Ponant: Real adventure and fine dining served with French panache

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A multi-sensory underwater viewing chamber is a winner for Sue Bryant but it’s not the only extraordinary feature on Ponant’s first expedition class ship


All talk at the July launch of Le Lapérouse, Ponant’s newest expedition ship, was of the Blue Eye Lounge. Would the world’s ‘first multi-sensory underwater viewing lounge’ live up to the hype? Would we even see anything on a two-hour cruise round Reykjavik harbour after the naming ceremony?

First, the ship itself. Le Lapérouse is exciting news because it’s the first of a new expedition class, the Ponant Explorers, for the French-owned line. There will be six of these ships, each with 92 balcony cabins and suites. A second sister, Le Champlain, arrives in October this year, with two more in 2019 and the final pair in 2020. This ambitious expansion is thanks to Ponant’s acquisition in 2015 by the mega-rich Groupe Artémis, which also owns Christie’s auction house, Château Latour wines and the Gucci and Stella McCartney fashion labels.

The buzz of Le Lapérouse has all been around Blue Eye but the ship has other features that are just as extraordinary. Although the vessel takes 184 passengers, it really does feel like a private yacht. There’s a beautiful pool on the aft deck, with a whole wall of glass. A marina platform, the likes of which I have never seen on a ship, extends on an arm behind the pool and, cleverly, has three functions. It can sit just below the water, for easy embarkation onto the fleet of 10 Zodiacs. It can rest just above the water and act as a launch platform for kayaks, paddleboarding and snorkelling. Or it can serve, with railings around the sides, as a really smart spot for cocktails, or sunbathing, looking back towards the glass-walled pool.

What else? The décor is gorgeous, it has to be said, not dissimilar to the Viking Ocean ships, with soothing neutral shades, soft textures and objets d’art reflecting the destinations where the ship will sail. The food is light and delicate; in 2016, the line started a partnership with Ducasse Education, the catering training arm of Michelin-starred French chef Alain Ducasse, and it really shows. All cruises are now all-inclusive. The itineraries are fantastic, too. After an inaugural Med season, Le Lapérouse heads to the Seychelles and Sri Lanka, Asia, Australia and New Zealand and the South Pacific. What’s not to love?

Yet, as international sales director Stephen Winter explains, fewer than five per cent of Ponant’s passengers are British. “Our top three markets are France, the USA and Australia/New Zealand,” he says. “In 2009, we were carrying 100 Australians but it’s more like three or four thousand now. There’s no reason why the UK can’t get to numbers like this.”

Although English and French are spoken on board, does more need to be done to get over the perception that this is a very ‘French’ product? “We have established a series of cruises that are for English-speaking markets only, called ‘Quintessential’,” Winter says. Three of these so far are on Le Lapérouse, to the sub-Antarctic islands of New Zealand, the Kimberley coast and Japan. Others visit Sicily, the British Isles, the Mediterranean, Spitsbergen and Antarctica.

Yet despite the possible language barrier, Winter believes the French panache of Ponant’s ships is its USP. “We have French DNA,” he says. “For example, the menus in association with Alain Ducasse. We offer a combination of real adventure with fine dining. We have been around 30 years, but have the most modern fleet afloat. Our ships are luxurious but environmentally friendly.” Passengers, too, are a stylish crowd, with an average age of 62. “They are looking for experiences, rather than showing off,” says Winter.

Blue Eye was one experience we were all itching to try and it didn’t disappoint. Daylight fades as you descend eight feet below the water level via a lift and a steep staircase, into a wide, curvy space illuminated by rippling blue light from two big eye-shaped windows, throwing watery shadows on a structure resembling bleached whalebones.

The lounge is surprisingly big, taking 30 at a time. People sat, seemingly hypnotised, on squashy white sofas; it transpired that these vibrate subtly in time with the sound, lulling you into a blissful trance.

In Reykjavik harbour, there wasn’t much to hear so recorded whale song added to the dreamy mood. For more exotic locales, though, two hydrophones on the ship’s hull will transmit sound direct from the ocean. By day, sunlight filters down to the ‘eyes’, but at night, 28 spotlights in the hull will gently light up the underwater world. I sunk into a sofa, gazing out into the blueness. I could get used to this. As far as gimmicks go, Blue Eye is a winner, but it’s not the only talking point on this very attractive new ship.

A 10-night cruise from Seychelles to Sri Lanka on Le Lapérouse costs from £3,696, flights extra (en.ponant.com).

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