Ponant Le Lyrial Adriatic cruise: Venice to Athens

The poetically named Le Lyrial is French chic exemplified – a stylish potpourri of first-rate gastronomy, elegant interiors, exotic locations and European culture.

Will you find giant waterslides, kids' clubs, casinos or glitzy discos on this small luxury expedition ship which Ponant, the only French-flagged cruise line, charmingly refers to as a "luxury yacht"? Quelle horreur!

Instead, this five-star ship is a tasteful melting pot of intimate Parisian restaurant, elegant soiree, and culture hub of the high seas.

And it's gliding, in my case, down the bays and island necklaces of the Adriatic, Ionian and Aegean seas and through the remarkable Corinth Canal that slices mainland Greece from the Peloponnese. From Venice to Athens, its salons ring to the strains of classical music and the conversational hum of the French intelligentsia (and a handful of Aussies).

For this eight-day cruise, hosted by France's first classical music station, Radio Classique, is the Second Annual Piano Festival at Sea, featuring a glittering array of eminent classical pianists. The Venetian-Croatian-Greek itinerary delves deeply, not just into music, but also art, architecture, mythology and geopolitics.

Le Lyrial, the latest in a stable of five, has 122 double suites and staterooms, with private balconies, ocean-view showers, individual airconditioning, "open" minibars and 24-hour room service – a little haven of Frenchness, which Ponant calls "the French touch".

This extends from the French officers, including hotel manager, maître d'/s, executive chef, cruise director and the captain, David Marionneau, to the Hermes bath products, Maison Lenotre sweet pastries, Maison Taillevent vintage wines, Maison Veuve Clicquot gala cocktails, beautiful baguettes and croissants baked daily, teas from Le Palais des Thes, perfumes from Fragonard, exquisite cheeses, Sothys Paris spa skin care products, interior design by Jean-Philippe Nuel, fabrics by Pierre Frey, the pitch-black espresso and Laduree macarons from the Parisian patisserie that invented them.

And finally, there's the commitment to "the French art of living" which means that French is the main language spoken.

But lately, the company has been parading its impressive plumage to attract a more international clientele, which includes Australians, who already have a special relationship with the French. This coincides with the 2018 launch of two, smaller "Ponant Explorers" – Le Champlain and Le Laperouse – the first of four.

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Reportedly, some of Ponant's proprietorial, rusted-on Gallic passengers have had to be gently counselled about "going out to the world" and sharing their glittering bounty.

We share Paris, they have been told. We share Provence, Champagne, Bordeaux and Burgundy. We share our Loire chateaus, our French impressionists and our Michelin-starred restaurants. Can we not also share our cruise line with les etrangeres, the foreigners?

Well, yes they can, because here we are in our tasteful Wedgwood-blue-and-cream cabin, enjoying a minibar G&T while unpacking into the abundant drawers and cupboards our evening outfits for the gala nights and our smart-casualwear (though, I fear, no "coutil" pleated trousers, which are a dress code suggestion for male passengers).

Banish those T-shirts and shorts – definitely not de rigueur for dinner, though tell that to the one or two Aussies who turn up to the gala dinners in their Hawaiian shirts and are not tossed overboard.

There is still a little minor cultural adjustment happening, especially on cruises like this one, where there are only about 35 non-French speakers, including 14 Australians, a handful of Germans and an Argentinian family. Oh, and one US couple, who happily accept that for once, on a cruise, they are "second-class citizens" language-wise.

Each voyage has a different mix of nationalities. My previous experience with a Ponant cruise, chartered by APT for Gallipoli's centenary, was Antipodean-dominated. And Le Lyrial's return trip from Athens to Venice had 130 Australians booked for a 60th birthday party!

For this musical cruise, however – Francophone alert - announcements are in French, with English translations, excursions are in French, with English sometimes the lesser partner, and certain lectures are announced as "French" or "English" only.

This delineation has an unintended consequence: No French speakers turned up for the three outstanding lectures, despite evidence of their excellent English.

Distinguished Anglo-Australian international and constitutional lawyer Philip Hurst is the ideal shipboard lecturer for a sophisticated cruise audience. His wonderful narratives on "The musical legacy of the most supreme republic", on "Italy – a geographical expression or a nation" and on "Looted art – the rape of Europa" contribute much to the cultural fabric of this cruise.

The bonus of a relatively tiny ship like Le Lyrial (10,700 tonnes instead of the 96,000-plus-tonnage of the super-liners like Princess Cruises' Emerald Princess) is apparent right from embarkation in Venice.

