La Compagnie des Iles du Ponant – now just Ponant, is a small currently 11 ship company. It was started in 1986 by Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee, a French merchant seaman who wanted to create a sailing concept showcasing the art of sea travel in the finest French tradition (The French Way of Sea). ‘Ponant’ means ‘West’ in archaic French naval terms (the opposite of Levant) and was perhaps suggested by one of the first itineraries sailed by the new company – a cruise through the Ponant Isles.
The company’s first ship (still sailing today) was a 3 masted 64 guest barque (yacht) – Le Ponant. Its maiden voyage was into the heart of the Caribbean sailing along routes first used by Christopher Columbus. Ever since then, Ponant has been well known for the diversity of its itineraries, often off the beaten track or following in the wake of famous explorers. Le Levant and then Le Diamant were added to the fleet. (Le Levant is now with Paul Gaugin as Tere Moana and Le Diamant sails for Quark Expeditions as Ocean Diamond). In 2007 La Compagnie du Ponant (as it was then known) set out to design cruise ships encompassing cutting edge technology, intimate size and high end amenities. The results were the 4 sister yachts – Le Boreal, L’Austral, Le Soleal and Le Lyrial. Each can carry 224- 264 guests, depending on cabin configurations (as some can be joined together to produce larger accommodations).
Ponant then embarked upon the building of 6 near identical ‘Explorer’ Class yachts, each named after a famous French Explorer. The ships are called Le Bougainville, Le Laperouse, Le Champlain, Le Dumont d’Urville, Le Jacques-Cartier and Le Bellot (the latter two ships to be launched in 2020) and carry 184 guests each. Le Commandant Charcot, the world’s first hybrid luxury icebreaker, will be launched in 2021 and will be capable of sailing to the North Pole. All ships sail under the French flag, aim for an international clientele and operate bilingually (with signage etc in both french and english), although the predominant language on board will depend on the guest mix. When I was on the ship in Liverpool there were 100 french speaking and 40 english speaking guests. Typically guests come from France, USA, Australia, Switzerland and Germany (in descending order of numbers).
Each of the Explorer yachts feature a unique concept called the Blue Eye. Set 4m below sea level and within the hull, it is a multi sensory bar with 2 large glass windows (18 sheets of glass thick) shaped like the eye of a blue whale. There is seating for 30 people at any one time on body listening sofas that constantly vibrate and ‘breathe’ according to your body resistance. When the ship is anchored you can see and hear (via hydrophones with a 5km radius) the marine life outside. Obviously this depends on where you are in the world. There was not much to see in Liverpool dock, but imagine turtles and sharks (in the Caribbean) or jelly fish and the sound of whales (in the Arctic).
Across the fleet, ships sail Classic and Expedition style cruises. Classic cruises can be themed and include music (in partnership with Radio Classique and others), gastronomy and wine (including cruises with Relais & Chateaux chefs on board), golf (teeing off in the Caribbean) and art and literature (in partnership with the likes of Christies, the Guimet Museum in Japan and the Musee du Louvre in Dubai).
Ponant has also partnered with National Geographic to offer over 130 expedition cruise itineraries, visiting intriguing and remote destinations, meeting guests’ desire for exploration and discovery. These include the Buagos Archipelago near Cape Verde, the volcanoes of the Aleutian Islands and the smaller islands of the Seychelles and Aldabra Atoll. Each cruise is staffed with experts specialising in subjects from marine biology to anthropology and history to photography, as well as naturalists who lead landings in Zodiacs utilising a zero impact landing protocol. Research projects are also carried out on the ships. On board, state of the art stability technology, leading edge navigation and the most up to date environmental protections ensure that Ponant’s ‘clean ships’ visit these delicate ecosystems, affecting them as little as possible. All itineraries are flexible to allow for unscheduled nature sighting stops when and wherever possible.
Le Dumont d’Urville is the 4th of the Explorer Class ships, launched in 2019. She weighs 9,900 tonnes, has a draught of less than 5m and is 400 ‘ long. To give an indication of size – all passengers can disembark the ship in 12 minutes! It was named after Jules Sebastien Cesar Dumont d’Urville who explored parts of the Pacific, Australia and Antarctica in the early 19th century and has a scientific station in the latter location named after him. Like all Explorer Class ships, it has a reinforced hull for sailing in polar climes and an aft marina for tropical itineraries. The marina is on deck 2 and allows guests access to the fleet of Zodiacs as well as for entering the water (conditions permitting) for swimming and water sports. The hydraulic platform can be raised to 3 different levels to accommodate differing requirements – it has even been known to act as a stage for the ship’s company to perform on!
