It wasn't your everyday commuter flight to Wellington, that’s for sure. There were eight of us, all looking forward to our next five days on board Ponant's superb cruise liner, L’ Austral. The ship, built in 2011, was contemporarylooking with a definite dash of French chic, and much like a yacht with only 132 staterooms. Small-ship cruising was a first for all of us and after meeting some other passengers straight after boarding we realised we might just well be the only ones yet to experience its luxurious wonders.
The embarkation procedure at Aotea Quay was seamless. We arrived a bit early but Ponant had that covered with a free shuttle service to the city and back. The facilities are very limited at the Wellington port and security is strict, so a spot of pre-cruise shopping was on the cards. On our return, our bags had been taken care of and within two minutes we were on board, one of the many beauties of small-ship cruising. We were greeted with first-class service and amenities and of course Champagne, complimentary throughout the Ponant cruise experience.
A typical day in the life of our Ponant cruise proved pretty relaxing. It began with rising in the morning, drawing the curtains in our stateroom, opening the sliding door on to our private balcony, listening to the ocean and smelling the sea breeze. We then rang for our complimentary room service breakfast and made the most of being pampered with breakfast in bed – who wants to get out of the amazingly comfortable beds anyway? Our stateroom boasted a retractable glass door in the bathroom so we had constant sea views, a separate landside-style toilet, a large shower and all the extras you expect with a 5-star ship right down to the heavenly Hermès amenities. The ship also has plenty of sun lounges to go round and as the pool is the focus of activity for the day there is no rush at all on a five-day voyage.
'We were greeted with first-class service and amenities and of course Champagne, complimentary throughout the Ponant cruise experience.'
In between relaxing, swimming and reading, there’s eating – very important. The French sure know how to cook and the food was amazing for cruise ship cuisine. They give you the option to dine downstairs in the a la carte silver service restaurant Le Coromandel (quite fitting seeing as we are from the Coromandel!) or in the casual restaurant, Le Rodrigues inside or outside by the pool. The latter was fabulous and became our favourite place to hang aside from the pool, and the outside Deck 7 bar, and oh, the spa. A tip: It pays to book your spa treatment on day one or you will miss out.
The onboard atmosphere on a small-ship cruise is much quieter than on larger ships, which really sold it for my husband. There are not hundreds of people everywhere, there were very few announcements, there is no casino and only limited organised onboard activities. There is no Hi-de-Hi on Ponant, my friends! Our fellow passengers were also of the sort who embrace all things French. The ambience transports you, and even though we were in New Zealand and Australia and sailing somewhere in between, it felt like you were another world away. L’ Austral is a luxury ship but we never felt it was too posh or intimidating. There was always a good excuse to dress up for the Captain’s Dinner with cocktail wear.
The mix of ages on Ponant cruises is somewhat dependent on the itinerary, but our fellow passengers from Wellington to Sydney were aged from mid- 20s to late 60s. If you have been on a large ship before and experienced the shows, the ones on L’ Austral are different – Ponant-style different. The dancers are performing right in front of you and are amazing, with dance moves to die for and musical productions straight from a Paris theatre.
'Gabriella and her husband’s fantastic journeys with Ponant show the global breadth of adventure and expeditions and history and learning that the cruise line offers, along with 5-star luxury.'
We found the on-board experience very relaxing and peaceful, and everyone was friendly and welcoming. It wasn’t long into the cruise when we met Gabriella from Mexico, who lives in Frankfurt (her husband told me they call her Gabriella the Great) on her 23rd Ponant cruise and fourth on L’ Austral. Gabriella and her husband took me on a mental journey with accounts of their various Ponant itineraries which have included cruising from Quebec to Boston, and from Recife to Cayenne in South America, exploring Brazil and the Amazon. A ten-day repositioning cruise from Cayenne to Lisbon gave them a wonderful time to decelerate, reflect on life and relax.
Another adventure was a cruise through the North West Passage. They took an inclusive charter flight to Kangerlussuaq Airport in Greenland where they waited a day for an icebreaker in convoy with a cargo ship to get through to the port. The journey through the Northwest Passage, they said, is as much a trip of the mind as anything else and the voyage is the essential experience. The same can be said for their trip to the volcanic peninsula of Kamchatka in Far-East Russia whose incredible landscapes and wildlife were locked away in a prohibited zone of Soviet Russia until 1992.
Gabriella and her husband’s fantastic journeys with Ponant show the global breadth of adventure and expeditions and history and learning that the cruise line offers, along with 5-star luxury. And I have to say that the on-board speakers and lecturers are first-rate. Yes, Gabriella, we have booked again and will see you in the Mediterranean in 2019, this time with our young daughter on one of Ponant’s limited itineraries which caters for kids. I cant wait!