While the pandemic did not leave many opportunities for travel, the idea of finding cruises from France came to me. After a timid recovery (and many cancellations), the reopening is official on June 30, 2021, with the authorization of cruises in France. The Compagnie du Ponant had been on my list for some time, this is a great opportunity. After a few cruises around the tip of Brittany, Le Bellot headed for Corsica to repeat last year’s experience: one-week cruises to the “Ile de Beauté“, departing from Nice.
Boarding scheduled for Sunday August 15, at 5 p.m. So I arrived at the port of Nice, with great expectations of this adventure, so much I heard praise about this company. Fortunately, the cruise was of better quality than the embarkation, a process that had not been mastered that day.
It is very hot that day in Nice, and arriving under a blazing sun is already a test. Boarding should turn out to be a liberation, but here we are, standing in line the sun. The reception is not managed by someone from the company but by port security personnel, who complained of being abandoned. The order is received from a distance to block boarding. It will turn out that going through a check with the on-board doctor is long and that the staggering of arrivals over time is totally unsuccessful. Just like the passenger reception point which does not allow you to take shelter in the shade, or even to sit down. The tone is rising among cruise passengers who are just as surprised as I am by this strange welcome.
Finally, after more than an hour of standing waiting, little by little, in a trickle, people come on board, greeted by the Captain who does not seem to really care about the complaints that the passengers express to him on this reception rather low end. “I can’t make it rain,” he will say. This is not what we envisioned either …
To embark, you had to present a negative PCR test. Vaccination was not compulsory, which still puzzles me these days. In other words, I translate this into a stronger desire not to reduce the potential of customers rather than to take real sanitary measures. So we were lucky, no case of Covid on board, at least to my knowledge. During the cruise, wearing a mask will be compulsory at all times (except when seated for a drink or a meal, as well as in the cabin). A temperature control is carried out by yourself at the entrance of the main restaurant.
The ship can accommodate up to 184 passengers. It is Explorer class, small in size to allow it to go where most cruise ships cannot. It is equipped with many zodiacs, one of the means most often used for excursions or expeditions at each stopover. The public places are tastefully decorated, and everything is warm.
The cabin, a “prestige”, is relatively small (19m2) but very well designed, and even offers the luxury of having separate toilets from the bathroom, a rare occurrence on cruise ships to be noted. The style is very classy, mainly with light wood and some parts of the furniture covered in leathers. There are enough storage spaces. A large TV adorns the wall opposite the bed. The bathroom shower is large enough to be comfortable in. A sliding panel can open between the bathroom and the rest of the cabin, and let in all the light. The bath products are from the Hermes brand.
The balcony is not very big but enough to put a small table and 2 chains. It is possible to open it on that of the neighboring cabin, just like the cabin itself which has a sliding panel to add the interiors. This is not the case with all the cabins on board, but apparently all those on deck 5 were designed like this.
There are American and European size electrical outlets, as well as a USB socket on one side of the bed, and an American socket plus a USB socket on the other side. One of the accessories supplied as standard is a very good quality Bose speaker, on which you can connect your smartphone via bluetooth. Another pleasant surprise of this decidedly well thought out and very modern cabin, the safe is large enough to accommodate a laptop computer (in extreme paranoia mode), or any other electronic equipment … that can be recharged inside thanks to an electrical outlet (European format).
Wifi internet access is included in the price of the cruise, and allows you to stay in touch with the outside world. The bitrate is correct, with a few empty passages, but does not really allow video streaming.
A well stocked fridge contains water, sodas and a few bottles of spirits. It is included in the price of the cruise, and restocked daily. The company is not stingy with bottles of Evian water, 4 to 6 bottles are left in the cabin, next to 2 gourds bearing the image of Ponant, offered to passengers, with the laudable aim of reducing the use of plastic bottles ashore. There are also 2 umbrellas available. A coffee machine (Nespresso) and a kettle complete the equipment, therefore very complete.
The cabin is made morning and evening. The bed, prepared for the night, sports a treat every night … always delicious.
There is a theater on board, which serves mainly as an amphitheater for presentations of excursions or expeditions. A full team of explorers takes it in turns to explain everything to us. It is of a very good level because each and every one is specialists in their field (geologist, ornithologist, …). Their explanations are clear and fascinating. Each day ends with a “debrief” during which the team recalls the strong or remarkable points of the day and details the activities of the next day. You can usually register for the different options immediately.
Excursions are included, apart from scuba diving. Ponant distributes a specific life jacket for zodiac trips, or for kayak trips, with equipment also available on the ship. I really enjoyed the zodiac tours, on which we embark from the marina at the back of the boat. Group rides of 6 to 10 passengers approach places often inaccessible otherwise. A real strong point of this type of cruises.
