When cruising, be it river or open ocean, a champagne reception isn't unusual. Cruise directors are always finding ways to make their guests feel special. Little parties along the journey create lasting memories – and, perhaps, repeat bookings.
But this was a champagne reception with a twist. One evening, during a cruise of Western Australia's Kimberley coast on-board Ponant's Le Laperouse, guests were invited to gather on the pool deck for bubbles and canapes. There, we were greeted by the usual delights: the ship musicians performing jazzy tunes, crisply dressed wait-staff buzzing about with trays of food and drink, mingling officers in their parade uniforms, fellow guests gussied up and in good humour, the setting sun glinting on calm, aqua waters and about to paint the sky ablaze. But – surprise – at the end of the deck, seemingly pushed high out of the ocean by Neptune himself, was the ship's aft marina.
On this Zodiac excursion-heavy itinerary, we'd grown accustomed to this great utility being at sea level, its stairs leading downwards from the pool deck to a pontoon where able seamen could guide us safely on and off our rubber craft for landings and explorations afloat.
Now here it was, its stairway rising heavenwards to a cantilevered stage. And it, too, was all gussied up – with giant lanterns surrounding a white marquee that covered a bar where an ice bucket full of French champagne was manned by smiling cork poppers.
That hydraulic deck is emblematic of the innovations with which Le Laperouse, and the class of ship for which she was the forerunner, is equipped. It's all about meticulous safety and cutting-edge performance, but also very much about exemplary style and exotic experience.
Since 2015, Ponant is owned by Groupe Artemis, French billionaire Francois-Henri Pinault's outfit which also owns Christie's and other luxury brands such as Saint Laurent and Gucci. But it was founded in 1988 by former French navy officers, who set out to combine traditional high-end French hospitality with adventure. It was a ground breaking combination. Thirty-plus years later, it doesn't take long on-board Le Laperouse to realise this ethos endures. Our cruise is actually a charter by Abercrombie & Kent, one of a very small number of groups with which Ponant partners in this way. A&K has its own expedition and cruise directing team on-board but hospitality, officers and technical crew are all Ponant.
Their welcome is formal yet warm, efficient yet fun. There are only 92 staterooms on the ship and she usually takes 184 guests. However, on our journey the number is less than 150, so luggage is delivered promptly and personal connections with stewards are made quickly.
The stateroom is beautiful, with a blue colour scheme, white leather upholstery on cabinetry, Scandi-chic touches such as timber-clad walls and hygge-happy blankets, cushions and linens. The luxuries include balconies for all, satellite TV and video on demand, bathrobes and French bath products as well as 24-hour room service, a fabulous addition considering this is an all-inclusive experience. The spectacular suites come with butler service.
A similar look extends through the common areas, a favourite of which is the main lounge, where afternoon tea is served and the sound of cocktail shakers resonates throughout the day. The upper deck Panoramic Lounge has a selection of books and, out on deck, comfy seats for all-day staring out to sea and dozing. It's almost very unship-like … more an impeccably imagined resort at sea, which considering designer, French architect Jean-Philippe Nuel, is known as one of the world's greatest when it comes to high-end hotels, is perhaps no surprise.
Adding to that vibe is Le Laperouse's infinity-edge pool. Its rear wall is glass and it butts right up to the pool deck's edge. It's a cutely extravagant detail on a ship mostly devoid of gimmick, other than the Blue Eye Lounge, an underwater bar/theatre with windows shaped like eyes looking out to the ocean's depths. With its curvy walls and moulded furnishings, it's like a groovy submarine fantasy from a '60s James Bond movie. On a typical Ponant cruise, it is here that there are twice-daily "shows" of light projection and sound. (And, ooh la la, the seats vibrate). But on our cruise, it mostly functions as an evening bar which makes it a place for the expedition crew to hang out and relax after a day of immersing guests in the Kimberley's wonders.
There are only two restaurants, one formal, one casual – at 128 metres long, there are bigger private mega-yachts in the sea, after all – but the cuisine is excellent, with choices at the pool deck grill that include a daily French special prepared in front of guests at a chef's station. The menu design is a collaboration with Alain Ducasse's Ducasse Conseil. And of course, given Ponant's emphasis on French hospitality, the service is impeccable. It's also fun, with wait-staff full of personality and warmth.
But like a swan with its legs frantically doing all the work while its upper body is a picture of elegance, there's serious tech afoot on Le Laperouse. Across its fleet, Ponant has eliminated the use of heavy fuel oil, replacing it with low-sulphur marine gas oil. The International Maritime Organisation requires all ships to significantly reduce sulphur emissions by next year but Ponant acted well in advance. Other environmental considerations include a dynamic positioning system that allows Le Laperouse and her sister ships to avoid dropping anchor in certain places, thus not interfering with the seabed. They also have the "Cleanship" stamp from Bureau Veritas for innovative green equipment, with an ongoing commitment to improve environmental performance, especially as the ships cruise in fragile environments. We were thrilled on this trip to be issued with an Abercrombie & Kent water flask, which could be filled up at filtered water stations in the main lounge, thus eliminating single-use plastic-bottled water.
By the end of 2020, Ponant will have six explorer-class ships cruising the oceans: Le Champlain, Le Bougainville, Le Dumont-d'Urville, Le Jacques Cartier and Le Bellot, all named after famous French explorers. For now, Le Laperouse is the only one tootling about in our waters. For ship buffs, experiencing her clever ways may be worth the price of passage alone.
Le Laperouse will cruise New Zealand, Australia's east coast, Tasmania and The Kimberley during 2020. Abercrombie & Kent's Kimberley Cruise: Australia's Last Frontier 2020 costs from $16,495 a person twin share. See au.ponant.com ; abercrombiekent.com
Julietta Jameson travelled as a guest of Abercrombie & Kent.