The bright sun shone down on the snow covered bergs, setting the tiny icicles twinkling like Christmas lights. The sea was as flat as a mill pond without a breath of wind. This is not the Antarctica I was expecting. Those grainy old newsreels of hardy explorers battling against cyclonic winds whipping up blizzards and ships battling mountainous seas while waves crashed across the decks. That’s what I remember.
Snow and sunshine
Here in aptly named Paradise Harbour on the sheltered western coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, we’ve just climbed a gentle hill to the lookout and as far as we can see, it is the most enchanting vista. Ponant’s majestic L’Austral sits like a toy against a stupendous backdrop of frosted cliffs, everything reflected perfectly in the mirror-still water. I strip off my jacket and just let the soothing rays warm me.
While this sublime weather is an invigorating treat, I’m also well aware the opposite is just as possible. We use the freakish conditions to explore widely by Zodiac and even on foot. Seals are out basking on the ice, unperturbed by our little buzzing outboards and penguins pop up occasionally during their feeding forays out in the bay.
At other times we’re exploring the historic Antarctic bases at Deception Island and Port Lockroy and tip-toeing through penguin colonies as the little birds squawk and waddle in their cute, characteristic way.
My whole experience is further enhanced by my transport. Our superb French-flagged ship is a modern marvel of maritime design and draws on Ponant’s 20 years of expedition cruising experience, placing them at the forefront of what is now a highly competitive sector of experiential travel.
Sitting on the back deck one sunny afternoon, I watched the massive 142-metre, 10,000-ton ship slalom through the ice field like an oversized runabout. I learned that this impressive maneuverability is thanks to a state-of-the-art diesel-electric propulsion system coupled to an advanced rudder system.
Although L’Austral carries conventional anchors, these are only required for the toughest conditions as the 'dynamic positioning system' keeps the vessel in place with the aid of satellite GPS technology. Further ‘green’ credentials are bestowed courtesy of advanced waste water treatment, low energy lighting and the ability to switch between heavy and light marine diesel fuels depending on the region.
On board dining
There are two restaurants, both offering dining in a single seating. The larger, Restaurant Le Coromandel, is free seating, fine dining and a la carte, while the smaller, Restaurant Le Rodrigues, up on Deck 6 requires bookings but is a more casual setting. Quality wine is included in both venues, with everything infused with a distinct French gastronomic flair.
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More on seafaring for adventurers: Expedition Cruising
Staterooms and day spas
Staterooms and suites are all fitted with flatscreen TVs coupled to an aircraft-style entertainment system. Bathrooms have large showers with luxurious L’Occitane amenities. The 132 all-outside cabins and staterooms are divided across six categories topped off with the palatial owner's suite and its massive private balcony. One of the fun features I enjoyed was being able to shower while not missing a minute of the stunning scenery, easily visible through the massive picture windows.
Staterooms on Deck 6 also enjoy a butler service, plus there’s a gym, oh-so-swish Sothy spa, wheelchair access throughout, plush observation lounge bar/library, pool and satellite wi-fi internet access.
Experts in exploration
Ponant’s Zodiac operations, so critical for successful polar voyages, are better than most vessels in this arena. Access is via an easily accessible transom at the stern, doing away with wobbly stairs and gangways on some older vessels. Safety procedures are well reinforced and there are always plenty of staff on hand to assist passengers in and out of the rigid inflatable tenders, which carry up to 12 passengers.
While the official ship’s language is French, English is widely and fluently spoken by all frontline and service staff.
One of the distinct advantages of this superbly designed ‘yacht’ is its ability to operate with equal poise in locations as far apart as the Mediterranean, the tropics and the polar regions. So if you fall in love with your Antarctic experience aboard any Ponant ship, you can later translate this to any voyage across Ponant’s extensive, global field of operation.
Expedition tres chic
It is certainly a surreal contrast to be cavorting with Adelies at 5pm, surveying a four-course degustation dinner at 7pm and, with a tummy full of French wine, flopping into the theatre at 9pm to watch the entertainment.
Compared to those faded, sepia photographs of the old tough-as-nails explorers, holed up in their winter quarters, bashing out a tune on the mouth organ and accordion, the supreme comfort of my ‘tres chic’ Ponant experience is far removed from the so-called ‘heroic era’ of Antarctic exploration. The growing Ponant fleet is opening up the remote regions of the planet for anyone with the desire and wherewithal, increasing our awareness of these pristine lands and fostering our desire to preserve them.
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*Photos courtesy of Ponant