For those who wish to do a multi-country itinerary with ease, cruise ships offer an undeniable appeal: you only have to unpack once, yet each day you wake up in a new city. They can also be a surprisingly good value, priced similarly to a five-star city hotel per night, but with all meals and beverages included. The delicate balance for the sophisticated traveler has always been finding a top-notch cruise ship that is large enough to have posh amenities like a spa and multiple restaurants, but small enough to feel intimate and not crushingly mass market. That’s why, when French expedition yacht line Ponant launched its latest ship, Le Lyrial, in 2015, Indagare decided to try her out and see how she delivered on her promise of a luxurious, boutique experience at sea.
Though well-regarded in Europe, Ponant is still a bit under the radar in the States, with a very limited American clientele. Le Lyrial is the company’s fifth ship, with just 122 state rooms and suites and a crew of 144. Itineraries are typically 7-14 nights and range from northern climes, like Alaska, the Arctic, the Baltics and Scandinavia to several Mediterranean options (Dalmation Coast, Greece, Italy, France). On board amenities include two restaurants, a small but serviceable outdoor pool, a Sothy spa with a hammam and gym, a theater, several lounges and bars, including a fun one on the bridge, and an observation room.
Cabins are done in a cool palette of silver, white and slate blue, with crisp lines and modern furniture. The suites on deck 6 are the largest, ranging from 387 to 688 square feet. I stayed in a Deluxe Cabin on deck 5 and although it was only 200 square feet, I found it quite comfortable and well designed, with a sitting area, a private balcony and a decent sized wardrobe with plenty of drawers and hanging space. Ponant gets the small details right: the water pressure in the rainfall shower is refreshingly strong; the bed is exceedingly comfortable, with good pillows; the bathroom is quite attractive, though snug; there are outlets and reading lights just where you want them; and turn down treats include Ladurée macaroons.
The ship’s two restaurants have a French menu and an emphasis on locally sourced ingredients. La Comete offers indoor and outdoor seating by the pool; its excellent lunch buffet includes prepared dishes, a very fresh and well-stocked salad bar, good French cheeses, a daily soup and a variety of breads baked daily. Le Céleste is the gastronomic restaurant with more formal preparations and presentations.
The cruise I was on was a Mediterranean one with ports of call in Palermo, Sardinia, Bonifacio and Marseilles. As with all cruise ships, the crowd on Ponant is older; on my trip, it was predominantly elegant, well-dressed French couples in their 60s and 70s. My one quibble with the experience was that I wish we had been in each port longer. In Bonafacio, for instance, we were allotted only five hours to explore, with the last tender leaving the quai at 2:15 pm. That’s not enough time to really immerse yourself in a destination. All in all, however, I found my journey lovely and sophisticated. The food was wonderful, the service good, and the ship is stylish and ineffably French.
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