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Goldring Travel’s Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot Svalbard & High Arctic Experience (June/July 2022)- Part VII – The Ship and Reflections

My experience on Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot was extraordinary in many ways. Was it perfect? Nothing is. Is Ponant working – literally as I write this – to elevate the expedition product it offers? Absolutely. Do I recommend taking an expedition on this ship? Definitely.

I’ve talked a lot about the experience, cuisine, and service, but not this extraordinary ship itself.  (Links to all six of my prior articles are below.) So let’s get into it!

Le Commandant Charcot is unique…and I mean seriously unique.  She is a legitimate icebreaker with a PC2 hull rating (Year-round operation in moderate multi-year ice conditions ) and a banana-shaped hull with two bridges; one forward and one aft.  In fact, when you look at her from sea level you can easily be confused as to which is the bow and which is the stern.  She has both bow thrusters and azipods, so maneuvering her in thick ice can be done essentially without backing up, but moving forward in either direction.

She is not the fastest ship, though she isn’t slow either. Her “sweet spot” for cruising is between 9 and 12 knots due to her hull shape, but she can make 14+ knots. Other modern expedition ships can cruise with a sweet spot of up to 17 knots.  But keep in perspective that, for the most part, on expedition you aren’t going at high speeds. That is pretty much relevant only when you have long distances to travel (such as the Drake Passage or repositionings).   

One thing Ponant emphasizes is that the ship is powered by Liquified Natural Gas (which is far more environmentally friendly than standard marine fuels) and can operate solely on her batteries as well.  Both are true, but there are limitations. While it is true that she can run on LNG for about two months, you have to be able to obtain the LNG…and today that is kind of a challenge. Hence, standard marine fuel is also used (as it was on my expedition). When everything is running optimally, there is a 25% reduction in carbon emissions, an 85% reduction in nitrous oxide emissions, and a 95% reduction in fine particular pollution. 

Similarly, with the batteries, they can only run the entire ship for about 20 minutes. Now, if you think about the power consumption of a ship (engines, suites, galleys, etc.) that is pretty impressive. Note that she can also plug-in in into any ports that provide that service. However, in Svalbard, for example, the port is very shallow and especially with her deep draft (almost 30 feet due to her icebreaking needs), she isn’t coming alongside. 

But even with these limitations, she has been awarded Bureau Veritas (one of the main marine classification societies overseeing the quality and performance of ships) Clean Ship designation.  From the almost entire elimination of plastics, the use of stainless steel tubs, glass water bottles in your suite, glass straws, and a stringent recycling program, this is the wave of the future. 

Further, to be able to travel to such remote areas as the North Pole, the safety systems are state of the art as well.  Ponant has a helicopter (it actually is designed to hold two), but there is no flightseeing for guests. The helicopter is used solely for scouting by the expedition leader and medical evacuations. 

There are plenty of zodiacs, which are housed on the top deck and brought down by crane for each landing. This is not nearly as efficient as having them in a garage and makes them a bit more subject to conditions such as swell and wind, but I don’t know that with the PC2 rating a garage would be possible.

A curious area is that for embarking onto the zodiacs. There are two sort of living rooms (port and starboard) where your boots are kept on warming wracks. You tell them your wrack number (like A107) and swap your shoes or slippers for your boots. (Note: On other Ponant ships you keep your boots outside your stateroom or suite.)You keep your parka (included in your fare) and life jacket in your suite.  I guess the idea is to have a comfortable living area before and after you have been out (you are even offered a choice of hot drinks upon your return), but I find it very inefficient.  

One er’ um, cool thing is that Charcot’s Blue Lagoon (more on that below) and benches you find throughout the outside of the ship are warmed with heat generated by the ship’s engines. You should try the seats on a cold day as they make it very comfortable to sit out and take in nature.

Speaking of that, Le Commandant Charcot is designed to not only bring nature into the ship, but to make the outside of the ship both comfortable and very available to the guests. There is a full wraparound deck, mostly under cover and the helicopter landing pad overlooking the bow is readily available to guests unless it is being used. Also, the suite balconies are large.

The Observatory Lounge on Deck 9 is a large, bright, area with a full bar (behind you so it doesn’t obstruct your view) which also has a large outside deck for wildlife viewing and just taking in nature. It also wraps around the starboard side of the ship with a fireplace and many small groupings of seats.  There is early-riser coffee, pastries, fruits, etc., and late afternoon and evening music by either a solo performer or a duet, but nothing intrusive. 

The Main Bar on Deck 5 is, again, brilliantly divided into smaller areas and wraps around the starboard (more active) and port (much quieter) sides of the ship.  In between is the Main Lounge where there is a very long and beautiful fireplace in front of which there is a daily gourmet treat of some sort at cocktail hour(s). 

The Theatre is a very comfortable venue with no columns or sightline issues for daily Recaps and Briefings (though when there is an intimate group of “English-speakers” the smaller Training Room is used) and the limited Entertainment.   

There are two restaurants: Nuna, an Alain Ducasse formal restaurant, and Sila, a casual buffet one. I have discussed them in detail in another article. There is also the Blue Lagoon which has a limited al fresco menu.

Speaking of the Blue Lagoon, it is an interesting affair that is a combination of a shallow warm water (starboard) and cold water (port) elongated pool with built-in seating that wraps the aft deck and encloses a pretty semi-circular seating area with a heater. 

I do appreciate the small, but well-designed (including airflow) Cigar Room. I met some of the most interesting guests there!  But it is cigars and pipes only. Cigarettes are limited to an outside smoking area. Cigar prices are high, but there is a solid selection, along with premium whiskeys, cognacs, etc. 

