5 Star Boutique Cruising

Author: Phil Harrison - Article originally published in LUXURY Holidays & Corporate Travel magazine Issue 26, 2015.

Le Ponant Cruises

I’ve never been a huge fan of the mega cruise ship. For me, a superyacht, on the other hand, is something to aspire to. Instead of mass produced food, long queues and an itinerary that limits you to large ports, on a superyacht, you can luxuriate in stylish dining, personalised service, sophisticated relaxation and access to some more of the smaller ports and harbours.

That’s why I spent a long time researching the options before booking a Mediterranean cruise for my family of four. I was hoping to find a cruise line that specialised in boutique luxury. Something with a superyacht feel rather than a floating skyscraper.

My investigations led me to Ponant Yacht Cruises & Expeditions, purveyors of luxury cruises with the accent on exclusivity. It’s a French company, so my thinking was that they would be more than competent in the food, drink and savoir-faire departments. Another point in Ponant’s favour was the itineraries: worldwide in scope but with a bias towards some little visited towns and islands. 

And so we found ourselves on Ponant’s newest boutique cruise ship, Le Soléal. Having boarded in Venice, we were looking forward to seven nights exploring the Adriatic islands and Greek coastline. An enticing prospect indeed.

Le Soléal was launched in July 2013, so it still feels quite shiny and new. Travelling on this boutique cruise ship felt a bit like test-driving a brand new high-performance car from a luxury marque such as Maserati. Perhaps it’s the casual sophistication of the interior design, with its taupe and cream tones, natural wood, leather accents, and chrome surfaces polished to mirror-like perfection. Although some other cruise lines ladle on the glitz, this felt like the best of modern European styling and elegance.

With a maximum complement of 264 passengers and 139 crew members, the all-important staff-to-passenger ratio is high. There are 132 outside cabins, which means a large number of rooms come with generously proportioned balconies plus tables and chairs large enough to consider taking breakfast or a quiet drink in the seclusion of your own private space. As every apartment owner knows, a decent-sized balcony can be the difference between feeling cramped and feeling pleasantly relaxed. On a seven-day sea voyage, it’s also an important consideration.

Staying on the theme of space, our cabin was generous in size and not only was it beautifully appointed, but it was also cleverly laid out to maximise the living areas. There was a large wardrobe and drawer space to store all our belongings. The glass walled bathroom was a real showstopper – open to the ocean views so we wouldn’t miss out on sightseeing while shaving or freshening up. If you’re concerned for your modesty, don’t panic. There’s a privacy screen, if you’d prefer, that can be slid across to cut off the bathroom from the great outdoors.

As you’d expect from a ship flying the French flag, every meal was an exercise in flair and variety.

So let’s talk about cuisine. As you’d expect from a ship flying the French flag, every meal was an exercise in flair and variety. Even though Le Soléal is a boutique vessel, it offered us two options – a superb buffet catering for breakfast and lunch, plus a gourmet restaurant for more formal dining. Good quality French wines were offered at lunch and dinner, and these were all included in the ticket price. While the signature dishes of French cuisine were available, the menu wasn’t all rich sauces and butter-laden fare. Lighter, modern meals and Asian dishes were also on offer, with the menu and ingredients reflecting the Mediterranean ports we visited. Because we were travelling in the company of a few hundred guests rather than jostling for space with thousands, the kitchen could concentrate on delivering superb quality rather than quantity.

Our fellow passengers were quite varied. Ponant maintains that different cruises attract different crowds, but our experience on Le Soléal suggests that their clientele may skew slightly younger than the luxury cruise norm. We certainly didn’t feel out of place travelling with two young children, even though we were a little concerned beforehand that they might feel bored and having nothing to do. We needn’t have worried as this turned out to be far from the truth. The youngish crew were friendly and welcoming throughout the journey and the pool, video room and theatre facilities were much appreciated too. Our kids loved every minute.

It helped that there were no long, tiresome queues to get on and off the ship at every port. At just 142m in length, Le Soléal is nimble enough to sail in and out of coves and small ports that a larger vessel wouldn’t be able to access. This made for a varied journey, with stops in places such as Dubrovnik in Croatia and Otranto in Italy. Our floating home was usually able to tie up at dockside rather than sit at sea and transfer passengers to the shore via tenders. Once again, it felt reminiscent of the billionaire superyacht experience rather than a large luxury liner – we were privileged travellers touring the Med.

Our boutique voyage took us from Venice down the island-studded Adriatic coast and on to Greece. Dubrovnik was as wonderful as we expected it to be, with the orange-roofed old town shimmering in the sun. Kotor in Montenegro and Otranto in Italy were slightly further off the beaten tourist track, and no worse for that. The old Greek capital of Nafplio was a revelation with its medieval buildings and sunbaked squares. Situated on the Peloponnese, it’s a part of Greece that not many tourists get too – which could not be said of our final port of call, Athens. The Greek capital may have faced some economic challenges in recent years, but the timeless magnificence of the Parthenon puts all that into perspective. This is the birthplace of the western world, and a world-class historic site. Twenty five centuries after its stones were first raised, the Parthenon continues to inspire.

If you’re feeling slightly wistful at this point because a European cruise is not on your immediate horizon, don’t despair. Le Soléal is scheduled to visit the Pacific in 2015 and 2016, with cruises taking in Hawai’i, French Polynesia and New Caledonia. Ponant is also mounting some expedition-type cruises to more exotic destinations such as the Solomon Islands and the Sub-Antarctic islands. There’s a range of new cruises in Latin America, and they’ll also have three ships sailing the icy waters of Antarctica.

Whatever the itinerary, you can be sure you’ll be travelling in style. With its immaculate fit-out, elegant design and excellent cuisine, Le Soléal is more like a mogul’s yacht than a conventional cruise ship. If you’re an experienced cruise aficionado, you’ll immediately notice the step up in quality. If you’re dipping your toe into the cruise market for the first time, you’ll probably be spoilt for all other cruises. I should know because that’s how I felt. The superyacht experience is definitely addictive.