This is an important anniversary year for several cruise lines: Holland America Line is celebrating its 145th, Seabourn its 30th, Fred.Olsen its 180th and Ponant its 30th.
French luxury expedition line Ponant is marking its anniversary by launching the first two of its six new "Explorer" class ships in June (Le Lapérouse) and October (Le Champlain), bringing its fleet to seven. By 2021, Ponant will have 12 ships – including an LNG-powered icebreaker – sailing around the world.
It's an amazing achievement for a company that was founded by CEO Jean Emmanuel Sauvée and a dozen young officers of the French Merchant Navy who shared a dream of building a shipping company dedicated to cruising. Their first ship, the 64-passenger motor-sailer Le Ponant, launched in 1991 and remains a popular choice for cruising the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas.
Ponant has had an office in Australia for the past five years and Monique Ponfoort, vice president Ponant Asia Pacific, says the concept of small luxury and expedition itineraries "with a French touch" has struck a chord with Australians.
"We are really making waves," Ponfoort says. "Our polar expeditions, both north and south, lead the market in terms of numbers of ships deployed, numbers of guests carried and the range of itineraries available. Australians are great supporters of our Antarctic and Arctic voyages, and our Kimberley voyages are also attracting plenty of first-time cruisers to Ponant."
Between 2010 and 2015 Ponant built and launched four sister ships, Le Boréal, L'Austral, Le Soléal and Le Lyrial. These sleek, chic vessels carry up to 264 passengers (Le Lyrial takes up to 244) and while they are the same size each one features different colour schemes and artworks. All have a pool, two restaurants, indoor and outdoor bars, a library, theatre and very glamorous spa. More importantly, they are built for minimum environmental impact and are certified "cleanships" by the internationally recognised Bureau Veritas. They are fitted with dynamic positioning systems to avoid dropping anchor, thus protecting the seabed; silent and economic electric propulsion; and diesel engines that can operate with lighter, less polluting marine diesel oil.
The new Explorer ships are smaller than their fleetmates, which is an interesting move – most small-ship lines build bigger versions of their existing ships. They have 92 staterooms and suites, accommodating a maximum of 184 passengers, and introduce the innovative Blue Eye "sensorial" underwater lounge.
Ponant sails to every continent and in 2021 its fleet of 12 ships will offer 460 departures to the world's most exciting destinations. And don't worry if you don't speak a word of French – the crews speak English and French (and more languages in many cases). Bon anniversaire!
THE PORT Sitka, Alaska
WHO GOES THERE Celebrity, Crystal, Cunard, HAL, Lindblad Expeditions, NCL, Oceania, Princess, RSSC, Seabourn, Silversea, UnCruise Adventures, Viking, Windstar.
WHY WE LOVE IT Set on Baranof island in the Inside Passage, scenic Sitka is a small town (population about 9000) that was once known as New Archangel, capital of the Russian Empire in Alaska. Long before the Russians took over in the 1740s it was home to the Tlingit people, and when Alaska was sold to the Americans in 1867 the town's name changed to Sitka – Tlingit for "people on the outside of Baranof Island". During the gold rush, Alaska's capital moved from Sitka to Juneau; today it is an intriguing mix of its complicated history and its thriving commercial fishing industry.
TAKE A TOUR OR GO IT ALONE? Most ships dock at Halibut Marine's Old Sitka Dock, about nine kilometres north of the town. Free shuttle buses to and from Harrigan Centennial Hall are provided and run every 10 minutes. Some larger ships anchor out and tender to the O'Connell Bridge or Crescent Harbor docks, within walking distance of the town. There are 22 buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, so there's plenty to see on foot. There are also several art galleries, gift shops and a bookstore. Take a tour to the major wildlife attractions, Fortress of the Bear and the Sitka Raptor Centre; adventure lovers can hike, kayak, take a seaplane flight over the Tongass National Forest or join a fishing charter.
MUST SEE St Michael's Russian Orthodox Cathedral and the Russian Bishop's House; Sheldon Jackson Museum, one of two official Alaska State Museums, for its collection of Native Alaskan artefacts.
MUST EAT Locally caught Alaskan seafood – clams, crab, salmon halibut, and cod, washed down with locally brewed craft beer, at one of Sitka's handful of pubs and restaurants.
NEED TO KNOW The climate is mild and cool with an average high temperature of 16 degrees in July and it rains a lot. Dress in layers, pack wet weather gear and good walking shoes.
On an average nine-night Azamara cruise, passengers drink about 100 bottles of Champagne, 4300 bottles of beer, 3300 bottles of wine, 85 bottles of vodka and 10,200 bottles of water.
Viking's Ultimate World Cruise
Viking Sun will embark on a mammoth eight-month world cruise on August 31, 2019, that will take it to six continents, 59 countries and 113 ports. Sailing from London, it will be Viking's third voyage around the globe and will nearly double the length of the line's previous world cruises. Within the 245-day Ultimate World Cruise itinerary, Viking will also offer an option of taking one of two shorter segments during the cruise. Guests can choose between Viking World Treasures, a 127-day cruise from London to Los Angeles that visits 33 countries and 61 ports, or Viking World Wonders, a 119-day journey from Los Angeles to London that visits 29 countries and 55 ports. Fares for all three itineraries include airfares, gratuities, drinks packages and more. See www.vikingcruises.com.au
P&O in PNG
P&O Cruises' just released 2019-2020 program includes six cruises to Papua New Guinea that visit Alotau, Kitava Island, Rabaul, Kiriwina Island and the Conflict Islands. In 2016 P&O became the first cruise line to offer calls to the Conflict Islands, a group of 21 islands that surround a bright blue lagoon and are home to one of the world's most biodiverse reef systems. A highlight of the new program is an 11-night round-trip voyage from Sydney to the Conflict Islands on Pacific Aria, departing mid-November next year. Five 10-night New Guinea Island Encounter cruises will sail from Brisbane, two of them during the school holidays. The 2019-20 program will deliver 136 cruises altogether, including 64 two-, three- and four-night SeaBreaks from Sydney, Brisbane and Auckland. See www.pocruises.com.au