Ponant L'Austral Ship Visit and First Impressions
May Day bank holiday weekend we happened to be spending on the south coast, which conveniently coincided with Ponant ship L’Austral’s turnaround in Portsmouth, just a few miles down the road. So when we were invited to visit her for the day we readily accepted, especially excited because we had never even seen a Ponant ship let alone boarded one. Ponant are a French cruise line, founded 30 years ago, currently with eight ships in operation and four more on order.
L’Austral joined the Ponant fleet in 2011, has 132 suites and carries 260 guests (no more than 200 when sailing to Antarctica). Her voyages are predominantly geared towards expedition cruising in small, ultra luxury, all-inclusive ships. On board the French heritage is inherently evident with intentional use of French products, from the olive oil on the restaurant table to the toiletries in the bathroom, as well as the all French deck crew.
Unlike many cruise lines, when Ponant have a turnaround day the ship is completely absent of all passengers for part of the day, with those disembarking leaving early in the morning and those embarking boarding mid afternoon. Therefore, when we boarded at noon there were literally no other passengers on the ship, something so rare these days it felt a bit surreal.
We boarded at midday, making our way up the gangway and inside the ship to the main lobby, which was definitely a showstopper, with a beautiful double height crystal glass centre piece sculpture giving the illusion of a real water feature. Each Ponant ship has a similar style and decor but will have its own individual colour scheme and on L’Austral these are calming creams, naturals and golds giving the ship a contemporary but homely feel (probably because these are the same as those we have in our home).
After dropping off some excess baggage with the very friendly reception staff, we made our way to the main dining room to enjoy lunch prior to our tour around some suites and the public areas. The main dining room is large enough to seat all guests for open seating dinner and fills the entire width of the back of the ship on deck two. There are lots of large windows around the room which fill it with natural light to complement the sophisticated white and cream decor. However, if natural light is in short supply, the room is adorned with beautiful crystal glass wall and ceiling lights to ensure guests can peruse the Alan Ducasse inspired menus offering delightful French cuisine. The highlight of our lunch was definitely the desserts, leaving us dreaming how wonderful the cakes and pastries would be if we were to stay on board and be treated to the delights of chefs skilled in French patisserie.
Lunch over we started our tour with a visit to some of the suites. Almost all the suites on L’Austral are the same size, with only a handful of larger suites on deck six. Nearly all of the suites have balconies and a couple of suites are accessible for disabled guests. The rooms on L’austral reminded me of our room in a boutique hotel in Paris we once stayed in, which was one of the most beautiful rooms we have ever stayed in despite also being quite compact (read ‘small’), typical of so many Parisian hotels. The suites on L’Austral are small by any standard but for a luxury line they would never compare to the size of the suites in most of its competitors ships. This is an intentional move on the part of Ponant who keep the rooms small with the aim of limiting the size of the ships thus allowing them to visit smaller ports and unusual destinations.
However, small is often beautiful and these suites are no exception, each room being beautifully appointed with a separate toilet and shower room and plenty of usable table top space. Depending on your suite category you may be lucky enough to have a coffee machine in your room and as coffee lovers we enjoyed imagining taking our early morning coffee out onto the balcony as we sailed into some remote destination. Talking of balconies, the ones on L’Austral are small, but like our Parisian hotel, they have made the most of the space, furnishing it with two comfortable looking wicker chairs and a side table to place your coffee cup on. However, our absolute favourite aspect of the suite was the use of a glass wall dividing the bedroom area and the bathroom. Although the bathroom is also on the compact side the glass wall allows natural light into it making it seem larger than it is and allowing a view straight out to the ocean as you stand in the shower. Don’t worry if you are travelling with a friend or are slightly shy in nature there is a door that can be pulled in front of the glass screen to protect ones modesty.
Having explored the small range of all-balcony suites on offer, we made our way up to deck four where the theatre is located. The theatre is able to seat all passengers in stepped seating for all shows, entertainment and movies, allowing a good view of the stage from any seat in the house. The seats are very comfortable plush red individual chairs each with its own cup holder to accommodate that after dinner showtime drink.