Le Lyrial docks at the more convenient old ferry terminal of San Basilio instead of the main, large-ship port of Stazione Marittima for a sunset departure past the Grand Canal, St Mark's Square and the Doge's Palace.

For our shore visits (choose from 11 excursions costing from €30 to €145 a person), we are also able to moor close to the Croatian archipelago island of Brac, the green, pine-and-olive-jacketed Ionian isles of Paxi and Antipaxi, and the Aegean isles of Mykonos and Hydra, and sail all the way up the 28-kilometre-long, fiord-like Bay of Kotor in south-western Montenegro.

As well, we can navigate between Aristotle Onassis and Jackie Kennedy's private island of Scorpios and Lefkada, one of the seven Ionian islands. We experience a magnificent sunrise-sail past the ancient walls of Dubrovnik to our close mooring – small ships only.

Most impressively, we are able to navigate by night one of the cruise highlights – the 6.4-kilometre Corinth Canal, which cuts through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth, connecting the Gulf of Corinth and the Saronic Gulf.

It eliminates the hazardous 700-kilometre journey around the Peloponnese where ship skeletons are proof of the turbulent joining of Aegean and Ionic seas.

Our canal navigation comes at the end of a sea day, beginning with Claire Marie Le Guay's Chopin nocturnes, followed by dinner in Restaurant Le Celeste, the more formal of the ship's two restaurants.

There's a choice of cream of broccoli soup with "petits croutons" or vegetable and truffle consomme, then crab remoulade or honey-glazed seared duck foie gras or soft poached egg with ratatouille, then seabream fillet, glazed fennel and bouillabaisse jus or shellfish nori seaweed casareccia pasta with tiger prawns or spelt risotto. The accompanying complimentary wines are satisfactory, but many order the suggested (excellent) paired premium French wines, which come at a (fair) cost.

After dinner, the captain hosts a "white party" with champagne and dessert on deck as we enter the canal. The daily offerings from the pastry chefs are nothing short of exquisite, particularly the chocolate and fruit confections and the gelato.

Hushed "oh la-las" echo between the vertical sandstone rock walls that soar 90 metres into the night sky as we squeeze through the narrow passage, only 24.6-metres wide. Soft lights illuminate the golden glowing walls, while giant seagulls wheel around the ship.

We pop out of the canal like a champagne cork, accompanied by the blast of ship's horn and whoops from canal-edge ship-spotters. Then it's into the piano bar for Dvorak, Puccini and Gershwin accompanied by whisky sours and martinis and some bumbling French conversation.

I'll leave you with an Ernest Hemingway quote of the day published in Le Lyrial's Journal de Bord: "The old man knew he was going far out and he left the smell of the land behind and rowed out into the clean early morning smell of the ocean."

There's something magical about that clean early morning smell, combined with the gentle hiss of hull over water, sun rising over the horizon, and aroma of croissants baking that thoroughly endears a person to a French cruise such as this.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/europe

FLY

Emirates flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Venice via Dubai and returns from Athens via Dubai. See emirates.com/au/

CRUISE

Le Lyrial's "Discovery of Dalmatian Shores" eight-day Athens to Venice departs July 21 or August 7, 2018. From $3660 a person double occupancy – book now to save up to 30 per cent. Includes private balcony, all meals, open bar. See au.ponant.com

Alison Stewart was a guest of Ponant and Emirates.

FIVE LE LYRIAL EXPEDITIONS

PADDLE DUBROVNIK

Paddle a kayak around the world-heritage-listed, Middle-Ages fortifications, learning about the fortresses, caves and islands. Swim at Lokrum. (€60).

WANDER BRAC

On this Croatian island of stone, sea and sun, visit the sacred site of Vidova Gora, the Adriatic's highest peak, the renowned stonemasonry school in Pucisca village and the picturesque village of Bol. (€50).

FOUR-WHEEL-DRIVE MYKONOS

Drive your own jeep from Mykonos town through rugged terrain to Fragma, Agios Ioannis, Kalo Livadi, and Kalafatis beach for a swim, then to Ano Mera, the island's most populated village. (€110).

WALK HYDRA

This beautiful maritime island with its steep, cobblestoned streets is rich in history. Trace a family's influence and visit the exquisite Cathedral Church of the Dormitian and the Hydra Museum Historical Archives. (€30).

EXPLORE PAXI AND ANTIPAXI

Take a boat around the Ionian "green" isles of Paxi and Antipaxi. The sea cave of Ortholithos is where Poseidon hid his lover Amfitriti. Xerolitharo is where the Hellenic navy hid one of its most successful submarines, the Papanikolos, in World War II. (€95).

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