Launched in 2011, L'Austral is the second in a series of three 264-passenger, 10,600-ton cruising yachts commissioned by Compagnie du Ponant. Its identical sister, Le Boreal, debuted in 2010, and the third sibling, Le Soleal, which will launch in July 2013.
Originally French-owned and, at one point, aimed almost exclusively at the French market, the company was acquired by cargo giant CMA CGM in 2006 and then sold on to pan-European private equity investor Bridgepoint Capital in 2012. Over the last few years, and particularly with the launch of these three new ships, the line has been targeting a much more international market with considerable success. The essence of the product, however, remains unchanged under the new owners, with a family-run feel and a strong French influence throughout the ships.
L'Austral is, without a doubt, a stunning vessel, with sleek lines and an unusual dark-grey hull that makes it stand out in port. The interiors are like those of a minimalist boutique hotel. Everything is taupe, cream and white, with emphasis on luxurious textures, from leather-fronted white drawers in our cabin to taupe silk cushions on the bed. Black-and-white Philip Plisson photo art lines the corridors. A cascade of glittering Swarovski crystals lights up the small atrium. The whole package is unashamedly French: it's chic, the service is a little arrogant at times, and the passengers are a well-heeled, savvy crowd of experienced travelers.
What distinguishes these ships from other luxury vessels is their adventurous itineraries. L'Austral and its sisters are all ice-strengthened, so they can sail to Antarctica and the Arctic, destinations that are mixed up with off-the-beaten-track European itineraries, as well as Asia and South America. Each carries a fleet of Zodiac landing crafts for getting ashore and for sightseeing in remote locations. There's a strong emphasis on coastal cruising, with long days in port, overnights and late departures, so you really feel you're part of a destination, rather than just calling for a day.
Compagnie du Ponant operates a complicated pricing policy and is moving toward all-inclusive drinks, but at present that's only for certain markets. For the U.S. market, the fares are already all-inclusive. For the U.K. and European markets, wine and soft drinks with meals are included, and there's an optional all-inclusive upgrade of 210 (for Brits) for a week. There are, however, plans afoot to make all pricing drinks-inclusive.
Note: Tauck charters certain L'Austral sailings, and on these cruises, the onboard atmosphere and pricing structure may change (e.g. excursions are included).
There are two venues in which to dine: the main dining room, Le Coromandel, on Deck 2, and the casual Le Rodrigues on Deck 6. Open-seating breakfast, lunch and dinner are served in both every day.
The main dining room can seat all passengers together, but the acoustics are such that the staff try not to fill it to capacity, as the low ceiling makes it very noisy when it's full. There are tables for four, six and eight, with fours sometimes serving as twos. You can ask to be seated with other passengers who speak your language. We wanted a table for two at dinner and found that, by turning up later, this was usually possible, although the upshot was that the service was rushed. Dinner starts at 7:30 p.m., and that's when practically all passengers turned up. Anything later seemed to confuse the waiters.
One table in the dining room is reserved for the officers who sit together at all meals, ignoring the cruisers, which we found very strange, although there were some hosted tables on the gala night.
Food in Le Coromandel was generally excellent. There's a big spread for breakfast (7:30 a.m. to 9:30 a.m.) with a range of cooked items, an omelet station and a hot dish of the day, as well as an extraordinary spread of pastries and cakes (as you might expect on a French ship). Fresh fruits bought in the region in which we were sailing meant delicious strawberries, peaches and nectarines. We tended to eat breakfast on deck in the less formal setting of Le Rodrigues (7 a.m. to 9 a.m.), which has the same menu. We quickly learned that if you turned up at 8:55 a.m., it was already being cleared away.
Lunch (12 p.m. to 2 p.m.) was a buffet with a selection of hot dishes veering more toward comfort food than elegant fare -- lasagna, casseroles, meat or fish in a sauce and so on. There's a decent enough range of salads and cold cuts and, again, a stunning presentation of desserts, with ice cream always available. Red, white and rose wine of decent quality are poured generously at lunch and dinner, and a premium list has some interesting French labels on it from about 30 euros upward.
