Once geared pretty much entirely to the French, Compagnie du Ponant is working hard to court English-speaking passengers, ensuring that every cruise on every ship is bi-lingual, from menus to tours to safety drills. The Marseilles-based luxury line has also launched three nearly identical 264-passenger ships in the past few years, with another slated for debut next year.
Before we embarked on a 12-night cruise from Singapore to Bali, I wondered: Does the industry really need yet another high-priced luxury cruise line? What’s so special about this one? Why would travelers who are not conversant in French choose Compagnie du Ponant over highly rated lines whose passengers are primarily English speakers?
On our cruise, which called solely at ports in Indonesia, I got some answers. Here’s why Compagnie du Ponant is a line to watch:
1. Sense of adventure. The soft adventure component on Le Soleal was fantastic – we hiked, swam, dodged man-eating Komodo dragons, climbed all seven levels of Buddhist monument Borobudur, attended a Hindu ceremony, and met locals at schools, museums and villages. Many ports, like our stop at Surabaya, were unused to cruise ships, as our attempt there to bypass ship tours for an independent adventure didn’t quite turn out as hoped (we wound up at an Indonesia shopping mall, had lunch at a Pizza Hut, and got scarily lost trying to return to our ship as locals weren’t familiar with the cruise ships).
2. Small ships. These days, no other luxury cruise line is building 264-passenger ships; most other upmarket newbuilds are carrying at least 500 – or quite a few more.
On the upside, there are no lines, crew members memorize all passengers’ names, and the vessels can easily navigate smaller tributaries. On the downside, there’s not an abundance of choice – just two restaurants, a small menu of shore excursions, and limited evening entertainment. To be honest: I never missed them.
3. Destinations. Most of the passengers I met onboard weren’t serial cruisers. What drew them to Le Soleal was a sense of adventure, and the cruise line’s penchant for destination-rich itineraries (in fact, one 75-year-old British passenger had originally planned to motor around Indonesia on her own until she learned about this itinerary).
Besides Singapore and Bali, just about every other port we visited on our Indonesia cruise was anything but typical tourist fare. In Cirebon, a hotspot for batik artists, we didn’t just watch a demonstration; we got to make our own prints. And in Lombok, a long day’s tour included a horse cart ride through the village of Banyu Mulek, known for its exquisite pottery, and a long, relaxed visit to Lingsar Temple, where Balinese and local Sasaks were in prayer.
This approach extends to all of Ponant’s ships; Le Soleal’s two sisters are both in Antarctica in-season, for instance (all three of the ships have ice-strengthened hulls). Other itineraries include the Arctic, and exotic Europe, Asia and South America. A fourth ship, the 64-passenger Le Ponant, a three-masted schooner, offers offbeat Caribbean and Mediterranean ports. For instance, a seven night Le Ponant trip from Nice to Malta’s Valletta stops in Corsica’s Bonifacio, Sicily’s Pozzalo and Sardignia’s Golfo Aranci – beyond starting and ending ports, none of ‘em are on big ship routes.
Another plus: Days in port were long (occasionally we stayed overnight). There were just two sea days on our 12-day trip. The ship’s fleet of Zodiac landing crafts meant we could pull up to places like Krakatoa, home of the famous active volcano, and Komodo, known for its scary dragons. Neither had typical cruise docks.
4. Frenchy food. While the ship’s chefs were French, and there were some marvelous classics (duck confit, fabulous frites, and absolutely decadent pastries and desserts) I was surprised by how varied the menus were – particularly at lunch and dinner, to reflect a variety of cuisines. Themes included Asian, Italian, and Mediterranean; one afternoon a chef made a terrific paella right in the Le Phytheas restaurant. Otherwise, meals had more of a European continental feel to them. There was an outdoor grill, which wasn’t used as often as it could have been, for burgers, steaks and fish.
5. Great surprises. One day, our itinerary called for scenic cruising past Krakatoa, the aforementioned volcano, considered the most violent ever to erupt back in 1883 (it’s recently re-erupted and is still smoldering). This was no ordinary sail-by, however. Calm seas inspired the captain to spontaneously drop anchor and launch the inflatable boats – and we were ferried over to the island itself, where we could hike up to parts that were smothered in ash, and swim from its black sand beaches.
Another great beach expedition occurred later in the cruise, when with a couple of extra hours to spare, the captain again got out the zodiacs and took us out to pink sand beaches of Komodo Island on an absolutely gorgeous day.
6. Friendly ship. On this voyage, there was a higher-than-usual preponderance of French-speaking passengers with about 80 percent hailing from France (we’re told more typically it’s a 50-50 mix of French and English speakers). Yet they mixed quite well with our small group of English speakers, which included travelers from the U.S., Finland, Germany, Australia and England. All of us banded together and became quite friendly, sitting together on tours and enjoying pre-dinner cocktails .
And the revelation? Le Soleal was nothing like the more formal luxury cruise I expected. It reminded me of a hybrid of two different types of trips: A European riverboat, with first-rate service and dining and an expedition cruise, with a fantastic soft-adventure component.
Ultimately what made Ponant’s Le Soleal was this: Whether it’s the places we went or the experience onboard, the company treated us like travelers rather than tourists. My husband and I are already plotting our next voyage.