Looking for a relaxing, comfortable, luxurious small-ship cruise? Certainly, there are many popular luxury small ships or expedition vessels. But have you considered Ponant? This upscale line with a French flair operates a diverse fleet of luxury small ships.
In fact, Ponant offers 350 voyages to all seven continents. Voyages include Smithsonian Journeys, themed cruises and one-of-a-kind cruises to fulfill your bucket list. So, The Meandering Traveler chatted a few days ago with Navin Sawhney, Ponant’s chief executive officer, Americas.
“We’re all about small ships and shining the light on where you are in the world,” says the New York City-based Sawhney. That could be in the Arctic or Antarctica, the Kimberley in Australia, the remote isles of Japan or South America, or even the geographic North Pole or the St. Lawrence Seaway in winter!
So, here’s a bit more intel about this small-ship luxury line, its ships, itineraries, and what’s new for 2024 and beyond.
(Photo above shows a couple relaxing aboard Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot. Photo copyrighted by Studio Ponant-Olivier Blaud.)
Factoid 1: Ponant’s Ownership
Let’s talk heritage. Ponant was founded in 1988 by Philippe Videau, Jean-Emmanuel Sauve, and other officers of the French Merchant Navy.
At that time, Ponant — or Compagnie du Ponant — launched its first French cruise ship, the intimate Le Ponant. Yes, this sailing vessel is still in service today and in tip-top condition after a 2022 revitalization.
Today, the small-ship line operates a diverse fleet. Besides that one sailing ship, other vessels include numerous modern, motorized and innovative exploration yachts, expedition vessels and even one modern, small-ship icebreaker! All ships are French-flagged.
In 2015, Artemis, a holding company of French billionaire François Pinault and his family, acquired Ponant. Since then, the cruise line has continued to thrive and expand — offering small-ship luxury cruising with a French flair.
“We’re a company founded by sailors,” emphasizes Sawhney, who also says the company is highly committed to sustainability. “Responsible, sustainable travel is a way of life for us.” For instance, the line’s new LNG-powered Le Commandant Charcot is the world’s first electric hybrid cruise ship.
Factoid 2: Multi-Cultural Guest Mix
North American travelers often ask, “If I sail, who will sail with me? In other words, what’s the guest mix aboard Ponant’s ships?”
With French roots, this is a line that attracts a multicultural, international audience. So, depending on the specific voyage, guests might mix and mingle with fellow travelers from France, South Africa, Japan, Mexico, Brazil and so on.
That said, you’ll also find Americans and Canadians on board as well. In fact, “just a shade shy of half of all our guests hail from North America,” he stresses.
English and French Languages
What languages are spoken by crew members aboard the line’s ships? Ponant’s two “official” languages are English and French. The Meandering Traveler sailed on Le Champlain in Norway a few years ago, and we easily conversed in English with crew members.
Many guests also spoke English on our sailing. But depending on geographic focus and theming, some voyages have more English-speaking guests than others.
As for the programming, Sawhney stresses that “we have plenty of enrichment for English-speaking audiences.”
Factoid 3: Diverse Luxury Small Ships
On Ponant, you’ll have a choice of four different ship classes. Here’s the diverse fleet line-up below (with one link per bullet item to give you a snapshot look at that ship class). So, chat more with your professional travel advisor about the range of choices for staterooms and suites.
- As mentioned above, Le Ponant is Ponant’s classic, three-masted sailing vessel. With just 16 staterooms and suites, it’s an intimate ship serving just 32 guests. It’s been lovingly preserved and was updated in 2022. It’s the first sailing ship in the world to be awarded a Relais & Chateaux label. Here’s the line’s online brochure with more information.
- Ponant also operates four 264-passenger expedition ships, known as the “Sisterships.” Built between 2010 and 2015, these beauties include: Le Boreal, L’Austral, Le Soleal and Le Lyrial. “Our culture and relaxation cruises offer guests a new way to travel, by combining cultural enrichment with time to unwind in a luxury setting and sites that only insiders know about,” says Sawhney.
- Launched between 2018 and 2020 are six, newer “Ponant Explorer” class vessels. These 184-passenger beauties include: Le Laperouse, Le Champlain, Le Bougainville, Le Dumont d’Urville, Le Jacques Cartier and Le Bellot.
