On Site: Six Highlights of Ponant’s New Le Champlain

Ponant’s 184-passenger Le Champlain has taken the small-ship expedition yacht concept to new heights, based on what Travel Agent experienced this week on a three-night cruise roundtrip from Bergen, Norway.

Simply put, we loved the experience on this ship, the second in Ponant’s Explorer series, with four more ships coming in the next two years.

Overall, “I like the look of the ship and the feel of the ship,” said Denise Palumbo, owner and office manager, Travel Leaders, Palm Coast, FL, whom we met in Bergen. She had traveled on the cruise just before ours and particularly liked how “light and bright” the vessel was.  

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In addition, she was impressed with the French aspects of the cruise, especially the French cuisine. “I think that’s a plus,” she said.

From this reporter’s perspective, here are six highlights:   

The French Touch:  Ponant is the only French-flagged cruise line in the world and Le Champlain delivers an onboard experience that strongly reflects touches of France. The onboard product is classy, elegant and upscale, yet comfortable, low-key and friendly at the same time.  

If clients speak French, that’s great. But if they don’t, it’s not an issue. French officers and management and an international crew made us feel welcome, easily changing into English as needed. PA announcements, commentary onstage in the theater and shore excursions were also both in French and English.

Both this reporter and Palumbo liked the  touches of French culture elsewhere onboard too – from the Hermes Paris bath products in the staterooms/suites to the sips of Veuve Clicquot champagne during the welcome onboard party. Spa lovers will enjoy treatments by Sothys, and there are a host of other French partnerships that contribute to creating a French feel to this cruise product.

Easy, Spacious Layout:  This 10,038-grt ship seems spacious throughout, including its lounges, restaurant, outdoor deck space and corridors. Throughout the ship, I found it easy to navigate and Le Champlain does not feel crowded in the way some other small ships do.

Le Champlain’s theater is a good example. It’s a spacious spot for enrichment lectures, movies, light entertainment and other programs. Seating was plush and comfortable, and better yet, the sight lines were excellent.  

Lovely Appointments: Interior design by one architect, Jean-Philippe Nuel, reflects a warm and comfortable – not cold – style, taking inspiration from the destinations and cultures explored during Ponant’s port calls. We felt the interior design, both in public spaces and accommodations, was simplistic in many ways and easy on the eyes. Bottom line? The ship is a relaxing enclave of luxury.   

In the accommodations, we particularly liked the light wood-like panels, the split bathroom design (toilet in one compartment, the shower and sink in another) and a slatted pull door, meaning that those at the sink could see out to the view, or pull that door if they were in the shower and desired privacy.

Our stateroom, #521, a balcony cabin, had a king bed with comfortable bedding, good storage space, both in closets and cabinetry/drawers. A large flatscreen TV, massive make-up mirror above the make-up table/desk area, and a Nespresso machine were among the creature comforts.

Another plus was the stateroom’s upscale, contemporary French country home aura; we particularly liked the bedding throw pillows and the bed runner.  A crafty-look art piece comprised of spinning orbs above the bed was warm and fun.

Palumbo liked the white leather-like coverings for the stateroom’s closet doors, bed headboard, cabinets and make-up station/desk ottoman.

Could be improved? The door to the sink/shower compartment opens from the direction of the stateroom door, not from the direction of the living space itself, so guests have to walk around it; two trade sources said they found this a bit awkward.

Exceptional Cuisine: Our table of journalists raved night after night about the culinary offerings, created by Ponant chefs in partnership with Alain Ducasse Conseil. There is something special about the simplicity of this ship’s French cuisine. Dishes seem to have – consistently, every time -- the right flavors, just the right textures, creativity in design and – most of all – incredible taste.

Dining on Le Champlain is open seating, so guests dine with whom they choose. During dinner, the restaurant offers full table service with a robust French-inspired menu of soup, starters, salad, entrees and a cheese plate or dessert.  Certain selections such as beef and seabass are always available, too. Don’t miss the slices of fresh French baguette.

Waiters are friendly and accommodating. During lunch and dinner, staff pour both white and red house wines without charge to the guest. The entry to the restaurant also houses a large wine cellar collection, for wine enthusiasts who wish to pick out a special bottle. 

For lunch, guests head for an adjacent buffet area – just off the dining room to select starters (such as shrimp, salad, nuts, breads and fruits) before sitting down and ordering off the menu for their main course.

Those preferring something light can simply forego that step and stick with the salads and starters. Then it’s back to the buffet station for dessert.  

One interesting note? While there may be some al fresco dining at times on the deck behind the Main Lounge, such as savory crepes suzette served by a chef one evening during our cruise, this ship does not have an alternative specialty restaurant.

To be frank, the voyage for Ponant guests is about the destination and the expedition activities (and there is a marina aft for water play like kayaking, snorkeling or paddle boarding). No one on our cruise seemed to miss the frazzle of seeking out alternative restaurants, making reservations and, often, being disappointed when they aren't available. The main restaurant experience was so good, specialty dining seemed unnecessary.

Rooms with a View: If guests prefer spectacular sea or land views, there’s no place better than Le Champlain’s Ponant Yacht Spa to get those. If clients book a couple’s spa treatment, head for the sauna, have their hair styled or hit the gym, they’ll definitely have “rooms with a view.” Most notable? We liked the sauna with a large window.

And of course, there are plenty of other spots for great views onboard, including the Observatory Lounge, the dining room’s tables closest to the windows, and the accommodations themselves. There are 88 staterooms with private balconies and four suites with bay windows and private terraces.

The Blue Eye: Created by French architect and oceanographer Jacques Rougerie, a specialist in underwater habitats, Blue Eye is an innovative underwater lounge. Located eight feet below the surface of the water, it’s a multi-sensory experience. 

Two whale-like eyes with clear material resembling glass or plexiglass bring the marine world closer. But those clear eyes are 18 separate layers, which the line says creates a material stronger than the hull itself.

A bit about “itinerary” and the Blue Eye. In Norway’s cool waters, particularly in fall, we didn’t see much underwater. But, certainly when the ship is sailing in the South Pacific or Caribbean, guests will likely “ooh” and “aah” at a cornucopia of marine life sailing by the “eyes.”

In addition, underwater cameras project imagery – such as floating jellyfish -- onto the screens around the room. Hydrophonic microphones also capture the sounds of tiny, yet noisy creatures like krill (shrimp) and the largest mammals in the ocean, whales.

Sometimes, the captain can maneuver the ship closer to those whale sounds, creating an expeditionary sighting.

The experience also involves undulating ceiling design, eerie blue lighting and soothing music that guests hear with vibrations that resonate through the floor and even into the furniture.

The bartender will concoct a blue curacao drink or serve up other drinks while guests get into the experience. But you can’t order drinks that have to be “shaken” or need to be mixed by the staff using a blender, as the Blue Eye retains a pristine, calm and peaceful aura so guests can relax and get into the experience.

Getting to the Blue Eye? Guests take an elevator down to the bottom of the vessel, then walk down two half flights of stairs to reach the lounge – and begin their journey into the abyss.

While those who are easily claustrophobic may find it a bit much, I loved this spot. It’s open nights and can accommodate up to 40 guests.

We enjoyed our three nights on Le Champlain, as did most of the other guests we met. From Palumbo’s perspective, “I think it’s a great ship for the right client.” 

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