European cruising with a French flair

A small luxury ship delivers trademark French flair.

You have to hand it to the French. As with most things, when they put a passenger ship in the water they do it with more style than anyone else.

French cruise line Compagnie du Ponant was launched in 1991, when Jean-Emmanuel Sauvee and Philippe Vidou, classmates at the French merchant navy school in Nantes, joined forces to create the "ideal cruise ship" to undertake five-star expeditions.

Their first ship was the elegant three-masted Le Ponant but it was the launch of the sexy Le Boreal in 2010 that really set the company apart. Designed by Joel Bretecher, who once designed cars for Ferrari, the sleek grey-hulled ship with its striking glass arches broke the mold for passenger ship design.

Since the launch of Le Boreal, Ponant has launched two sister ships, L'Austral (2011) and Le Soleal (2013) with another, Le Lyrial, due to take its first passengers onboard in May 2015.

In good news for Australian passengers, the highly regarded Australian cruise expert Sarina Bratton, who pioneered luxury expedition cruising in our region with the Norwegian Cruise Line and Orion Expedition Cruises, has joined Ponant as Australasian chairwoman, with ambitious plans to bring the ships to our part of the world, starting with L'Austral, which will cruise Bali-Cairns from December 12, 2014.

Resembling racy mega yachts, the intimate 132-stateroom ships are designed to give guests the experience of sailing on their own private yacht - one that has the bonus of ice certification for the Arctic and Antarctica.

Incorporating the very latest navigational technology for expedition cruising, the ships are environmentally friendly, with a quiet and economical electrical propulsion system, a positioning system that eliminates the need to drop anchor and disturb the sea bed, and the use of less polluting marine diesel oil.

Close relationships with staff and crew, including an "open bridge" policy (guests can visit the bridge at any time) further foster the idea - only if its for the duration of the cruise - that you have your own ship at your disposal, with 200 friends along. Being small ships, the Ponant fleet can sail from cove to cove and moor in places the larger ships can't access, with the captain having flexibility to alter course to follow the sun or whales or visit a good swimming spot.

Last month, I sailed on Le Soleal from Venice to Istanbul to test the ship's French chic. Approaching it from the Venice lagoon, its elegance of design, compared to the bigger-hulled cruise ships docked nearby, was immediately apparent. Befitting a ship named for the sun, it is painted a dazzling white, while its two sisters range in hull colour from smoky grey to dark charcoal.

I sense we're in for a treat when we're greeted by a smiling crew wearing immaculate uniforms. Over the next few days I remain in awe of the beautifully tailored navy and gold-braided suits and other nautical variations on white and navy the crew and staff change into for different occasions.

They're the most dapper crew I've met on the seas.

We are enveloped in Frenchness. About 50 per cent of Ponant's passengers are French, many of them choosing to travel with children and grandchildren during holiday time. There are Australians, Americans and South Africans as well as some other Europeans on board.

Menus feature French cuisine and there are complimentary French wines served with each meal. (Ponant's cruises will feature an open bar throughout starting April 2015.) Announcements are given in both French and English by a multi-lingual crew.

But it is the ship itself that best conveys the concept of French chic. The interior design is by French architect Jean-Philippe Nuel, who is well known for his work with hotel groups Sofitel, Club Med, Le Meridien, Westin, Taj and Marriott.

The interiors are done out in shades of white, ivory, grey and natural blonde woods, which make the spaces feel large, open and light. So many cruise ships go in the other direction with dark wood panelling and rich furnishings, and Le Soleal's nautical design concept makes me feel like I'm actually at sea, rather than in some Edwardian drawing room.

Our prestige stateroom 437 is well positioned midship and near the theatre, where lectures are given and flamboyant shows are performed after dinner. (All those feathers and sequins are perhaps not so chic.)

The cabin is 18 square metres with a four square metre private balcony and a separate shower/bathroom and toilet. Only eight of the 132 staterooms and suites don't have a private balcony.

There is a small, round table and two chairs inside and a table and chairs on the deck, plus bedside shelves with plenty of room for books/iPads and so on (plus many electrical outlets.)

A shelf along the length of the room provides extra space for the paraphernalia two people accumulate. I've sailed in larger staterooms (some with full baths) but this is the most cleverly designed, with plenty of wardrobe space and drawers, room under the bed for suitcases, and a brilliant glass-encased bathroom that offers views of the sea while you're showering - or you can draw a sliding door across the glass if you want privacy. There's lots of room in the bathroom for toiletries and there's even a clothesline for hanging your washing. The showerhead is large and produces plenty of good hot water.

The uplifting colour palette is white and grey with touches of turquoise. The bed head and the wardrobe are quilted with white topstitched leather and the drawers have leather handles like early steamer trunks. Tres elegant. This colour scheme extends seamlessly throughout the ship, with the two lounges and bars, the gastronomic restaurant, the grill by the pool and the small Sothy's spa. Even the gym, while small, is light and airy with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to sea. White orchids, shells and organic-shaped vases are the decorations of choice.

The lobby and reception area is dominated by a delightful transversal mobile of enamelled pieces by Marie-Andree Cote, one of a number of striking artworks and objects that fill the ship's public spaces.

The sun loungers around the small swimming pool (it's more like a plunge pool) are popular and are annexed early in the day, as is the terrace outside the panoramic lounge on the bow of the ship.

However, I never feel the lack of private space. I do have to share my favourite outdoor bar at the back of the ship with other guests, but when I want to relax with a book, I discover sun loungers on deck 5 that few people visit.

Our fellow passengers contribute to the stylish ambience of the cruise, a fashion parade of how to do casual cruise elegance.

The men are as snazzy as the women - one appearing in several changes of lavender and pink and another strikingly handsome in his handlebar moustache.

Le Soleal's captain, Etienne Garcia, who looks like a French movie star, throws both a welcoming and a goodbye party for his passengers.

"For us, you are the soul of the ship who will echo long after this voyage," is his heartfelt farewell on our final night before Istanbul.

Now that is stylish.

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