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QuirkyCruise Review of Ponant

Cruising for over a quarter century, this chic French line is a Francophile’s dream. Ponant’s crew is discreet, the décor is subtle and the food is tantalizing. French desserts, French cheeses and French wines accompany passengers on cruises around the world, from French Polynesia and the Caribbean to the North and South Poles, and lots in between.

Passengers are a well-traveled, well-dressed international lot and the handsome captains stroll around the ship in short sleeves chatting to guests as if they are one of the passengers. Ponant is a bit of Europe no matter where the ships are sailing.

In late 2014, the company’s name was simplified from the French Compagnie du Ponant, to just Ponant, a simpler name for the company’s growing international audience, though Ponant still remains the only French-flagged, French-flavored cruise line out there. Ponant is in the midst of building frenzy, with six 184-passenger expedition vessels in the pipeline between now and 2021. As they are delivered, itineraries will be expanded to offer more frequent sailings and brand-new destinations.

A hybrid electric icebreaker is to appear in 2021 and be able to make it to Geographic 90 Degrees North — The North Pole.

Note: Some sailings are directly operated by Ponant and others are under charter to well-known firms for individual sales as well as for special interest groups.

N.B. In August 2019, Ponant announced that the French-owned line has bought Paul Gauguin Cruises, operating the ship PAUL GAUGUIN in French Polynesia and that the ship will continue to operate under its current name.

Ponant's fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ponant’s fleet hits the poles and lots in between. * Photo: Ponant

Ship, Year Delivered & Passengers

LE BOREAL (built 2010, 132 passengers), L’AUSTRAL (b. 2011, 132 p), LE SOLEAL (b. 2013, 132 p), LE LYRIAL (b. 2014, 122 p), LE PONANT (b. 1991, 64 p), LE LAPEROUSE (b. 2018, 184 p), LE CHAMPLAIN (b. 2018, 184 p),  LE  BOUGAINVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p) and LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE (b. 2019, 184 p), LE BELLOT (due April 2020, 184p), LE JACQUES CARTIER, the sixth Explorer-class ship (due July 2020, 184p), and LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT (due April 2021, 270 p), specifically designed for polar explorations.

Ponant's mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant’s mini cruise ships are dwarfed by the giants. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Passenger Profile

Mostly Europeans, heavy on French, Swiss and Germans, with a sprinkling of Francophiles from everywhere else — North America, Brazil, you name it. Children are welcome, but are expected to be well behaved; there is a children’s menu, Wii gaming console, and when there are a number of kids on board, a few activities are organized by a staff member.

On a handful of special family-friendly sailings per year (often a Med itinerary in the summer), a Kids Club is offered with kids’ counselors supervising games and activities for ages 4+. Several firms charter Ponant ships, so they will determine the languages, and a number of them are in the English-speaking markets.

Passenger Decks

6 with elevators to all decks (4 on LE PONANT, the motor sailing yatch, and no elevator)

Price

$$  Moderate to Expensive

Included Features

Open bar throughout ship, stocked cabin mini-bar, and all soft drinks. New for 2019 is free WiFi in all cabin categories on all ships.

PONANT                                                                                 LE BOUGAINVILLE delivered in 2019 as the third ship in the explorer class. * Photo: Ponant

Itineraries

The ships, with such an expanding fleet, roam all over the world on one- to two-week cruises (some longer): Mediterranean and Northern Europe, Alaska and Canada, Caribbean, Central America, both coasts of South America, West Africa and Southern Africa, Madagascar, Seychelles, French Polynesia and Oceania, Hawaii,  Indonesia, East Asia and focus on Japan, Eastern Russia, Australia and New Zealand, Antarctica, the Arctic including the Northwest Passage, trans0ocean positioning voyages. A few highlights include (and it’s a moveable feast:

  • 10- and 16-night Antarctica cruises November – February
  • Iceland & Arctic Circle cruises in summer; also Northwest Passage, Eastern Canada, Great Lakes
  • 6- and 7-night cruises out of Martinique to the Grenadine Islands in the winter; also Cuba (Cuban calls suspended due to a US government ban.
  • 7-night Croatia cruises round-trip out of Venice between May and September; also Western & Eastern Mediterranean and Egypt
  • 9-night New Zealand cruises in January and February; also Australia’s eastern coast
  • 7- to 13-night Alaska cruises in June and July; including Aleutian Islands
  • 13-night Chile cruises in November and February; also Amazon and Orinoco rivers, Sea of Cortez
  • New tropical destinations are being added to include the Seychelles archipelago in the Indian Ocean, also Maldives and Madagascar, and the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific, also French Polynesia, Easter Island
  • South and Southeast Asia, Indonesia, Japan, Eastern Russia.
Why Go?

