This was called an "expedition cruise". And yes, there were some interesting excursions. But most afternoons were scheduled for swimming and/or snorkelling off a small island with no alternative activities. Not everyone in the main cruising demographic needs so much water activity.
We had been to some of the excursion sites before and found this time the visits were shorter, rather watered-down especially in Rabaul where we did not go as close to Mt Tavurvur as on a previous cruise, and were closely shepherded around the town and not allowed to wander. The visits to Kitava and Tufi were good, but we had seen more of Alotau on a previous trip. And please, Ponant, don't bother with Gizo!
L'Austral is a very attractive ship, is very smooth. But there is very little area to sit and look at the sea with the exception of your cabin balcony. The bars were good, ditto the interior lounge spaces.
The staff were excellent. Ditto the expedition leaders, especially Mick Fogg, Harry Christensen, and Justin Friend. Their summaries and information were extensive although a little more onshore involvement of expedition staff would have been appreciated.
Now to the great disappointment - the food. For what could be classed as a reasonably expensive cruise the quality of the food could not even be classed as average. This is the first occasion that we have had to return meals because they were inedible or unchewable. This occurred on three occasions. Once, with a steak, we asked for English mustard and even the maître d' had not heard of it! Courses were very small and in many cases lacked flavour. However, the cheese selections were outstanding even though a little repetitive.
The ship carries a good selection of wines which can be purchased but are reasonably expensive when charged in euros. We chose the house wines which were adequate but very limited in choice. We would have appreciated speaking to the sommelier about the wine selections but did not have the opportunity.
However, the dining staff were excellent.
Very compact and well organised. Beds good. Décor dreary - all that donkey brown! Lighting good; bedside reading lamps very good. Bathroom well lit with plenty of shelves. Makeup mirror much appreciated! Shower very good, great water pressure. Enjoyed the small balcony. Cabin very quiet and no noise from neighbours. George, our ever-obliging cabin steward took great care of us.