It doesn't take too many days on Le Lyrial to understand why luxury land and cruise tour company Tauck partners with Ponant for its small ship cruises. One of four sister ships, Le Lyrial is a beautiful, simply-but-elegantly designed ship that shows off its quality at every turn -- even down to the choice of leather straps as handles rather than knobs on cabin closets and doors.
The ship's elegance and class are mirrored by its crew; waiters wear crisp white uniforms, and guest services staff are tall, slim and dressed in black dresses with matching black pearl earring and necklace sets.
But despite its obviously luxe design, the ship never feels overbearing or ostentatious. In fact, it's got a laid-back vibe that's augmented by the marine-themed decor throughout. Le Lyrial is arrayed in varying shades of cream and gray, with blue highlights everywhere from the carpets to the seascape photographs in the cabin hallways. The art is similarly ocean themed, with three-dimensional works on each staircase landing featuring sand, shells and coral. The atrium's stunning metal, mobile-esque sculpture features fish-shaped pieces that hang down from the ceiling; their images are reflected in the mirrors on the decks above, making it appear as if fish are swimming in a circular column that rises the height of the atrium.
The understated elegance is all so very French because Ponant is a French-owned luxury cruise line. Its Frenchness can't be missed, from the onboard language to the cuisine to the Edith Piaf-style lounge singers at night. On partial charters of the ship, French is the first language onboard, with English always coming second. (One tour director told us the English-language announcements are always mysteriously shorter than the French ones.) Even on full charters, where everything is in English, you'll hear French spoken by the crew. And the dining, of course, is always French as well. It's a gourmand's dream, but can be difficult for fussier eaters to navigate.
Another area that might be hard to navigate is the French service at the guest services desk, where a smile can be hard to come by and complaints are sometimes met with dismissal. (In one instance, in which the elevator stopped between floors and passengers had to push the door open to be able to step out -- a few inches above the deck it was headed to -- the hotel director blamed the passengers for having too many people on the elevator; they had not, in fact, exceeded the limit.) Which is a shame because elsewhere onboard, service is top-notch with waiters and cabin attendants quick to respond to requests, always with a smile and a monsieur or madame.
The ship's one drawback is its cabins; other than the suites, cabins, while truly elegant, are small with the large beds taking up most of the open space. There's barely a person's width in between the wall-length vanity and the bed, and you can't open the closet and bathroom doors at the same time. One flaw balcony lovers will notice is the ship's steel superstructure, which makes it impossible to sit on your balcony and see the view; you have to be standing if you want to see anything.
Fortunately, Tauck's itineraries when chartering Le Lyrial are destination-packed, with mornings and afternoons mostly spent ashore, and presentations offered in the theater at other times. Most of the time you're in your room you'll be sleeping (including naps after an active morning or afternoon ashore).
The mix of passengers on a Tauck charter of Le Lyrial depends on whether it is a full or partial charter. On full charters, the majority of passengers will be from the United States with a handful from Canada, England and Australia. On partial charters, you'll find this same mix among the 60 to 80 passengers with Tauck, and everyone else will be mostly French, with a smattering from other European countries and possibly Asia. The French passengers are not likely to mix with the English-speaking cruisers. While Le Lyrial can pull in French families during the school holidays, they are not that common. Most Tauck passengers will be 55 or older, though it's becoming more common to find people in their 40s onboard, as well.
You won't need to pack anything too fancy for a cruise on Le Lyrial. During the day, it's casual onboard and on shore excursions, you'll want clothing comfortable for walking. (Some itineraries might have more specific requirements, so always be sure to check your Tauck booklet for specifics.)
In the evening, attire is at passengers' discretion, though jeans, T-shirts and flip-flops are not permitted in the main dining room. On the two Gala Nights, cruisers are encouraged to dress up (suits for men, nice dresses for women), but it's not required. For those on a partial charter, keep in mind that the French passengers do tend to dress up for dinner.
The Tauck experience is a highly inclusive one. All drinks (except premium brands), internet, shore excursions and tips are included in the overall price. Onboard the only items that incur extra charges are the spa, premium brand alcohol, laundry and professional photographs. The euro is the onboard currency.