We picked a French ship, Ponant's l'Austral because her schedule it perfectly with our land tour in Japan afterwards. And then, we are always up for new experiences. We, that is my husband and I in our late 60ies. Before the ... Read More
We picked a French ship, Ponant's l'Austral because her schedule it perfectly with our land tour in Japan afterwards. And then, we are always up for new experiences. We, that is my husband and I in our late 60ies. Before the cruise, we stayed 4 nights in Hong Kong on our own and afterwards, we joined a land tour with UniqueJapan.
We took L’Austral from Hong Kong to Tianjin (Bejing) and continued on to Osaka from March 20 to April 6th. It was our first time on a Ponant ship. After about 17 previous cruises with 9 different lines, l’Austral was a different experience - luxury lite on an expedition ship.
Embarkation was a cinch! (So was disembarkations) Never had it so easy and fast, but it started only at 4 p.m. in the large shopping mall that serves as Hong Kong’s old cruise terminal for smaller ships. We dropped off our luggage at 2 p.m. and came back at 4 p.m. The waiting room in Hong Kong’s terminal is not comfortable, no need to hang out there. At the entrance of the ship, the captain greeted us, good beginning!
Ship and Cabin
The ship has a very stylish clean line décor, no promenade deck. Unfortunately, we could rarely use the outside decks due to the foggy and cool weather. We had cabin 319 which looked chic at first sight but turned out to be very tight for two people. The desk and TV at the end of the bed led to traffic jams. The cabins on other ships usually have a wall at the end of the bed which serves as a corridor from the balcony to the hallway door.
On a positive note, the furniture provided deep drawers for our stuff. In addition, the beautiful white upholstered closet doors opened wide and had more drawers, hanging space, a safe, and … blocked the bathroom doors when opened. We are not upset by the separation of shower/sink and toilet cubicle. It is common in Europe and in Japan. We also loved the l’Occitanie amenities.
Our cabin had a balcony with enough space for a small table and two comfortable chairs. No view while you are seated because of the chest high solid metal wall. After all it is an expedition ship that often sails in extreme southern and northern waters.
The hotel staff was their usual smiling selves, many from the Philippines. All of them awesome. Most days we picked a table with our favorite Balinese waiters. Great service! Energetic, friendly, warm, and well organized cruise director Kamel and hotel director Christian were bilingual English/French and made a great effort to accommodate Anglophone passengers as did the captain digging out his best English. None of the officers and staff was ever seen favoring French passengers as was mentioned in a previous review. The Bridge was open to visitors, a nice touch found rarely on other ships I know.
The front desk is staffed by friendly young ladies, mostly on top of things. Be aware of those French passengers who pretend they have never heard of lining up.
The excursion desk is overwhelmed by requests, questions and bookings because it is not possible to book excursions online before the cruise. Come on, Ponant, move into the 21st century! We filled out the booking form at home, printed it and gave it to the excursion staff. Tickets for excursions were brought to the cabin the night before the excursion. I prefer an envelope with all excursions tickets on my desk at the beginning of a cruise.
In the first segment of our b2b, several grouchy French passengers made it known that the presence of Anglophones in their territory was unwelcome. The excursion staff was so embarrassed that they apologized and gave back the money to one Australian group. In the second segment, smiling French joined us as well as enough English speaking passengers to fill most excursion busses with one language group. In this segment, everybody was willing to use headphones to listen to the guide in their language.
Since I speak French and actually love France, I was able to initiate conversations with francophone passengers. By the way, many of them spoke English, but they did not initiate conversations. Obviously, it does not come as easily to them as to the Australians who made up the majority of English speakers. We had a handful of Americans with the remainder of the English speakers made up by Scandinavians, Dutch, Flemish Belgians, and Germans.
Passengers dressed casually, not sloppy, similar to Oceania's country club dress code. There were two gala dinners per cruise where gentlemen wore jacket and tie; women wore elegant dresses or pant suits, no ball gowns.
Expectations are high for a French ship and indeed, the food selections are French. Excellent baguette varieties, French cheese, nice desserts, very good salads the way I remember them from the offerings of delicatessens (traiteurs) in French resort towns. The individual dishes are mostly very good and tend to be on the small side, but the sequence of several courses leads to plenty of calories for all gourmets and gourmands. My favorite wines with lunch and dinner were Australian. We never splurged on the high end French wines that could be had at additional cost. The sommelier was available.
Our waiter told us that with the arrival of American Tauck groups, the executive chef will add hamburgers, prime rib and Cesar Salad. I very much liked the duck and boar we occasionally had on our menu. The lamb from New Zealand was also excellent.
Entertainment and Enrichment
The Cuban singer could really sing and was entertaining! Best singer on any ship so far. The Ukrainian piano player was extraordinary. The dancers were as good as on other ships, their program charming and corny at the same time. We missed most of the daytime programs which were plentiful for such a small ship. Instead, I picked a few appealing books from the small library after having finished my Qiu Xialong novels.
The China segment of the cruise was themed: the French magazine Paris Match. I left the theater after five minutes of listening to them touting their own horn. Paris Match had done article series on Mao and China. I think I remember one from ~ 30 years ago.
The enrichment speaker on China was a nice gentleman with unfortunately limited English pronunciation skills. I did not mind since his program was providing really good information and he was engaging. On the Korea/Japan segment, the speaker was a lady for whose style of presentation I did not care. In my opinion she lacked warmth and organization which was difficult for me to tolerate in combination with a strong French accent. If Ponant wants to break into the Anglophone market, they should hire more accomplished speakers. Maybe their naturalists are much better. On the other hand, I have heard utterly boring enrichment speakers on other ships with perfect English.
Would I sail with Ponant again? The review questionnaire asked. I would perhaps if the itinerary were unusual and perfect for such a small ship (~ 200 passengers). Maybe I would go to the Australes island group southeast of Tahiti on the ship named l’Austral. Nobody else stops there on the way to Pitcairn. This cruise starts in Papeete, passes Pitcairn with a chance of debarkation and ends on Easter Island with guaranteed debarkation. Ponant also offers itineraries I have never seen anywhere else, such as the ocean north of the Aleuts. Go for it!
Ports and Excursions
Xiamen, our excursion went to Gu Lang Yu, charming little island, weekend goal for the Chinese from the Hinterland. Gu Lang Yu used to be one of the foreign ports. Remnants from that time are some villas, a piano collection, two churches with lots of opportunities for wedding photos, several former embassies in various states of disrepair. The lucky ones are restaurants. Lovely guide.
Shanghai, two nights and a real bonus for a small ship: We sailed into the center of the city and docked only 10-15 walking minutes from the Bund. Excursions offered were the usual Shanghai highlights, a trip on the superfast Maglev train, a water village and Suzhou.
Dalian, the most interesting excursion included a visit with a Chinese family in their apartment.
Tianjin, best excursion and best guide was to Bejing as reported by other passengers. We did not go since we had been there 9 months ago and wanted to avoid the long bus ride.
Incheon, best excursion was ‘all day in Seoul’ including 7 course Korean feast. Lots of seafood! Great guide.
Jeju Island, visit to woman divers and to a beautifully landscaped bonsai garden
Japan offered the most advantages for a small ship. Our small ports thought we were the apple of their eye, offering gifts to passengers, drummers, dancers, and flowers for the captain, fireworks. Each port did something different and each had the press and TV present, even big Osaka.
Ports: Hakata, Beppu, Iwakuni, Una Ko, Osaka
Excursions included hot springs, a monkey mountain, historic homes, downtowns, shrines and museums as well as Hiroshima. We were there at the peak of cherry blossom time, just wonderful. Read Less