Boarding the ship on deck 3, there is a classy open vestibule area in subtle greys and shades of brown, containing a shop and the Reception and Excursion desks. It is very welcoming in a restful, chic way - perhaps to be expected of an elegant French 5* ship. The interior continues in the same stylish, light vein with touches of leather, suede, wood and different fabrics, including macrame, as well as artwork paying homage to the natural and marine world. Terracotta and brown cushions complement and lift the effect. Some parts of the ship do have a bit of a Scandinavian feel, but not in a bad way and are a little reminiscent of Viking ocean ships. Whilst each of the Explorer vessels is basically the same design, the colour schemes are peculiar to each ship. Forward on deck 3 is the 188 seater theatre: the venue for lectures, excursion briefings and evening entertainment. Whilst aft is the Main Lounge (2153 sq ft) with a bar and dance floor, perfect for quizzes, dance lessons, performances from the resident musicians as well as being the venue for snacks and socialising throughout the day. Beyond the main lounge is the Pool Grill (seats 70 people) which serves al fresco buffet lunches and dinner, but is only open in good weather. It overlooks the infinity pool (with its own counter current swimming system). Stairs either side of the pool lead down to the marina, so deck 3 also acts as a bit of a balcony area to people watch the kayakers and paddle boarders below! On deck 6 there is an art gallery and the photography area. This is where workshops led by experts are held and also doubles as a Kids Club area. Forward is the panoramic Observatory Lounge with a range of comfortable seating options and coffee tables, a small bar, a library area, some seating on deck and exactly the same views as from the Bridge (which is on the deck below). Like many ships of this type, there is an open bridge policy on board. Deck 7 is the home of the spa and small gym, designed so that the sauna looks out onto the ocean, through a Blue Eye reminiscent window. On deck and aft is a small sunbathing area.
The main restaurant on deck 4 – Le Nautilus - seats all guests in one sitting. A light, airy, ship wide room, with the facility for alfresco dining, the Captain’s table sits in the centre of it. French guests prefer tables for two, of which there are quite a number, but reserve one early if this is your preference too! The restaurant serves buffet breakfasts and a la carte lunches and dinners. Lunch is plat du jour, with a limited choice within the 5 courses. Dinners are also 5 courses long and in unashamed French style include a choice of soup, starter, main course, cheese and dessert, often featuring locally sourced ingredients. Dietary preferences are indicated by symbols. Items like burgers, salads, club sandwiches, Rib eye steak and grilled chicken and salmon, are always available. Ponant operates an open bar policy on all its ships (including in room mini bars), for everything but premium spirits etc, but it is possible to buy a Pass Premium for these brands (€20 pp/day).
There are 92 cabins on Le Dumont d’Urville. They all have balconies (as on all Explorer Class ships), whereas the other 4 ships have 95% cabins with balconies. Bathrooms have a separate toilet and Hermes toiletries. There are 7 categories of accommodation: standard cabins are 205 sq ft and suites range from 291-484 sq ft. All cabins accommodate 2 people, apart from Privilege suites which can sleep 4 people. There are 2 adapted cabins on board each ship. Cabins on deck 3 have metal fronted balconies and those on deck 6 can suffer from a bit of movement. As a point of difference the Owners Suite on deck 6 differs from that on deck 5 only by the omission of the jacuzzi: the suite size and balcony area is exactly the same, but at a lower cost.
The evolution of the Ponant brand has not been without incident though, as Le Ponant was taken hostage by Somali pirates in April 2008. There were no passengers on board and the ship was released 8 days later. On a different ground breaking theme, Le Soleal became the first French commercial vessel to traverse the Northwest Passage in 2013.
As a cruise line, Ponant is exceptionally socially responsible and in 2018 established the Ponant Foundation to help preserve the oceans and polar regions and encourage exchanges between peoples. Its strap line ‘Oceans, Poles, People’ operates to support projects focusing on research and conservation of the seas as well as working with indigenous people of these areas. Actual projects include increasing environmental protection in New Caledonia, biodiversity conservation in Antarctica and beach cleaning in the Indian Ocean as well as more sustained educational programmes to help fight plastic pollution, using the ocean as a learning environment and teaching sustainable ecotourism.
Ponant Explorer ships are geared up for lovers of exploration, adventure and encounters beyond the boundaries of normal travel. They are not over endowed with a wide selection of eating places, bars, lavish entertainment or other public areas. However, if you are looking for a comfortable small ship expedition style experience focusing on shore excursions, lectures, excellent food and a comfortable balcony cabin you could do worse than consider Ponant.