Stern's Guide to the Greatest Resorts of the World, Stern's Guide to the Cruise Vacation, Stern's Guide to European Riverboats and Hotel Barges, and The Indispensable Guide to Foreign Words and Phrases--by Steven B. Stern (Sponsored by Stern's Travel Guides, Ltd.)
Compagnie Du Ponant, established in 1988, is now the largest French cruise line, popular with French cruisers seeking a truly French environment. However, the cruise line is making efforts to attract English-speaking passengers to experience their particular style of cruising. Their two most recent vessels, Le Boreal and Le Austral entered service in 2010 and 2011 respectively; A sister ship, Le
Soleal will enter service in 2013.
During the spring of 2012 we took a nine-night cruise on Le Boreal, a 10,700-ton, 294-passenger vessel. We departed from Copenhagen and visited Riga in Latvia, Talinn in Estonia, St. Petersburg in Russia and Helsinki in Finland before disembarking in Stockholm, Sweden.
Although the passenger population is normally 85-90% French, on our cruise, Tauck Tours had booked 100+ English-speaking passengers on one of their tours that included the cruise. Thus the passenger mix was a little of each. Unfortunately for us, we didn’t fit into either group; however, we were able to make some French acquaintances with our “petite peu, mauvais, Francais”. Tauck had its own exclusive program for its clientele which segregated them from the other ship activities and tours.
The European officers, as well as, the mixed crew from Mauritius, Philippines and Indonesia all spoke both French and English; and all announcements and written material were in both languages. Therefore, there was “pas problem” (no problema) for English-speaking passengers. In fact, the famous French Captain and the ambient hotel manager went out of their way to be solicitous and concerned about our enjoyment on the ship. Our dinner with Captain Patrick Marchesseau was most fascinating as he recounted his experience as captain of Le Ponant when it was high jacked by Somalia pirates in 2008 and his heroism earned him the French Legion Medal of Honor. Hotel manager, Christian Deniel, a veteran of numerous cruise lines, proved to be a most conscientious director and a great help with our review of the ship.
Most staterooms on the ship measured 200 square feet with 56 square-foot balconies. In fact 95% of all accommodations had balconies. Suites ranged in size from 398 to 484 square feet with somewhat larger balconies. Our stateroom, like most of the others, was attractively furnished in soft shades of gray and cream with generous storage space. There was no lounging area, so most of the other furnishings were crowded into limited space, and included: a double bed, a small writing desk with both 220 and 110 volt outlets, a hairdryer, a stocked refrigerator (pay as you go), an electric safe, a direct-dial telephone, internet access and WiFi, bathrobes and slippers, two large dresser drawers, and a double closet with shelves on one side. The bathroom was split between a small separate enclosed toilet compartment and a combination glassed-in shower and a vanity with limited storage space. The flat-screen TV had several French channels plus CNN in English (the International version), as well as, an in-house selection of recent movies and musical videos. The bed and bedding was not up to the recent upscale standards of many cruise ships. The balcony was a nice size and accommodated two chairs and a small table.
Staterooms and suites on the top passenger deck had both a cabin steward and a butler, and a coffee/espresso machine. Our steward and butler were absolutely wonderful, as efficient and friendly as we have found on any cruise ship.
The public areas were also decorated in soft tones of gray with sleek lines giving a fresh contemporary feel. Lectures, movies and variety shows took place in the large theater. Afternoon tea, before dinner cocktails, and after dinner beverages were served in the main lounge, a favorite gathering place, often accompanied with music performed by a singing duo or a piano player. The reception and tour desks are located in the lobby adjacent to the ship’s entrance. At the stern of the ship, on Deck 6, was a panoramic lounge with an indoor bar, lounging area, library, three computers, and an outdoor terrace. The spa area included a well-equipped gym, a steam room, a beauty salon and treatment rooms. Adjacent to the sixth floor casual restaurant, at the bow of the ship, is the lido area consisting of a small pool and several lounge chairs, and an outdoor bar looking down toward the pool. Unfortunately on our Baltic cruise in mid May,the weather was not warm enough to enjoy this area.
