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Docked at the Japanese working port of Maizuru beside claw-handed cranes and warehouses, L'Austral seems out of place: petite, sexy and glamorous against a working waterfront. Its dark grey hull is a posh snub to the pretty pretensions of white cruise ships. Its officers, some of whom are lined up by the gangplank, have smart gold-braided uniforms like ones you see in photos of the Romanov's Standart. They mutter greetings in French. I feel an avaricious urge. If I were a billionaire, I'd buy L'Austral and sail away into a Sea of Japan sunset.
The ship might be larger than a billionaire's yacht but it's distinctly small compared to mainstream cruise liners. L'Austral – and its near-identical sister ships Le Soleal and Le Boreal – has only six decks and carries 264 passengers. That makes it well-suited to the Ponant expedition style of cruising, most notably in Antarctica. L'Austral has an ice-strengthened hull and carries Zodiacs for shore landings, though we won't be needing those in southern Japan. One of the ship's pluses in tropical climes is a stern marina that allows passengers to take a dip right from the anchored ship.
I'll settle for eight days of the billionaire's lifestyle. L'Austral's size gives it an unusual intimacy well-suited to anyone uninterested in on-board razzmatazz. It has none of the megaship's casinos, cinemas and hoopla activities. Public spaces are limited to two restaurants, three sedate lounges, a spa and fitness centre, and an afterthought of a kids' corner. L'Austral spends a lot of time in port – all day at many. It's a ship for destination cruisers, not for those seeking a floating resort.
Ponant was founded by French naval officers and retains a defiantly French air in the face of American-dominated seas. I have to adjust my service expectations accordingly. The European-style service is efficient (some might say abrupt) rather than overtly friendly. Occasional Gallic huffing is heard from the reception staff. Yet Kamel the entertainment director is a firecracker of smiley energy and enthusiasm, and restaurant manager Pascal is chatty and attentive.
Buffet-style meals in the casual dining restaurant include excellent soups and salads coupled with hot dishes and desserts. Downstairs, the main restaurant's a la carte evening fare offers top-quality French dining and service is brisk and reliable. There are only two disappointments: always unidentified cheeses, and breakfasts akin to an unchanging three-star hotel buffet. For a ship of this calibre – and a French one to boot – I miss my good baguettes and Roquefort.
It's hard to find fault with much else. Cabins are compact in comparison to those on top cruise lines such as Regent or Silversea, but this is a much smaller vessel. Nearly all have balconies. I'm in a deluxe category (room 506). The cabin has ample storage and a soothing, inoffensive decor of subdued browns nicely set off by cream-white leather panels on wardrobes and drawers. The biggest luxury is that I have no problem sleeping. The cabin is amazingly quiet (no death-rattle air-conditioners here) and the engines barely seem to vibrate. The bed would suit a pea-troubled princess, and bears no resemblance to the ludicrously narrow, Spartan beds and bolster pillows of French hotels.
The rest of the ship has the same minimalist surrounds as my cabin. (Interior designer Jean-Philippe Nuel works with hotel brands such as Sofitel, Taj and Westin.) The only hint of glitter comes from the Swarovski creation dangling in the atrium, which I rather like. It's a nice change from cruise ships that make you feel you're either in an Edwardian drawing room or a mad Borgia's boudoir.
My fellow passengers are a littler younger than I expect and about half are French, though this may well vary depending on destination and time of year – I reckon you can expect more French passengers during their August summer holidays, or on Mediterranean cruises. There are a dozen Japanese sailing their own waters and some random Europeans. The rest are Anglophones, mostly Americans and Australians. English-speaking guides accompany shore excursions. Announcements are in both languages.
The ship is somewhat divided by language and guests are seated in the dining room according to language preference, but the separation is easily overcome by anyone who cares to attempt a conversation. I find many French guests who speak good English. And I like the double dose of travel exposure. I don't just get Japanese culture from the destination but a pleasantly different French-ness from the ship. No relentless have-a-nice-day American chattiness here. The experience is charming, distinctive and a trifle sedate, and I wouldn't have it any other way.
The writer was a guest of Ponant.
Ponant has five ships in its fleet. L'Austral sails on a variety of itineraries around the world. Its eight-day Best of Japan cruises around southern Japan (and Pusan in Korea) between Maizuru and Osaka. Prices from $3780pp. Phone 1300 737 178, see www.ponant.com.
The ship's open bridge policy means you can visit the bridge at just about any time of the day and chat to captain and crew.
L'Austral's Wi-Fi is rather spotty, often slow, and it's expensive. . Give thanks for increasingly common free Wi-Fi in most ports.
This is a mostly non-smoking ship, with no smoking in cabins or public places except for the outdoor deck behind the main lounge.
The small theatre puts on rather modest shows of French dancers in feathers, lip-synching to Broadway songs.
L'Austral has a full-service spa with various massages and treatments, plus an outdoor deck where you can sit in a post-pampering haze and enjoy a drink. Big thumbs up.