So far I have been discussing the expedition aspects of Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot, but how does it measure up as a luxury travel experience?
An International Experience
While Ponant is focused on making its brand more international and with significant increases in North American guests, the product is unequivocally and unashamedly French; or, better, International. So if you are looking for “an American experience,” you may find not being first and foremost uncomfortable. Or, if you are – like me – more international in your approach, it is a fantastic way to “travel”.
Two things Ponant does to truly put the French stamp on its product:
I don’t know about you, but those sorts of things elevated my experience rather than defined it as more Francophile.
Never did I feel excluded or treated as a second-class guest; things I have heard in the past. And my journey was especially non-English speaking, with only 19 of the 173 guests being considered as such. Of them, the majority were German, two Dutch-Belgian, two were Australian, one was Japanese, and three were American.
Of course, quite a few of the French speakers (of various nationalities) spoke English and were engaging. The result for me was a very enriching international experience with very interesting high-level discussions and perspectives on world and American politics, travel, and personal relationships. (And, after almost two weeks of emersion in French, my horrible inability to learn a foreign language is definitely confirmed.) Note: The next cruise – to the North Pole – I was told was about one-third of the guests are English speaking.
I was in a Deluxe Suite, which is one of the lower categories. (There are staterooms that are a bit smaller in the living area but are fairly similar otherwise.) It is well designed, has plenty of storage, and, well, is beautiful.
The bathroom is split into two rooms (lavatory & shower and toilet). Both are just a bit tight but function well. They initially seem dark, but with creative lighting, it actually is more than bright enough. There is also just enough space to put your things (and I like the recessed shelf behind the sink.) My only complaint is that there is no sink in the toilet room, so you have to come out and then go into the lavatory/shower room to wash your hands.
There is a large, comfortable, lounge, an occassional chair and a small table that functions nicely for reading, resting or dining in-suite.
Storage is a double closet, a bank of shelves, and eight deep drawers (four small and four very large with nice faux leather finishes) in the console at the foot of the bed.
There is a small…and I mean “small”…vanity/desk tucked into the end of the console. As a workspace it worked…just barely. But there is a nice Nespresso coffee set up with a refrigerator stocked with soda, beer, and spirit miniatures. Water (flat and sparkling) is provided in sealed glass water bottles that are replaced as needed. (Part of Ponant’s efforts to eliminate plastics onboard.)
A large flat-screen television is mounted on the wall across from the bed. One quirk: There is no map showing you where you are or the voyage’s journey. Especially on an expedition ship that would seem mandatory. (I did see some things, like the daily program didn’t come up on the television, so there may have been some sort of software glitch that needs to be corrected.)
There is also a large balcony which I made use of literally every day; not necessarily to sit out on but to take in the views and for (successful) wildlife spotting! Note that there is more than enough room for the chairs to face out. I am not sure why they are always re-setup to face each other when, no matter how attractive your partner may be (or in my case, not having one) that is not “the” view!
I know there are concerns on Ponant’s other ships about the size of the staterooms but that is not the case on Le Commandant Charcot. In fact, I found this to be one of the most comfortable, functional, and soothing suites I have stayed in!
Before I get into service, I do want to discuss the dining experiences. There are essentially four (excluding room service): Nuna for fine dining, Sila for buffet, Inneq for al fresco dining, and the Main Lounge for Afternoon gourmet experiences.
The Main Lounge has a very long fireplace that you can sit in front of most of the time. (There is another one in the Observatory Lounge). Usually, at 4:30 PM (itinerary dependent), tables are set out with a different themed gourmet offering along with champagne and/or cocktails. It is a more casual, social, experience than, say, an English High Tea, which I enjoyed and so did the other guests. Offerings ranged from merengue, to Laduree Macarons, to Parisian Tea Time to Jamon with Gazpacho.
Meanwhile, French Pastries are simultaneously served in the Observatory Lounge, and, on occasions, such things as Belgian waffles are served at the Blue Lagoon.
Note that it is sort of a central area that connects the port and starboard portions of the main bar and is also in between the two doors into the theatre. It makes for a nice social gathering area that you can easily disburse from. Nicely done!
Nuna is the more formal, Alain Ducasse, restaurant. It is light, bright, but still very comfortable with just enough elegance. Flowers have been replaced with interesting polished stones, agate, etc. to provide a beautiful reminder that you are on an expedition.
There is good spacing between the tables and large windows so the outside is brought inside as you want on an expedition ship. There is also a walk-around deck outside the restaurant, so when there is a wildlife sighting in a matter of about 20 steps you can be outside with your camera without having to race upstairs to another area. I think it is a really good design.
Nuna’s cuisine is best described as “done with finesse”. From soft boiled eggs with caviar to salad nicoise, to guinea fowl, to saffron fettuccine with seafood, each dish is prepared with a softness – not undercooked, but not overcooked – and with precision.
For example, when chicken is ordered (and I have ordered chicken breasts and chicken leg) the meat is served just past pink with skin that is crisp – but not overly so – with a sheen of just a bit of fat. The pasta is freshly made onboard. The vegetables are always cooked to crisp with beautiful color. I also found the soups to be very good to excellent; especially the fish soup.
If you are a fan of black truffles you can pretty much find them on the menu at almost every meal.
Breakfast is a combination of a diverse (for 200 guests) buffet and seated service with a true menu. I enjoyed a combination of both. Besides a nice choice of French cheeses,
two types of butter are offered on your table: Doux and Demi-Sel. According to the Parisian view, demi-sel is not good and is “relegated” to those in the South of France. LOL.
I was surprised to find only small croissants, and limited varieties of pastries, breads and rolls. All were good, however.
Lunch and dinner are seated only with a menu that varies significantly each day. The portions are definitely more French than American…in other words, smaller. Note: Rather than describe each dish, I will let their elegant presentation speak for themselves…and they all tasted as good or better than they looked.
