxury cruise lines are the five-star boutique resorts of the sea. None are larger than mid-sized and some may carry only 100 guests. The passenger-to-crew ratio ensures attentive service. Even lower category cabins will be spacious with designer toiletries and you can expect drinks and many services to be included in your fare. The food will likely match the best resorts. Expect a sense of space and a lack of crowds, even when embarking and disembarking. While there may be entertainment on board you’ll also find experts on the places you’ll be visiting.

Here’s a sample of the luxury cruise lines and their vessels that visit Australia.

Crystal Cruises

Crystal Cruises operates Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity – both around 1000 passengers – plus the new 62-passenger Crystal Esprit yacht and five river vessels in Europe. Crystal is regularly voted the best cruise line in the world and it’s easy to see why. There’s lots of space, the service is excellent and the food superb, especially in Nobu’s Silk Road Restaurant. The two aforementioned ships will be in Australia over the next two summers. crystalcruises.com

Ponant

Ponant operates four ships carrying up to 226 passengers each (L’Austral, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial, Le Soleal) and the 32-stateroom sailing vessel, Le Ponant. Ponant recently announced plans to add four new ships over the next few years. Fine dining, stylish decor and French sophistication match the exotic and adventurous destinations Ponant visits. The French line has a strong Australian presence. L’Austral will be visiting Australia this summer and next. au.ponant.com

Regent Seven Seas

Regent Seven Seas Cruises (RSSC) has the 700-passenger Seven Seas Explorer, Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager as well as the 490-passenger Seven Seas Navigator. The service and cuisine are wonderful and there’s an atmosphere of relaxed luxury on board. RSSC boasts an impressive array of inclusions within the cost of the voyage: free WiFi, unlimited shore excursions, fine wines and premium spirits, and gratuities. Voyager and Navigator are regular visitors to Australia. rssc.com 

Seabourn

Seabourn Cruise Line has phased out its original vessels and brought three newer, larger ships online with another to come. The fleet now includes the Odyssey, Sojourn and Quest as well as Encore, which arrived early this year and headed straight for Australia. Seabourn is a leader in refined luxury cruising and offers some very creative itineraries. Its ships carry between 450 and 600 passengers. seabourn.com

Seadream Yacht Club

Seadream Yacht Club operates twin mega-yachts, SeaDream I and II. Each carry just 112 passengers and are served by a crew of 95. This really is luxury small-ship cruising as the ships are small enough to go places larger ships can’t and the crew have time to make you feel special. seadream.com

Silversea

Silversea Cruises has an enviable reputation for its luxurious ships and a very high standard of service on board. The cruise fleet of five vessels (Silver Cloud, Silver Wind, Silver Shadow, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit) will be joined by Silver Muse in 2017. All suites and butler service ensure luxury without excessive formality. silversea.com

Ponant Announces its 2018 Kimberley Expeditions

Ponant luxury cruise lines has recently released dates and details of their 2018 Kimberley cruise season. The Iconic Kimberley expeditions will run from June to August 2018.

Travellers can choose between four 10-night voyages which include must-see sites such as the Hunter River, King George Falls, Mitchell Falls, Montgomery Reef and Horizontal Falls, as well as lesser known destinations and experiences that their team of naturalists and conservationists have uncovered throughout their years of experience along the 13,000-kilometre coastline.

Guests travelling on board L’Austral, the youngest ship in the region, will also be joined by a team that carries over 50 years of experience in the Kimberley, lead by photographer Matt Fogg, a veteran of over 120 Kimberley expeditions and 12 other experienced marine biologists, naturalists and conservationists.

Highlights on the itinerary include Gwion Gwion rock markings and Wandjina rock arts, terrain that predates the existence of fossils, breathtaking waterfalls and rare sightings of migrating Humpback whales.

Rates for the 10-night cruise start from A$8510 per person in a Deluxe Stateroom with a private balcony.

en.ponant.com

Cruising in Good Compagnie On Board Ponant’s L’Austral

I flew from Sydney to Noumea to join Compagnie du Ponant’s latest ship L’Austral for part of the New Caledonia to Australia leg of a maiden voyage that commenced from Marseille in April last year. 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.