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Ponant's Le Jacques Cartier
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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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Star Legend heads back to Asia, including Thailand's Ko Yao Noi. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Star Legend heads back to Asia, including Thailand’s Ko Yao Noi. * Photo: Windstar Cruises

Windstar is Asia bound again after a three-year hiatus, positioning the 212-passenger STAR LEGEND there beginning in November 2017 through April 2018. Offering a varied repertoire of mostly 14-night itineraries, including some brand new routes for the line, the cruises start and end in Asia’s most culturally rich cities, from Hong Kong to Tokyo, Singapore and Bangkok, making it convenient to spend a few days exploring before and after the cruise. Here are some highlights of Windstar’s upcoming Asia plans:

14 nights, Best of the Philippines & Borneo. This brand-new route for Windstar sails between Singapore and Hong Kong via Malaysia and Borneo, with a focus on the beautiful islands of the Philippines, including Palawan, Boracay and Hundred Islands National Park.

10 nights, Grand Japan. Another new itinerary sails between Tokyo and Osaka, with highlights including Busan, South Korea, famous for its beaches and hot springs; Hiroshima to visit the Memorial Peace Arch (a UNESCO historical site); and the sacred shrines of Shingu with their traditional torii gates.

14 nights, Marvels of China & the Japanese Islands. This one cruises from Hong Kong to Beijing via Taiwan, Japan, and Mainland China, berthing in Hong Kong’s  gorgeous Victoria Harbour, which is only accessible to smaller ships. Calls include cosmopolitan Taipei, Taiwan; tropical Japanese islands; and Shanghai via the scenic  Huangpu River, which is only navigable by small ships.

14 nights, Splendors of Japan & South Korea. Cruise between Beijing, China and Tokyo, Japan, and visit South Korea’s Jeju City to see the world’s largest lava tunnels, and Japan’s scenic Shikoku Island, known for its temples. This cruise is offered at the end of the Asia season in spring, the ideal time to see the country’s legendary cherry blossoms in full bloom.

Bangkok's gilded Royal Palace. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

Bangkok’s gilded Royal Palace. * Photo: Heidi Sarna

14 nights, Icons of Southeast Asia. Sail between Hong Kong and Bangkok and visit ports in Thailand, Vietnam and China. Highlights include Vietnam’s Halong Bay, a UNESCO World Heritage Site; stops in historic Da Nang and Ho Chi Minh City; and a call on exotic Bangkok, docking right in town as only small ships can do.

18 nights, The Wonders of Arabia. This Athens to Dubai repositioning cruise in the fall of 2017 on route to Asia includes a daylight transit of the Suez Canal; time in historic Petra, Jordan; and an opportunity to see the stunning pyramids in Luxor, Egypt. 

16 nights, Pearls of the Indian Ocean. Continuing on to Asia, journey from Dubai to Singapore via India (Mumbai, Mangalore, Cochin), Sri Lanka, Thailand and Malaysia, visiting both pristine natural sites and teeming metropolises.

 

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By Theodore W. Scull. The first river I got to know well was right outside my office window. It was the mighty Hudson and it flowed both ways as the incoming tide from the Atlantic was often stronger than the out flowing river. In fact, the tides reached Troy, just above Albany, some 155 miles from the river mouth. That had to be the limit because of the Champlain Canal locks.

The Hudson was a busy waterway for liners, cruise ships, cargo vessels, tankers, tugs towing barges, ferries, excursion boats, sanitation vessels and sailing craft. At first I sailed only the 75-mile stretch from New York to Poughkeepsie, and not until many decades later in 2010, did I close that gap when I cruised the entire navigable length from Troy to Manhattan.

My first two overnight river cruises took place even before I started working in Manhattan, with the first aboard a Russian riverboat, five days down the Danube from Vienna to the Black Sea. The most exciting portion was riding the rapids through the Iron Gates, a fast-flowing stretch that passed through a narrow gorge between Serbia (then Yugoslavia) and Romania. Steam locomotives were on hand to aid upriver traffic before locks controlled the flow.

