Compagnie du Ponant’s new ship redefines standards of luxury and offers a welcome return to the days of yacht-style cruising.
Le Boréal is the first of two new ships (L’Austral arrives next year) that will each have room for nearly 300 passengers. they are luxury sector ships not only targeted at more affluent passengers – per diems average ¤350 (about £300) – but also at more international rather than the predominantly french clientele of its other ships.
Although large by Compagnie du Ponant standards, these ships are small compared to the ships now being built by the major luxury brands so offer a wonderful return to intimate, yacht-style cruising. their size and eco-friendly operating characteristics also enable them to offer more adventurous expedition-style cruises in places like Antarctica. The extra size allows for more space per passenger but crucially also for more facilities such as a fullservice spa in conjunction with Carita.
From the moment I saw Le Boréal, it was clear this ship was something different. Its profile was nothing like the boxy mega-ships being built these days. Its lines more resembled one of the privately owned mega-yachts you see lined up in Monte Carlo, and inside it is the ultimate in contemporary design.
I was in a Prestige Cabin on Deck Four, about halfway up the price scale, which begins with a Superior double cabin (that can accommodate three passengers) and runs up to Prestige Suites on Decks Five and Six which can be converted for triple or quadruple occupancy for families.
The plus points of my cabin included: very effective sound-proofi ng and air-conditioning; large and extremely comfortable double bed; ample storage space for clothes; a soothingly muted colour scheme; decent-sized balcony and easy-to-use and powerful shower.
The downsides were a TV system which needed a PhD in technology to operate; a dressing table mirror and seat which were both too low down; and a bathroom – shower aside – which was too cramped for a luxury ship.
Le Boréal had only begun cruising the previous month so I was not expecting service to be 100 per cent, but I was impressed. The bar and restaurant waiters, cabin stewards and reception staff were helpful, friendly and efficient, if not always entirely polished. The main problem was with the lack of flexibility in the ship’s operating regime. Breakfast finished too early, tables were being cleared in the restaurant before 10pm with passengers still dining, and bars were too often closed at times when they should be open. However, the line appears to have gone some way to redress this.
The menu choices for dinner were inventive but there was a limited choice (three entrees, one of them vegetarian) and some confusion as to whether it was possible to order off the menu.
The alternative inside/outside second restaurant was pre-bookable with no surcharge applied to eat there but problems with the galley limited the numbers of passengers able to use it every evening. The on-deck barbecue for lunch was an excellent and very popular feature.
This is always a difficult area for small ships carrying well-heeled, sophisticated passengers. On Le Boréal, it is still a work in progress. One show was an eclectic mix of ballet dancing by a troupe of clearly classically-trained dancers; another ended with a Michael Flatley-inspired Gaelic dancing routine.
The light classical music provided around the ship by gifted Eastern European players was, though, a welcome change from muzak.
There did not appear to be a great deal on offer, although this may change as the ship gets into its stride. There were some port lectures but, on this occasion, only in French. English speaking alternatives are promised as their numbers grow. The library is also disappointingly limited – and not just for books in English.
This is a very classy looking ship with more in common with a hip boutique hotel than a modern cruise ship. Both the main lounge – with its outside sitting area – and the observation lounge are beautiful rooms, as is the main restaurant, which also boasts top of the range tableware and lighting.
The artwork around the ship is tasteful and imaginative with great use of old black-and-white photography each with a splash of red added – the signature Ponant colour for this ship.
The pool is small, but there is a surprising amount of sunbathing space.
Much like the food, shore excursions were very good but again somewhat limited in choice.
There were, though, English-speaking guides for the small number of Brits and Americans on board. Printing departure times on the tickets and/or in the daily programme would help to ensure prompt departures.
The Ponant Yacht Spa is operated with Carita and has two treatment rooms, plus one mixed room for balneotherapy and massage, a hair salon, fitness area with panoramic views and a semi-private rest area out on deck. Spa treatments range from €40 for thalassotherapy and €45 for facials up to €745 for a combination of six treatments in the Ultimate Anti-ageing Odyssey package.
There is a small play area with Wii consoles, games and internet access, while – when there are enough children on board – the Ponant Kid’s Club comes into action with the option for music, dance and gym lessons. The ship will also provide, on request, special meals and snack boxes for two-12-year-olds and highchairs, cots and a babysitting service for toddlers.
It is early days for Le Boréal and there are still quite a few rough edges to the on-board operation. However, this is a ship that is stunning to look at inside and out. It is also designed to operate to more offbeat ports and destinations and will probably be at its best in places like South America and Antarctica. The value does not yet match the pricing although including all drinks, tips and port charges would probably bridge that gap as well as creating the full luxury yacht ambience on board that it is looking to provide.
Ponant Cruises Tel: 0808 234 3802; www.ponant.com
★ tonnage: 10,900
★ length: 142m/466ft
★ Beam: 18m/59ft
★ Draft: 4.7m/15ft 3”
★ Cruising speed: 16 knots
★ ice class: 1c
★ Decks: six (including one sun deck)
★ Passengers: 264
★ Crew: 136
★ Cabins and suites: 132 (95 per cent with private balcony)
DESTINATIONS: Mediterranean, Northern Europe/Baltic (summer); South America, Antarctica, Central America (winter).
WHO TRAVELS: Couples 45-65 years old
CURRENCY: The Euro (all purchases can be signed for and paid at the end of the cruise except those from noon on the final day from which time it is cash only).
GUIDE PRICE: Eight-day cruise Rio-Buenos Aires in November 2010 costs from £1,795