Best I start with a confession: I’m Tess, I’m a travel writer and I hate cruises. There, I said it, the cat’s out of the bag. Nothing sends shivers down my spine quite as violently as the thought of being trapped in a giant floating tub with up to 6,000 other people for days on end, being herded like cattle, being told ‘this is Venice, you now have three hours ashore,’ (bearing in mind that it takes at least three days to explore the unique and fragile city) then joining the over-animated throng down the gangplank to rush to buy some tacky souvenirs before clambering back on board for some mediocre food and steaming off to the next unfortunate destination. Thanks, but no thanks.
Then came an invitation from the bespoke French cruise company, Ponant. At first, I cast it aside but then the proposed route, and the fact that it was a polar exploration cruise pulled me back. Hmmm... Iceland, Greenland, the Arctic circle! My interest piqued. Oh gosh, a chance at perhaps seeing polar bears in their natural habitat, and surely places of incomparable beauty, and maybe the the opportunity to tread where few have trodden before.
Shivers of excitement ran down my spine, and so herein lies my first ever cruise review.
ONBOARD THE BOAT
Slightly nervously I started researching Ponant and its fleet. I want to see parts of this world still relatively untouched and pure, but not at the expense of those areas; not on a gigantic vessel the size of a small town, barging through delicate ecosystems without consideration or concern. My conscience would not allow it. I can assure you that my conscience was clear throughout this trip of a lifetime.
Ponant’s fleet consists of 13 vessels, and all are on a small, bespoke scale. Our stunning luxury ship, Le Commandant Charcot, is the latest addition to the fleet, and has a capacity of 208 guests. It really is the perfect size to allow for whatever mood you’re in, be it the mood for privacy or the mood for a bit of socialising. She was designed from scratch with ecological responsibility in mind and is the first hybrid ship of its kind. I’ll let Maarten fill you in on the technical details of this remarkable icebreaker at the end of this review because I’m dying to tell you all about the experience.
We overnighted in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, and were collected from our hotel by a chauffeur-driven car, whisked to the port to find our beautiful vessel, gleaming in the spring sunshine, with countless uniformed staff buzzing around, and all with one aim – to assist anywhere and everywhere possible. We checked in, our bags disappeared and we were genuinely warmly welcomed by a smart team of consummate professionals.
Our stateroom was gorgeous and spacious; the equal to many a 5-star hotel room with a huge comfy bed, glass-walled bathroom, sitting area, stocked mini bar, pillow menu, fabulous artwork, satellite TV and fluffy towels and robes. Every suite has its own balcony – you’ll not find any claustrophobic poky cabins on Charcot, that’s for sure. 24-hour room service, turn down service and our fantastic housekeeping team headed by Pin, our butler, ensured the ultimate in luxurious, relaxed indulgence.
Upon exploring the boat, it all remained true to that with Skandi design, exquisite works of art everywhere, glass-walled lifts in ‘the atrium’, a spa with Biologique Recherche treatments, a snow room and – a personal highlight for me – a sauna, with the most stunning view you’ll ever find. I’m a real sucker for a sauna with a view and this view of the sea, ice floes, mountains, glaciers – whatever dream scene was passing by at any given moment – was hands down the best I could ever have imagined.
If a sauna is not your cup of tea, you could marvel at the same exquisite scenery while lying on a lounger by the indoor pool (there is also an outdoor pool, of course), and sipping on your tailor-made fresh juice from the detox bar. I sought wisdom with the advice of the lovely barman at the detox bar, something along the lines of ‘enjoy the superb food and drink at the bars and restaurants in the evening and come to me in the morning for balance,’ all said in his lovely French accent.
MICHELIN STAR QUALITY
And superb it was! One of the many highlights of this trip was the food, as Alain Ducasse is in charge of the cuisine and this is the first time he has ever lent his name to a cruise line. For those unfamiliar with Ducasse, he is one of the world’s most successful chefs, holds an unprecedented 21 Michelin stars around the world, including three stars at the Dorchester in London. Let’s just say that not a single meal ever disappointed – ever! Always beautifully served, with not a mark on the cutlery and wine glasses that sparkled.