To stay in the world of exploration, the designers of this ship and its twins had the idea of positioning a bar below sea level, the Blue Eye. With its giant portholes and walls covered with screens, this one-of-a-kind place immerses you in the depths of the sea. The sound is not to be outdone with equipment that makes vibrations felt throughout the place. While we are having a drink, watching for anything that might pass outside the ship, a powerful voice tells a story worthy of the explorers who inspired this atmosphere.
I was able to participate in a whiskey tasting in this unusual setting. An unforgettable experience.
At the front, deck 7, another lounge bar allows you to observe the surroundings of the ship, taking height. The Jules Vernes offers a decor mixing bookstore, museum and lounge, with an outdoor part … a real observatory.
The ship’s largest bar, called the Grand Salon, is on deck 3, aft. It is one of the main places where the ship lives, with a regular musical group. Cocktails are plentiful, mostly included in the price of the cruise. A selection of premium drinks is however chargeable. It is possible to buy a drink package for 20€ per day and per person, for the entire cruise. The list of included beverages is therefore growing, but there are still some choices that are not yet included in the package, such as certain champagne (the package included at Veuve Clicquot), or exceptional spirits. Note that the purchase of this package also improves the cocktails which then benefit from equally superior ingredients.
The Grand Salon extends outside, to the rear of the ship, overlooking the marina and surrounding the swimming pool. At mealtimes, this exterior is transformed into a grill where the dishes are available as in a buffet. The most aft, on each side of the boat, are huge sofas overlooking the sea, yacht style.
This is also where the infinity pool is located, with a stunning view of the back of the ship, thanks to a completely transparent edge. Although a bit small for swimming, it is still possible to train thanks to a turbine that creates a current under water. This machine is started by pressing a submerged button, and a regulator allows you to choose the strength of the current. It pulses!
To train as well, some sports equipment can be found on deck 7, in a fitness room. It is located right next to the spa. Access to the sauna is free (apart from the management of the sanitary protocol requiring you to register for a time slot in advance). Classic spa treatments are available (and for a fee).
Some shows are presented in the theater. This is obviously not a central activity for this type of cruise, but the shows do not have to be ashamed of the competition, because they are of a very good standard.
I saved the best for last. Restaurant ! Called the Nautilus, it is located on deck 4, with a few tables outside, at the back of the ship. The menus change every day, and are even dated (which changes current companies, with their cyclical menus). There are a few dishes “always available”, such as a seafood plate, a Caesar salad, a hamburger or salmon … Some of the à la carte dishes are also found on the grill, just on the bridge below. .
The menu systematically details all the allergens or types of dishes (vegetarian, well-being (understand “good for health”), gluten-free, with peanuts, lactose-free, organic, with garlic …). This is also not that common. This is mainly French cuisine, including recipes according to the stopovers of the cruise. It is generally very good. A selection of white, rosé or red wines is available, also different at each meal.
During the cruise, tastings are organized. For example, we were treated to raw Corsican ham (excellent), French caviar, or downright a whole pig on the spit!
Breakfast is offered as a buffet, with the possibility of ordering all the classics of the genre (such as eggs benedict). Not to mention an “afternoon tea”!
Some examples of appetizers …
Some examples of main dishes …
Some examples of desserts …
The only downside to this cruise is ultimately just in terms of service, especially in the restaurant. Maybe it was because I had just finished a cruise on the Viking Jupiter where the service was impeccable, at all times and in all circumstances, but I was a little disappointed by the sometimes very poor standard of the waiters. A multitude of small flaws that would not be much if we were on a low cost company, but which have turned out to be surprising. In bulk … wait more than 20 minutes for an order to be taken; having to ask for bread or water 3 or 4 times; to have dishes served that are not those ordered; seeing the waiter come back because, in fact, he did not correctly write down our order; have their glass filled with the wine of the day while it contained another wine, à la carte; to answer the question still water or sparkling water? and to be served the one you did not choose … nothing very serious, obviously, but at this price … what an accumulation of blunders.
Cruises aboard the Ponant’s ships are relatively expensive. These are often expedition and exploration cruises to exceptional places, and difficult to access. Everything that is necessary for the adventures is provided by the company which manages its own excursions, and the level of knowledge of the accompanying experts is bluffing. A real pleasure to listen to them explain everything to us!
The price is also all inclusive, with a few rare exceptions, with a resolutely “relaxed luxury” positioning. The “dress code” is not too strict in general (but there is no question of coming in shorts and flip-flops to the restaurant as in other companies …), and an effort is requested during gala evenings (2 in a week), where tuxedos and evening wear are a must.
For a week in a mid-range cabin with balcony, the amount was € 4,220, or € 600 per night per person. To this is added the drink package, completely optional, at 20 € per day and per person, or 154 € for a week (yes, you have to add 20% VAT!).
Would I do a Ponant cruise again? Chances are! Exploring such exceptional places deserves this sacrifice!