The Zodiac looked in trouble. Its crew were waving, and its motor was out of the water close to the famed King George Falls – 80 metres of sheer sandstone cliff and turbulent tides. As we pulled alongside, there was a loaded “pop”. And before we knew it, we were toasting the famed location with Charles Heidsieck Brut Réserve.
Welcome to luxury adventure, Ponant style. Where the action is always accompanied by French bonne vie. We’re aboard Le Soléal on the last cruise of an enormously successful Kimberley season. Ponant has firmly planted the French flag on this iconic Australian expedition location, which is two-thirds the size of France and has a population of just 40,000.
The line has been bringing its traditional mix of expedition, adventure, gourmet food. And not to mention exquisitely designed small ships to this remote and rugged part of our planet, for years. The Le Soléal Kimberley team are celebrating their 35th year of adventure cruising, so they really know their stuff.
As we roar along in our Zodiacs – a Frenchman, a Singaporean, two Americans and four Australians – it’s somehow more fun to see the place through the eyes of so many nations. And rather humbling to realise a place in our backyard has such a huge international reputation.
It’s richly deserved. These soaring rocks were here before life on Earth began, and it’s home to some extraordinary wildlife. Egrets and eagles, brown booby birds, dugongs and turtles, snakes and lizards.
And, of course, the king of this particular jungle: the salty croc. Sometimes grumpy, but more often amiable as they move through the mangroves beneath skyscraper rock formations looking for a quick feed. We spot several young specimens and witness a short but spirited territorial fight.
Our young guides call out on the radio: “HB spotted near the mangroves at 11 o’clock.” HB? Ok, it’s cruel but they explain they don’t want to get guests hopes up as the crocodiles often slink beneath the surface if too many boats arrive. HB stands for handbag. But regulars get names like Snappy and Nibbles.
The crew onboard
If our Zodiac is a United Nations, our guides are positively intergalactic. French, English, New Zealander and Chinese, led by Chilean expedition operations manager Jorge Villamarin.
A firm favourite on our cruise is Murray Kelman – “I’m as tall as the Murray River is long” – a 19-year-old Australian with a penchant for bat research. The guides’ passion for the flora and fauna is as infectious as the pandemic, and soon we are all scouting the skyline for birds and the undergrowth for crocs.
It’s breeding season for green turtles and we witness just how tough courtship is for these seagoing reptiles. After arduous lovemaking, they must haul their heavy bodies up the sand, dig a nest and lay upwards of 100 eggs.
Ponant’s director of expeditions and destination development, Mick Fogg, refers to this region as the Antarctica of the tropics. “It is home to the oldest continuous culture on Earth, the world’s largest living reptile, the only two ‘horizontal falls’ on the planet. There is also world’s largest inshore reef and the largest population of migrating humpback whales on the planet,” he says.
Life onboard Le Soléal in the Kimberley
So, what’s life like on board Le Soléal’s Kimberley journey as we sail from Broome to Darwin? Well, it’s as distinctly French as a well-made croissant. The tricolour flies from her stern. Announcements are made in French and English (in that order), and our food has that wonderfully Gallic gourmet flavour.
There are many French couples among our 100 passengers, and it’s fun to see their reactions to our country. Their admiration for Australia is a reminder of why we’re called the Lucky Country. Though they grumble amiably that the cheeseboard is sad because Australian Customs refuses to allow the real “fromage” onto the ship.
Le Soléal is 11 years old. My partner sailed on one of her first voyages, and she declared the ship was in mint condition. The design is a beauty to behold: small ship, but big on comfort. Captain Antoine Paquet tells us the vessel is updated annually – and it shows.
Our suite on Deck 6 is, as the saying goes, small but perfectly formed. Two suitcases filled with clothes for smart-casual days and gala evenings vanish, the contents swallowed up by cleverly designed and rather swish drawers and cupboards.
Turn right and you are in the panoramic lounge and terrace at the front of the ship where you can enjoy an evening cocktail or a glass of the house champagne. There is also a small multilingual library, games area and desktop computers.
With only 107 guests on board Le Soleal, we are blessed with 145 staff. Nothing is too much trouble, and we are impressed by the genuine, personal service.
We want to lunch on Deck 7, where there is a cool breeze. It is really the sundowners bar, yet every day, a single table was dutifully set up for us. We dine with a French and Sri Lankan couple and ask for lamb biryani in honour of our Sri Lankan guest. The chef forages among the Indonesian crew’s spice stash and cooks it just for us. This proves yet again what a truly wonderful experience small ship luxury cruising can be.
The main restaurant on Deck 2 is more formal – but still fun. Waterline tables give the experience a more nautical flavour. Deck 3 contains the main lounge. It’s used for everything from getting aboard Zodiacs from the marina to disco dancing at night. There is a theatre on Deck 4 – where lectures and briefings take place. Two excellent duos perform at the lounges and a troupe of dancers in the theatre. There is an excellent spa and small gym on Deck 5.
Deck 6 turns out to be the perfect place. Turn left for the pool deck and grill restaurant, where Chef Nico produces a magically different dish every lunchtime: roasted whole barramundi one day, French crepes the next. In the evenings, there is another speciality dish – roast suckling pig, duck breast, turkey – and a buffet. We dined under the stars and were quickly adopted by the wait staff, mostly from Bali.
The Le Soléal’s shore excursions in the Kimberley
Ponant is fully vested in this region and much more than a visitor. Indeed, it is launching a historic charting of the waters of the Kimberley next season. Despite rocks dating back 1.9 billion years and a rich heritage of famous sailors, it has never been mapped for mariners.
The region’s famous cliffs can create hidden obstacles and depths can range from 10 to 40 metres. Its tidal runs are notoriously treacherous. We were on the bridge as Captain Paquet and his team sat in total silence hunched over their instruments. They had to ensure the channel through the Razor Rock Narrows was totally adhered to.
Rocks on either side of the bridge appeared close. The captain explained that this passage could be a navigational nightmare, with whirlpools and currents everywhere. Yet no government body has produced charts that allow the many international vessels to know what dangers lurk beneath the waters. Captain Paquet told Cruise & Travel the problem was each time a new operator arrived in the region they had to create their own routes.
Ponant has now opened new legs for its ships and is already using the historic data recorded by its ships to help steer a clear path through Kimberley waters.
What’s new for Ponant in the Kimberley?
Ponant is also participating in a unique training scheme for young Indigenous guides that will see them take Australian and international visitors around this very special place. It’s headed in this region by Sarina Bratton, well known for starting her own expedition line and an Australian industry leader.
Ponant is putting two of its ships into the Kimberley next year: Le Jacques-Cartier and Le Lapérouse – they have limited capacities of about 90 staterooms and suites each.
It’s going to be an interesting season in 2024, with three new lines joining those already taking guests to see the Kimberley’s stunning sights.
For a limited time, guests can take advantage of the all-inclusive, flight-and-transfers expedition packages available on all 2024 Kimberley itineraries, with included return economy flights available from major Australian capital cities, as well as Auckland, Christchurch and Wellington. Combined with seamless return airport transfers in Darwin and Broome, the package guarantees a smooth fly-and-cruise experience for Ponant guests. Ponant also includes business-class upgrades for guests who choose to book in selected suite categories.