The French flare, the amazing food, the gorgeous interiors — tres chic. In 2018 Ponant signed an agreement with National Geographic Expeditions to have the latter’s experts and photographers come aboard in Australia, New Zealand and Asia/Pacific.

When to Go?

The fleet cruises in different regions of the world at the best time to visit.

Cabins

LE PONANT is an 88-meter, three-masted sailing ship with lots of wood and nautical touches such as navy blue and white bedding and fabrics in the rooms. Most cabins are on the lowest of the four passenger decks and have twin beds — two rooms have king beds — and there are a few triples. Five larger cabins are higher up on the Antigua Deck.

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL are nearly identical sister ships with the majority of cabins measuring between 200 and 236 square feet, not including the balconies (which all but eight cabins have). Cabins are designed in stylish neutrals of champagne, smoky greys or blues, and crisp whites with pops of color, like a red border on a bed throw or pillow.

All cabins are stocked with L’Occitane toiletries, bathrobes, mini bars and iPods, and a have a great split bathroom set-up — toilet in one little room and a large shower (and/or tub) and sink in another. They also have a desk and great adjustable reading lights on either side of the bed. Many standard cabins can accommodate three people with one on a sofa bed; ideal for families are the Prestige suites, which are ostensibly two connecting standard cabins. There are four large suites on the Deck 6 near the top of the ship.

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

A lovely standard cabin aboard Le Lyrial. * Photo: Francois Lefebvre

The new 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE (2018), LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER  began arriving in mid-2018 and will continue into 2020. A feature on the new ships is the Blue Eye, an underwater sightseeing lounge. They make up what is termed Ponant Explorer Class with enhanced ice-breaking capabilities.

Public Rooms

LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL have two restaurants, one main entertainment lounge, one combination lounge/bar, and a lovely outdoor bar with sea views. There is no casino. Each has a spa with a Turkish steam room, hair salon, and an excellent ocean-view gym with a row of treadmills and recumbent bikes, plus a Kinesis wall with weights, pulls and grips for weight training.

A small library area (with a Wii console nearby) and a boutique round out the public areas, unless you also count the medical clinic. The smaller LE PONANT has two restaurants, two indoor lounges and lots of deck space for sunbathing. All five of the vessels have a platform for watersports when anchored in favorable conditions.

Dining

Cuisine is a big part of the Ponant experience, and I still sometimes dream about the dark chocolate mousses we devoured on a L’AUSTRAL cruise to Croatia (I gained several solid pounds on that cruise). Each of the five ships has two restaurants, one a more formal fine-dining multi-course French gourmet venue for dinner and the other a casual buffet restaurant with outdoor and indoor seating and themed offerings. Some of the chefs are French (the pastry chef was on my last cruise) and no matter where they are from, they’ve been schooled in the French culinary tradition.

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Desserts to die for. * Photo: Ponant

Meals incorporate fish and grilled seafood, and plenty of delicious soups and salads of all kinds. When possible, local ingredients are used, from cherries in Kotor, Croatia, to rainbow trout from Nunavut, in the Arctic. Amazing desserts on offer might comprise a hazelnut mousse cake, lemon meringue tarts and that to die-to-for chocolate mousse already mentioned; easily the best desserts I’ve ever had on a cruise ship.

A selection of cheeses from France and Italy are a staple in the buffet and of the complimentary wines generously poured, I remember an especially refreshing French rose at lunch on route to our next Croatian port of call. You can always order a bottle off the extensive menu if you want something extra special.

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

The more formal of two restaurants aboard Le Soleal. * Photo: Ponant

Activities & Entertainment

The ships are in port every day, or nearly so, but if there’s a sea day, most people enjoy simply sunbathing by the pool and soaking up the scenery. In the French way of doing things, there isn’t an abundance of scheduled activities or group events. There are theme cruises from time to time focused on gourmet food and wine, film and topics like oceanography, with experts on board giving talks and demonstrations.

Evenings, a singing duo moves around the ship before and after dinner to serenade passengers as they sip cocktails and chat about the day’s adventures and the ones that lay ahead. At the top of the tiered decks at the stern on LE BOREAL/L’AUSTRAL/LE SOLEAL/LE LYRIAL is a wonderful al-fresco bar, an ideal place to plant yourself as the ship sails off into the sunset — likewise on LE PONANT’s sun deck. After dinner from time to time, a dance performance or film screening may be scheduled in the show lounge of the four sister ships.

