This detailed Ponant sister ships review was written by AdventureSmith Adventure Specialist Andrew Browning who traveled on a Falkland Islands and South Georgia cruise aboard the L’Austral—sister ship to the nearly identical Le Boreal, Le Lyrial and Le Soleal. While his insights come from his time aboard in Antarctica, his review can also apply to the experience aboard these expedition ships in other locales. Use the AdventureSmith team’s small ship cruise reviews to inform, inspire and book your next Antarctica trip aboard a small cruise ship.
An Introduction to the Ponant Sister Ships: L’Austral, Le Boreal, Le Lyrial & Le Soleal
When selecting a ship from the luxury yacht cruise operator Ponant, you have many choices among their greater fleet of nearly 13 yachts. At AdventureSmith Explorations though, we’ve further narrowed down the fleet to match our hallmark style of small ships that offer true expedition-style experiences in places where we have direct experience. And Ponant’s four “sister ships” fit the bill for providing active exploration at a level of luxury you don’t often find in an expedition ship. They don’t call these “the sister ships” for no good reason; the only true difference among these near-identical 466-foot vessels is the palette of the interior design. So read my L’Austral ship review below knowing that these insights can apply to whichever expedition yacht you choose. It’s also notable that while each ship carries up to 264 guests, you will never sail with more than 200 on one of their Antarctica cruises, so they are an especially roomy vessel for departures in this destination.
My Cabin: A Nice Hotel Room with a Balcony
Staying aboard a Ponant sister ship is like staying in a very nice hotel, with the many amenities of a big ship but instead on a small ship. The ship is very quiet with virtually no engine noise in common areas or cabins. The cabins are very comfortable and most of them have balconies.
I highly recommend booking a cabin with a balcony. My cabin (a Prestige Stateroom aboard L’Austral) had a floor-to-ceiling sliding door to a private balcony. The balcony had two chairs and room to sit, though I could see out better by standing. I was not sure how much I would use it in Antarctica but I actually did use it a lot. It is nice to be able to go outside right from your cabin and there is often scenery, ice or seabirds outside during the voyage.
The cabins are well organized and spacious with the option for a king-size bed. Suites are available, which are the size of two cabins combined. My cabin, Prestige Stateroom #507, was very nice and well configured. I appreciated the king bed and abundance of drawers, closet and storage space. My traveling companion and I were both able to fully unpack, which is very nice for a 15-night voyage. Laundry service is offered at additional cost.
Room service is not found on any other expedition-style ships we offer at AdventureSmith Explorations. Not only is room service an option aboard the Ponant sister ships, it is available 24 hours a day! Order to your room a limited menu of house favorites any time or enjoy the full sit-down menu options during lunch and dinner service times. An in-room breakfast card can even be filled out to have breakfast delivered at your desired time the next day (starting at 7:00am).
Room service is not found on any other expedition-style ships we offer at AdventureSmith. Not only is room service an option aboard the Ponant sister ships, it is available 24 hours a day!
I enjoyed the room service option very much for two reasons: The first being that we could have breakfast delivered in the morning on our days with morning activities, which allowed us to eat and have coffee while getting ready to go out for the activities rather than going to and from the restaurant. We also had room service for dinner a couple times because we wanted to spend a lot of time outside taking photos rather than spending a couple hours at a sit-down dinner. I think it is very nice to have the option to do a sit-down social dinner with many courses if you would like, and if not, then you can get room service instead.
Meals Are an Affair of their Own
Cuisine on board is really a step up in terms of ingredients, presentation and execution. Guests can expect classic and modern techniques and preparations with French and international dishes designed in partnership with Ducasse Conseil, Alain Ducasse’s restaurant experts. French pastry chefs prepare pastries for breakfast, lunch, dinner and afternoon tea.
There are two restaurants to eat on board. The main dining area on Deck 2 is the largest and has a higher level of service. The restaurant on Deck 6 is where breakfast is served buffet style but with an omelet/griddle station where guests can get eggs to order and other hot breakfast selections. The restaurant on both Deck 6 and Deck 2 have similar choices for lunch but menus differ greatly for dinner. The food on Deck 6 is served buffet style and is a faster dining experience than the more formal table service in the Deck 2 restaurant. Note that I traveled before the COVID-19 pandemic so we expect some of the ships’ buffet options will be adjusted to plated.
Daily chef special carving or serving stations are featured at lunch, alongside menu entrees ordered from a server, supplemented by sides, desserts, cheese plates, salad bar, etc. Dinner is a multiple-course, plated menu with options for each course: soup/salad, entrée and dessert. There were multiple special dinner nights with seven-course chef tasting menus, elegant presentation and service.