A steam locomotive awaits the next ship to tow up through the Iron Gate. * Photo: Ted Scull

A steam locomotive awaits the next ship to tow up through the Iron Gates. * Photo: Ted Scull

The second was aboard an old Russian side-wheeler plying between Stalingrad (now Volgograd) and Rostov, steaming along both the Volga and the Don. I never expected a river trip to be rough but crossing a huge lake in a windstorm was not unlike being on the open sea. Not to send fear into timid hearts and unpredictable stomachs, that was the one and only time on a waterway that I experienced rock and roll.

Then a long gap ensued before I was invited to be a lecturer aboard the venerable sternwheeler DELTA QUEEN. Completed in 1927, she became America’s quintessential steamboat, a living legacy that connected the past directly with the modern versions we have today. I think we may see her sailing again.

Delta Queen in 1990. * Photo: Ted Scull

Delta Queen in 1990. * Photo: Ted Scull

That first cruise covered the Mississippi, Ohio, Cumberland and Tennessee rivers, all so different that I got river fever and was determined to travel on more. At first, all were located in North America: a short stretch of the Missouri; the Kanawha in West Virginia; the Sacramento and Stockton in California; the Columbia and Snake in Oregon and Washington, and along the Salmon River into Hells Canyon in Idaho.

The first international river was the St. Lawrence dividing the U.S. and Canada. It’s referred as La Mer (The Sea) to French Canadians from where it meets the Saguenay to its issue into the Gulf of St. Lawrence. From the Saguenay inland it is both a natural river and a controlled one with locks that create the St. Lawrence Seaway. On different small ships, I have traveled this river from Lake Ontario, along the section where it becomes the St. Lawrence Seaway, sharing the channels with the big lakers (bulk carriers), and on past Montreal and Quebec to the Saguenay.

Meeting an ore carrier on the St. Lawrence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Meeting an ore carrier on the St. Lawrence. * Photo: Ted Scull

Europe entered the picture again exactly 20 years ago when I made an autumn cruise on the Rhine, Moselle and Main. I loved the castles, cathedrals, vineyards fringing the banks, picture postcard towns and the commercial river traffic. Their varied attributes propelled me to study maps of Europe’s navigable rivers; it was staggering where I could go and did: from the North Sea, some 2,123 miles (3,147 kms) to the Black Sea; from Amsterdam across Germany and up the Elbe to Prague in Central Europe; most of the way between the English Channel at the mouth of the Seine and via the Soane and Rhone almost to the Mediterranean, apart from a dry stretch between Paris and Burgundy; and St. Petersburg to Moscow via the Neva and Volga.

Viking River Cruises' riverboat tied up on the Neva just outside St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

Viking River Cruises’ riverboat tied up on the Neva just outside St. Petersburg. * Photo: Ted Scull

Beyond Europe, the Nile beckoned and more than satisfied me as a way to see Upper Egypt’s antiquities — the temples, statues, feluccas, and shadoofs, but sadly few people are currently venturing there, though my brother did so as recently as December 2015 and experienced no incidents.

The mighty Amazon is really two rivers, the wide stretch between Manaus and the Atlantic where some of the larger cruise ships go and the really remote road-less Upper Amazon (Solimoes) where the river provides the transportation in addition to dozens of tributaries navigated by small river boats that penetrate deeply into Peru. I made one exciting eight-day journey from Iquitos, the world’s largest city without road access, down to Manaus and the junction with the Rio Negro. I loved seeing how people made their living on and around the river, spotting the exotic birds and animals, also calling the river home, and catching a piranha on my birthday and having it grilled for supper.

Then came the mighty Yangtze in China climbing by riverboat from Wuhan through the Three Gorges to Chongqing and the totally different and culturally-rich Mekong in Cambodia and Vietnam — and one day hopefully the Irrawaddy in Myanmar (Burma) and the Ganges in India.

Boarding the boat on the Mekong River, Cambodia. * Photo: Ted Scull

Boarding the boat on the Mekong River, Cambodia. * Photo: Ted Scull

While the first river I knew was the Hudson, I now have a sneaky view of the East River, but then it’s not what it says it is; it’s only a tidal strait between Long Island Sound and Upper New York Bay. Still it seems to be what it isn’t officially, so I am satisfied, and it sees some of the small ships covered on this website plying between New England and the South and on around the Battery and up the Hudson.

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