The new and larger 184-passenger sisters LE LAPEROUSE, LE CHAMPLAIN,  LE  BOUGAINVILLE, LE DUMONT-D’URVILLE, LE BELLOT, and  LE JACQUES CARTIER started to debut in mid-2018 and continued into 2020, and the larger 270-passenger LE COMMANDANT CHARCOT will launch polar explorations in April 2021.

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Ponant passengers love to be outside on deck. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Along the Same Lines

SeaDream is close.

Contact

Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, 420 Lexington Avenue, Suite 2838, New York, NY 10170; us.ponant.com, 1-888-400-1082.

— HMS

 

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© This article is protected by copyright, no part may be reproduced by any process without written permission from the author. All Rights Reserved. QuirkyCruise.com.

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QuirkyCruise Review QuirkyCruise Review of Star Clippers

Star Clippers offers the perfect marriage of adventure, romance and comfort, not to mention the thrill of sailing on a gorgeous replica of a 19th-century Clipper Ship. The company’s trio of swashbucklers feels like they belong in the Caribbean,  Mediterranean and Far East, bucking through the surf and wind like ships are meant to. Watching sunsets melt behind the rigging or a port come into focus from a front row perch at the rails, a Star Clippers cruise is best spent on deck — that is whenever you’re not relaxing in the cozy nautical cabins or having a tasty meal in the dining room.

Owner and company founder Mikael Krafft, a Swedish-born industrialist and real estate developer, spared no detail or expense to design and build his fleet of three square-rigged clippers in the likeness of their speedy predecessors — Krafft and his team referred to the original drawings and specifications of Scottish-born Donald McKay, a leading naval architect of 19th-century clipper-ship technology.

The newest and largest of the three (until the new 300-passenger FLYING CLIPPER launches), the 227-passenger five-masted ROYAL CLIPPER, was modeled on the famed Preussen, a 1902-built German clipper. She is the largest square-rigged in service with 5,202 square meters of sail, hence she holds the honorary title Queen of the Seas. All three sport towering masts, sails, rigging, wooden decks and chunky ventilators. Facing forward on the top deck, if you didn’t hear the murmur of the engines much of the time (and could ignore the small pool and all those people in 21st century clothes), it’s not a leap to imagine being a crew member cranking winches on a three-month run to England with a cargo of tea and opium from China.

The Star Clippers’ ships typically rely on sails alone about 25% to 50% of the time; otherwise, the sails are used with the engines to maintain speeds of about 9 to 14 knots for the comfort of passengers — though occasionally in strong winds they clock speeds in the neighborhood of 15 knots. Hold on!

Sunset through the sails

Sunset through the sails. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Of course the beauty of a Star Clippers cruise is you feel like you’re on a real working ship without having to doing any work. While you can help pull in the sails a few times throughout the week or climb the masts (with a harness) at designated times, most passengers choose to be voyeurs, gazing out at the sea and distant landscape through the lens of the ships’ masts and lines. Sunrise and sunset through the sails, lines and masts are magical.

Fans were thrilled to learn that Star Clippers would be building a fourth ship, the FLYING CLIPPER, a much anticipated and complex construction project that has been an ongoing saga due to two years of shipyard delays. Now completed there is a dispute between Star Clippers and the shipyard, and it is unclear what will transpire. The FLYING CLIPPER’s details are 300 passengers and measures 8,770 tons. It is powered by more than 6,350 square meters of sails.  Technically a five-masted, square-rigged barque, it’s a near-replica of the FRANCE II, commissioned in 1911 and the largest square rigger ever built.

Just as the original FRANCE II eclipsed PREUSSEN (which the line’s ROYAL CLIPPER is modeled on) more than a century ago as the world’s largest square rigger, the newbuild will replace the ROYAL CLIPPER, as the largest ship of its kind afloat today. The vessel has have generous deck space, three pools, and a watersports platform in the stern. One restaurant will accommodate all guests and cabin choices include 34 suites with balconies and four luxurious owner’s suites. Like those of the Star Clippers’ fleet, there will also be a library and an al fresco Tropical Bar. The ship will likely start out sailing in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean. Stayed tuned to when all this begins to happen!

Ship, Year Delivered & Passenger Count 

STAR FLYER (built 1991 & 172 passengers); STAR CLIPPER (b. 1992 & 172 p); ROYAL CLIPPER (b. 2000 & 227 p); and FLYING CLIPPER (2019 & 300p)

Star Clippers Passenger Profile

A mix of mostly Europeans, British and Americans in their 50s on up, plus a fair number of families with children aboard in summer and holiday weeks. In our opinion, it’s best for children to be at least 10 years old. Many passengers own their boats and just love to sail, with a huge number of repeat passengers who keep coming back for more. Repeaters get a 3% discount, not a lot yet a nod to their loyalty. Some passengers would never consider a standard cruise ship. Note: Announcements are made in English, German, and French.

