Launched in 2011, L'Austral is the second in a series of three 264-passenger, 10,600-ton cruising yachts commissioned by Compagnie du Ponant. Its identical sister, Le Boreal, debuted in 2010, and the third sibling, Le Soleal, which will launch in July 2013.
Originally French-owned and, at one point, aimed almost exclusively at the French market, the company was acquired by cargo giant CMA CGM in 2006 and then sold on to pan-European private equity investor Bridgepoint Capital in 2012. Over the last few years, and particularly with the launch of these three new ships, the line has been targeting a much more international market with considerable success. The essence of the product, however, remains unchanged under the new owners, with a family-run feel and a strong French influence throughout the ships.
L'Austral is, without a doubt, a stunning vessel, with sleek lines and an unusual dark-grey hull that makes it stand out in port. The interiors are like those of a minimalist boutique hotel. Everything is taupe, cream and white, with emphasis on luxurious textures, from leather-fronted white drawers in our cabin to taupe silk cushions on the bed. Black-and-white Philip Plisson photo art lines the corridors. A cascade of glittering Swarovski crystals lights up the small atrium. The whole package is unashamedly French: it's chic, the service is a little arrogant at times, and the passengers are a well-heeled, savvy crowd of experienced travelers.
What distinguishes these ships from other luxury vessels is their adventurous itineraries. L'Austral and its sisters are all ice-strengthened, so they can sail to Antarctica and the Arctic, destinations that are mixed up with off-the-beaten-track European itineraries, as well as Asia and South America. Each carries a fleet of Zodiac landing crafts for getting ashore and for sightseeing in remote locations. There's a strong emphasis on coastal cruising, with long days in port, overnights and late departures, so you really feel you're part of a destination, rather than just calling for a day.
Compagnie du Ponant operates a complicated pricing policy and is moving toward all-inclusive drinks, but at present that's only for certain markets. For the U.S. market, the fares are already all-inclusive. For the U.K. and European markets, wine and soft drinks with meals are included, and there's an optional all-inclusive upgrade of £210 (for Brits) for a week. There are, however, plans afoot to make all pricing drinks-inclusive.
Note: Tauck charters certain L'Austral sailings, and on these cruises, the onboard atmosphere and pricing structure may change (e.g. excursions are included).