A brand-new luxury French ship that is equally at home navigating Arctic waters as it is the Mediterranean has arrived in Asia.
Le Soleal, a new French small luxury ship appearing in Asia this season, is as handsome as any Mediterranean gigolo and as contemporary as they come.
Launched by Compagnie du Ponant in July, Le Soleal is one of three identical ships in Ponant’s fleet, the others being Le Boreal and L’Austral. Each carries up to 264 passengers.
I join her on an inaugural voyage from Hong Kong to Singapore via the coast of Vietnam.
As expected, many of Le Soleal’s passengers are French – 76 on this cruise. The rest are made up of 66 Americans, 16 Swiss, nine Australians, seven Belgians, five Germans, two Dutch, two Argentinians, one Brazilian and one Swede.
The company, seeking to broaden its appeal, is promoting Le Soleal as a luxury small ship in Australia and Asia.
Despite its French flavour and origins, passengers are not made to feel excluded, as there are bilingual announcements and English guides and excursions available. It also helps that the 140-strong, mostly bilingual crew is made up of seven different nationalities, only one-third of them French.
Le Soleal’s captain, Remi Genevaz, says it is company policy to have French passengers making up no more than half the total.
Having worked for the company for 18 years, Remi says he has met many Australians who he has found to be generally more relaxed, adventurous and less fussy.
“The most demanding passengers are the French!’’ he says, laughing. Le Soleal has the latest state-of-the-art stabilisers and engines that mean the ship is as silent as a stealth bomber – and almost as quick.
But the real appeal of this thoroughly modern vessel lies in its interior design.
Gone are the dark woods and deep-red carpets of the Cunarders. Cabins are spacious with clean lines and a palette of natural wood, leather and Corian in shades of grey and white.
All but eight of the 132 cabins have balconies. Mine on Deck 3 is light and airy with a big picture window and a glass door leading to a balcony. The bathroom has a powerful shower that almost makes me feel guilty for using too much fresh water.
Modern lampshades and reading lights at both ends of a very comfortable bed are a bonus. And if you must watch movies, there is a flat-screen smart TV. I join Le Soleal at Da Nang in Vietnam. After a warm welcome on board and a promise by cruise director Frederick Jansen that I will be fluent in French by the time the cruise ends in Singapore, I waste no time in settling in.
Dinner at Le Pytheas, the informal restaurant on Deck 6 by the pool, is a buffet spread of cold cuts, grilled fish and beef skewers, which are fine but not exceptional. The barbecued venison, on the other hand, is very tender and a great treat. On another occasion we have suckling pig – a popular dish with the French, including one woman passenger who asks for the pig’s ears, which she says are “the best bit’’.
Sweets are a selection of chocolate mousse, ice-cream and strawberry tarts, but what is surprising for a French ship is the cheese selection: it is limited, with a blue, a Brie and a Gouda.
After dinner, almost everyone gravitates to the main lounge on Deck 3 for a highly entertaining cabaret performance.
As always, the night ends with a mandatory twirl on the dance floor and some drinks.
After a day at sea, we arrive at Nha Trang, a coastal town known for its pristine beaches.
I opt for a pedicab tour around the town that takes in the coast, Tran Phu Bridge and Dam Market, a lively area full of traders and bargains. I buy three mangoes for US$1 – a steal.
Others go on a city tour of temples, including the Long Son Pagoda where a climb of 152 steps leads to a giant white Buddha sitting on a lotus blossom.
We return to the ship for dinner – this time at the more formal restaurant, L’Eclipse. I start with cold asparagus and poached egg, followed by poached cod and a cheese plate. The service is fast and efficient.
Retired Australian surgeon Ned Kelley
and Rose, his wife of 55 years, both like the food and service. Another Australian couple, Ann and James Richardson, have nothing but praise for the quality of the service. James suffers from Parkinson’s disease and staff have gone out of their way to make his cruise an enjoyable experience.
Suzanne Tribout, 85, from Noumea, is travelling alone. She tells me she lost her husband 10 years ago and met her new boyfriend (yes, a new boyfriend at 85!) on a previous Ponant cruise.
We leave Nha Trang and, after a day and a half at sea, arrive at Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon.
Five of us decide to go on a Mekong Delta river excursion to Cai Be, 100 kilometres south. The journey takes us through flat rice fields and past roadside hammock cafes for weary travellers wanting a nap. Our guide informs us that there are also “red light” hammock cafes for those who want more than a snooze.
At Cai Be we sit down for a sumptuous Vietnamese lunch of fried elephant-ear fish served in rice pancakes packed with bamboo shoots and Vietnamese mint, sticky rice, and papaya salad with pork and prawns.
After lunch we climb aboard a river boat to visit a floating market and a tiny factory where they make Vietnamese coconut candy.
Later, back on the ship, there is no night excursion so I cajole a fellow Australian to venture out with me for a bit of a pub crawl in Ho Chi Minh City. We have a cocktail at the Rex Hotel bar and, like Cinderellas, make our way back to the ship before midnight.
The next day we set sail for Singapore, a journey that takes two days.
On Le Soleal, you can be as busy or aslaid-back as you like. The daily program offers a mix of exercise and dance classes, lectures on Vietnamese culture and architecture, and live entertainment that includes classical piano recitals and cabaret shows to suit all tastes.
Le Soleal is aimed at couples. Children aged under three are not allowed, and there are no facilities to entertain teens or tweens. There is good access for passengers with disabilities – even the ship’s Zodiac is equipped to take those in wheelchairs.
It’s still early days for Le Soleal as it irons out the kinks in its Asian cruises. Hotel manager Eric Noir, who has been with the company for 16 years, has this to say about white-gloved luxury: “We are not Seabourn, and we do not want to be. Formal service is old-fashioned. We want to be modern, friendly and approachable.”
Two nights before the cruise ends, Captain Genevaz hosts a cocktail and dinner party for all passengers. It also happens to be Ned Kelley’s 80th birthday. It is one of the best meals we have, with Vietnamese glass noodles or soup as a starter, tender veal or grilled fish as a main course and finishing with a chocolate mousse cake and ice-cream – a nice French touch.
We quietly sing “Happy Birthday Ned’’ to a rather embarrassed 80-year-old.
It is a fitting end to our adventure.