But before I show you the beautiful cuisine, I do have to mention Joanne as an amazing standout. She is a bit shy to start (I could make her blush by just saying, “Hello”), but opened up with great service and, if given the chance, offered expert advice on each dish. I normally do not seek out a particular server, but with Joanne I did. As her personality came out, so did her confidence and her teasing me. By the end of the expedition, I left my choices in her hands and said that as my “cruise wife” I would no longer challenge her decisions. LOL (But don’t ask for Joanne to be your server, for after this expedition she will be the maître de, which is well-deserved.)
Now, for our (Joanne and I) combined dining choices – and don’t even try to determine which were for lunch and which were for dinner!
Sila, the casual buffet dining venue, was actually far more popular on this expedition. Everything was prepared nicely and the varying dessert and cheese offerings were impressive, but I only dined there a few times and only once for dinner. I do like the table cloths at lunch and dinner, as it definitely increases the elegance. Again, notice the huge windows as the real focal point.
The last dining venue, Inneq, by the Blue Lagoon, was not utilized much, mostly due to the foggy and cooler weather. It is supposed to have more International offerings, but found – probably due to so few diners – it not to be very inspiring. Tempera shrimp, vegetable spring rolls, beef skewers, etc., and some sort of roast plus a special were offered on a daily basis.
I was pleasantly met with one of my concerns being immediately quashed. Literally all of the hotel staff speak English (with the Filipino and Indonesian staff being more fluent in English than French), all announcements are in French and English (though sometimes the English versions seem a bit shorter so you may wonder, “What did I miss?”, but it never was material), and everything from menus to the daily programs are in both French and English.
As I mentioned in an early article, the Daily Recaps and Briefings are segregated and, thus, I found our intimate grouping to be a real advantage as there was the ability to be “spoken with” rather than “presented to” by the excellent Expedition Team presenters.
The hotel staff is a combination of mostly French management and supervisors, with Filipino and Indonesian service staff…with a few French as well. They are attentive as can be, and not only remember my name, but what I like to drink…and where. Most importantly, all of them have genuine smiles and are proud of working for Ponant. Interestingly, those staff who have come from Crystal Cruises did not just walk into their jobs at Ponant. They have had to work their way up to their positions, so they know the Ponant way and they do it very well.
What I truly like is that the Ponant staff can, if you so desire, be more familiar with the guests, so handshakes and a hug are there if you prefer them; and they are totally appropriate. But the staff is very good at reading the guests to see how formal or informal the guest prefers their service…and some truly prefer “formal”.
Alas, there are also some staff who have been “back of the house” and are being brought to the front. This makes for some initial nervousness on their part, but with their obvious desire to learn and their charm, I found the nurturing of them a bonus rather than a negative. What matters more is why. Yes, there are staffing shortages – as there are on literally every cruise line – but the philosophy onboard is to have everyone be able to do every job in their area…and that leads to great teamwork.
The English-speaking guests have all commented that they have been treated extremely well. But that said, they noticed that the service was at an even higher level when I was around. I know I was designated a VIP, but I also spent time engaging the staff on a personal level. Human nature is it migrate toward those that recognize you as a person rather than just a server – which is how friendships are formed. However, as much as a compliment it is for me, it is important that every guest is treated at the highest level at all times.
Another standout, but just for being so engaging and fun, if nothing else, is Stella in the main bar. The first time I walked past the bar she said, “Hello Eric!” and made me feel such positive energy that you just wanted to return to the bar to soak more in. (She was tipped off by the bar manager that had been with the Scenic Eclipse!) She is also a very good bartender. That is not to say any of the other staff isn’t worthy of note. They all are.
The Spirits and Wines
Cocktails are all delivered with that little bit extra (like dried juniper berries in your gin and tonic)…along with a premium nut mix; foregoing the more mundane offerings one expects to see. Canapes are also served at cocktail hours.
When it comes to wines, it is French, French, French. There seem to be four whites and four reds that are offered in a bit of rotation (two at a time) that are actually quite good. So good that looking at the exceptional wine list isn’t really necessary as the pairings with the cuisine are very good. And, of course, Veuve Clicquot is always on ice and readily available.
But if you do look at the wine list, you will see that it is about 95 percent French with a few Italian and Spanish wines included. Yes, there are one-off South American and a few other wines. American wines are limited – from what I saw – to two very expensive and esoteric Cabernets. Overall, the wine prices are quite reasonable. So if you love your California reds and you must have that big, bold, mouthful of tannin plus fruit, unless you are content with, say, a big Bordeaux you will be frustrated. However, for me: I was in heaven!
Now for the quirk I cannot figure out. Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot is a very expensive expedition, but some of the more ordinary spirits are not included, while other more expensive ones are. For example, Glenfiddich is not included, but Johnny Walker Black is. Cocktails, even without premium brands, are also for a charge unless they are on the short list of included ones. Why Bombay Sapphire with Fever Tree Tonic is included, but with Tanqueray Ten isn’t, I do not know.
That said, I have noticed that the French guests onboard are all quite well to do and are clearly of the mindset that having to pay a few hundred euros extra for cocktails during their cruise is not an issue. So I cannot blame Ponant for taking this approach, but for the North American, German, and Australian markets there will definitely be pushback.
At this price point I believe Ponant should include all but super-premium brands, as is the case on literally every one of the competing luxury expedition brands.
Overall, the suite, service, and cuisine on Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot exceeded my expectations. It is my hope that the reputation Ponant has with some of its past non-French speaking guests who have been disappointed is in the past. I truly enjoyed my international experience with friendly and efficient service, truly excellent cuisine, and a wonderfully comfortable and relaxing suite.
Next up: Details about this amazing ship!