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Le Commandant Charcot can explore the farthest reaches of the world (Photo: Tim Johnson)

The Perfect Base for Icy Adventures: Just Back from Ponant's Le Commandant Charcot

Le Commandant Charcot can explore the farthest reaches of the world (Photo: Tim Johnson)
Tim Johnson

Jul 27, 2023

Read time
6 min read

(1:50 p.m. EDT) -- Sailing (literally) where no other ship can go, Ponant's Le Commandant Charcot is an ice-crushing machine. Named for famed French polar explorer Jean-Baptiste Charcot, the vessel is equipped with an ice-strengthened hull and super-powerful azipod propellers that spin effortlessly through thick stretches of sea ice, whirling through all that super-hard blue-and-white frozen stuff like a blender through a bunch of bananas, the French-flagged expedition ship was specifically created for the world’s most extreme regions.

“When we built it, we wanted a ship capable of going to the North Pole with about 200 guests,” said Captain Etienne Garcia on a recent trip. “And Le Commandant Charcot was born.”

Exploring the pack ice off Eastern Greenland (Photo: Tim Johnson)

I’ve just disembarked Ponant’s flagship vessel that was first launched in 2021. Mine was an epic Arctic voyage from Reykjavik, Iceland to the remote reaches of eastern Greenland, and while I didn’t go all the way to the top—to 90 degrees of Northern latitude—my trip on Le Commandant Charcot sliced through the ice to visit some of the more remote parts of the Arctic that other ships just can't sail to.

The only luxury icebreaker in the world, Le Commandant Charcot is also the sole passenger ship with a PC2 polar ice rating, meaning it can take a relaxed stroll through vast frozen stretches that most expedition ships wouldn't even consider tackling.

After exploring the remoteness of Arctic Greenland with Ponant recently, these are five reasons why Le Commandant Charcot is perhaps the ultimate ship to sail the Arctic regions.

Le Commandant Charcot is The Ultimate Luxury Icebreaker

Le Commandant Charcot wedged into the ice off Eastern Greenland (Photo: Tim Johnson)

This is an important point—and one that’s frequently misunderstood. Very few expedition ships—even the hardiest repurposed research vessels—have a polar ice class rating above PC6. They can push ice, usually fairly thin layers of it. But Le Commandant Charcot's PC2-ice class capabilities make a meal of it.

The sensation is a little like flying on a hovercraft. Standing on the open decks, you’ll watch as the vessel glides from open water to unbroken stretches of white—while it looks like land, it’s actually snow-covered ice. And then (forgive me for all these mixed food metaphors) huge fissures appear and big chunks split off, like a saltine cracked into pieces before you drop it into your tomato soup.

This is all made possible by Le Commandant Charcot having a super-strong reinforced hull, and those azipods, among the most powerful in the business. Weighing 300 tons each and outfitted with a massive five-blade propeller, they can rotate 360 degrees, providing propulsion in all directions. Going forward, the bow is capable of cutting through ice up to three meters thick. And in reverse, the captain can use a unique wheelhouse mounted on the stern of Le Commandant Charcot to plow thorough ice that is an astonishing 15 meters thick. That's roughly 49 feet -- about as high as the Hollywood Sign is tall.

Le Commandant Charcot Can Sail Almost Anywhere in the World

Sledding over the sea ice of Eastern Greenland aboard Le Commandant Charcot (Photo: Tim Johnson)

Going to the geographic North Pole is still a very big deal—and hardly any passenger ships have that unique combination of power and strength to get there and back. On my voyage, we sailed all the way up to 74 degrees north latitude, spending time in Northeast Greenland National Park—the largest national park in the world, bigger than all but about 30 countries. While we sailed, a look at the ship-tracking apps revealed that we were the only vessel for hundreds of miles in any direction. For days, we didn’t see any other ships. Being on board, even with all the luxuries Le Commandant Charcot has to offer (more on that below), you truly feel like an intrepid explorer.