- Finally, in 2022, Ponant took delivery of the 245-passenger Le Commandant Charcot. “This state-of-the-art expedition ship is the only luxury icebreaker that goes to the geographic North Pole and the magnetic South Pole,” says Sawhney. And it takes guests to those spots in comfort and style (see suite photo below).
Factoid 4: Life on Board Ponant’s Luxury Small Ships
On board a Ponant small ship, the line strives for attentive, high-quality service. The goal is for guests to feel as though they’re traveling on a private yacht. Anecdotally, we felt that way during our past Le Champlain sailing along the Norwegian coastline.
Ponant also takes care to foster the French “art of living” even at far-flung destinations or polar regions at the ends of the Earth. After all, this is a French-flagged line with French heritage.
Since 2016, Ponant has partnered with Ducasse Conseil, a catering center of excellence run by Alain Ducasse Entreprise (recently renamed Ducasse Paris), for everything from menu conception to training of company chefs. The goal is culinary excellence on board the line’s ships.
Menus for all its luxury small ships are carefully curated and crafted. Dishes are created using superior, locally-sourced ingredients. What we noticed every night? They’re also beautifully presented.
Luxury Small Ships: Activities & Entertainment
As for onboard activities, guests can be as active as they like or not. To maintain your fitness regimen, head for the ship’s fitness room. But we’d also suggest taking moments of tranquility — such as at the spa or around the pool.
And, of course, enrichment talks and other activities are set up to help guests “soak in” the aura of the destinations on their voyage.
Several times during a cruise, guests can saunter to the ship’s Theater for shows featuring talented performers. Other entertainment events are supported by onboard musicians in the Grand Salon. During Tea Time or before dinner, for instance, a musical duo — typically a singer and a musician — play classical repertoires.
“Dance Evenings,” directed by the ship’s Cruise Director, are also led by performance dancers. So, it’s a fun time to take to the dance floor and show off your moves!
On all long cruises, typically Ponant offers both a soirée blanche (dress-in-white party) and an officers’ evening. Other cruises also may have such evening events as karaoke parties, a casino party or games.
Factoid 5: 6 Luxury Small Ships Sport the “Blue Eye”
Let’s just say that we’ve traveled on a LOT of cruise ships over the years. Many of you have done so as well! But generally, every line promotes this or that ship venue that it considers unique. But, from our perspective, Ponant’s Explorer-class ships truly DO have one design feature that’s truly a cut above.
During our Le Champlain voyage, we headed “down below” to the Blue Eye. That’s an underwater, multisensory lounge that mimics “everything whale.”
If you sail,” you’ll be on a ship that’s one of the only six in the cruise industry to offer an underground public space,” Sawhney says. And all of those are Ponant Explorer ships. Most notably, their underwater windows resemble the shape of whale eyes.”
It’s fabulous to experience Blue Eye on a warm-weather itinerary, such as within the Caribbean or South Pacific, to peer out those Blue Eye windows to an underwater world. Depending on location, you might see colorful fish or other marine creatures swimming by.
Within the Blue Eye’s interior, regardless of the outside conditions, guests will hear whale sounds and feel their “vibrations” (particularly noticeable while seated on the lounge’s couches). Plus, one video wall behind the bar has underwater scenes. We loved seeing a wall of jellyfish in motion.
Bottom line? The Blue Eye is a “conversation piece” in many ways. So, if you sail, be sure to head there for conversation or a drink with friends after a day of exploring ashore.
Factoid 6: Return to Alaska in 2024
From Australia’s Kimberley to New Zealand, from the Norwegian Arctic to the Mediterranean, Ponant’s luxury small ships sail the world. So, what’s new coming up in 2024 or beyond?
“We will return to Alaska after five years in 2024,” Sawhney tells us. Ponant will offer four different itineraries and 11 sailing dates. The seven- to 11-night voyages will depart from Vancouver, BC, and Seward or Sitka, AK.
Guests will be accompanied on journeys ashore by an expert crew including naturalists specializing in geology, ornithology, glaciology, marine mammals, botany, and ethnology. Two voyages that are co-branded with Smithsonian Journeys will provide even a deeper dive into America’s Last Frontier.
Here’s a link to the Ponant site with the various Alaska voyages. If you’d like the most in-depth Ponant Alaska experience, we’d definitely check out the 11-night voyages — sailing from Seward to Vancouver, or in reverse.