The French sommeliers were on tap for any tipple required and there certainly were plenty of tipples required. Meals were made even more special by the beauty of our surroundings; restaurant walls are floor to ceiling glass to the exterior of the ship and there were times when I had to consciously tell myself to close my gaping mouth as scenes that I couldn’t even conjure in my imagination passed by. All of this was happening while being served Chateauneuf-du-Pape and wagyu beef by staff who were genuinely also delighted to be there. This was the stuff that dreams are made of.
Whilst chatting to Hervé Bellaiche, Ponant’s Chief Sales Marketing & Communications Officer, l asked how it came about that Alain Ducasse selected the company for his first ever water borne restaurant. Thinking high-powered boardrooms and years of negotiations, l was therefore surprised to learn that whilst on a flight into New York, the Ponant directors bumped into Alain in the immigration line and they started chatting. Hervé suggested the idea and by the time they were in the cab, the deal was done.
I think you’re probably getting the gist of things – Le Commandant Charcot is a remarkable, ecologically responsible, super-luxurious yet elegantly understated vessel of perfect proportions. She was designed and built as an icebreaker to allow guests to cruise to areas of the Arctic and Antarctica.
Here it is important that I explain that this cruise, aptly named ‘At the genesis of the French polar expeditions’ is no ordinary cruise. In fact, it is not even called a cruise – it’s an expedition. Hence the name of the ship, named after Jean Baptiste August Etienne Charcot, a French scientist, medical doctor and polar scientist who was appointed leader of the French Antarctic Expedition 1904. In 1921 he set sail for the Arctic in his wooden boat to explore Eastern Greenland – as were we – although not suffering quite the same privations on board! Sadly, Charcot died in a storm off the coast of Iceland in 1936, and there is a monument to his heroic efforts on that site today.
Ponant equipped Le Charcot with two laboratories – one wet and one dry –and staffed her with leading oceanic scientists, marine biologists and assorted other sector experts. It was fantastic having access to these passionate scientists. They were always enthusiastically sharing their knowledge and involving guests in ‘citizen science’. This exercise costs Ponant over £1 million a year with no income in return – just the drive to educate, inform and research while taking lucky guests to places where man has seldom, if ever, visited. For this, I take my hat off to Ponant for its genuine care and concern about the environment – and for the £350 million spent on a ship that leaves virtually no footprint on the pristine wilderness we were heading for.
Each day, there were lectures offered in the beautifully-appointed theatre by the scientists onboard. It truly makes a difference to learn all about your destination before you get there from passionate experts. The best was a fascinating talk on whales by a marine biologist, only to be interrupted by the Captain on the tannoy announcing sperm whales off the port bow – l have never seen a theatre empty so fast!
Our first night was spent crossing the frigid Denmark Strait and we slept like babies! I should point out that this hybrid ship is virtually silent even when the engines are running and the stabiliser system eliminates virtually any roll. Honestly, I slept better than I do on land. The next day was spent at sea and this gave us the perfect opportunity to explore our vessel and meet other guests. A choice of two lounges and the accompanying bars ensures there’s always a spot to relax and watch the frozen wilder-ness go by. Plus, live classic musicians playing soothing background music each afternoon made for the ultimate atmosphere to sit back, sip something delicious and contemplate this other world going by.
I must speak of the food again here – at every turn there was superb food. Most afternoons, the chefs showed off their culinary skills with pastries and canapés laid out in the lounge, morning was an artful demonstration of what they could do with breakfast, with amazing juices, exquisite French croissants and coffee to die for and as we crossed the Arctic Circle, an incredible one-metre long Pavlova appeared to much fanfare.
We awoke to the most incredible sight on day two – we were well into the ice fields and were utterly entranced when, looking over the balcony with our morning croissants in hand, we saw that this remarkable boat was carving through ice that was easily a metre or two thick, with the ease of a knife through butter. Huge chunks of ice the size of buses were split in two and disappeared, only to resurface behind the boat like behemoth monsters rising from the depths, creaking and crackling.
