I depart on Sunday, June 26, 2022, to join Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot – which is a very cool, very high tech, very environmentally responsible, very much luxury, true icebreaker expedition ship for my 14-day Svalbard and High Arctic expedition. To say that I am excited about this expedition would be an understatement!
Yes, I am thrilled to be back “on the ice”; albeit now in the Arctic rather than the Antarctic. Yes, I am looking forward to observing polar bears, walruses, seabirds, and more. I mean, who wouldn’t be?! But for me, I am most excited about the ship. I know. I know. I am always preaching it is not about the hardware, but the software. But when it comes to expedition cruising, the hardware truly matters because if you can’t get to where you want to go because of ice and/or you can’t do what you want to do when you get there because of lacking equipment, how well the expedition team performs doesn’t even come into play.
I have detailed the ship itself in my first article: Goldring Travel’s Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot Svalbard & High Arctic Experience (June/July 2022)- Part I – Goldring Travel, but need to emphasize two major points about this ship: (1) It is a true icebreaker with a PC2 rating (multiyear moderate ice, year-round) rather than the Lindblad Endurance PC5 (first-year medium ice, year-round) the more, er’ um, mundane PC6 (first-year medium ice, summer and autumn only) of the Seabourn Venture, Seabourn Quest and Scenic Eclipse; and (2) It is a Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) and Electric Battery operated vessel, so it is far more environmentally friendly and can operate for months independently.
I do have to note that the capacity of the ship seems to be changing. Originally the literature says the capacity was up to 270 guests, the website says up to 245 guests, and a recent presentation said 235. (There seems to be a trend among some cruise lines to have a philosophy of building to X number, but using it for flexibility but not to sell out…resulting in a better experience for the guests.)
Ponant is one of the few lines that is continuing to provide Cruise Documents. The very inclusive package comes in an environmentally responsible faux leather bag/purse with a high-quality luggage tag and – remarkably – a passport cover. Also provided is a very impressive travel-sized hard-cover personalized Travel Book filled with every bit of information you might want and something clearly intended to find a home on your coffee table upon your return. Travel vouchers are provided, though I’m not sure they are of much use, along with Health Forms and flight information/instructions. (Note: One bag of 23 kgs – 50 pounds and one carry-on are permitted.)
As I highly recommend, even though Covid testing isn’t required to fly into Paris, I am taking an RT-PCR test at a nearby Walgreens on June 25th. I think it is always better to know before you head out on your journey that you are OK rather than getting to the ship and there being an issue. Regardless, Ponant requires an RT-PCR test no more than 72 hours prior to boarding or a 24-hour antigen test in addition to being vaccinated.
One curious thing for North American travelers is that the expedition starts in Paris at the Charles de Gaulle Airport with an 11:45 AM departure of our 4.5-hour flight to Longyearbyen on the island of Spitsbergen in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago arriving at 4:45 PM. (Hey, it is not my math! LOL) It is noted that the flight is “according to your booking class”, so as I am staying in a Deluxe Suite I am not sure if that is economy or business class, but considering the number of suites, I am pretty sure I will be at the back of the plane.
Because of the timing, it requires that I overnight in Paris. Ponant has a pre-expedition hotel package at the Pullman Roissy CDG for $440 which includes the morning transfer back to the airport, but not a transfer to the hotel (the airport train drops you three minutes walking from the hotel) or any meals – which I think should at least include breakfast; especially at that price! I am not sure why I couldn’t have flown into, say, Oslo and then onto Longyearbyen and save the overnight stay, but I am going with the Ponant package as I want the full Ponant experience so that you know exactly what it is. (Note: There isn’t much of a flight time savings as it is still a 3-hour flight from Oslo.)
I am flying on United – as per usual – Reno-San Francisco-Paris arriving at 10:45 AM on June 27th. So what am I going to do with my morning arrival in Paris the day before the expedition? Well, believe it or not, I have never been to Paris! For someone who has traveled to so many places, it is actually embarrassing to admit it. But that will no longer be the case. I have hired a private guide – with the specific charge that I am a “traveler”, not a “tourist” – so I hope to see as much “Paris” as I can and not spend my time doing such things as going up the Eiffel Tower. Hey, better than nothing, right?
On my return, we don’t arrive back into Paris until 6:00 PM on July 8, 2022, so it is another overnight at the airport hotel before my return flight on United at 9:15 AM. So that will be a local dinner and a sleep, but no more.
As I mentioned I will be staying in Deluxe Suite 730; midship on Deck 7. It is 301 square feet with a balcony and shower-only bathroom. This is significantly larger than the 215-square-foot staterooms. Moving up to a Prestige Suite essentially gets you two staterooms with one set up as a living room, so you have two bathrooms.
There is no question that Le Commandant Charcot is uncompromisingly a luxury expedition ship. There is, for example, an Alain Ducasse restaurant that has, unlike the other Ponant ships, an actual Alain Ducasse chef. Dress is to be somewhat more refined as there will also be two Gala Nights (akin to formal nights) and a Black & White night where guests are encouraged to wear white and black clothing. There is a Cigar Lounge that is reserved only for cigars (and for cigar smokers not having cigarette smoke is a big deal).
There is, of course, much more but I will delve into that as my expedition unfolds.
As you will see in my future posts, I am truly engaging the Expedition Cruise market. While my initial focus will be on the polar regions, there is so much more to expedition cruising. But I have to start somewhere and the polar regions – where the ships are truly tested – are the best places to do that.
So let’s see how Le Commandant Charcot performs…and then how its expedition team does!