A Review of the Ship’s Luxury Experience
On the Ponant sister ships, you can enjoy supreme comfort in wilderness areas, due to touches of luxury throughout the ship. At Gala Nights, for example, evening wear is encouraged, however the dining room in general was more casual than I was expecting, not requiring any special clothing.
I enjoyed the thoughtful touches like the hot face towels that were provided when we first came aboard and a couple times after excursions. Every excursion would end back on board with hot refreshments (drinks like hot tea, hot chocolate, hot wine) or soups (various bouillons, broths, veggie soup) and a hot crepe station.
Food tastings also raised the bar of a typical small ship expedition, with Ponant-branded caviar to try, hosted pastry tastings and a Pata Negra Iberian ham tasting. They also hosted a few different wine tastings that were at additional cost, approximately 40 euro per person, and were selections of nicer French wines than the house wines. The ship staff even had a sample station for French beauty products from Sothys of Paris.
Experienced Crew, Guides & Local Guests
My ship featured a large staff of specialist naturalist guides who made up the expedition team along with the expedition leader. The guides always accompanied each excursion both ashore and on the Zodiacs. They also all led multiple naturalist presentations in the theatre aboard the ship. The presentations covered natural/marine topics as well as explorer history and conservation. We also had some presentations about specific research or conservation programs that the guides were involved in.
Beyond the expedition team, they also brought on some locals—South Georgia Heritage Trust came aboard to present on the background of operations/what they were doing locally with conservation as well as historical preservation of Grytviken. The theatre where the presentations happened was very comfortable and spacious-beyond what I have seen aboard other small ship cruises, complete with a dedicated audio-visual person dialing it in.
No Boredom at Sea
You won’t be bored on your days at sea. While in other destinations where there are fewer ocean crossings this may not be a factor, during my Antarctica, South Georgia, and the Falklands expedition that spent 7 days at sea, the added programming was a great benefit. I enjoyed gala social events, tastings, daily live music, decadent vodka and caviar pairings, really great lectures from all of the experienced guides, salsa dance classes, movie and documentary screenings, plus a photo studio with pro photographer prints for sale. There were also regular opportunities for cards and game meet-ups, quizzes and trivia, plus a raffle or charity auction.
Both lounges have a piano, and the lounge on Deck 3 has an area for more musicians to play including a harpist. Music was built into the daily program so I knew what was happening aboard, whether it was jazz, singers, string duos, a pianist or musical tea time. There was also a daily music/ballet/dance performance in the theater. The gym offered a nice workout space with cardio machines, exercise classes, Zumba classes, muscle toning, yoga classes and other stretching. The spa was popular during time at sea and after activities. A variety of massage, beauty and international aesthetic treatments were offered, and passengers simply booked their appointments with the spa staff.
French Culture with English Translation
French and English were both spoken during safety briefings, the crew introductions and all communications from the expedition team throughout the voyage. There were some presentations given in English and some given in French but each language received equal programming for the presentations, which is important. For example, if the French-speaking group is having a presentation on whales, the English speakers will also receive that but at a different time. However, supplemental learning on your own requires active engagement. For example, if you are out on deck, passengers asking questions in French are answered in French, making it difficult to eavesdrop and requiring you to ask questions of the guides in your own language.
Hospitality staff speak both French and English, and quickly learned which language each guest spoke. We were divided up into four groups of approximately 50 passengers and were assigned a color for our groups going ashore. My group was all of the English speakers and some of the Taiwanese group. Groups were rotated as the trip went on and they did their best to provide equal time ashore (usual times ashore or on Zodiac cruises were 1.5-2 hours for landings and 1-1.5 hours for Zodiac cruises).
Ponant Sister Ship Review Takeaways
I enjoyed my time aboard L’Austral in Antarctica immensely and was honestly a bit surprised how much the luxury touches complemented the expedition experience without overpowering or overshadowing it. In some ways, having already been on an Antarctica cruise aboard the famed National Geographic Explorer expedition ship (noted for its top-tier education & expedition amenities), I thought some of the added luxury aboard may have felt overkill for such a remote, nature-first place. In the end, it only enhanced the experience. These ships are the premier choice for our travelers seeking worldwide and Antarctica luxury cruises as they offer what no other expedition does. Just take note if you are looking for a diversity of off-ship activities to be sure to see what the ship offers in your destination. For example, in Antarctica, while I technically spent the same amount of time exploring off the ship on hikes and Zodiac rides as I did aboard National Geographic Explorer, fewer action-focused options (e.g. kayaking) were available.