We just came back from 2 weeks sailing the Secret Islands of the Seychelles on Le Bougainville, a new ship of Ponant. We had never cruised with Ponant but thought the itinerary and their partnership with National Geographic for this trip was exciting. It was a new ship that had just set sail this year so we tried them out. It had great potential with Nat Geo naturalists and photographer to visit remote exotic islands of the Indian Ocean. Our experience with of our trip is below;
- Pre Trip Communication - The information sent ahead of the cruse by Ponant was lengthy but had very little if any content that was useful in preparing for the trip. Some of it was contradictory such as they recommended bring field glasses for viewing. When we arrived on the ship we found complementary Nat Geo field glasses already in your room for use on the trip. There was very little information on the planned shore excursions. Trying to login to their website was difficult. We eventually found out we had to be logged under the country that Ponant had booked your trip in. For us they had booked it through their Australia office so we could not see any information if we logged into their USA website.
-Ship - New this year and very beautifully designed. The common area spaces were good however in inclement weather it's a little tight. There is only had one public restroom. There were signs already of deferred maintenance issues that had not been dealt with such as stair handles coming off, doors not working, leak in the pool etc. They often did not set up the less visited upper deck areas with chairs etc. We would go to those decks to find a quiet area and find the chairs stacked and tied up.
-Onboard Communication - The English presentation of announcements, printed materials and in group presentations was very poor. The person doing announcing on the PA system was hard to understand and would often give the English speakers misinformation because of bad translation. For example; she announced one day the beach we were going to had no snorkeling. We left our snorkel gear on the ship and went to the beach only to find all the French speakers snorkeling. Upon asking the staff they said "what we meant was the snorkeling was not the best at this beach not that was no snorkeling". This happened often. The printed daily communications were terrible. Some of the translation into English was not understandable, some used configuration of words that was very hard to make any sense out of. Ponant would benefit greatly by having a native English speaker onboard for announcements and review of written materials if they intend to keep trying to attract customers in English speaking markets.
-National Geographic Partnership - This was a main feature of why we signed up for this expedition. It appeared that the Nat Geo people had more plans to interact with passengers than Ponant permitted. For example, I am a photographer and the Nat Geo photographer was only scheduled to give 2 presentations and one photo event during the 12 day trip. They have a beautiful photo area with computers that could have been utilized but was not. They did not schedule any photo walk or photo sessions with the Nat Geo photographer which was a huge disappointment. The Nat Geo naturalists were the same, very few presentations and minimal passenger interaction events. The few "nature walks" they did were offered primarily in French with translation into broken English.
- Front Desk Staff - They were lovely and always very willing to assist. I had a business transaction that I needed communication with and they were very helpful in quickly getting things copied and sent off.
-Daily Operations - There were not set plans for daily activities shared with passengers ahead of time. They held mandatory briefings each night before dinner (they were usually during the sunset so most passengers did not get to enjoy them). The rooms had the tv/video capability for the ship to do a briefing video that would have allowed passengers to view it when they wanted vs. the mandatory meetings every day. For shore excursions they divided the passengers into groups with one being English speaking. They did not always communicate well in English to the English group. They did a good job of rotating which groups went first on excursions etc. The activity staff were not very engaging with passengers i.e. on one open water snorkel excursion, my wife got her finger pinched badly in the ladder climbing into the zodiac. The staff member on the boat commented to her that that ladder was a problem. She did not offer any medical assistance nor did any of them follow up to see if the wound was serious or not. They hosted several onboard activities throughout the cruise but did not communicate them to the passengers. For example you could sign up for a tour of the bridge. We only found out they were offering this by overhearing another passenger talking about it. There were 2 formal nights and a white night. There was no explanation as to what a white night even was. I am still wondering why there are any formal nights on an expedition trip anyways. The cabin stewards were great.
- Restaurants and Food - Food was barely average. They were not helpful at all in assist passengers with special dietary needs such as gluten free, vegan etc. Mostly their response was to let the passenger figure out what they could eat from what was being offered that day vs. trying to accommodate them with food they were able to eat.
- Dive Center - The Dive master was knowledgeable and as helpful as he could be. He was not given adequate help or equipment to accommodate the number of divers on the cruise. For example he only had staff to take 6 divers per dive and there were 22 people on the ship wanting to dive. He did his best to take all the divers on as many dives as they were interested in but several were unable to complete as many dives as they wished. Some passengers were able to sign up for dive packages in advance and other markets were apparently not able (for example, my market in USA being one that could not).
- Ship Store - They had a small but adequate size store for this size of ship. The selection of items offered was poor. They had no toiletries or things like aspirin, suntan lotion, snacks or other practical things one might need on a cruise. The hours of operation were very limited. They would open for an hour or two at a time on random days and you only were able to shop if you happened to walk by when it was open and you had time. Staff was very friendly.
- Spa/Exercise Center - They had a nice spa area with an amazing sauna. The staff were very helpful to my wife who had a broken finger nail. We did not use the exercise equipment but there seemed to be a good selection of equipment types for people to work out. Our friends traveling with us got a massage but reported they it was more of a rub down that an actual massage.
Overall we felt like this trip fell far short of what an expedition trip with National Geographic experts should have been. Much of that seemed to us to be due to Ponant struggling with how to market worldwide and in multiple languages.
Cabin very well designed and looked nice. It was small but had adequate storage space. The balcony/deck was just big enough to sit outside and enjoy. The bathroom space was very tight.