Virtually unknown in the UK, this French company has four ships with capacities of around 250 and a three-masted ship with 27 cabins which offer unique experiences and expeditions with a French Touch around the world. The ships are stunning in appearance and elegant and luxurious on board.
They promise a French crew, attentive service, excellent cuisine, fine cheeses, artisan breads and pastries, and a selection of grands crus. The restaurant on deck 2 provides an elegant, sophisticated and refined cuisine in the finest French gastronomic tradition, or one can choose deck 6 restaurant for a more casual, relaxed atmosphere.
It is quite difficult to find reviews of Ponant cruises, and this review of our experience on board L’Austral may be helpful to anyone considering a cruise with this line which aspires to a luxury rating.
We chose an eight night cruise for the itinerary from Dublin visiting Douglas, Liverpool, Belfast and on to Ullapool, Stornoway, Skye, Mull and Iona. Advertised as a Gastronomic Cruise, we understood that there would be some gala dinners and cooking demonstrations presented by Michelin starred chefs together with the world’s best sommeliers pairing the food with fine wines and hosting tastings.
We are by no means gourmets or wine connoisseurs and were fondly anticipating some French onion soup, boeuf bourguignon or coq au vin, and possibly crème brulees, crepes or souffles.
Unfortunately for us, we had completely failed to appreciate what Ponant intended. On six of the eight evenings we were instructed to be seated at 8pm and during the next two and a half to three hours we were presented with culinary masterpieces created by the chefs. The first meal consisted of cold aniseed flavoured potato soup with a raw oyster, an extremely lightly cooked piece of foie gras, and some very pink lamb accompanied by a few grams of delicately diced vegetables. The chocolate dessert was deliciously calorific. Every other meal included very undercooked or raw fish, meat or eggs the presentation of which was painstakingly exquisite, but could only be appreciated by a more refined palate than ours. Between courses the world famous sommelier went into considerable detail regarding the origin and nature of the wines. We may have become more knowledgeable about what we were eating and drinking had the information not been given entirely in French with very little attempt to translate. We did however manage to understand the information provided in French at breakfast, warning about the possible hazards to health from eating raw or undercooked food.
Despite having expected to be able to dine in the more casual dining area on deck six, or possibly take advantage of the free room service, these facilities were not available on gala evenings, neither were we permitted to select an alternative to any of the courses from the vegetarian options.
During the cookery presentations, wine tasting, cheese conference, and champagne and whiskey tastings we were offered earpieces in order to listen to a very limited translation to English. Unfortunately the microphone of the French expert was so loud that we could not hear a word and gave up after two attempts.
Perhaps we should blame ourselves for having failed to appreciate that there would be little attempt by Ponant to be more accommodating to us as foreigners. The situation in which we found ourselves and the stress caused by trying to communicate over dinner with six other guests who claimed not to speak English was considerable. Tables for two were not available. Our O level French was sadly inadequate and we were relieved to find that some of the other English speakers felt the same. Together with the other 17 English speakers that we managed to find we were in a minority of less than 8%, the remainder being French speaking. Perhaps Ponant could have arranged for us to have had an opportunity to meet at an early stage instead of leaving it to us to meet by accident. It would appear that Ponant is happy to take bookings from English speakers but after this are not particularly concerned for their comfort and needs.
We booked the cruise via Ponant’s brochure (published in English) in June 2015 and arranged for hire cars in four ports. Quite by chance in March 2016 we noticed a different itinerary on their website-same ports, but different dates. After two emails to Ponant and their failure to respond, our t/a discovered that the itinerary had changed but that they had not been notified. Our car hire bookings were changed. Embarkation in Dublin was scheduled for 4pm to 5pm for a 6pm sailing. We therefore travelled the previous day as the flight arrival time would have been very close to 4pm. Actual sailing time turned out to be 9.30 pm. Do not believe everything they tell you.
A very limited tender service was provided in the four tender ports- usually only one per hour each way. After a short 5 to 10 minute journey the tender would remain in position with the engine running until the next scheduled time slot.
On the penultimate day we were instructed to attend an important meeting about disembarkation procedures at 6pm although we did not sail until 8pm. As we had pre-arranged car hire until 7pm we missed the meeting but did not receive any written instructions of the type normally provided until after 10pm on the last night of the cruise.
There was no requirement to complete the usual health questionnaire and we never saw anyone use either of the two hand sanitisers outside the restaurants.
Despite the language and gastronomic problems, we enjoyed many aspects of the cruise. The ship was immaculate and the crew were pleasant and efficient. There was an open bridge policy. The breakfasts and lunches were very good. The open bar offered a good selection. There was a quiz one day. I believe that the evening entertainment was good but by the time we left the dining room we were too exhausted to watch. The Scottish islands were beautiful, the sun shone, the locals were friendly and our hire cars enabled us to see much more than the ship’s excursions would have allowed.
Although it may be unfair to downgrade our score due to our inability to appreciate the food we were offered, had we been able to dine a la carte we may have given an extra star. The inaccuracy of the pre cruise information has also impacted on our rating. We sincerely hope that this review of our experience will be helpful to anyone English speakers who may consider a cruise with Ponant.