Review: Luxury Ponant cruise on Australia's Kimberley coast
By Cruise International | 17 Oct 2022
The wild and remote Kimberley coastline in Australia offers an adventure like no other, finds Lizzie Pook, with her review of a luxury cruise on Ponant’s Le Laperouse.
Review: Luxury Ponant cruise on Australia’s Kimberley coast
From the Zodiac, the island in front of us looks like little more than a jellied smear, but as we approach – the sun blazing overhead and the sea as vivid as blue-green glass held to the light – the land mass appears to shimmer, then fracture into tiny little pieces, which rise slowly up and disperse into the air.
I blink. Squint. My jaw falls open. It’s not the island that’s moving, it’s tens of thousands of seabirds billowing upwards: brown boobies, red-chested frigates, sooty terns and squalling noddies, swooping and soaring and filling every inch of expansive blue, like a Sunday night David Attenborough special.
“On your right!” Our guide, Dr Frederique Oliver, excitedly points to the water. We peer over the side of the boat as a tiger shark powers stealthily by. “And here. Manta ray.” She gestures to the left. A dark shadow swoops along with wings as slow and as gentle as a ballerina’s arms.
Scenes like these are becoming an everyday occurrence on our epic Kimberley adventure – a trip that’s already taken us through horizontal waterfalls, into other-worldly bays and creeks and along spectacular gorges, where ospreys watch on with hunched shoulders and crocodiles bask with jaws wide open, sharp teeth glinting like polished silver in the sun.
The Kimberley in far-flung northwestern Australia is a place imbued with spine-tingling history – from frontier wars and tales of dangerous pearl diving to Aboriginal Dreamtime stories and millennia-old landscapes.
The region is almost double the size of the United Kingdom, with thousands of islands scattered along its rugged coastline, yet it has fewer people per square metre than almost any other place on Earth. Landscapes here are big and bold, and so are the weather systems, with monsoonal rains thundering down in the wet season and some of the largest tides in the world sloughing the reefs and lapping ancient cliffs.
It’s no surprise, then, that the Kimberley is a place best explored by water, and our 10-day expedition cruise with Abercrombie & Kent has already proven to be the very finest way to do it. Travelling from the old pearling town of Broome to the port city of Darwin in the Northern Territory, it’s put us right into the heart of this eye-popping destination, where milky turquoise seas lap crimson sands and fascinating human and natural history is brought to life in vibrant Technicolor.
The cruise is an ideal add-on for any Western Australia adventure, and many of my shipmates are pairing it with time spent swimming with whale sharks on Ningaloo Reef or go-slow epicurean breaks in WA’s most celebrated wine region, Margaret River, just a three-hour drive south from capital city, Perth.
The ship: Ponant’s Le Laperouse
Ponant’s Le Laperouse is a 184-passenger ship perfectly designed to deliver luxury in places that would be hard to point to on a map. And luxury is certainly the name of the game here. When we’re not off discovering hidden rock art or snorkelling lush reefs on our daily excursions, there’s a chance to unwind with a deep tissue massage or hydrating facial at the Ponant Yacht Spa.
At mealtimes, a sommelier is on hand to recommend the perfect wine for every palate, and for those who don’t want to lift a finger (or get out of bed for breakfast), every suite comes with personalised butler service.
Most spectacular in my opinion, though, are the inclusive helicopter trips, which take giddy guests to the stunning Mitchell River Falls and the Bungle Bungles range (Purnululu), affording once-in-a-lifetime views of the unusual 850-million-year-old beehive-like domes.
Unsurprisingly, the food on Le Laperouse is exquisite, too. The breakfast buffet is a gratifying feast of eggs, bacon, sausages and fruit, with hot dishes such as Benedicts, pancakes and omelettes made to order (and lashings of champagne for those who like to start their day in style).
Nemo restaurant, open to the elements on the aft deck, offers a hybrid of buffet and made-to-order dishes. Each night we tuck into wagyu burgers, barramundi, red snapper, stuffed calamari and steak as the fingernail moon gleams fiercely above us.
