Expedition Cruising: What Does Ponant Do Differently?

Philip Hurst
Philip Hurst

Not so long ago I had the privilege of meeting an exceptional presenter on one of my cruises. Philip Hurst is a distinguished Anglo-Australian lawyer now living in Spain who now lectures on geopolitics, history and cultural topics for a number of cruise lines in the premium and luxury sector, such as Silversea, Regent Seven Seas, Seabourn and Ponant. Philip was recently named a “Hero of Travel for 2018” by two Australian newspapers for his cruise ship lecturing. Each year he spends up to five months at sea, sailing all over the world.

A few weeks ago, I asked Philip if he would be willing to write about a company that not many of our readers know about, Ponant, a French cruise line that is seeking to appeal to a multinational audience. Because Philip has cruised on so many small luxury ships, I put a lot of faith in his views and opinions, and after getting acquainted with Ponant through his writing for this post, Ponant sounds like a cruise line that I would want to experience. Maybe you will too. – Ralph Grizzle

The Background

Twenty years ago the parameters of the cruise ship market were fairly uniform and somewhat narrowly-drawn. Almost all ships were less than 100,00 tons. Most middle-market cruise ships were sitting in the 40-60,000 ton bracket although a few were close to the 90,000-ton mark, which was roughly the maximum displacement that would allow a ship to pass through the Panama Canal.

Le Lapérouse. Photo courtesy of Ponant

Passenger numbers in this market might be as high as 2,000 or more. In addition, there were a small number of ships in the 10-25,000 ton range. This range includes the super-luxury ships of lines such as Silversea and Seabourn, operating fairly conventional itineraries, a tiny number of so-called “expedition” ships, operated by specialists like Hapag-Lloyd and Lindblad/National Geographic, and converted former Soviet research ships or ice-breakers, sailing more exotic itineraries in regions like the Arctic, Antarctica, the Amazon and remote islands in the Pacific. Many of these expedition ships offered fairly basic accommodation, the destinations being the main attraction, although Hapag-Lloyd was one exception with its luxury ships Hanseatic and Bremen.

These first two decades of the twenty-first century have seen an explosion in the number of people taking cruise ship holidays, and accordingly a rapid and often frenetic program of ship-building by almost all major cruise lines. Along with the growth of passenger numbers, there has been a transformation in the “hardware” of cruise ship construction. Whereas at the end of last century a ship of 100,000 tons was considered very large, today such a vessel would be considered merely mid-sized, as cruise lines such as Royal Caribbean, MSC, Carnival, and Norwegian are commissioning ships of more than 200,000 tons carrying perhaps 6,000 passengers. These vessels cater to a mass market demographic, and the ships themselves tend to be the destination for the paying passengers, as each new mega-ship seems to feature more and more “special” features to attract new and repeat guests.

Silver Explorer in Antarctica. Photo courtesy of Silversea

The Transformation

Meanwhile, the market for smaller and boutique ships has also undergone a transformation. The super-luxury ships of Silversea, Seabourn, and Regent Seven Seas have grown somewhat larger, into the 35-45,000 ton range, still perceived as small ships in comparison to vessels at the other end of the spectrum. The remarkable feature of the smaller-tonnage sector of the cruise ship spectrum is the recent proliferation of the “expedition” class of ships. What characterizes an “expedition” ship? First, size. Almost all are 5,000-10,000 ton range, although the Russian nuclear-powered ice-breaker/expedition ship Fifty Years of Victory is almost 25,000 tons.

Second, a defining characteristic is that such ships sail very different itineraries. They are designed to be able to sail in extreme conditions such as polar regions, as well as tropical seas, and to be capable of entering small and remote ports that are inaccessible to larger ships in both familiar and exotic locations across the globe. Thus many will have ice-strengthened hulls. Almost all will carry either Zodiac inflatable boats or RIBs (rigid inflatable boats) which allow staff and guests to make landings at small docks, beaches (including those in the polar regions), and riverbanks where no docks exist. The focus of these expeditions tends to be either zoological or anthropological, rather than the holiday-at-sea that characterises the mainstream cruise market.

Most of the expedition ships carry dedicated “expedition teams” of biologists, zoologists, anthropologists, historians etc. to enhance the onboard and on-shore experience of their guests. Not surprisingly, the per-diem costs of cruises on these expedition ships tend to be significantly higher than those for an equivalent size of non-expedition cruise ships. The guest demographic is accordingly more affluent and more inquisitive, having taken numerous “regular” cruises and now looking for something with a taste of adventure.

While the cruise lines that have been operating expedition ships for many years are still in the business, the expansion of the cruise holiday market has seen a number of new entrants to the expedition cruise sector. Silversea has been in the expedition market for some years, and the recent acquisition of the line by Royal Caribbean has enabled the line to order new expedition ships; Lindblad is ordering new vessels, and Norwegian coastal ferry operator Hurtigruten is building a pair of hybrid-powered expedition ships. Hapag-Lloyd has ordered two new ships, replacing the Hanseatic. But it is French line Ponant that has really “pushed the boat out” so far as expedition ship plans go.