Dinner (from 7:30 p.m.) is when the French classics come out, featuring everything from foie gras and chicken gizzards to duck confit, veal and wild boar, all served with rich sauces and elegant arrangements of vegetables. The vegetarian options are good, a long way from the omelets and frites to which veggies would resign themselves in France in years gone by. Much of the fish is bought fresh, locally, and was excellent.
Dinners include a starter, soup, main course and dessert. Strangely, we were asked to order dessert at the beginning of the meal, which seems a rather mass-market way of approaching things. I bucked the system one day and asked for cheese as the main course was being cleared away and had a long wait for it.
We ate lunch most days in Le Rodrigues (12 p.m. to 2 p.m.), as it was pleasant to sit outside by the pool. Sometimes there was a barbecue (token at best for the French passengers, who eat their steak almost raw), sometimes a moules marinieres station (mussels poached in a garlicky stock and served from a huge tureen), and, on one occasion, a mountain of oysters. The menu is the same as downstairs, though.
If you want dinner in Le Rodrigues (from 7 p.m.), you have to book at breakfast, and a big production was made of this, although when we turned up after something of a battle to secure a table for two, the place was almost empty. Because the ship is in port a lot at night, people do tend to change their minds and eat ashore. Dinner is a buffet, which, despite the romantic alfresco setting, is unexciting and not that different from the lunch menu. But this is a lovely spot to dine on a balmy evening in port.
Tea, coffee, fruit, cookies and an early-bird breakfast (from 6:30 a.m. to 10 a.m.) are also available in the Karikal lounge on Deck 3, and afternoon tea (cakes and cookies) is laid out at 4 p.m. The room service menu consists mainly of comfort food like burgers, steaks, fries and salads, available at no additional charge.
Water is available free of charge on shore excursions.
The public areas on L'Austral are stunningly beautiful. The Karikal lounge on Deck 2 is the main gathering place, with a cream and taupe color scheme and light pouring in from windows along either side. There's a dance floor there that saw some action on the last night of the voyage, and there's a coffee station where tea, coffee and fruit is available all day. Aft of the lounge is a quiet deck area of soft chairs and lounges, popular for pre-dinner drinks among the smokers onboard.
Some of the other public areas were something of a mystery on my cruise. On Deck 5, there's a "leisure area" before the entrance to the spa with a small children's playroom (unsupervised) and a large amount of space dedicated to the photo gallery, as well as a couple of Internet terminals; 100 minutes costs 30 euros, but the service was very slow. This space, however, was rarely used. On Deck 6 forward, there's an attractive Panoramic Lounge with a bar, library, board games and a terrace outside, but again, this area was always empty. It's probably perfect during cold-weather cruises, but in the Mediterranean, everybody was on deck or ashore during the day and in the Karikal or the open air bar on Deck 7 in the evenings. This bar, Le Comptoir, was a great place to enjoy a sunset cocktail or to gather for scenic sailaways, and it's where the disco took place after dinner.
L'Austral also has a boutique, which offered enticing displays of designer clothing and jewelry but was hardly ever open.
Reception, on Deck 2, offered mixed service -- sometimes charming, sometimes alarmingly abrupt. The shore excursion desk is also located there.
All the accommodations on L'Austral are located forward, with all the public rooms aft. There's only one stairwell, at the aft end of the accommodations section, so the forward elevator comes under some pressure, although given the small size of the ship, this is hardly a concern for the able-bodied.
Because several of the cabins interconnect to create suites, the capacity of the ship can vary. The maximum configuration is four suites and 128 non-suite cabins (132 staterooms total), and in a heavier ratio of suites to non-suites, it's 24 suites and 88 non-suite staterooms (112 staterooms total). L'Austral and its sisters are often booked for full charters or corporate events, which makes this flexibility handy.
