This is going to be the most difficult review of a ship I have written, I was on Le Ponant for 6 days as part of a Tauck sponsored People to People tour in Cuba which is one of the few ways Americans can visit Cuba. I searched in vein for in-depth comments on Le Ponant on Cruise Critic and there really isn't anything that proved helpful. So I decided to provide one.
Le Ponant is primarily a sailing ship, its 3 masts having an acre or so of sail. It has an engine for backup. I believe it is the last cruise ship afloat that relies mostly on its sails. It is a beautiful ship, gorgeous to look at, like a sleek modern yacht. I carries a maximum of about 60 passengers in its 30 or so cabins. Its decor is art-deco, its blue white and mahogany furnishings are a throwback to years gone by. It has three large public spaces an art deco restaurant, again elegant, a large lounge where all enrichment lectures and briefings are held, and another largish area that is outside and covered where breakfast and lunch buffets are served. The restaurant serves all passengers at a fixed time 7:30 pm. ( a couple of times at 7:00) Some passengers might not like the fixed hours. All cabins except 1-5 are off a single long corridor. All are approximately 130 square feet. More on this later. Cabins 1-5 are a deck up and no larger but they afford a greater degree of privacy but are more susceptible to the roll from rougher seas.
The crew is predominately French although everyone speaks English. Every member of the crew is helpful, polite, without exception. The captain, David Lemaire clearly loves being at the helm of a sailing ship. He is perhaps the youngest captain of a major cruise ship. So don't be alarmed when you are introduced to the Captain who is probably in his 30's. He does everything, from helping people in and out of zodiacs to having an open bridge which is unheard of. His bridge tour is not to be missed. Also not to be missed is the raising of the sails, a very complicated maneuver which is the high point of the journey. The captain could have a second career as a Hollywood movie star.
This voyage was run by Tauck, all the passengers on the ship were Tauck clients. This means that all the enrichment activities and shore excursions were run by Tauck professionals. The tour directors were first rate, a cut above those I sailed with from luxe lines like Silversea and Cunard. I want to single out Laura Nunez and Ronny (?) who made this voyage something very special. They were always there to solve any difficulties. I could not imagine this voyage without them.
Le Ponant's small size, around 270 feet enables it visit small ports that larger ships can't navigate. This is a huge plus. But, it is also a problem. And I hope potential passengers take careful notice here. This is not your large ocean liner. In rough seas the ships rolls. As the Captain constantly reminds you "one hand for you, one hand for the vessel". If you are prone to sea seasickness Le Ponant is not the ship for you. Rough seas also prevented us from sailing into Havana which for me would have been a high point of the voyage. But here I have to say the Captain made the absolute right decision, this was the day a huge tornado hit Havana which could have been a disaster.
Now for the hard part. First, this review will be totally irrelevant in a year or so, Le Ponant is supposedly going into dry dock for a major retrofit (not confirmed). Which makes this review relevant for only a year or so. The primary purpose of the retrofit is to enlarge some of the cabins. And this is the second problem. Even though the cabins use every inch of possible space they are, after all, only 130 square feet. Hopefully this doesn't sound jaded and elitist but my primary cruise line is Silversea (8 trips) and the size of one of Le Ponant's staterooms is about the size of one of Silverseas closets.
Needless to say, Le Ponant doesn't have the amenities of a Siversea, Seabourn, Crystal Regent and the other luxury brands. There are no balconies, no swimming pool, no spa and all the other bells and whistles I have become used to. Le Ponant has a very small sun deck with about a dozen chaises and that is about it. (One major suggestion is for Ponant to put in a whirlpool on the sun deck so you could at least get wet, please)
One factor I just don't know about is the quality of Le Ponant's shore excursions. As I noted above, this was a Tauck expedition. The Tauck folks simply could not be any better. Not having sailed with Tauck before I don't know whether Ponant would achieve the same level of excellence. I will write about Cuba in the Trip Advisor forum. It is a time machine, truly fascinating. If Le Ponant is retrofitted with larger cabins and Tauck runs the tour again, it is a trip that seasoned travelers should not miss.
way too small (see above)
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