My husband and I chose to travel on L'Austral with Tauck because we enjoy Tauck's level of service, and liked the idea of the small ship experience. I had done quite a bit of research on Ponant and L'Austral specifically, ... Read More
My husband and I chose to travel on L'Austral with Tauck because we enjoy Tauck's level of service, and liked the idea of the small ship experience. I had done quite a bit of research on Ponant and L'Austral specifically, and felt that we were well-informed on both the pros and the cons for this particular line and ship. I'm going to divide this review into two sections, the first dealing solely with our experiences on L'Austral, and the second touching on aspects that were primarily Tauck-controlled.
L'Austral: Embarkation in Osaka was seamless, with our luggage waiting in our cabin. The cabin itself was compact, with space to move around the bed, but not much more. The shower and vanity and separate toilet cubicle were similarly compact, but perfectly adequate. Toiletries were L'Occitane. Beds were comfortable, bedding of good quality but not luxurious. There were several types of bottled water on a tray, and a small refrigerator with an assortment of alcohol and soft drinks. We liked our cabin, were happy that we had the balcony, and thought our room steward was friendly, efficient, and gave great service. There was plenty of room under the beds for our suitcases.
For the most part, we used the main dining room. We ate one lunch at the buffet restaurant, but overall preferred coming back to the ship and being served by our (very welcoming)favorite waiters. The dining room decor was quietly elegant, the chairs and banquettes very comfortable, and the noise level low enough that it was easy to converse with your table mates without raising your voice.
Breakfast was a combination of buffet and made to order items. The buffet tended to have the same assortment every day, with some variation in the available fresh fruit, and some of the made to order options. The breakfast pastries were very good, and obviously made fresh--we enjoyed those a lot!
The lunch and dinner menus had choices for soup, starters, sides and dessert, and for the main course a choice of meat, fish or vegetarian option. The quality of the food ranged from average (some overcooked fish) to very good, with the majority being more towards the "very good" end of the range. However, for people who may have been expecting the variety and selection of some of the larger cruise lines, the food may have been a bit of a disappointment. Having read some of the negative reviews of the food on the Ponant ships, we were frankly surprised and relieved at how good it was. Portion sizes were European rather than American, which also pleased us.
We did not go to any of the shows since those started at 9:30, and after a full day of touring, having frequently left the ship by 8:15am, after dinner we usually headed for our cabin to relax and prepare for the next day. We did see the dancers and two of the singers in the lounge during the cocktail hour, and thought that the little mini-shows were entertaining--but not entertaining enough to make us stay up long enough to attend the longer shows!
The level of service from the majority of the staff was excellent: the waitstaff and room stewards were warm, friendly, and couldn't do enough for you. As an example, one of the people with whom we usually shared a table had a real weakness for chocolate--I think he had a chocolate dessert for every lunch and dinner--and one evening there was no chocolate dessert on the menu. Without saying a word, our waiter went to the kitchen and came back to the table with a mini-sundae with chocolate ice cream and cookies for our table mate.
The women in reception were efficient, but not especially warm or helpful. Their coolness was especially noticeable since everyone else in a customer-facing position was so engaging.
L'Austral is a small ship, but the public spaces are very pleasant, especially considering the fact that she is really an expedition ship, not a luxury cruise vessel. We hit some rough weather on our first night at sea, and while there was certainly quite a bit of motion that night, aside from that she was very comfortable, and didn't seem to be doing too much bobbing around.
Tauck: For this particular cruise the Tauck passengers were divided into 4 groups of approximately 30-35, for a total of 120-140 total. This meant that the Tauck-ies constituted a majority of the passengers. I did wonder how this impacted the cuising experience of the other passengers, which, as nearly as I can remember, were a mixture of American, Australian, New Zealanders and about 20+/- French. My understanding is that next year Tauck will have 6 groups, which will effectively be the entire ship. There will also be some other changes in the tour, which this year began with 3 days in Kyoto, and next year will be based out of Osaka, with only a single day trip to Kyoto. We were happy that we were able to go this year, since we loved our time in Kyoto, and would hate to have missed it. As always, the Tauck tour director for our group of 30+ was wonderful, and kept us moving while still allowing for individual exploration and experiences. Our local guides were mostly excellent, and provided context and some nice extras, such as teaching us songs, playing counting games using Japanese numbers, and origami.
