We are entering a true golden age of expedition cruising. Not so long ago, polar explorers like Shackleton and Amundsen and Charcot risked life and limb, sailing wooden ships into some of the most dangerous waters on earth, headed for the poles surrounded by dangerous ice in what was, truly, then terra incognito. Even until recently, an expedition cruise was an exercise in austerity, with passengers sailing aboard solid ships built for rough-and-ready researchers that were short on frills, features and comfort.
That’s not the case today, with cruise lines launching brand-new expedition ships that bring offer creature comforts that would have been unheard of just a decade ago. Two lines have emerged as leaders in sailing to the ends of the earth: Quark and Ponant. The former, a Canadian company, sails exclusively in polar waters, operating a fleet of eight vessels, from hardy old Soviet-era icebreakers, to the brand-new Ultramarine, a state-of-the-art expedition cruise ship. Long a leader in this part of the industry, their founders took the first group of commercial travelers to the North Pole in 1991, and the company was also the first to complete commercial circumnavigations of Antarctica and the Arctic Ocean.
Ponant operates under the French flag. The line has made a name for itself in the traditional luxury cruise world with superb cuisine, fine touches and French flair since the debut of their original three-masted barque, Le Ponant, in 1991. But expeditions have become a key component of cruise offerings in recent years, witht the line offering cruises in sailing wilder waters (including remote tropical locales like Papua New Guinea and Australia’s remote Kimberley coast) for two decades.
In the last couple years, each line has launched a flagship that stretches the imagination in range, strength and features. Both were purpose-built for polar waters.
For Quark, that’s Ultramarine, which launched in 2021 and carries 199 guests and has a PC6 ice-class rating.
For Ponant, the line's flagship is the beautiful Le Commandant Charcot, which also launched in 2021 and carries 245 guests with a stronger PC2 ice-class rating.)
We've sailed on both. Here, we’ll compare these two spectacular vessels, head-to-head.
This ship can go literally (almost) everywhere. The world’s only luxury icebreaker—and the only icebreaker ever purpose-built to carry cruise guests—its PC2 rating is unmatched in the business. In addition to a super-strengthened hull, it’s all about the Azipod propulsion system installed on Le Commandant Charcot which is the most powerful in the world. Short for azimuthing thruster pods, they weigh 300 tons each, swivel 360 degrees, and are outfitted with huge, five-bladed propellers. They can push the ship through up to three meters of ice going forward and 15 meters of ice, in reverse, using a unique wheelhouse which allows the captain to pilot the ship from the stern.
Le Commandant Charcot, which runs on hybrid-electric power, fueled by liquid natural gas (LNG), can reach the North Pole with relative ease -- and indeed it has when it became the first French-flagged ship to do so in 2021. It can also travel to super-remote corners of Antarctica—including Marie Byrd Land, the largest unclaimed territory on earth. Or deep into the often-treacherous Weddell Sea, where the ship gets close enough to Snow Hill Island that guests can walk to the famous (and famously remote) emperor penguin colony there, home to 8,000 of these magnificent flightless birds.
Le Commandant Charcot establishes itself as a ship that can go almost anywhere.
The headline here: Quark's Ultramarine offers guests two twin-engine helicopters on dual heli-decks. And these choppers aren’t small little birds designed for scenic flights. They’re an integral (and cost-inclusive) part of the voyage. Which means, if you’re sailing in southern Greenland, on some days your shore excursion will be a flight to a remote ridge line, a heli-hike through territory that’s a standard part of the journey where, it’s possible, you can stride where no other human has stepped.
But it doesn’t end with the copters. Ultramarine has a water-level zodiac hangar, specially designed by expedition experts and unique to the vessel, allowing them to deploy their 20 zodiacs in about half the time, compared with other vessels. Add to this four embarkation points, meaning you can get those boats going with even more ease—a huge advantage when you need to deploy quickly to get close to fleeting wildlife.
Both are absolutely beautiful ships, with glassy lounges and huge cabins. On Le Commandant Charcot, all have balconies, and just a small handful don’t on Ultramarine. Both ships are supremely welcoming—in either case, when you’re returning from a frigid zodiac cruise or a day of skiing on the ice, it’s important to come back to pure comfort.
Expedition ships usually have some form of staging area—sometimes called “mud rooms” or “ready rooms,” -- where guests suit up in their boots and coats and prepare to face the elements. On this front, Ultramarine wins, with twin, spacious mud rooms where each guest gets their own personal area to store jackets, boots and other gear. And that means you never need to take a soaking-wet parka back to your suite. Their theater is also a standout, with huge windows bringing the outside in, and open decks that are immediately accessible to the space, should, you know, a polar bear wander by, or an orca swim past, during a briefing or lecture.
Both ships have spas on top decks with bright windows. But Le Commandant Charcot holds the edge here, with an indoor pool, sauna, snow room, plus The Blue Lagoon, an semi-circular outdoor hot tub that traces the shape of the ship’s stern. And on the culinary front, Le Commandant Charcot’s French cuisine really cannot be beat. The menu is curated by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. Caviar is never in short supply, and one happy brunch included crab legs, lobster Thermidor, steak tartar and other dishes you’d normally only find in the finest French restaurants.
Here, nobody comes up short. Both lines attract the top talent in the industry. Naturalists generally have specialized knowledge and a deep passion for what they do. Expedition leaders, on both sides, have decades of experience and work closely with captains and navigational crew to provide the best, most amazing excursions possible.
On Ultramarine, our resident ornithologist once held the world record for most birds spotted in a single year. On Le Commandant Charcot, our historian had conducted landmark international deep-ice research studies in Antarctica. On board either vessel, you’ll have fascinating enrichment in the theater, and unmeasured interpretation (and safety) when you’re out there in the wild elements.
When it comes to choosing between Ponant's Le Commandant Charcot and Quark's ultramarine, it's honestly too close to call. Both ships—and lines—offer spectacular itineraries, right to the ends of the earth. Each vessel is luxurious and lovely. It really depends on your own personal polar and expedition goals, whether soaring helicopter hikes or mind-bending adventures on the ice. Either way, you simply cannot go wrong exploring the ends of the earth on either vessel.