Ponant’s small ships are made for expeditions as much as comfort. Pamela Wright visits Norway for the debut of the latest Explorers vessel and its pioneering underwater experience.
Le Champlain may fly the French flag, but she looks perfectly at home among the Norwegian fjords. Although small – she only carries up to 184 passengers – this brand-new Ponant vessel is impressive in an understated way, and I consider myself fortunate to be among the first Australians to step aboard.
Named for the ‘Father of New France’, explorer Samuel de Champlain, the expedition yacht is the second of six Explorers-class ships to be launched by the line. These vessels boast the latest in efficient, environmentally conscious technology, and have been designed from the hull up to voyage to polar extremes and far-flung tropical islands, which are often inaccessible to larger ships. They also come with nifty new Zodiac stations, which can be lowered or raised to the water level, making it easy to embark or disembark for shore excursions.
Our voyage departs from Bergen on Norway’s southwest coast, gliding through the fjords into Olden, where the impressive Briksdal Glacier rests between waterfalls and mountains. It’s one of the most well-known arms of the Jostedalsbreen Glacier, and between 1967 and 1997, its ice expanded by 465 metres and covered the entire lake. For a closer view, we load into a row of connected trolley-cars, which take us up a narrow mountain road to the glacier’s base.
The French touch
On board, Le Champlain proves to be sophisticated as well as smart. The staterooms, all with balconies, are spacious with king-size beds, plenty of storage space and bathrooms that offer views of the water, even when you’re in the shower (although there is a privacy screen should you wish to use it). There are luxe Hermès amenities, and suites also come with butler service.
All drinks are included, and Veuve Clicquot flows during functions. The gastronomy is overseen by Ducasse Conseil, the catering service by legendary French chef Alain Ducasse, guaranteeing sublime cuisine in the 188-seat Le Nautilus on deck 4.
After filling up on French cuisine, a trip to the 24-hour gym is in order. The heated infinity pool is also open around the clock, offering views out over the water from the fully equipped sun deck at the back of the ship.
The world’s first underwater ship observatory lounge
But if it’s views of underwater life that you seek, the Ponant Explorers’ signature Blue Eye lounge is an adventure in itself. Through two enormous curved portholes in the shape of cetacean eyes, live footage of the surrounding marine life is projected onto digital screens that ‘wallpaper’ the room. It’s the world’s first underwater ship observatory lounge, equipped with sofas that vibrate and an innovative sound system that captures the acoustics of the sea, providing an “immersive sensory experience where you can take the time to live the moment”, according to Ponant management.
The architect and interior designer, Jean-Philippe Nuel, was among the guests on board my cruise, describing the experience as seeing the world “as if you have the eye of a whale”.
Sitting in the lounge, three metres below sea level and situated in the hull, passengers get the chance, via hydrophones, to capture sea sounds within a five-kilometre radius. Depending on the destination, there’s likely to be whales, seals, sharks and all manner of other marine life passing the windows while you enjoy a cocktail. Despite our excitement, chatter is subdued, allowing everyone on board to appreciate the full serenity of the underwater experience where, surprisingly, the loudest sound is that of the krill.
Understandably, it’s a popular model, and by 2021 Ponant plans to have 12 elegant ships with cutting-edge technology. Until then, Le Champlain will take passengers around the world in 2019, exploring destinations as diverse as the Caribbean and Iceland.