There are six categories of cabins, although there's not much difference between the middle categories besides their location. Decor is beautiful throughout, featuring calming neutrals of chocolate, taupe and cream, and sumptuous textures of silk, satin, white leather and marble, with potted orchids by the beds and photographic prints on the walls. All accommodations have individually controlled air-conditioning, Wi-Fi, iPod chargers and flat screen TVs. The bathroom products are L'Occitane in the standard cabins and Sothys in the suites. What's special about the bathrooms is that, in all categories except the Owner's Suite, a panel slides across to reveal a wall of glass, so you can stand in the shower and look out to sea if you wish -- an innovative touch. If you're sharing the cabin and want to preserve your modesty, you can, of course, shower with the wall panel closed.
The Owner's Suite (484 square feet with a 97-square-foot balcony) on Deck 5 has a separate living and dining area, as well as a large bathroom with bath and a guest bathroom, and a double-width teak balcony. Three Deluxe Suites (290 square feet plus a 54 square-foot balcony), also on Deck 6, each have a sofa, two showers, a built-in bar and dressing room, and they're wider than the next category down.
The Prestige Suites are essentially two Prestige cabins (situated on Decks 4 and 5), combined to create an area of 398 square feet plus an 86 square-foot double-width balcony. Each of these has two bathrooms with showers and a sofa where the second bed would normally be; they're ideal for families. Half of one of these is a Prestige stateroom (200 square feet plus a 43 square-foot balcony). These are no different in size from the 28 Deluxe staterooms; it's purely location that defines the price. Finally, there are eight Superior staterooms forward on Deck 3, slightly bigger at 226 square feet, but with picture windows in place of a balconies. All cabins have sitting areas with sofas and long vanities with drawer space. Wardrobe space, too, is generous.
Furniture on each of the standard balconies is two rattan chairs and a small table. A handful of balconies at the forward end of the ship have solid panels, so check carefully if a private sunbathing space is important.
Three cabins are wheelchair-adapted; the whole ship is wheelchair-friendly, but split-level decks mean complicated chairlifts need to be used to get up or down the equivalent of a few stairs.
Gratuities are not included. Envelopes are left on beds on the penultimate night for cash, which is posted into a box at Reception. There was no pressure at all for tips throughout the cruise, and service charges are not added to bar drinks. The recommended amount for those who do want to tip is €10 a day. The onboard currency is the euro.
|Fitness and Recreation|
The small spa on L'Austral is run by Parisian firm Sothys and is about as perfect as a small cruise ship spa can get -- tranquil and relaxing with charming, friendly service and absolutely no hard selling. Tipping is not encouraged, and there are no disclaimers to sign before a treatment. I was so delighted with the care and attention that went into my simple nail polish change that I offered to pay more and was refused. I had a blissful 75-minute facial for 120 euros, which isn't a bad price by cruise ship standards, and I left with armfuls of samples of the wonderful Sothys products. I noticed that several passengers had bought the spa packages, which offer combinations like six anti-aging treatments over six days for 360 euros. The spa also offers a hair salon, a mixed hammam and a peaceful relaxation room with an outdoor area.
There's a small, forward-facing gym connected to the spa, offering treadmills, stationary cycles and Kinesis equipment. On my cruise, there weren't any gym classes offered, only ballroom classes in the main lounge, run by the onboard dancers.
L'Austral has a lot of deck space, but not much was used for sunbathing. The pool area aft on Deck 6 is delightful, with squashy single and double loungers clustered around a small, deep and inviting pool. The deck aft of the Karikal lounge is ideal for sitting outside in the shade, as is the Le Comptoir bar area, overlooking the pool. But the whole of the top deck is occupied by the ship's fleet of Zodiac inflatables, as well as other machinery, and it isn't conducive to sunbathing. There are a few loungers up there, but it didn't seem much used. Likewise, the forward-facing terrace outside the Panoramic Lounge on Deck 6 is fine when the ship is moving but a real sun trap and very hot when it's in port.