Le Commandant Charcot will get you there earlier in the season, too. We visited the tiny village of Ittoqqortoormiitt (population: 350). Iced in on Scorseby Sound, a broad fjord, they hadn’t seen a single ship -- even those carrying cargo -- in some eight months. Le Commandant Charcot arrived weeks before any other vessel. And on our visit, we delivered 25 pallets of fresh food, the goods traveling the last mile or so, from ship to shore, by dog sled.

Le Commandant Charcot Offers a Lavish Onboard Experience

Cuisine aboard Le Commandant Charcot is decidely French (Photo: Tim Johnson)

While capable of staying in polar waters year-round and sailing the world’s wildest stretches of sea, Le Commandant Charcot is very much a luxury vessel. For starters: the Spa. Set on Deck 9 with huge floor-to-ceiling windows, you can enjoy the indoor pool, sauna or a massage, without missing out on the view. (There’s a snow room as well.)

Cuisine is very French, with all the buttery, creamy goodness that entails. The menu at the main restaurant, Nuna, is curated by Michelin-starred Chef Alain Ducasse. Even the buffet (Sila) and all-day grill (Inneq, next to the Blue Lagoon, a heated pool tracing the stern) offers elevated dishes, including shrimp and lobster. Bread—including a variety of croissants, buns, baguettes that stretches the imagination—is baked fresh daily.

Special events can be truly spectacular, too. A highlight on my cruise: a dinner we enjoyed on the bow helicopter deck where the culinary team, warm hats atop their heads, Baked Alaska before them, surprised us by rising, as if from nowhere, on the panel they use to put the helicopter in its hangar.

Couple that with lavishly-decorated public rooms and superbly comfortable cabins, and Ponant has created an experience that is every bit as impressive onboard as the scenery that surrounds the ship.

Le Commandant Charcot Is Lighter on the Environment

A polar bear sighted off the coast of Eastern Greenland (Photo: Tim Johnson)

For Ponant, being as green as possible was a primary consideration in the construction of Le Commandant Charcot. It is the first hybrid-electric polar cruise vessel fueled by cleaner-burning Liquified Natural Gas (LNG). Wastewater is treated onboard, so everything that’s then discharged is clean. Single-use plastics are eschewed in favor of reusable glass bottles, filled with desalinated water made on board.

And being on the front lines of climate change, the ship has a role to play in measuring and analyzing the sea. Highly specialized onboard equipment measures and analyzes the ocean for key markers, like temperature, acidity and levels of micro plastics. Guests are invited to participate, too, visiting wet and dry labs on board, and lending a hand in drilling ice cores, with naturalists explaining the significance of their size and any special features.

Le Commandant Charcot Is the Perfect Base for Icy Adventures

Sunset over the bow of Le Commandant Charcot (Photo: Tim Johnson)

One of the great thrills of a voyage on Le Commandant Charcot is ramming into a big, wide stretch of fast ice (ice that’s fastened to land) or an ice floe, and just staying there awhile. Crew lower the gangway, and guests are invited to explore the frozen paradise that awaits.

Guests can just wander within a safe perimeter, or take a guided tour beyond, escorted by guides armed with rifles, lest a polar bear decide to wander along. (Landing sites are carefully scouted beforehand, as well, and a “bear watch” keeps a vigilant eye out from the decks of the ship and the edges of the perimeter.)

Guided tours include snowshoe walks and polar hikes, the latter sometimes traversing nearby ridge lines. The polar plunge is always fun. And “ski and tea” is a favorite, with guests sliding out on big, broad Nordic skis, pausing around halfway through for—what else—a hot cup of tea.

And then it’s back on board and time to steam away, an endless sea of ice ahead, just waiting to be broken by the magnificent bow of Le Commandant Charcot, a cocktail waiting at the ready up in the Observation Lounge, as another day in the Arctic comes to a close.

Updated July 27, 2023
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