We took L'Austral to Antarctica, South Georgia and the Falkland Islands from Ushuaia, Argentina. This is an expedition cruise on a boat with less than 200 passengers, so a different experience from your usual cruise. The boat is armed with a fleet of 8 zodiacs, staffed with several naturalists, all the things you'd get on a more rugged cruise, except you got plush accommodations and good food.
BOOKING - Booking was easy over email, Lisa was very helpful. It was a bit disorganized at the end when we were suddenly asked for all the documentation that we'd already provided, just days before the cruise, and we actually had to write and ask for our boarding passes the day before the cruise because they hadn't been sent. Other than that, all was fine with the booking.
LANGUAGE - The boat is French, and so the main language on board is French, but they always spoke in English too, and worked hard to ensure that English speakers were together on the expeditions, also at meals, so that there wasn't a language problem. There was also one German speaking naturalist for the German contingent, though they weren't as well catered to as the French and English speakers. We didn't find the language to be any problem, it was well dealt with by the ship crew.
EMBARKATION - This was well handled except we didn't appreciate having to drag our luggage all the way down the cruise port with no assistance.
SHIP - The ship is brand new and very nice. Well climate controlled with everything you need. There are three lounges, though the outside bar was rarely open. It handled the 18-20 foot seas of Drake Passage very well, even though waves were smashing over the sixth deck.
STATEROOMS - We had the Prestige Cabins on the 5th floor. They were quite spacious for a ship - about the size of a normal hotel room, very new and well appointed with flatscreen TV (movies only, no reception for TV), Nespresso machine, Nice shower and separate toilet, a desk, and a balcony with two chairs and a table. The only problem we had was the balcony door first creaked very loudly and also was very drafty. Bed was comfortable. Telephone in the room, also wi-fi (exorbitantly expensive).
SERVICES - There is a spa onboard, and a very nice fitness center which has a view of the ocean. There is wi-fi, but it is massively, ridiculously expensive, horribly slow, and intermittent (three days at a time without access at all). They sell it by the time block, with no refunds if you don't use it all. There are three computers that can't print, and the internet rarely worked on them. There is no TV signal (one day we had CNN) but a few movies to watch. There is a Wii and a few board games. Three lounges.
FOOD - The food was a real surprise. The ala carte restaurant was a gem, with an amazing variety for the 16 day cruise, always fresh, always well presented and creative. It wasn't always good (mostly though), but they get an A for effort. There were always 2-3 choices of each of the 4 courses, with some other things you can get every day. You can also eat at the buffet restaurant which at least when we were there was of poor quality for dinner. It was better for breakfast and lunch though. Also a good variety considering no ports of call for restocking for 16 days - amazing we could still get fresh fruit at the end of the trip, for example. Unfortunately, except for the meals, there was no food available except peanuts in the bar. With lunch at noon and dinner at 8:30 PM, everyone starved all afternoon with nothing but room service possible, not even a croissant (there was an afternoon tea with a few cookies).
STAFF - The staff was surprisingly friendly and nice. Everyone was very pleasant and tried hard, even at the end of a very long cruise. The cruise director had a great sense of humor and kept things light. The Expedition leader was also funny and very nice and professional. The naturalists were all pleasant but not very proactive - they spent most of the time on shore taking their own photos or wandering around making sure people didn't get too close to the animals, rather than proactively interacting with the guests. They were there to answer questions if you had some, but other than a quick 1 minute briefing when you got to shore, they weren't proactive about it at all, which was a suprise.
EXPEDITIONS - The expeditions were professional and well organized. The parkas were of high quality, and nobody was cold. The naturalists were good about keeping everyone where they were supposed to be, and the landings were spectacular. One million adele penguins at one landing at Heroine Island was absolutely stunning. Another in South Georgia with 400,000 King Penguins, elephant seals, fur seals was spectacular. Zodiac cruising through the ice in Antarctica was magnificent, even though it was raining and snowing. Another day we sailed inside one of only three navigable calderas in the world, very cool. The hikes were marginal, and we would have liked to do one more day of ice and one less day in the Shetland Islands, but otherwise very, very good. We did an average of 2 landings each day that we had calls, with two days of sea in between areas. We were very pleased overall. The photgrapher and videographer did a stunning job - wow. We bought both CDs. Incredible work.
ENTERTAINMENT - The entertainment schedule was lacking in imagination - by day you had a couple of naturalist briefings, which were really boring for the most part. Good subject matter, just dry presentation (reading off a paper like presenting a research paper rather than entertaining tourists). There was fitness and streching each day, and that was pretty much it. A couple of days there was Wii but with no kids and most people over 60, I don't think that was a big hit. By night it was better with a couple of relevant movies, a talented dance crew, and very good lounge singing. It wasn't a big variety at all, but by then most people were tired anyway and went to bed. They could really have done more fun things with the daytime entertainment though, not just fitness, streching and dancing. Card tournaments, cooking classes, wine tastings, and things like that would have been more age-appropriate for the guests I think.
Overall, we had a very good cruise on L'Austral. Many people complained of boredom during sea days, and about the quality of the lectures and the bad internet, some about the food and the naturalists not being proactively engaging with the guests, but mostly I think people were satisfied. The expeditions that we all came for were great, with the only complaint being only one morning in the ice. There should have been one more. When you consider the alternative accommodations to Antarctica, L'Austral is way above any of the others, except Silver Explorer which is double the price.