L'Austral has a marina platform that can be used when the ship's at anchor for swimming and non-powered sports like kayaking and windsurfing (for no additional fee).
L'Austral is not especially aimed at families but does carry children and makes them welcome. There's no structured kids entertainment or activities; French families tend to do everything together, including eating dinner, and all the children on my cruise seemed sophisticated and well-behaved. Kids menus are available on request, but there was plenty on the buffet or menu in any case that would appeal to kids -- pasta and omelets, for example, and ice cream every day. The waiters were generally very sweet with the children. A small children's playroom was unsupervised but had a good stock of games and toys, and we often noticed small children playing quietly in there. In the Karikal Lounge, a giant screen with Wii kept the teens amused. In-cabin baby-sitting is sometimes available on request, especially on family theme cruises, but you'll need to make arrangements with the Hotel or Cruise Director on a case-by-case basis.
Clientele varies dramatically according to the season, with younger families traveling during European school holidays and older couples attracted to the longer cruises to more remote locations. On our Mediterranean cruise in August, about 60 percent of the passengers were French; the remainder hailed from the U.S., U.K., Germany and countries as far afield as Japan and Brazil. Language wasn't an issue. The maitre d' will seat you on an English-speaking table at dinner if you ask, and all the mainly Indonesian crew speak English (often better than they speak French). There will always be English-speaking excursions when there are international passengers onboard, and announcements are made in English, as well as in French.
Several passengers were traveling in extended family groups, and kids ranged from 7 or 8 years old to teenagers. All the children were well behaved, and the teens certainly livened up the dance floor at night.
A word about smoking: All the inside areas of the ship and cabin balconies are nonsmoking. But on my cruise, there were a lot of smokers, and the outdoor bar and the outdoor lounge area behind the Karikal lounge were often places smokers would congregate, including the officers, many of whom smoked. Naturally, this will vary from cruise to cruise, but for anybody who really objects strongly to smoking in any shape or form, it might be worth bearing in mind.
Dress code is smart-casual with a couple of extra-smart nights (although no rules are laid down). Passengers were seriously chic, and ladies are advised to pack a cocktail dress and some heels for the smarter nights, which brought out the Louis Vuitton and Missoni. The small onboard shop sells designer labels -- Faconnable and Lacoste -- and a fashion show laid one night by the onboard dancers modeling the shop's wares set the sartorial tone. (The shop was, however, barely open, should you have wanted to buy the goods.) There's no requirement for men to pack jackets and ties, although a lot of men did wear summer blazers on the smart nights.
Entertainment is low-key, with very little going on during the day. Occasionally, there were dance classes and Ping-Pong challenges, but on my cruise, there weren't any guest speakers. This changes on the more adventurous expedition cruises, when there's a full program of speakers, with lectures in English guaranteed.
Most people go ashore during the day, and the shore excursions sold very well (and were excellent and reasonably priced). Some lie by the pool, and some use the spa, but L'Austral's passengers aren't the kinds of people who need constant stimulation; a lot would simply disappear for the whole day and show up at sailing time, having eaten ashore.
In the evenings, there was an excellent jazz singer in the Karikal lounge and, on some nights, there were dance shows in the theatre, which were good, if not cutting edge. One night, the dancers performed tangos on the pool deck, which added to the atmosphere of a hot Mediterranean night.
What really stood out was the late-night disco on Deck 6, which was superb; a proper, professional D.J. played a good mix of contemporary sounds. The disco drew the crowds, as well as the officers, and it was the social hub of the ship on many a night. But we got the impression that each ship of the three has a distinct personality, driven by the hotel manager, so if the hotel manager doesn't hire a D.J., you might not get the same level of nightlife. A friend who had cruised on sister ship Le Boreal said it was completely different at night, much quieter and with a much older age group. And, indeed, the Karikal lounge was very quiet after dinner; people seemed either to go dancing upstairs or to go to bed.
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