There is a small, but again, very beautiful spa onboard complete with both a sauna with a picture window and a snow room (which looks into the spa waiting area). There is one massage room. There is no dressing room so you come in your robe.

Adjacent to the spa is a Wintergarden and Detox Bar area with a small indoor pool with jets you can swim against. I never saw anyone in the pool, but the space was frequented by those looking for a warm, quiet place to read or take a nap.


Preface:  In reading my comments below I, in retrospect, believe I am being a bit harsher than I intended. I think it is because of my frustration that a few little things affected the overall excellent product more than they should. And, if you know me, you know it is always about The Little Things!  But let’s get started!

The term “Once in a Lifetime” can be overused and I hate to think taking an expedition on this ship will only happen once.  My observations ranged from “Very Cool”, to “Drop Dead Gorgeous”, to “Amazing Expedition Experience” to, candidly, “Huh?” and a pre-cruise experience that ranged from “Wow” to “WTF”. While you can read all the superlatives and a few of the misses in my prior articles, there are a few specific things I want to, well, Reflect upon:

Ponant is a French Product that Needs to Stress it is Actually an International One
Ponant truly desires, and needs, a larger North American share of the market. It has built a number of ships with more on the way and it needs to fill them. But it must better understand the reality of the United States market better.  Americans historically have dominated the cruise (not ocean liner) market and have expectations; many of them being different than what the international market does. 
Without question, Ponant is a “French” product, but it has installed a few tweaks that, to my mind, make it a wonderful “International” product. I would use Ponant’s uniqueness as a strength and work to assure the experience will be more akin to “travel” on its ships than a “cruise”.  Silversea Cruises had attempted this in the past, but undercut itself by then claiming (and now seriously abandoning) the concept that no more than 50% of its guests would be from North America.
Laissez-Faire – Charming, But…
The number one philosophy that I think needs to be addressed, but not abandoned – because it is where a good part of Ponant’s charm lies – is its Laissez-Faire attitude. Generally, American travelers on ships expect a certain amount of structure; knowing what to do and when. While that exists on Ponant, there is a casualness when things are not quite going according to plan. And that can be uncomfortable, even upsetting, to those not used to such an approach…especially when more American-centric cruise lines shudder at the thought of changing things. 
Misses Overshadowed an Otherwise Excellent Expedition Program
Now, for expeditions that is a bit different; at least when it comes to when or where the next landing or zodiac exploration is going to happen. Wind, fog, rain, seas, wildlife present, etc. can all affect the decision as to what is about to happen.  And that sort of flexibility is not only expected; it is necessary. Ponant was, on my expedition, excellent at that.
However, laissez-faire does not work when it comes to the Expedition Team. Unfortunately, Ponant has earned a bit of a reputation concerning this and, without question, the biggest issue is safety.  I had wondered how the Ponant expedition teams were formed and who exactly was in charge because it appears to me that things were managed on a ship-by-ship basis, which cannot possibly be good as there are no controls or oversight.
With impeccable, if not ironic, timing, only days after disembarked Le Commandant Charcot, Ponant announced it had hired Natasha Hanson, as Expedition Exploration Director who will manage the expedition guides, local guides, and excursion managers for all of Ponant’s ships. Hopefully, this will address this one critical issue. 
Just a Few Inconsistencies in the Luxury Experience…Soooo Close!
 Ponant, and especially on Le Commandant Charcot, markets a luxury experience.  The Pre-Cruise Document Package is impressive, with its personally embossed passport holder and luggage tag, bound journey book, and more presented in a beautiful environmentally responsible “leather” satchel. 
However, my luxury pre-cruise ended there. I had purchased the way too expensive Ponant airport hotel/transfer package (no breakfast) which advised the best way to get to the hotel was a two-minute walk that, in reality, was true…after the ordeal of traversing the entire airport, two escalators and the airport train. Then the Ponant representative was not at the hotel so I was advised my room was not paid for and there was no transfer in the morning. Yes, this was sorted out in the middle of the night, but…forgetting the airport issues beyond Ponant’s control, Ponant should have advised it has a full plane charter and provided the airline and terminal information in the cruise documents.  Until things were sorted I was totally in the dark! (Note: On the return the entire experience was flawless!)
Once onboard Le Commandant Charcot my luxury experience was pretty much flawless except for one inexplicable quirk.  While Veuve Clicquot and Billecart-Salmon champagne freely flowed, there was a curious limited list of spirits that were included whether it be whiskey, gin, vodka, etc. It wasn’t based on price as some of the included were more expensive than the ones charged for. These must – must – be included when marketing the product as a luxury one.  This issue alone will – yes, it’s true – cause a number of American guests not to book a Ponant expedition! (Super-premium I agree should be an extra cost.)


Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot is unique and in a very good way. While it is true that in the end, one will remember the Polar Bear, the Walrus, the Midnight Sun, and the Glaciers, experiencing icebreaking…real icebreaking…and watching it in marvel as sort of a moving art exhibit makes you remember this ship. And it compels your desire to return to her.

Each luxury expedition ship provides its own experience and Le Commandant Charcot’s is especially worth considering for those desiring an international experience rather than an American one. For me, it was one of the highlights of my journey.

The level of luxury on expedition ships, as well as their unique capabilities, both technologically and experientially, are rapidly improving and Charcot is definitely at the top of the range for such things. With the few tweaks noted addressed, which Ponant is actively working on, this is definitely a ship and an experience well worth considering. 

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