Ponant je t’aime
As first published in SLOW Magazine, July 2018 issue. Click here to view the article in the magazine.
By BRIAN BERKMAN
Think nautical stripe and you’re thinking French Navy in general and Breton in particular. There should be 21, blue and white horizontal stripes on the jesery that is as iconically French as the Eiffel Tower. Sailors believed it made it easier to spot someone overboard. Let’s stay on board, for now, on luxury French yacht Ponant which has the black and white striped flag of Brittany on its forward mast. Aft, near the heated, sea-water pool, is the largest French flag you ever did see. Purchase this wardrobe classic, made by heritage brand Armor Lux, with Ponant detailing, in the on board boutique. Everything about Ponant and its yacht Le Lyrial is quintessentially French.
Think about the elegance and comfort of your favourite French boutique hotel, add to that cuisine from Michelin-started restaurants, coupled with a healthy dose of adventure, and you’re sailing on board a Ponant yacht, billed as the newest fleet on the seas.
The emphasis is on small, the vessel that is, yet the service, from French officers and mostly Philippine crew, is big hearted. Even in the elegance of the fine-dining restaurant gastronomique, service is warm and never stuffy. It remains a mystery how, for example, room-service attendant Michael is as cheerful before dawn when he brings our coffee on a silver tray with a white orchid placed just so, as he is when we pass him in the corridors after a late dinner. With 144 crew and a maximum of 244 guests, Le Lyrial may have one of the highest guest to staff ratios which accounts for the perfect service.
Leaving Cape Town we have the first hint of why our port is called the Cape of Storms. But, as these explorer-class ships are built to navigate the polar regions, they are better designed with two anti-roll stabilisers than many a pleasure vessel. If, like me, you’ve cruised on larger ships, you will know first hand the confusion of finding your way around the ship, more akin to a small town. Le Lyrial is tiny, by comparison, with just 122 cabins, 114 of which have balconies so it hardly took a moment to know our way around. Our 18m2 deck five Prestige stateroom was perfectly comfortable with the benefit of individual climate control, a state-of-the-art Smart TV and vast selection of music and movies and a clock with an iPod docking station. Stateroom standouts include a privacy screen on the outside of the shower room. When opened you have a grand view of the sea through your balcony windows. Helpfully, there is a separate toilet cubicle. Decor in the stateroom and throughout the ship is in contemporary blues and whites with wonderful linens, fabrics and feather-filled decorative cushions. As you’d expect in a fine, five-star hotel, here too there is a selection of pillow types from a dedicated menu.
Almost everything on board is included in your fare. As an intimate and deluxe experience, the fare may come at a premium but it is a much greater value proposition when compared to other cruise companies that will bill for many more “standard” items separately.
Although the majority of guests on our Cape Town to Durban cruise were French speaking, all announcements were made in both French and in English. There were two guest lecturers on board, a South African expert, Desmond Colborne and Luc Ferry, a former French government Minister of Education, published author and celebrated philosopher.
The first question when noting the 1877 km distance the ship will travel is how it might possibly take eight days to get there when a comparable flight is less than two hours. The answer is the reason for selecting a Ponant cruise: Designed to deeply introduce passengers to all South Africa has to offer, port visits are typically two days each and feature superbly arranged excursions. Although they come at a supplementary rate, the real advantage of booking a ship’s excursion is that when port arrival times are delayed, because of a sluggish harbour pilot, as happened to us, then excursions are effortlessly rescheduled to a later time.
In Port Elizabeth and in Richard’s Bay tours are offered to Big 5 game lodges and a visit to Pumba, near Grahamstown, is recommended despite the journey by coach and midday rather than early morning timing. An opportunity to explore the St Lucia wetlands and lake, accessed from Richard’s Bay is a must. We found it teeming with hippo and wonderful birds but missed the frequently spied crocodiles. While in Durban it is worth exploring a little off the beaten track, something that Ponant does particularly well, and to visit the Pietermaritzburg Botanical Gardens, museum with excellent South African bird and animal displays, and to view the statue of Mahatma Gandhi with its back turned away from the train station where he was jettisoned from First into Third Class because of his race. That experience was the foundation stone for his flight against oppression.
A Ponant highlight is the cuisine. Alain Ducasse, a force of nature in exceptional dining, is their consultant and ship’s chefs are trained in his methods. What impressed me was the quality of the ingredients: butter and cheeses by the renowned Bordier and chocolate by Valrhona. Superb meats, from the l’Aveyron region in France, and the finest locally sourced fresh fruit and vegetables.
Owned by luxury French conglomerate Groupe Artémis but managed by Ponant founder Jean Emmanuel Sauvée, an experience on board Ponant is exactly what you’d expect from a business with holdings in Christie’s, Gucci, Chateau Latour and Venice’s Palazzo Grassi galleries among others.
Every detail, from the Hermes’ Un Jardin Sur Le Nil bathroom amenities to the Veuve Clicquot cocktail and Ladurée macarons reflects the finest of France. And, as members of the Charte Bleue d’Armateurs de France and IAATO (International Association of Antarctica Tour Operators) Ponant places preservation of the environment at the heart of its priorities so you can explore with a clean conscious.
Set sail and vive le France.