From here we went up one more deck to the spa and gym area. As with all small ships the gym is not massive but there is a range of aerobic equipment lined up in front of panoramic windows looking out to sea with a small weights room off to the side of the gym. There is also a small sauna and steam room as well as a hair salon and three treatment rooms.
Strangely located at the entrance to the spa is a small area set aside for any children on board, housing a lounging area with TV and games, a piano and some board games. Also located here is a small IT area for internet and computer access.
Moving up to deck six we walked through the suite corridor to the front of the ship and the only public area located at the front of the ship, the Observation bar. This is a light, airy room with an outside viewing deck over the front of the ship. There is a small games and book corner off to the side of this room, a telescope at the front of the room and four lovely lounge seats looking out over the bow of the ship, all of which would attract people there during the day. It would also be the perfect location to enjoy a cocktail during picturesque sail always while the ship pianist entertained guests on the lovely grand piano.
Also on deck six at the rear of the ship is the buffet restaurant, pool and outside bar. The buffet restaurant is a much more informal environment than the main dining room with wicker chairs to match those on the outside deck. In keeping with the luxury cruise experience the tables are laid out with attractive table wear giving guests a relaxed but sophisticated dining experience.
The buffet restaurant leads out to the outside deck where there are a number of tables laid out for al fresco dining. Further out leads to the pool and sun deck. The pool is small but has a lovely wake view. From here external stairs lead up to deck seven and an outside bar and sun deck overlooking the pool area.
Deck seven mid ships also houses the twelve zodiacs which can easily be lowered into the sea ready for expeditions ashore. Each zodiac is equipped to hold ten guests and an expedition leader. Ponant prides itself on the experts it employs to ensure guests get as much from each cruise as they can, as well as their partnership with National Geographic which enables them to deploy a National Geographic photographer on every voyage. Not only is there a photographer to take awesome photographs of the voyage but they will also have a National Geographic expert on board to give talks about the destinations and also share their knowledge and advise with passengers.
The zodiacs when deployed are accessed from the marina deck at the back of the ship on deck two. This enables easy access for guests both getting on the zodiacs and returning to the ship. This design feature, which has been used by Ponant ships for quite some time now, is proving to be a popular design feature on many of the new expedition ships being built or planned for the near future.
The final public area on the ship is located one deck up from the marina on deck three and is the heart of the ship, the main lounge. This is a large, light room with plenty of comfortable seating, a bar off to one side and a self service tea/coffee station. There is a grand piano to entertain guests whilst they enjoy a pre-dinner cocktail or two. The main lounge leads out to a small deck with some very comfortable outside sofas and chairs, this is also one of the designated smoking areas.
With our tour of the public areas over we finished off with one last semi-public area, the bridge. Ponant have an open bridge policy allowing passengers to visit the bridge with the Captains permission whenever there is a green flag on the bridge door. The bridge is small but interesting and having an open bridge policy is becoming more and more unusual on ships these days, with larger ships charging guests for the privilege to visit. And there really is no better view of the ocean than the one you get from the bridge of a ship, especially if you get the chance to visit on a sea day or at night.
Overall, we were very impressed by this lovely little French ship. It purveyed an air of sophistication and sleekness whilst still feeling very homely and comfortable. We loved the French feel and the use of French produce and cuisine. Whilst the suites were small we really liked the design, especially the in-suite coffee station and the beautiful bathroom with the glass wall. We have reservations about the smoking policy and would liked to have seen more al fresco eating and relaxing areas. We were surprised that there were no jacuzzi on board but were told that the new class of ship has been designed with more tropical expeditions in mind and therefore has more outdoor areas for guest to enjoy in a warmer climate. But, were we tempted to sail with Ponant? Most definitely yes! Although we didn’t see the ship in real life circumstances (with other passengers on board), the crew were very friendly, the atmosphere relaxed and the design comfortable. We hope we get a chance to try out a full voyage on one of the growing Ponant fleet some time soon.
Thank you to Ponant cruises for inviting us on board for the day and delighting us with a delicious lunch.
If you enjoyed this review please take a look at our ship tour and first impression of Silversea’s Silver Wind .