Ponant’s Expedition Ships

Ponant’s minimalist style. © Philip Hurst

Ponant has been operating five small ships (including a three-masted sailing ship) for many years. The remaining four ships are almost identical, a contemporary design both externally and internally, featuring modern French decoration. With about 120 cabins each, this quartet comes in at just over 10,000 tons displacement, operates all over the globe, in expedition mode in the Arctic and Antarctica, as well as more “conventional” cruise itineraries. Ponant recently surprised the cruise industry, however, by announcing its intention to construct no fewer than six purpose-built expedition ships, plus a state-of-the-art ice-breaker expedition vessel. Slightly smaller than the four classic Ponant ships, the Ponant Expedition ships will accommodate just 184 guests.

Ponant has already taken delivery of two these expedition ships, named Le Lapérouse and Le Champlain; all six will be named after distinguished French explorers and navigators. I recently had the opportunity to spend a week on board just-delivered Le Lapérouse. Ponant’s expedition ships bear a strong family resemblance to the company’s classic ships, with an unmistakably contemporary though not entirely elegant curvilinear shape. Stepping on board, one is enveloped by a cool, minimalist, somewhat Scandinavian ambiance, with lots of blonde wood, pale leather, stainless steel, and glass. The public areas like the main lounge and bar, and the light-filled observation lounge up top, towards the bow, are furnished with elegant Italian-inspired chairs, sofas, and tables.

There is also a theatre, used for lectures, evening entertainment, and on the many dedicated music cruises that Ponant offers, for concerts by outstanding soloists. Pride of place is given to a fine new Steinway grand piano for such occasions.

Premium wines complement Ponant’s complimentary wines. © Philip Hurst

The dining arrangements are somewhat different to those on the classic ships such as Le Lyrial. Befitting the more relaxed ambiance of the expedition spirit, instead of two main restaurants, one more formal and one informal, indoor/outdoor buffet style, Le Lapérouse features one main open-plan restaurant that combines both buffet offerings at breakfast and lunch, and à la carte service at lunch and dinner. The room is glazed on three sides, flooding it with light during daylight hours, and has a spacious open-air section for clement weather.

In addition, there is an informal “grill”, which is an outdoor extension of the main bar/lounge, serving buffet breakfast, lunch, and dinner. While basically French, the à la carte menus also feature local dishes. Throughout the week, there was not one meal served that was not excellent; complimentary house wines – red, white, and rosé – are offered at lunch and dinner, and for those guests who would like premium wines, the sommelier can offer a wide variety of wines, including some extraordinary First Growth Bordeaux and Grand Cru Bourgogne, at an additional price. The thought of exploring South Georgia while enjoying a bottle of Chateau Latour or Mouton Rothschild is an intriguing one.

The hotel crew are all bilingual, and are French, Mauritian, and Filipino; they provide impeccable service throughout the ship.

On older expedition ships guests could sometimes think they were engaging in a form of up-market camping, with basic and utilitarian accommodation. Not on these new Ponant Expedition class ships. The same standards of comfort that are a feature of the Ponant classic ships are also found on the expedition ships. Guest accommodation on Le Lapérouse and sister ships falls into three main categories, the standard entry-level cabin of 205 square feet plus balcony; a larger, deluxe cabin of 280 square feet plus balcony, and a small number of grand and owner’s suites of 345 square feet and 485 square feet plus balcony.

The standard cabin is compact, nicely furnished, with very comfortable beds and decorated with lots of blonde wood accents, plenty of storage space, and with a sleek bathroom (but no tub) and a separate toilet. The larger suites follow the same decoration scheme but have larger sitting areas, and in the grand and owner’s suites the sleeping area is separate to the sitting and dining area.

© Philip Hurst

It is, however, the itinerary that will distinguish the expedition cruise from the mainstream holiday cruise, whether on Ponant or any other line. (Silversea has an entirely separate division that deals exclusively with its expedition fleet, for example.) Le Lapérouse and her sister ships will sail a combination of designated “expedition” cruises, off the beaten track, as it were, and regular holiday-type cruise itineraries in the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. On these latter cruises, the ships operate like the ships of the Ponant classic fleet, without expedition teams. Over the next couple of years, Ponant and Radio Classique of France will be using the Ponant Expedition ships Le Lapérouse, Le Bougainville, Le Dumont d’Urville, and Le Bellot for their music-themed cruises, including their annual Festival of the Piano at Sea.

Ponant is a French line, based in Marseille, and the company’s ships are definitely French in atmosphere. However, Ponant is making a major effort to appeal to travelers beyond its traditional Francophone base. In 2019 there will be a series of cruises which will be dedicated exclusively to English-speaking guests. While all cruises, both regular and expedition cruises, operate in French and English, with all announcements, documentation and daily bulletins being in both languages, the mix of nationalities will depend on the particular itinerary, with French-speakers usually being the majority, especially on the music cruises. Though not always: I was on board for one cruise with 150 Australian guests. One might say, therefore, that Ponant ships are not for those guests who are not comfortable being in a multilingual environment.

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