Small ships go where big ships fear to sail. Le Soleal ignores Alaska's overcrowded ports, sliding between islands and mountains into bays that can't be visited from land. Halfway through our cruise we sail into Endicott Arm, a 50-kilometre-long fiord peppered with glacial ice, where Zodiacs takes us to the face of Dawes Glacier as seals pop their heads from the water and Arctic terns swoop.
"The ice from that glacier is very compact, it doesn't have many bubbles, perfect for your whisky," says our guide Alain, scooping up a football-sized chunk for later cocktails.
"Not many people can say they've had a martini with 10,000-year-old ice in it."
This is the pleasure of a luxury expedition ship, that you can access wilderness without sacrificing martinis and good mattresses. The experience is more akin to yachting then cruising, and favours an intimate wilderness experience over big-ship razzmatazz. You won't find a casino or water slide on Le Soleal: the focus is off the ship and onto the destination. Still, this small vessel of 264 passengers – virtually identical to Ponant sister ships L'Austral and Le Boreal – fits in three lounges, two restaurants, theatre and full-service spa. It's a chic, cheerful ship of minimalist cream and brown interiors, hung with attractive art photography showing sailboats on glittering seas. It's a boutique hotel afloat in an otherwise inhospitable landscape.
Small-ship expedition cruising means more interesting ports, more time in them, and plenty of Zodiac excursions to otherwise inaccessible places. Like all expedition vessels, Le Soleal eschews tight, big-ship schedules to respond to its environment. One evening, under the splendid backdrop of the St Elias Range, we're called from dinner to deck. A pod of humpback whales is feeding directly in front of the ship, which slows to a virtual halt for more than an hour as the sun sets in a blaze of orange mountains.
On-board naturalist Vicki, an expert in whales, moves among the passengers to chat about whale behaviour and how to track their underwater movements by their fluke prints, which look like pools of spreading oil. She is one of a team lead by Frenchman Jose Sarica, a professor in marine biology with un-academic communication skills and high spirits, who is clearly passionate about nature. All the naturalists have impressive credentials, and accompany us on Zodiac excursions, explaining how to tell a sea lion from a seal, or tidewater from hanging glaciers.
Sea conditions permitting, Zodiac excursions are an almost daily adventure and a key component of the expedition cruise experience. Le Soleal's are invariably excellent and surprisingly varied, focusing one day on glaciers, the next on bear spotting or a visit to a remote community such as Elfin Cove. In the Inian Islands we motor under trees where dozens of bald eagles roost, and get so close to sea lions we can smell their fishy stink. They show a lively curiosity about the Zodiac, popping their heads up to have a good look as whiskers twitch.
Fellow passengers are mostly retirees, but ages and nationalities vary with season and destination. On my Alaskan cruise, three-quarters are francophones, the rest other Europeans, Americans and Australians. Both French and English are used on board; Zodiac boats and guided shore excursions are divided by language. The dress code is no more than smart casual, though the service is rather formal. Key staff are French and lack the attentive, friendly service ethos common on American ships.
Le Soleal has 132 cabins, all with balconies. Compared with other luxury lines, they're relatively compact, but this is a small ship. Finishes are upmarket, beds utterly comfortable, showers are good. My housekeeper Ono is outstanding. There is only one downside, the less than block-out curtains against an Alaskan sun that lingers until midnight. But as one guest remarks, this is a cabin that makes you happy as you step inside. And when you're in the wild middle of nowhere, you couldn't ask for better.
Brian Johnston was a guest of Ponant.
Like all expedition companies, Ponant varies its cruises annually. September 2017 sees a 14-night Nome to Vancouver voyage on Le Boreal, with prices from $10,964 a person twin share. Expect new Alaskan itineraries on Le Soleal in 2018.
Le Soleal heads to Antarctica and South Georgia in early 2017, then the Amazon and Orinoco rivers, where Zodiac excursions view rainforest and Brazilian wildlife. By April 2017 it is sailing western Europe and the British Isles, then the Baltic, Iceland and Norwegian fiords. It spends the second half of the year on the east coast of North America before a return to South America. Phone 1300 737 178. See ponant.com.