On these voyages, Ponant’s guests can chat with local fishermen in the “Little Norway of Alaska” and meet the Tlingit peoples of Kake. Incidentally, Kake is home to one of Alaska’s largest totem poles.
This voyage also will venture to Prince William Sound, a popular location for spotting orcas, grizzly bears and humpback whales. College Fjord reveals many glaciers named after U.S. East Coast colleges. So, let’s head out to the Harvard Glacier or Holyoke Glacier!
Factoid 7: Exploring Japan’s Remote Islands
If you’ve thought about travel to Japan this year, you’re in good company. In fact, U.S. travelers are heading overseas to vacation in Japan in increasing numbers, according to the Japan National Tourism Board.
Sawhney enthusiastically tells us that Ponant will offer new journeys in Japan, a land where ancient traditions fuse with modern marvels. He points to the weeklong “Kyushu’s Secret Islands and Ancestral Heritage” itinerary; it will take guests to the western part of the Japanese island of Kyushu, known for UNESCO Heritage Sites and coastal villages.
Kyushu is also home to the only Christian site in the Kumamoto Prefecture. Departing April 20, 2024, this Ponant voyage also will visit the wildlife-rich islands of Jeju and Yakushima, Japan.
You’ll know you’ve arrived in Jeju immediately as it’s home to a towering volcano. The area also is a habitat for the rare Yakushima monkey. At press time, that new itinerary was priced from $6,900 per person, double occupancy.
Luxury Small Ships Visit Japan’s Isles
A separate itinerary, “Japan, Natural Archipelago and Secular Heritage” also departs from Kagoshima, Japan, on May 4, 2024. It too explores western Kyushu and the Seto Inland Sea. This cruise also has a thematic focus on Japan’s culture and ancestral traditions as well as the country’s little-known Christian heritage.
The journey will set sail for the Koshikijima islands, followed by the island region of Amakusa (once a refuge for Christians during the Edo period), the Goto Islands, and the seaside city of Busan, South Korea.
Pricing started at $10,310 per person, double occupancy at press time. Contact your personal travel planner to sort out all the itineraries, accommodations that fit your needs, and ask questions.
Factoid 8: Luxury Small Ships in North America
Travelers can experience the Great North as never before with all-new Ponant journeys along Canada’s mightiest waterways. Highlights include an 11-day “Lake Superior – A Life-Sized Expedition. Operated by 184-passenger Le Champlain, the ship will sail from Milwaukee, WI, to Thunder Bay, Ontario, departing September 4, 2024.
That voyage will offer many options for exploring Lake Superior. Guests will visit Mackinac Island, MI, and the charming city of Bayfield, WI. At the latter, guests will enjoy a cultural performance by members of the Ojibwe (Chippewa) tribe. At press time, cruise fares began at $8,930 per person, double occupancy.
Also, departing September 8, 2024, is a Ponant 12-day “Expedition Along St. Lawrence” sailing the St Lawrence River. This voyage is operated by the 244-passenger Le Lyrial.
Guests will start exploring at Saint Pierre and Miquelon, a French territory. Then it’s on to Canada’s Nova Scotia including Cape Breton Island, as well as Newfoundland’s Gros-Morne National Park. The Ponant journey then ends in cosmopolitan Montreal, Quebec.
Factoid 9: New Twist on Christmas Markets
During late fall and early winter, “many people want to travel to Christmas markets in Germany and in other parts of central Europe,” Sawhney says. But, he adds that Ponant now will offer a totally new spin on that type of experience.
“In 2024, Le Commandant Charcot can take you in winter to the Baltic nations and the Christmas markets there,” he explains. And “when she makes a loop and comes across the Atlantic, she will be in the St. Lawrence region in 2025,” he tells us.
“That’s quite different what from people expect in wintertime in North America,” he says, quipping “It’s not a sailing to Jamaica!”
The Meandering Traveler recently covered that new development in an August 2023 blog. Among those voyages, on January 17, 2025, the expedition ship will sail a 13-day “St. Lawrence River in the Heart of the Boreal Winter” itinerary. That’s priced from $22,160 per person, double occupancy.
