To say Ponant does things their own way is a bit of an understatement. While others are building big, they are building small. And while most lines look for a homogenised ship design – a one size fits all approach – Ponant brings a distinctly Gallic style to their vessels.
So Le Laperouse – the newest in a series of six petit, pocket-sized luxury adventure ships, and one which will be sailing our region over the next 12 months – was always going to be different.
French billionaire Francois Pinault holding company, Groupe Artemis, acquired Ponant four years ago. The cruise line is part of a portfolio that includes Gucci, Christie’s auction house, and legendary French winemaker Château Latour.
So she was always going to be stylish.
It’s ironic that, on her first trip to Sydney Harbour this week, the equally new Seabourn Encore and the older and bigger Crystal Serenity were also in port. Indeed, today Viking’s Orion also arrived in port – another reminder that Sydney is well and truly on the map for this style of vessel.
But the comparisons are stark. Even on a short visit to Le Laperouse, her expedition pedigree is plain for all to see.
Forget fancy restaurant choices: she has one panoramic restaurant on deck four, and an outdoor grill on deck three. There is a spa and a gym, but you can sense neither is the main game here.
Go out onto the hydraulic launch deck for the Zodiacs, and voila! You can see where this ship’s action is.
There is a theatre with 158 seats – enough for most of the guests from her 92 state rooms and suites. But as our guide points out, this is mainly for lectures and adventure briefings. Broadway shows and high-kicking dancers? Mais non!
In a world where new ships need a trick or two to stand out from the competition – and there is plenty in the luxury adventure space these days – Le Laperouse has the Blue Eye, a “multisensory underwater space” designed by Jacques Rougerie, famous for the first village beneath the sea.
The lighting is, indeed, blue. The seats vibrate. Microphones can detect whale song from 5 km away. And there are windows either side of the lounge, where guests can view passing undersea wild life.
Sadly, in Sydney Harbour on a stormy night, there were no dolphins or shoals of fish. But in the thick of an expedition, things could get very exciting and this could be a vibrating box seat.
Ponant’s strength is in its partnerships – National Geographic is a collaborator. And in its expedition personnel. People like Mick Fogg, an Australian with a long history of adventure cruising and something of a rock star in the region.
The line’s proud history is all about discovery. And that’s what Le Laperouse promises.
Inside, she is chic as a Paris fashion show, with light woods and ethnic art. Her base staterooms are beautifully designed, though compact. Her owner’s suite is stunning, with a personal jacuzzi and huge balcony, plus a sea-view bathroom fit for the finest exhibitionist.
The restaurant is as good as a French eatery ought to be, though we only tried a gala dinner set menu.
Ponant’s adventure and expedition ethos means the line is an excellent environmental custodian. It has recently announced it has eliminated the use of Heavy Fuel Oil (HFO) and replaced it with LS MGO (low sulphur marine gas oil) across its entire flight a year before required by law.
There are some great journeys ahead for Le Laperouse in the next 12 months, in New Zealand, the sub Antarctic islands and, of course The Kimberley.