Entertainment is low-key, with very little going on during the day. Occasionally, there were dance classes and Ping-Pong challenges, but on my cruise, there weren't any guest speakers. This changes on the more adventurous expedition cruises, when there's a full program of speakers, with lectures in English guaranteed.
Most people go ashore during the day, and the shore excursions sold very well (and were excellent and reasonably priced). Some lie by the pool, and some use the spa, but L'Austral's passengers aren't the kinds of people who need constant stimulation; a lot would simply disappear for the whole day and show up at sailing time, having eaten ashore.
In the evenings, there was an excellent jazz singer in the Karikal lounge and, on some nights, there were dance shows in the theatre, which were good, if not cutting edge. One night, the dancers performed tangos on the pool deck, which added to the atmosphere of a hot Mediterranean night.
What really stood out was the late-night disco on Deck 6, which was superb; a proper, professional D.J. played a good mix of contemporary sounds. The disco drew the crowds, as well as the officers, and it was the social hub of the ship on many a night. But we got the impression that each ship of the three has a distinct personality, driven by the hotel manager, so if the hotel manager doesn't hire a D.J., you might not get the same level of nightlife. A friend who had cruised on sister ship Le Boreal said it was completely different at night, much quieter and with a much older age group. And, indeed, the Karikal lounge was very quiet after dinner; people seemed either to go dancing upstairs or to go to bed.
The public areas on L'Austral are stunningly beautiful. The Karikal lounge on Deck 2 is the main gathering place, with a cream and taupe color scheme and light pouring in from windows along either side. There's a dance floor there that saw some action on the last night of the voyage, and there's a coffee station where tea, coffee and fruit is available all day. Aft of the lounge is a quiet deck area of soft chairs and lounges, popular for pre-dinner drinks among the smokers onboard.
Some of the other public areas were something of a mystery on my cruise. On Deck 5, there's a "leisure area" before the entrance to the spa with a small children's playroom (unsupervised) and a large amount of space dedicated to the photo gallery, as well as a couple of Internet terminals; 100 minutes costs 30 euros, but the service was very slow. This space, however, was rarely used. On Deck 6 forward, there's an attractive Panoramic Lounge with a bar, library, board games and a terrace outside, but again, this area was always empty. It's probably perfect during cold-weather cruises, but in the Mediterranean, everybody was on deck or ashore during the day and in the Karikal or the open air bar on Deck 7 in the evenings. This bar, Le Comptoir, was a great place to enjoy a sunset cocktail or to gather for scenic sailaways, and it's where the disco took place after dinner.
L'Austral also has a boutique, which offered enticing displays of designer clothing and jewelry but was hardly ever open.
Reception, on Deck 2, offered mixed service -- sometimes charming, sometimes alarmingly abrupt. The shore excursion desk is also located there.
The small spa on L'Austral is run by Parisian firm Sothys and is about as perfect as a small cruise ship spa can get -- tranquil and relaxing with charming, friendly service and absolutely no hard selling. Tipping is not encouraged, and there are no disclaimers to sign before a treatment. I was so delighted with the care and attention that went into my simple nail polish change that I offered to pay more and was refused. I had a blissful 75-minute facial for 120 euros, which isn't a bad price by cruise ship standards, and I left with armfuls of samples of the wonderful Sothys products. I noticed that several passengers had bought the spa packages, which offer combinations like six anti-aging treatments over six days for 360 euros. The spa also offers a hair salon, a mixed hammam and a peaceful relaxation room with an outdoor area.
There's a small, forward-facing gym connected to the spa, offering treadmills, stationary cycles and Kinesis equipment. On my cruise, there weren't any gym classes offered, only ballroom classes in the main lounge, run by the onboard dancers.
L'Austral has a lot of deck space, but not much was used for sunbathing. The pool area aft on Deck 6 is delightful, with squashy single and double loungers clustered around a small, deep and inviting pool. The deck aft of the Karikal lounge is ideal for sitting outside in the shade, as is the Le Comptoir bar area, overlooking the pool. But the whole of the top deck is occupied by the ship's fleet of Zodiac inflatables, as well as other machinery, and it isn't conducive to sunbathing. There are a few loungers up there, but it didn't seem much used. Likewise, the forward-facing terrace outside the Panoramic Lounge on Deck 6 is fine when the ship is moving but a real sun trap and very hot when it's in port.
L'Austral has a marina platform that can be used when the ship's at anchor for swimming and non-powered sports like kayaking and windsurfing (for no additional fee).
L'Austral is not especially aimed at families but does carry children and makes them welcome. There's no structured kids entertainment or activities; French families tend to do everything together, including eating dinner, and all the children on my cruise seemed sophisticated and well-behaved. Kids menus are available on request, but there was plenty on the buffet or menu in any case that would appeal to kids -- pasta and omelets, for example, and ice cream every day. The waiters were generally very sweet with the children. A small children's playroom was unsupervised but had a good stock of games and toys, and we often noticed small children playing quietly in there. In the Karikal Lounge, a giant screen with Wii kept the teens amused. In-cabin baby-sitting is sometimes available on request, especially on family theme cruises, but you'll need to make arrangements with the Hotel or Cruise Director on a case-by-case basis.