Captain Etienne Garcia navigated Le Commandant Charcot expertly through the ice for the rest of the day, on our way to the fjords of east Greenland. Hypnotised by the behaviour of the ice and the silence of our environment, we spent a large chunk of the day outside on the observation deck just staring into the ever-changing icy sea and on heated seats. More of those seats from Maarten later.
For those of you thinking ‘sounds great but I don’t like the cold’ I should add that I, who was born and raised in the tropics, was never cold on this trip! Yes, that’s right, I was never cold in some of the coldest places on earth! The boat is kept at a lovely, comfortable temperature while Ponant provided guests with miracle parkas and snow boots that meant we were always happily toasty inside and out.
Day three saw us arriving at Sermilik Fjord, slowly sailing through the ice into the fjord surrounded by white powdered black mountains. The tiny town of Tasiilaq slowly appeared before our eyes, with gorgeous, picture-perfect, colourful little buildings poking out from the snow. At this point I had to wonder what the local people would be thinking of this boat, comparable in size to some of their mountains, and its guests with their telescopic camera lenses.
Later on, I got chatting with Natasha Hanson, a remarkable woman who worked her way up from the lowest rungs of cruise jobs to her current position of Director of Expedition Operations for the whole of Ponant; she is the first woman to ever hold this weighty job. She explained that scouts were sent to the village weeks before we arrived to dialogue with the local community; to get permission and their input regarding what they might want to share with guests, and their advice and expertise on how to ensure that the ship’s impact on the environment is minimal and transitory.
Indeed, we were warmly welcomed by the curious local community who guided our boat through the ice. Not only the local people though, but excited sled dogs also welcomed us with a deafening cacophony.
INTERACTION WITH THE LOCALS
The gangplank was lowered and we could hardly wait to set foot on the frozen sea! We were left to our own devices and explored the fascinating little town with its 1,800 inhabitants – the largest settlement on the eastern coast of Greenland. Children excitedly waved to us from their school windows and teenagers shyly took photos of us on their phones.
As we returned to our ice-bound ship, Chef had again decided that we could not possibly go more than 15 minutes without food, and had prepared a superb array of canapés and locally bought salmon (the best I’ve ever tasted) and served it to us right there on the ice. The local children were encouraged to partake but were understandably confused about what to do with the little bite sized things on silver platters, overseen by large shivering men in white chef’s uniforms and tall hats! Someone explained that they could do whatever they liked when they grabbed handfuls of the delicate bites and stuffed them chipmunk-style in their mouths. I will never forget the delighted, confused rapture on their smiling faces
All local people were invited to see the boat, and excited school children came in groups with their teachers, wide-eyed and chattering. The kids were absolutely blown away by the two glass lifts – and we were delighted by their wide-eyed little faces. That evening, we were treated to songs by the local Inuit choir, and the traditional drum dance used for at least 4,500 years by the Inuit people to entertain and resolve interpersonal conflicts.
EXPLORING THE EAST COAST OF GREENLAND
Over the next two days, guests had the opportunity to hike the surrounding area with very experienced mountain guides, go sea kayaking amongst the floating ice, ice fishing with the Inuits and dogsledding on the frozen fjord; what an experience! The dogs were remarkable, and far more wolf than dog. Once harnessed, they could not wait to run – and run and run.
The mushers were quite calm unless two running packs converged, then all hell broke loose. These are committed pack animals, and if you’re not in their pack, you are the enemy with each pack ready to attack their neighbouring pack at any opportunity. At some point two dogs from our pack got entangled with another and, believe me, it was not a pretty sight – blood splattering everywhere on the white virgin snow. It’s not for the faint hearted but it is nature in the raw. The dogs do love running, and could not contain their excitement at pulling the sledges. The experience was magical; the silence of the surrounding white broken only by the running paws and swishing of the sledge on snow.
Day five was spent navigating the scenic Sermilik Fjord and as soon as possible Zodiacs were lowered and we all piled into these little boats to get up close and personal with icebergs and glaciers. Just stunning! Our passionate naturalist guide explained all about the secret lives of these behemoths – some still floating around from the ice age.