Passenger Decks

4: No elevators.

Price

$$  Expensive

Included Features

Watersports, weather and conditions permitting.

Star Clippers Itineraries
  • Generally, all three ships  (only two in 2019)  summer in the Mediterranean between late April and October doing mostly one-week itineraries, plus a handful of longer 10- and 11-night sailings. ROYAL CLIPPER is based in the Western Mediterranean calling at ports in Spain, France and Italy and the islands: Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and the Balearics. STAR FLYER undertakes some cruises in the Western Medit. to then position in the Adriatic along the Croatian coast, Greek islands and the Turkish coast but not Istanbul, for mostly 7 nights but a few 10 and 11. To reposition between the Mediterranean and the Caribbean in the spring and fall, longer trans-oceanic positioning voyages are the target for those who wants days under sail between ports with perhaps calls in the Canaries or Azores, and of course, one may begin or finish the voyage  with a string of Western Mediterranean ports calls. These voyages may be as short as 15 nights or as long as 28.
  • Two ships winter in Caribbean on mostly 7-night sailings (November-March), ROYAL CLIPPER offers varied 7-night itineraries from Barbados, longer 14-nighters through the islands and along the coast of Colombia to Panama including a canal transit.  STAR FLYER makes 7-night cruises from St. Maarten and longer 14-nighters along the coast and amongst the island to Panama including canal transit.
  • Through 2019, the STAR CLIPPER is in Asia spending half the year doing Andaman Sea mostly 7-night cruises off the coast of southwestern Thailand (October-April) and 7-, 10- & 11-night itineraries in the Indonesian archipelago the other half of the year. New 10- and 11-night itineraries will sail from Singapore to ports along the Malaysian coast and to the island of Borneo, including Kota Kinabalu and Brunei.
Approaching lovely Monemvassia. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Approaching lovely Monemvassia. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Why Go?

For the great mix of adventure and comfort, you can feel like an old salt soaking in the sailing scene without giving up the luxury of nice cabins, good dining and even massages.

When to Go?

Two generally winter in the Caribbean and Central America and this pair then spends the summer in various parts of the Mediterranean with spring and fall transats to connect the two seasons.. The third is based in Southeast Asia and the Indonesian islands for the foreseeable future.

Star Clippers Cabins

Cabins are nautical, with wood-paneling, navy blue fabrics and brass details. The ROYAL CLIPPER’s standard cabins measure 148 square feet, while the CLIPPER’s and FLYER’s are a bit smaller at 120 to 130 square feet. The vast majority of cabins on all three ships are outside rooms with portholes (some with a pull down third birth); a handful is smaller inside cabins without portholes.

Each of the trio has a handful of suites, including six on the CLIPPER and FLYER, plus one large oddly configured owners’ suite. The 14 Deluxe Suites on ROYAL CLIPPER’s Main Deck measure 255 square feet and have private balconies, sitting areas, minibars, whirlpool tubs and 24-hour butler service; the two Owner’s Suites measure 355 square feet and have two marble bathrooms, though no balcony.

All cabins have TVs with DVD players, private bathrooms with showers, hair dryers, small vanity table with stool, and surprisingly ample storage space unless you’re a major clothes horse.

Consider that the lowest deck cabins near the stern will be close to the rumbling engines, and the cabins bordering the entrance to the dining room get residual noise and traffic and meal time.

A triple cabin, room 206.

A triple cabin, room 206. When not in use, the upper berth will be folded up and away.* Photo: Heidi Sarna

Star Clippers Public Rooms

On all three ships, the open air Tropical Bar is the hub of activity. Passengers gather around the chunky wooden bar for drinks and daily afternoon canapés are served there, and sometimes special theme lunch bunches as well. It’s the spot for evening entertainment (local talent that often comes aboard while the ship is at anchor) and informal briefings about the day’s schedules.

Adjacent is an indoor wood-paneled Edwardian-style library and card room, and also an indoor piano lounge mainly used for people who want a quiet place to read during the day. Each of the trio has one restaurant; the ROYAL CLIPPER’s fussier and multi-level. The ROYAL CLIPPER also has a small gym and spa and health club on a lower deck below the waterline with portholes to look out into the deep.

