We enjoyed a two week Central America cruise on Le Boreal, a 2010-built vessel with 264 pax capacity. We had 186 on board. Crew 144. New vessels offer lots of advantages.
First, the pluses:
Cabins are small but feature a tasteful contemporary design with superb European finishes and fittings. King size bed and bedding was very comfortable. Bathroom is small, but top quality. Toilet is separate. L'Occitaine toiletries are standard. All suites have a small balcony.
The food is excellent, as expected of a French vessel. Desserts are superb. There are two dining areas, one more casual, the other light and bright on deck 2. Open seating.
Service was terrific, especially from the Philipino and Indonesian staff. The (non-European) French-speaking waiters were somewhat haughty, which we thought unusual. The French maitre de, Christophe, was superb, as was the sommelier, Charles. Young, vibrant and personable.
Ship's officers were convivial and Captain Garcia deserves special mention. It is not often you can be on the bridge for a Panama transit. When he said it was an open bridge policy he truly meant it.
One treat was an unscheduled stop in the Pacific for a swim from the ship's stern marina deck. Fantastic.
Tours were standard, average value and consistent with most cruise ships. Nothing special. The French tour staff were most helpful and convivial.
There were only 4 English speaking passengers on our cruise, albeit many French and EU passengers did speak English. This did not concern us but may be a drawback for those seeking more social interaction. One good feature is that in restaurants, bars etc. the French are very quiet. We like this. Overall noise levels are subdued.
Now for the not so good points:
The alcohol policy on board is outdated. Beer and wine of good qualities are served free during meals, but pouring finishes promptly when the restaurant Is closing.
You can buy an 'open bar' ticket for $80 per day per person. Otherwise cocktails are $15 and standard drinks $10. Tea and coffee $3. So you are forever signing chits, even with an open bar provision. My advice is to negotiate an open bar deal when booking if you like to drink out of meal times.
The pool is purely for immersion. Not very good. And the smokers congregate here too, especially flocking to the outdoor dining area.
Tipping is encouraged on an 'all staff' basis at the end of the cruise. Like most Australians, we consider this a blatant impost to top up the wages of crew so we chose to simply tip those staff individually who provided exceptional service.
Le Ponant needs to adopt what is rapidly becoming the market standard, a contemporary all-inclusive policy for drinking, tipping and tours. Cruise passengers are increasingly looking for no-extras once on board.
IT services were below average. The in house TV was poor, with a clunky interface and poor graphics for navigation etc. No satellite news on TV, but printed daily news. About 20 movies on line - the usual popular releases. The library is both stylish and comfortable but the choice of books is limited.
Internet service was variable and much the same as other ships. Unreliable, slow and expensive. About $20 per hour.
Policy is stated as non-smoking, except in designated areas. But there are quite a few of them, including the outdoor dining area and pool surrounds as well as other locations. The French appear to smoke more than most so this is a real negative, especially in the pool and outdoor dining area if you don't like to share your meal with tobacco smoke. And there were pipes too. As we were sailing in equatorial areas, it was more comfortable to dine indoors anyway, but the smoking policy may be a put-off for many. Ponant need to change this should they wish to broaden their passenger base.
We did not check out the entertainment at night. It appeared to be a standard cabaret offering with a Paris touch, as well as dancing. The lounge pianist played classical music standards during cocktail hour with much the same playlist every night. Not exciting.
The lecturers (two) were both charming and excellent company however English language skills were lacking, as well as the topicality of subjects and depth of knowledge. This was a key issue for us as lectures are so important for our cruising. Before taking another Le Ponant cruise, we would be seeking more details of lecturers and their CVs.
Overall, we rated this cruise very highly - the combination of a terrific (new) ship with a number of nooks and crannies to lounge in, coupled with excellent food and restaurant service. This ship is very comfortable in all respects, with great sea-keeping. The friendly officers added to the experience. Captain Garcia is a gem.