We spotted a gorgeous, blubbery ringed seal pup just seemingly chilling on the ice, unperturbed by our presence and clicking cameras. Our guide explained that these specific seals are born without their insulating fur therefore the pups have no choice but to lie out on the ice until their hair grows – easy pickings for predators.
CATASTROPHIC HUMAN FOLLY
Sadly, due to man’s effect on the planet, it was explained in stark detail that within 20 years or so, the Arctic will be totally ice free in the summer months – for the first time ever. This is depressing for so many reasons, not least that commercial shipping will then have access to this far shorter global transit route with their polluting diesel engines.Whaling ships will also now have summer access and the polar bears, who need the ice to hunt, will vanish as a species from the planet. This is stark when you read about it sitting in your warm house in Sussex but being in the Arctic, next to a towering iceberg with awe-inspiring polar bears roaming around, was, to be frank, a bolt to the heart. More reason if you needed to go as it will not be there for long.
GREENLAND FOR THE BRAVE
During the night, our captain and his crew sailed on and we awoke to the now familiar ‘ding-dong’ ‘Dear guests, this is your captain speaking…’; a bit reminiscent of ‘morning campers’ from Hi-De-Hi, for those old enough to remember. We were enthusiastically informed that we were now sailing in the exquisite Ammassalik Fjord, breaking through solid ice to get a little closer to the majestic, towering peaks of Greenland. Hopefully, we would get the chance to stop and interact with local Inuit fishermen.
We did, and what a treat. The day brought more opportunities to participate in valuable citizen science, educational hikes, sea kayaking and even ice dipping for the very brave (after an ECG performed by the onboard doctor – but not a test for sanity). The bird-watching enthusiasts amongst us were often slightly delirious at spotting longed-for feathered treasures too. Really, every person seemed in their absolute element as the sun sparkled and we explored where few had been before. “Dear Diary: Such a perfect day!”
On we went and sailed along the Blosseville Coast. As Captain Garcia explained, exploration cruises are not set to a strict schedule. We go where mother nature takes us. Each day the captain would take off in the onboard helicopter to scout and see where the ice might allow us to go. He had hoped that we might be able to reach another, even tinier village, and scouts had been sent to get permission from the local Inuit residents who happily accepted our request and sent people to help us find our way to them.
If I had to – absolutely had to – choose my favourite experience of the trip, it would be the time spent in this unique village, learning the unpronounceable names of the beaming little kids following us and noticing the girl of about eight carrying a huge rifle while out walking with her grandma. Only then did I realise that this remote little settlement of about 30 buildings is a prime feeding ground for hungry polar bears. Clearly one has to be tough to live in Greenland.
ENTERING THE CIRCLE
The next day we continued on and crossed over into the official geographic Arctic Circle! What a joy – we celebrated with an understated champagne reception on deck, keeping it low key and quiet as people had spotted polar bear tracks. It wasn’t long before we spotted the polar bears – a dream come true. First we saw a mother and her cub, then a male and then another male. Normally a male bear would try to kill a cub that isn’t his but mercifully, because of the confusing scent we emitted, the male bear didn’t pick up on the mother and the cub. We watched those bears for hours... entranced, mesmerised, contemplating the privilege we were privy to. Honestly, people hardly spoke; they just stared in wonder.
Eventually the day came when Charcot had to head south again – our trip of a lifetime was coming to an end. We crossed the Strait of Denmark during the night and had choppy seas for the first time in 10 days. As we approached the port of Reykjavik we wished that we could turn around and head straight back to the coast of east Greenland and beyond. In truth, I could fill this entire magazine regaling you with the wonders and adventures of our trip but for now, all I can say is – add this exploration cruise to your bucket list and don’t wait too long to have the chance to experience the Arctic in its untouched splendour.
At the genesis of the French polar expeditions’ 11-day cruise on the magnificent Le Commandant Charcot starts from £13,250 pp, all-inclusive.
Fly to Reykjavik from Gatwick with Iceland Air