Spirit of adventure

From the wilds of Antarctica to the mighty Amazon river, this is expedition cruising at its absolute finest.

Looking to explore the farthest reaches of the world without foregoing creature comforts, then a Ponant luxury expedition cruise might be the perfect choice.

Brian Johnston

courtesy Ponant

29 March, 2019


Small is good, though, in destinations such as these. Small ships go where big ships fear to sail.

My first sighting of a Ponant expedition ship, in the Alaskan port of Seward, is rather thrilling. Le Soléal is a sleek, dark-grey shark beside the bloated whale of a regular cruise ship that sits alongside it. Officers in gold-braided uniforms stand at the gangplank, making me feel like a billionaire embarking on a private yacht. 

Le Soléal is dwarfed by the landscape as we sail away. Snow-covered mountains fang the horizon and kittiwakes tumble against cliff faces. Next day we’re in College Fjord, where eight glaciers collide. I lean over the ship’s railings and see seals flopped on chunks of floating ice, and otters lifting their heads out of the water.

This is only the overture to the great snowy opera of the St Elias Mountains further down the coast. The highest coastal range on Earth tops out at 5,959 metres. We sail up to the face of the Hubbard Glacier, 10 kilometres wide with cliff-sized walls of deep-blue ice. Le Soléal seems small as a bath toy, and ridiculously daring to be sailing in these immense and wild landscapes.

Small is good, though, in destinations such as these. Small ships go where big ships fear to sail. The nimble size of Ponant’s ships allow them to manoeuvre into small bays and fjords and around jagged coastlines. Le Soléal – along with near-identical sister ships Le Boréal, L’Austral and Le Lyrial – carries just 264 passengers. The company’s latest Explorer-class vessels, of which Le Lapérouse and Le Champlain have already launched, carry just 184 passengers.

By 2021 Ponant will have 12 ships in its fleet, and will push the definition of luxury cruise vessels to its limits with the world’s first electric hybrid icebreaker, which will be able sail through ice floes over 2.5 metres thick. It intends to sail to seldom-visited polar destinations such as the true geographic North Pole, the Weddell and Ross Seas and the Russian Far East.

This is the point of expedition cruising, of course: to have genuine adventures in places you can’t otherwise reach, unless you’re prepared to parachute in like Bear Grylls. For many, Antarctica is the ultimate destination. Giant petrels and albatross are windborne outriders as you cruise the Drake Passage from South America. You get so close to giant icebergs you can hear them creak. You can walk amid vast penguin colonies, and visit the abandoned whaling stations and exploration bases that are part of this region’s extraordinary maritime history.

Passengers on Ponant’s newest Explorer-class ships can go one better and see underwater too. A viewing lounge called Blue Eye, in a world-first innovation, sits in the ship’s hull and has portholes onto the underwater world, as well as hydrophones, digital screens and other state-of-the-art technology to aid in viewing aquatic wildlife.

This is the point of expedition cruising, of course – to have genuine adventures in places you can’t otherwise reach

Expedition cruises are about getting as close to your cruise environment as possible, and that includes frequent excursions by Zodiac

These are ships that emphasise the destination. Don’t expect casinos, waterslides and Broadway shows, but rather waterfalls and performances by humpback whales. Nor will you sightsee only from the deck. Expedition cruises are about getting as close to your cruise environment as possible, and that includes frequent excursions by Zodiac. In polar regions that might involve getting so close to sea lions you can smell their fishy stink and see their whiskers twitch. In the Indian Ocean, it means exploring Aldabra Lagoon, the world’s largest coral atoll, with its peacock colours and stunning birdlife. 

A dedicated expedition team with specialist wildlife and other knowledge leads you in remote places and gives on-board lectures that enhance your appreciation of the environment in which you sail. Recently Ponant joined forces with National Geographic, which will also have destination experts and photographers on board more than 130 expedition cruises by 2021.

If this sounds like boot camp in the wilderness, have no fear. Expedition cruises make intrepid journeys, but the joy of doing them on a luxury ship is that you don’t have to forego high thread-count sheets, a bottle of Beaujolais and a hot shower in pursuit of adventure. Ponant ships have the feel of a private mega-yacht. Chic interiors come courtesy of French interior designer Jean-Philippe Nuel. Expect several lounges, a spa where you can sit and gaze out at Norwegian fjords or the electric-blue lagoons of Polynesia, and sophisticated cabins with en-suites from which you can gaze straight out from shower to ocean.

Ponant was founded by French naval officers, so no surprise that you won’t be dining on ship’s biscuit while at sea. Menus are overseen by a company run by legendary Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. Multi-course dinners start with the likes of foie gras or escargot ravioli, move on to veal tenderloin with forest mushrooms or delectable lobster tail, and finish – naturellement – with excellent cheese or French pastries and desserts. It can sometimes feel a little surreal to be drinking Burgundy wine and nibbling on Roquefort as you sail the edges of the Earth.

Ponant’s ships sail places as diverse as Zanzibar and the Seychelles, the remote Marquesas Islands in the Pacific, Papua New Guinea, the Arctic Circle, and the Orinoco and Amazon rivers in South America. Remote Australia isn’t overlooked, with new ship Le Lapérouse sailing its inaugural season on the Kimberley coast this year. Not all itineraries are rugged, though, since Ponant also operates Caribbean and Mediterranean cruises, though emphasising smaller ports and less-visited islands.

For the most part, you sail far from the well-cruised wave, into the crannies of spectacularly indented coastlines, or to islands where scarcely a footprint bothers the white sand. Sedate turtles might float past in crystal lagoons lost in a turquoise tropical sea. Equally, jagged, snow-capped mountains might stab the sky behind pine-topped rocks. Yet wherever you might be, your pillows remain plump and you can still order up steak for dinner. That’s the enchantment of expedition cruising. The landscapes are magnificent, the destinations remote, but the pleasures of civilisation are never too far away. 

Remote Australia isn’t overlooked, with new ship Le Lapérouse sailing its inaugural season on the Kimberley coast this year