Star Clippers Dining

Each ship has one restaurant with open seating and tables for mostly six or eight, encouraging passengers to meet and mingle. The dress code is casual, though some guests enjoy wearing jackets on the captain’s gala night. Breakfast and lunch are served buffet-style, with made-to-order omelet and pasta stations, respectively, while dinner is served a la carte. The FLYER and CLIPPER’s restaurant is one story, while the frillier dining room on the ROYAL CLIPPER is multi-level with a vaguely 19th-century Mississippi steamboat look.

The continental cuisine is simple and delicately spiced, with several options for dinner entrees, plus soup, salad and appetisers. To please the mainly European clientele, there are plenty of cheeses and marinated meats and fish at breakfast and lunch, and at dinner there are always pasta and fish dishes, plus choices like eggplant Parmesan and broiled lobster.

The staff is happy to accommodate special orders and second helpings, and several theme nights per cruise see them donning Italian garb or other fun costumes. A 24-hour coffee and tea station is set up on the bar, and each afternoon a complimentary snack is offered at the Tropical Bar, from waffles with chocolate sauce to fried plantains and salsa. About 11:30pm each night, a cheese board, fruit, or another snack is set out by the piano bar for late-night noshing.

Passengers are free to climb on the bowsprit mast. Weeeeee! Photo credit: Heidi Sarna

Passengers are free to climb on the bowsprit mast. Weeeeee! * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Star Clippers Activities & Entertainment

There is rarely more than one sea day on a Star Clippers cruise, though the ships are usually on the move before dinner and early mornings so guests get plenty of time to enjoy the ships at sea. When weather conditions cooperate, the sails are put up and the engines are turned off; otherwise engines power the ship as well as a few sails up for show. The cruise director or captain does at least one talk a day about the ships or the destination, and passengers are welcome to crawl into the bowsprit netting at the front of the ships for an exciting stint sunbathing above the crashing surf.

When in port several times per cruise, you can climb a mast in a harness and stand on the crow’s next 55 feet up for sweeping views. Passengers are free to stroll into the chart house to chat with the captain or officer on duty, and occasionally there are engine room tours, excursions via tender to photograph the ships under sail, and exercise classes on deck. The ROYAL CLIPPER has a small gym and “spa,” while STAR CLIPPER and FLYER offer massages from a tent-like room up on deck within earshot of the crashing surf.

In port, if you don’t go off on a guided excursion or a walkabout on your own, there is free watersports equipment including paddle boards, windsurfers and snorkeling gear which are hauled to a nearby beach (passengers are shuttled back and forth on one of the ships’ pair of zodiac boats, which also offer water skiing) or used right next to the ship if anchored in an appropriate spot, inviting passengers to hop right into the sea. Some itineraries offer scuba diving opportunities for certified divers, including equipment (for an extra charge).

photo safari

The beloved “photo safari” when passengers can take photos of the ship from tenders. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Evenings, it’s drinks before and after dinner at the Tropical Bar, when a key board player is often on had to serenade passengers with evergreens. After dinner, there’s an hour or so of entertainment offered, from a local folk dance troupe when in port late (ie steel drummers in the Caribbean to whirling dervishes in Turkey) to a crew talent show, trivia contest or dress-up dance party. Once in a while a movie may be shown on deck, projected onto a sail. Things rarely howl on too late.

Along the Same Lines

Windstar’s sailing ships are the closest, and Sea Cloud and Sea Cloud II are in the ballpark too.

Star Clippers Contact Info

Star Clipper Palace, 4, rue de la Turbie, 98000 Monaco; www.starclippers.com; (377) 97-97-84-00.    

— HMS/TWS

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The beaches southwestern Thailand. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

The beaches of southwestern Thailand. Photo Credit: Heidi Sarna

Star Clippers is heading back to the Far East, the first time since  2010, operating the 170-passenger STAR CLIPPER in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore from December 2016 to April 2017. The ship will offer two seven-night Thailand itineraries, northbound and southbound, as well as seven departures that either begin or end in Singapore. Highlights include the many small islands and beautiful rocky outcroppings dotting the Andaman Sea off the coast of Thailand, including the Similan Islands, Ko Surin National Marine Park, and Phang Nga Bay, with beautiful beaches and many opportunities to snorkel, sunbath and enjoy water sports. Stops in Malaysia include Langkawi, known for its gorgeous beaches and lush rainforests, and Penang, a colonial gem with a lovely historical old town.

“We have been waiting a long time to resume these popular itineraries and are now returning to Southeast Asia to explore beaches, islands and anchorages not visited by any other cruise ship. We know from 15 years of past experience, when we based a ship in this region every winter, how popular these voyages are with nature-lovers and those who enjoy the sensation of sailing on a graceful tall ship in the tropics,” Star Clippers Owner Mikael Krafft recently said in a company press release.