Le Nautilus restaurant on the fourth deck is a fancier, table-service affair where dishes of lobster with celery remoulade and truffle dressing and king fish fillet with courgette and pea risotto are paired with the finest Artemis Domaines wines long into the night. But the most spoiling time of day is early evening, when we all gather for cocktails and canapes on the ship’s observatory deck, watching as the skies are set ablaze with crimson, lilac and gold in the Kimberley’s trademark sunsets.
The ship’s 92 staterooms and suites (all with private balconies) are bright, airy and decked out in muted textiles and tones. Our Deluxe Suite is just as impeccably curated and as spacious as any luxury hotel room, with a sink-into double bed, huge sofa and double doors opening onto a balcony with chairs and a lounger.
Just as impressive as the cabins is A&K’s skilled expedition team. Our guides, helmed by expedition leader Brad Climpson, are impressively experienced, having spent decades between them exploring the Kimberley as well as Antarctica, the Russian Far East and the sunny South Pacific. Each day they help us efficiently into the Zodiacs and take us out into remarkable, unfathomable landscapes.
Daily activities on board
At Porosis Creek, an eerily atmospheric mangrove swamp, Brad tells me tales of crocodiles launching themselves out of the water to snatch huge flying foxes dangling from the tree branches. At King George River, where towering bric-a-brac rocks perch vertiginously atop one another, geologist Jason Hicks points out burning red sandstone that has been honeycombed with wear and twisted into spiral staircase shapes by time and tides.
As we snorkel off Ashmore Reef, surrounded by green turtles and velvety navy starfish, Dr Oliver, a scientist and wildlife filmmaker, tells us how she would swim for miles through shark-infested waters while working on research vessels throughout Australia.
A nightly lecture series allows us to understand even more of the cultures and landscapes that we’re passing through. Anthropologist Dr Shirley Campbell helps us interpret the fascinating Wandjina paintings we spot at various points during our excursions, while Bart Pigram, a Yawuru guide and curator from Broome (Rubibi), speaks engagingly about his family’s history with pearl diving.
This Aboriginal culture is further brought to life by the local people we meet who graciously showcase their homeland to us. And who better to have as our guides – after all, this is a landscape Indigenous people have inhabited for millennia.
At Freshwater Cove, local Worrorra guide Neil leads us through his island home, carpeted with swaying spinifex grass, purple hibiscus and yellow wattle flowers.
When we reach a cave filled with beautiful art, the hairs on my arms lift in unison. Neil explains all of them to us, pointing out turtles, dugongs, fish and stingrays. Each image, thousands of years old, is a testament to how rich and abundant these surrounding waters really are.
It’s also poignant to hear about local Aboriginal communities who were historically exploited by white settlers in this area. During our trip to the bird-filled Lacepede Islands, where entrepreneurial Europeans mined guano (fossilised seabird excrement) in the 19th century, we’re told of how pearling masters once held Aboriginal people captive here, before trading them as reluctant crew members for their diving boats.
A busy mind will never be bored with all the history and natural wonder that the Kimberley has to flaunt. And out here, even whiling away an afternoon on your balcony is an adventure. When we’re left with an afternoon at sea, I spend my time watching the flying fish, which skim effortlessly across the inky surface of the ocean like teeny tiny paragliders.
Occasionally a brown booby will swoop by to pick one off for its supper, or a swarm of jellyfish will billow past the ship like puffy cumulonimbus clouds. I keep my binoculars poised for the pointed fins of dolphins, as they twist their bodies to pick off salmon from huge, swirling bait balls, and I delight in spotting the occasional sea snake drifting idly by, like a cooked noodle squiggled on the surface of the water.
On our final day, as we pull into the historic port of Darwin, I reflect on what a thrill it is to have experienced in such detail a landscape that few people will ever have the opportunity to see.
To have it interpreted by those who’ve dedicated their lives to studying these rocks, these waters, these animals, and to spend time with those whose ancestors have lived, paddled and walked these lands for tens of thousands of years, is a rare and unforgettable privilege.
Abercrombie & Kent’s 12-night A&K Expedition – Kimberley Cruise: Australia’s Last Frontier 2023 costs from £12,699 per person based on two people sharing. Includes flights to Broome via Perth, transfers, excursions in Broome, activities on board and private balcony accommodation with butler service on a full-board basis. Find out more and book at abercrombiekent.co.uk.