Supervised by licensed expert guides, guests will venture out via kayaks to explore. Favored by the Inuits for at least 4,000 years, kayaks were originally used for hunting and fishing. For today’s modern travelers, kayaks offer access to Boreal Winter landscapes for spectacular scenic views and wildlife spotting.
Factoid 10: Smithsonian Journeys and Explorers Club
Sawhney points to two types of Ponant’s sailings with a specialty twist. Those are the Smithsonian Journeys and Explorers Club offerings, both with strong appeal for many Americans and Canadians. So, here’s a bit about those new small ship itineraries for 2024 and beyond.
For the third consecutive year in 2024, Ponant and Smithsonian Journeys are teaming up to offer all-new co-branded sailings. In fact, 24 will be offered next year.
As with previous journeys offered by the two groups, these voyages will be led by two Smithsonian Journeys experts. So, travelers might sail with a famed art historian, solar astrophysicist, international relations expert or other luminary in a specialized field.
Among Ponant’s Smithsonian Journeys departures are a seven-night expedition along New Zealand’s South Island (February 15-22), a weeklong journey into the cultural and natural treasures of Japan (May 21-28), and a deep-dive discovery of Alaska’s Inside Passage (July 5-13 and July 20-28).
Want more information? Then check out this link to the Ponant website page. It lists all the upcoming Smithsonian Journeys sailings. Then give your travel advisor a call for questions, guidance and booking.
Luxury Small Ships: Explorers Club
Next year, Sawhney also tells us that a new chapter in exploration will launch. That’s because Ponant and The Explorers Club, established more than a century ago and devoted to scientific expeditions of all disciplines, have joined forces to offer multi-week expeditions to the world’s most remote corners.
So, travelers will find exploration adventures that visit the true geographic North Pole, Papua New Guinea and Antarctica, to name a few destinations. Each voyage will host a speaker series dedicated to themes of research and exploration.
What’s fun is that modern explorers will regale guests with the wildest tales from their adventures. Plus, they’ll share fascinating insights from their research during onboard lectures and offshore activities.
Thanks to the Science Grant program, scientists will be present on five out of the 12 expeditions to share their findings across the disciplines of glaciology, oceanography, and geology, plus lead scientific research initiatives that will inspire guests to roll up their sleeves.
Greenland’s Scoresby Sound
One 12-night expedition departing May 16, 2024, for example, will explore Greenland’s Scoresby Sound. That region is typically out of reach during this time of year due to the coastal ice flow. But Le Commandant Charcot is up to the task. This modern, state-of-the-art, small icebreaker can go places other vessels simply can’t.
The Scoresby Sound voyage will be hosted by Ann Andreasen, principal of Uummannaq Children’s Home and director of Uummannaq Polar Institute. Also hosting are graduates of her school who specialize in traditional Inuit drumming and storytelling.
Parting Thoughts: “Explore to Inspire” with Luxury Small Ships
With an “Explore to Inspire” mission, Ponant’s hope is for guests to better understand, learn, share and protect their world.
“For more than 35 years, Ponant has been committed to more responsible tourism and voyages of exploration which have meaning,” Sawhney emphasizes. The French-flagged fleet of small ships are all equipped with state-of-the-art environmentally friendly equipment.
The company’s luxury small ships sail to the Arctic and the Antarctic as well as in the Atlantic and North Europe, Mediterranean, Middle East, Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Asia, Oceania and South Pacific, the Caribbean, North, Central and South America. Whew! That’s a lot of territory, but you get the picture.
This line covers the globe, so check the Ponant website for all the itinerary options. Be sure to check out those Smithsonian Journeys and Explorers Club sailings. Then contact your personal travel planner for more information. Hint: Ask the agency about any promotions or unadvertised discounts or perks.
The Meandering Traveler asked Sawhney what new trends he may be seeing in cruise travel for his line’s luxury small ships. “I think there are no new trends that are suddenly emerging,” he says, instead telling us that “people pick a destination and pick Ponant because of the ports of call.”
Plus, “they want to travel in a purposeful and in a responsible fashion, and come back informed,” he adds. “There are also so many nuances that we have in our itineraries,” something different than what many other lines offer,” citing the Japanese cruises to remote islands, which we mentioned above.
Simply put, Ponant is a veteran cruise line with more than three decades of experience. It delivers an exploration cruise with a French flair. So, the experience is designed to be refined, authentic and a source of inspiration for travelers.
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