What you can expect on an Antarctic cruise on board Le Soléal
Belinda Luksic boards Ponant’s elegant Le Soléal for a breathtaking voyage of discovery in the Antarctic.
It’s summer in Antarctica, and instead of grey skies and snowstorms, the icy continent dazzles. For those of us who have hiked to the summit of Danco Island, a 155-metre ascent where gentoo penguins nest on rocky outcrops, the world below glitters like gemstones.
There has been no shortage of extraordinary landscapes and wildlife encounters on our cruise of the seventh continent, but this sparkling archipelago of soaring snow-covered mountains and aquamarine icebergs adrift in the open sea takes my breath away.
This remote island – deep in the southern reaches of the Errera Channel, near Neko Harbour – was first charted by Belgian explorer Adrien de Gerlache in 1898. Today, it’s one of the final stops on our 11-day Emblematic Antarctica cruise with Ponant on board the sophisticated 264-passenger Le Soléal.
We arrived here at first light, our black Zodiacs streaking across ice blue, iceberg-scattered waters to where tuxedoed penguins ducked and dived in the waves. Others marched comically along the pebbly shore, disappearing down a furrow of snow – a self-made penguin highway – looking for all the world like the seven dwarfs.
This landing is Ponant’s first here of the season, on what is the last cruise of the summer. It is quite something to walk this pristine, white and breathless world unsullied by footprints, and to imagine what it must have been like for those first Belgian explorers charting this unknown and unforgiving ice-locked continent.
The French connection
Our journey on board the French flag-flying Le Soléal is one of supreme comfort underscored by exceptional service. This is luxury cruising par excellence, with a young and egalitarian crew and a team of passionate naturalists headed up by French expedition leader Gérard Bodineau. The enriching daily talks are sprinkled with humour and encompass everything from penguins and petrels to icebergs and whales.
Not for us the trials and tribulations that befell de Gerlache and his crew on that first fateful scientific expedition, with the ship trapped in pack ice for winter. Captain Charbel Daher expertly charts a course of calm seas and brilliant blue skies. The Weddell Sea is quickly moved to the start of the cruise, and Neko Harbour exchanged for the Errera Channel due to ice and inclement weather. Mirror seas on the return crossing of the Drake Passage allow us to switch course and cruise past Cape Horn at dawn.
Executive chef Olivier Rillof charts our daily gastronomic journey in two restaurants. Buttery croissants and fresh baguettes become a favourite at breakfast, while the cheese table at lunch and dinner has us all bemoaning our waistlines. Wine lovers can order from a 2,500-strong collection of mostly French fine wines from the Bordeaux and Burgundy regions, plus a smattering of international wines.
When it comes to personal service, Ponant puts its best foot forward. Passengers in the suites on deck six have the exclusive services of a butler. On Le Soléal, it is Cyprien Vaton, a former waiter at top Michelin-starred restaurants with time spent at Relais & Châteaux properties, as well as Victoria’s Lake House in Daylesford.
It’s a commitment to personal service that flows throughout the ship. There’s Ace, who remembers my coffee order in the morning; Gede, who tends to my room; Sebastian, who calls me by name and makes sure I have a nice table for lunch; and Jules in the main lounge, who is quick to bring me a chilled champagne.
As the days roll on, there are salsa, Pilates and yoga classes, and visits to the gym, with its spectacular views of the continent through floor-to-ceiling windows. On the crossing of the Drake Passage, I disappear to the spa for a hammam session and a deep-tissue massage.
Whale of a time
There have been plenty of wildlife encounters on our cruise of Antarctica. The rare sighting of a blue whale at dawn has Captain Daher entreating us to the bridge. We shuffle in, red expedition jackets hastily thrown over pyjamas, to witness the beauty of this gentle giant, the largest animal in the world.
Breaching humpbacks appear outside my cabin balcony and crabeater seals with pelts like polished pewter drift by, asleep on small icebergs. Giant petrels coast on the sea breeze, flapping their vast wings slowly and rhythmically.
In the iceberg-littered Weddell Sea, an emperor penguin holds court on a tabular iceberg that is later transformed into a champagne bar. We stand on its brilliant white surface, eyes shaded by sunglasses, snapping photos on a fur-draped lounge and eating macarons. Two days later, amid the beautiful soaring alps, glaciers and unseen crashing avalanches of Paradise Bay, we glimpse a small minke whale.
Danco Island delivers gentoos: fluffy chicks huddled close to their mother and juvenile chicks, stoic and motionless to conserve energy. Nearby, Orne Island gives us our first sighting of military-like chinstrap penguins, stark white but for their distinctive black helmet markings. In the South Shetland Islands, elephant seals flick grey-black volcanic sand over their bodies, while a leopard seal stalks the shallows.
It’s still dark when Captain Daher urges us awake. The previous night, we watched the sun set over the Lemaire Channel from the ice bar pool party on the top deck. As the sun dipped low in the sky and the mountains and seas turned peach, apricot and pink, the bravest among us stripped down to bathers and took a dip in the 30-degree waters of Le Soléal’s heated pool.
This morning, it’s a different story. We gather on the bow decks and watch in silent awe as the ship moves slowly and inexorably towards a point where the snow-swept cliffs and iceencrusted mountains almost converge. This is Kodak Gap, a place even more photogenic than Marilyn Monroe. We wait, cameras at the ready, to capture the diamond moment.
During the November 2019–March 2020 Antarctic season, Ponant will have four luxury expedition ships in the region with an extensive range of 25 Antarctic voyages featuring the Falkland Islands, South Georgia and the Antarctic Peninsula.