Passengers had two choices for dining, both with open seating. The main dining room referred to as the “Gastronomic Restaurant”( a misnomer if I ever heard one) offered buffet breakfasts and lunches with a la carte dinner service. On Deck 6, in front of the lido area, the more casual bistro restaurant provided all three meals buffet- style with various food stations. Room service was available around the clock. There were tables for four, six and eight in both restaurants and wine, beer and soft drinks were offered gratis at lunch and dinner. We were not enamored with the red, white and rose wines offered with the meals. However, better wines were available for purchase.
Actually, this being a French ship, we were expecting more from the dining and wining experience than the ship delivered. In fact French cuisine was seldom offered. Breakfasts were a mixed bag. Yes they had fresh fruit and croissants, but the other breads had been toasted in advance and were cold and hard, as were the pancakes and French toast. You could order an omelet or a poached egg, but they were unfamiliar with eggs benedict, and I was told by the maitre d’ that they could not make hollandaise sauce. Lunches consisted of fairly typical cruise ship fare, but were not very special. The salad bar was the best choice. Attempts at various ethnic offerings were disappointing, as was the quiche and other warm dishes. Desserts were come ci, come ca. One night they offered crème brulee that was more of a liquid than a custardy dish.
In order to have dinner in the casual Grill Restaurant, it was necessary to make reservations. The dining room service staff worked very hard to please and were most polite; however, the system employed by the cruise line did not seem to work as well as we experienced on other small cruise ships.
To be fair and balanced, the French passengers seemed quite happy with the meals; and I guess we were a little spoiled from some of our other experiences at sea. However, most of the French “happy campers” had only cruised with this cruise line.
Each evening before dinner, cocktails could be purchased in both the main lounge and the panoramic lounge accompanied by hors d’oeuvres and musical entertainment. This was an opportunity to meet other passengers; however, as indicated above, the Tauck group seemed to congregate with their own; and the French passengers made no ovation to meet us. Therefore, it was up to us to attempt to make acquaintances—somewhat more difficult than we had experienced on other ships.
In the evenings after dinner, there was musical entertainment in the lounges; and on most evenings, a production show or musical performance was featured in the theater. The production shows were more geared to French tastes; however the musicians who performed in the lounges were quite talented. There was no casino on the ship.
Except for the first day at sea, we were docked each day in port. The excursions were quite expensive and we preferred to go out on our own rather than going around on a tour bus. However, we did purchase the all day tour in St. Petersburg, since this was the only way to get off the ship without a personal visa. For $220 per person, we were taken to Peterhof, a town of palaces, fountains, and gardens, the former summer residences of the Russian tsars conceived by Peter the Great to rival Versailles. We then were treated to a traditional Russian lunch followed by an extensive tour of the world famous Hermitage art museum. Our only complaint (which we often have with other cruise lines) is that there is little information for passengers who not take the ship’s tours and the cruise line did not provide shuttle service into the towns. I understand that cruise lines need to promote the tours, since they are a major revenue source for the ship; however, I believe that passengers who pay the fare are entitled to be informed as to what they can do in ports of call, as well as being transported when the cruise dock is not near to the town.
Overall,(in spite of my many criticisms), we found the cruise enjoyable and quite different from cruise ships that cater to Americans. The hotel director told us that the cruise line sees itself as somewhere between premium and luxury. However, in my opinion, the mediocre dining experience, the size of the accommodations, the lack of activities, limited entertainment, and lack of information for passenger who do not take tours leaves so much to be desired that I could not rate this as equal to upper premium lines such as Oceania, Azamara, Windstar, Celebrity, Holland America, or other upper premium cruise lines. I would assume that many passengers would not agree with my negativity. “C’est la vie”