Four years ago, the founding members of France’s Compagnie du Ponant sat down together to dream up their ideal cruise ship. The result was two luxury mega-yachts: Le Boréal, launched last year, and L’Austral, which made its maiden voyage last night.
I was on board, sipping champagne, as L’Austral drew out of Marseille just before sunset – and discovered that the French ideal of a mega-yacht is just as elegant and sophisticated as you might imagine.
Walking down the red carpet to the two ships, I could see that sleek lines and an understated palette would be the order of the day. L’Austral has a grey hull with white topsides, teak decks and, to greet you in the atrium, a delicate cylinder of suspended crystals, surrounded by tawny cushions.
These neutral tones and modern designs are everywhere, in fact – grey carpets, square white leather armchairs, tasteful spotlights – and gold-flecked abstract art that is chosen and in some cases created by Véronique Saadé, the wife of the chairman, and deputy MD of this family-owned company.
It all adds to the luxurious but smart aesthetic, and whether you’re a honeymoon couple or a Poker dk champ celebrating a big tournament win, this is the ideal environment in which to unwind and enjoy yourself.
“It doesn’t feel like a cruise ship, it feels like a private yacht”, said Maarten Tromp, the vice-president of international sales, as he showed us around, and I have to say he’s right – provided of course that your mental image of a private yacht involves seven decks, 12 zodiacs, and a Green Ship certification.
That said, of course this ship is small. L’Austral sleeps just 264 passengers, meaning it can call in at off-the-beaten-track destinations, and has a staff-to-passenger ratio of 1:2. It also has lots of little secluded areas around the deck, populated with bright red sunbeds, which looked decidedly pleasant in the afternoon sunshine.
This voyage was all about an inaugural evening at sea, though, so the tours, drinks and speeches were all prelude. Where the ship really came to life, I thought, was at dinner in the restaurant, with its glamorous guests, silver plates and white roses in square vases. The typically French menu was even accessorised with opera singers from Paris, who materialised from among the guests during the meal to perform Bizet and Delibes, to huge applause.
The food was all delicious, but the highlight for me was the dessert: hot strawberry sauce was poured over a thin chocolate shell, which crumpled in front of your eyes to reveal a hidden crème brûlée. I approve of both theatricality and chocolate; to find the two combined, and with the stylishness of Compagnie du Ponant, was a treat.
To find out about L’Austral’s upcoming cruises visit the Compagnie du Ponant website.