Kimberley cruise: Darwin to Broome on a luxury cruise with a French touch

The view from the ship's deck of red rugged sandstone cliffs is unmistakably Australian, but the scene on board is irredeemably French.

Just as two centuries ago, when the French arrived in their sailing ships to map the remote Kimberley coastline, they're here today, this time running luxury expedition cruises to showcase that very same region to Australians.

"It's such a stunning contrast," says mariner Captain Peter Martin, on board the French cruise line Ponant's ship L'Austral to deliver a series of lectures on maritime history. "You have the harshness and grandeur of the Australian scenery outside, and the glamour and style and comfort of the French inside. What could be better?"

And he's right. An 11-day APT-Traveller cruise around the Kimberley between Darwin and Broome aboard a small French-run boutique ship, swimming in French champagne, laden with French cheese and with a baker making fresh French bread and pastries on three shifts every 24 hours … If there is anything to beat it, je ne sais quoi.

This 11-day cruise is a trip on most Australians' bucket lists to view what's considered our final wilderness frontier, with sandstone burnished ochre cliffs dating back 1.8 billion years, stunning waterways, thundering waterfalls and the world-famous Horizontal Falls and Montgomery Reef.

A fleet of rubber zodiac boats, staffed by expert naturalists from around the world, take passengers out at every stop to land on either beaches or islands to see the sights, or to motor around the gorges and inlets to view the scenery and wildlife.

But doing it on a ship with just 220 passengers and 144 crew, with a bathroom stacked with Hermes products and every bar and restaurant flowing with a ready supply of Veuve Clicquot, is an absolute dream.

Even better, the Frenchness is tweaked just a notch for us Australians. While escargots are served in the a la carte restaurant one evening – "And 80 portions were ordered!" says the ship's executive chef Herve Bourdon in surprise – there are plenty of concessions to our rather less delicate palates.

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There's an al fresco barbecue every lunchtime and evening meal with fish, prawns and steak on the deck of the buffet restaurant upstairs, and a vast array of salads.

"We've found Australians are very different to when we have French guests," says Bourdon. "You like the buffet, whereas the French prefer to eat downstairs to be served in a more traditional way. Also, while you'll sit at the table after eating for only a little bit and then go off to the bar, the French will sit until 10pm or 10.30pm.

"And for Australians we serve a lot of beer and white wine; for French people it's red wine and champagne …"

We also like to have tea, coffee and food available all day, whereas the French rarely eat between meals – their slimline secret. So the coffee, tea, biscuit, cake and chocolate station that features so prominently in the main lounge of the ship is taken away whenever there aren't Australians on board.

Even more surprisingly, however, the only food on the ship that's Australian are the emergency jars of Vegemite and five tonnes of fruit and vegetables. Everything else, including the 150 kilograms of meat and fish, the 20 tonnes of flour, the 9000 eggs and the mountains of alcohol are shipped from France in containers over 45 days.

Because L'Austral is a ship flying the French flag, it's bound by European law, which doesn't permit grain-fed protein or any antibiotics in meat, and which lays down the rules of production for just about everything else.

For Bourdon, 48, who came from a five-star hotel in France's Brittany to take this on this role, despite his propensity for seasickness, most of the menus for the 500-odd different dishes that will be served during this cruise are sent every day from France. He is allowed a little discretion, however.

"I had some lamb burgers on the barbecue one night and they were eaten so quickly, we had to do more the next night," he says. "That's not something other passengers would particularly like …"

It's a world away from the first visit of the French, when explorer, cartographer and naturalist Captain Nicolas Baudin arrived to map the Kimberley in May 1801. Then, he and his men suffered from limited food and water supplies, and scurvy. Baudin himself never made it home, dying of TB in Mauritius on his way back.

Now, one of the chefs demonstrates the secrets of choux pastry, with a pile of profiteroles to taste, while the French crew, dripping in charm, show visitors around the bridge. Meanwhile, guests jostle to be at dinner on the table of Captain Erwann Le Rouzic.

It's hard to believe that it was only a few weeks ago that we were feeling so resentful of the French after our World Cup loss to their national team.

"But this is a class act," says the historian Captain Martin, who also delighted guests with his recitation of The Man from Snowy River over afternoon tea one day.

"It's such a good ship, and the crew are excellent. This is a wonderful combination of cultures for seeing the Kimberley."

Sue Williams travelled courtesy of APT and Traveller.

TRIP NOTES

MORE

traveller.com.au/the-kimberley

aptouring.com.au

FLY

Qantas, Virgin and Jetstar fly to Darwin or, for cruises in the other direction, Broome to Darwin, Qantas and Virgin fly to Broome.

STAY

Experience a Small Ships Cruise of the Kimberley Coast with APT. Phone 1300 336 932; See aptouring.com.au

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