The highlight was the Zodiac cruises to places very rarely visited. More people climb Everest each year than visit the islands we saw. We were privileged to get close to literally thousands of birds and seals (many classified as rare and endangered). What a joy to find seals and penguins who were as interested in checking out the red penguins (humans in their Ponant supplied red parkas) as we were in looking at them! The outstanding range of colourful flora on all the islands (except the Bounty group which only support some grasses) was a joy to the eye and the megaherbs a reminder that it doesn't need to be a tropical plant to be fascinating and strange.
The L'Austral is a superb cruise ship and Ponant a first class company. Food, service, cabin -- all top quality.
The French touch was important. Activities were divided into those for French speakers and English speakers. I joined the French speakers with my French wife. This meant we were a group of about 40 while the other group was closer to 150. Thanks to that we had a more personal expedition and got to know our guides and fellow passengers.
The cruise is very dependent on the weather. We were very lucky to have the best weather ever experienced by the ship's captain and the expedition team. Two days of all day sunshine (the Snares and the Bounty Islands). The other days were mixed (think of a typical English summer in the north such as the Lake District). The Southern Ocean was unusually calm so we suffered very little from sea-sickness and soon had our sea-legs.
There are 2 restaurants. Deck 2 has a better menu and tables. Deck 6 is on the "First Class" passenger level but more like a snack bar with buffet service. We dined almost every time on Deck 2 and quickly befriended our servers. Their personal service gave us a First Class experience even though we had the economy cabins on Deck 3.
Value for money was on Deck 3. Every deck higher was a couple of thousand $/EUR higher without any tangible benefit.
Satellite based internet was expensive (30 EUR for 1 hour) and so slow it was essentially unusable. Perhaps because I was trying to get to a NZ based server and the satellite service was tuned to Europe (my wife and I live 6 months in NZ and 6 months in France)?
Deck 3 gave us quick access to the central services of the boat - the 24 h staffed reception and the grand salon with its bar and outside deck looking over the stern. The outside deck was always a delight to get the feel of the sea and sky.
All food and drink is included. This means a mini-bar with beer, spirits, juice, water (but no wine) and 2 other bars with wine, cocktails, beer (only Heineken to my dismay) and spirits. The restaurant service also provided unlimited access to the same array of drinks. Nibbles are provided (even without asking) in the bar areas.
The range of food was good - always with a French touch. The standard did not really come up to the rest of our experiences on the ship. The food was never bad but was only occasionally exceptional. The breads and cheeses were well up to the high standard of French cuisine.
The captain (le commandant) is soft spoken in French (his native tongue) and English (with an English accent). We looked forward to his daily bulletins with eagerness and pleasure at his insightful commentary and confidence inspiring information.
The cruise director was French but communicated clearly in English.
As a French speaking Englishman I found the bilingual announcements to have sometimes quite different interpretations but never really misleading.
The main fault I found was the poor port service in Dunedin and Wellington. Not a fault of the cruise company. Both these cities are known for their wet and windy weather. There is no shelter for passengers or baggage during embarkation or disembarkation which can mean being at the mercy of the elements for 20 - 30 minutes at each end of the trip.
Congratulations to Ponant, the ship's crew and the Expedition team for making this one of the top adventures in my life (along with running the Grand Canyon with just 2 inflatable rafts and 4 people over 3 weeks).
We had the smallest size cabin but with a private balcony. The size was just fine for 2 people and we did not feel at all cramped once we had properly stowed all our clothing and suitcases. The balcony was a plus to get close to the sea and the sea life (multitudes of sea birds and seals). It also gave us some us some fresh air in the cabin which otherwise relied on the very adequate air conditioning for temperature control. The acoustic isolation was excellent and we never heard our neighbours or noise from the corridor.