Our hotel in Kyoto was the Granvia, situated on top of Kyoto Station. Two of the tour groups were based here, and the other two were at the Westin, and we had very little contact with them. The Granvia was a wonderful location, with underground shopping and restaurants, a department store, and easy access to both buses and subways which could take you to any part of the city.
Kyoto site seeing: Kinkakuji(covered in gold leaf), the Pure Water Temple, Gion, a taiko performance, a calligraphy lesson, and a tea ceremony, Nijo-jo (where we heard the famous "nightingale floors"), a Heian shrine, and a welcome dinner which included a Geisha performance. I'm not sure how much of this will be included next year, but I would have hated to miss any of it.
The first port after Osaka/Kobe was Tamano. Our group caught a ferry to Naoshima Island where famous architect Tadao Ando designed Benesse House and where other houses in the village have been incorporated into a living art project. In the afternoon we visited Kurashiki which has many 17th century warehouses built along canals, and the Ohara Museum of Art.
The next port was Hiroshima, where we visited the Peace Park Memorial and museum, as well as the iconic A-Bomb Dome. This was a pretty intense and emotional morning, so as a way of shifting gears, we were taken for lunch to an okonomiyake restaurant, which was truly delicious. In the afternoon we visited Miyashima Island to see the Itsukushima shrine with its beautiful red gate surrounded by the ocean, and where the deer are protected and will eat the paper right out of your pockets.
Uwajima was next, where we visited a pearl farm, saw a farm where bulls are raised for fighting, and visited the Flying Squirrel Temple.
Kagoshima--We visited the base of Sakurajima, an active volcano, and the Chiran Kamikaze Museum, where we saw the bunkers that the suicide pilots spent their last night and read their last letters home. We also visited Chiran Samurai village, where there are houses that date back over 250 years, and in some cases still have the original families living in those houses.
Nagasaki--In the morning we visited the Peace Park and Atomic Bomb Museum. The museum was very well done, and we actually preferred it to the Hiroshima Museum. In the afternoon we visited Dejima, which was the enclosed enclave that was the only place Dutch traders were allowed to live during much of the Edo period. We also visited Glover Garden, built in the mid-1800's for a Scottish physician, and containing the oldest Western style house in Japan.
The next day took us to Pusan in South Korea where we visited the United Nations cemetery and memorial to the UN troops who died in the Korean War. We also took a trip to the Jagalchi fish market, where we saw fish that looked like something out of an Alien movie.
Sakaiminato--In the morning we travelled to the Adachi Museum of Art, which has a wonderful collection of modern art, but where the real attraction are the incredible gardens around the museum. Every window in the museum frames another gorgeous view and viewpoint. In the afternoon we visited the Matsue black castle which is one of only 12 remaining original castles in Japan. Most of us climbed the 8 stories after having our photos taken with a samurai posing front of the castle.
The next day we disembarked, which was a very smooth process, and were bused to Kyoto where we had lunch in a restaurant in the Gion district before we were taken to Kyoto Station to catch the bullet train to Tokyo. The bullet train was a great experience, and as a bonus, we got a superb view of Fujiyama on the way. Our Tokyo hotel was the Shangri-La, which was everything luxury hotel should be. We were taken on a brief orientation tour of Ginza, and then set loose to enjoy dinner on our own.
Our last day of the tour began with a trip to the Senso-Ji Buddhist temple, a visit to the Edo-Tokyo Museum (which really needed an entire day to itself to do it justice)and was followed by a "salaryman's lunch" at a wonderful restaurant. In the afternoon about half of the group, including my husband and myself, opted out of visiting the scheduled Meiji Shrine and chose to sightsee or shop on our own. That evening was the closing dinner at Happo-en which featured a demonstration by sumo wrestlers.
As long as this review is, in terms of the Tauck portion of the cruise, I've really only given the barest outlines of what we did and experienced. Although there was some free time scheduled, for the most part we were kept moving. There seemed to be a larger than usual percentage of people in their mid-70's to mid-80's, and I believe that some of the people on the tour found the pace a bit taxing. My DH and I are in our early 60's and found the pace and activity level to be pretty much what we enjoy. How this compared to what the non-Tauck L'Austral cruisers experienced on their excursions, I have no idea, and I'm afraid I have no information on the quality of the excursions offered by L'Austral.
Overall it was an excellent trip. We loved Japan, found the Japanese people to be warm, friendly and very helpful, and wouldn't hesitate to go back. Read Less