Background - My wife and I have cruised 12 times throughout the world. We live in Texas. We pick our cruises based upon the destination and ports. We do not like “days at sea” and we use cruises to see new places, in a short amount of time.
I was looking for a cruise that sailed around New Zealand but I did not want a cruise that crossed the Tasman Sea from Australia. Ponant was the only luxury cruise line that had such an itinerary. The cruise started in Auckland and ended in Milford Sound (and then to Queenstown). Prior to booking this cruise I had never heard of Ponant and the reviews on various sites were not great. Here is my attempt to give more information.
Pre and post cruise hotels – We did not buy the Pre or Post cruise hotel options from Ponant. However, we stayed in the same hotels as these packages and arranged our own transportation to/from the ship, at a fraction of the cost. We stayed pre-cruise at the Sofitel Viaduct Harbor in Auckland. This Sofitel is a very nice hotel located right near the harbor area. We were able to take walking tours of the city, the wharf and the museums. Our cab ride to the ship took about 5 minutes.
Embarkment – Once we arrived at the ship, within the check-in window of 4 to 5 pm, we were escorted directly to the gangway. We had our photo taken at the entrance to the ship and were handed our cabin card. They did not even ask for a credit card imprint. We were escorted directly to our cabin and our bags arrived almost immediately. This was the easiest embarkment we have ever had.
Ship – The L’Austral can hold as many as 250 passengers. On this trip there were approximately 200 passengers and 140 crewmembers. The ship is small but seemed to have very good stabilizers, when we hit rough waters. The ship had a small pool with padded lounge chairs, a fitness center with very nice views, and several viewing decks. In addition, the Captain maintained an “open bridge” policy. If the sign was green on the door to the bridge, you were welcome to come in and watch. The ship is French. The Captain and his direct reports were almost all from France. When the ship would make announcements, the first announcement was in French and the second was in English. About ½ of the passengers were Americans. About ¼ were French. The remaining crewmembers were from all over the world, consistent with every other cruise line. Internet is available throughout the ship at a price per minute. The internet service was very slow and did not work very well, if at all. You would be better off going to cafes on shore and get free internet.
Activities and children’s club – The ship had a small library and card room plus a couple of bars fore and aft. We spent most of our daylight hours on shore so we did not participate in any of the activities. The ship had a small children’s area. On our cruise there were zero children on board.
Service – Our cabin steward was excellent. Our cabin was very clean and he was very timely. We never came back from a meal or excursion and found him working on the room. Our servers in the dining room were also excellent. They were very friendly and would know us by name.
Dining – The ship has two dining areas. The main dining room is on deck #2 and can accommodate all passengers. The dining room on deck #6 always had a buffet set-up for the meals. This dining room could not hold all the passengers so reservations were required. We ate 100% of our dinners in the main dining room. In the main dining room, it was “open” seating. You could sit anywhere you liked. Sometimes we ate with others and sometimes just the 2 of us. Dinner service started at 7:00 each night but often we wouldn’t arrive until 7:30 or 8:00. Not a problem. Breakfast was served buffet-style in both dining rooms although you could also order eggs and omelets, as preferred. The dinners were French cuisine. At each meal you had a choice of 3-4 entrees. You could also order a generic steak, chicken or fish dish also. The only time selection was limited to one entrée was on the Captain Welcome dinner and the Captain’s Gala dinner. For these two dinners, they suggested coats and ties. The entrée was lamb one night and beef filet the 2nd night. There was always a vegetarian option. If you like French food and cuisine, this ship will thrill you. My wife loved the food. Personally, I would have preferred simple meat, potatoes and vegetables. The chocolate desserts were wonderful. Each night 8 lucky guests were able to eat at the Captain’s table. We assumed these “lucky” guests were the high-rollers in the Owners Suites. Much to our surprise, on the 6th night of the cruise, we returned to our 4th level cabin and were invited to eat at the Captain’s Table – What a wonderful man and a very special evening.
Cabin – Most of the cabins are balcony cabins. The majority of the cabins are approximately 200 sq. ft., not including the small balcony. As others have mentioned, the toilet is in a small room, by itself. In the next small room is the shower and sink. In the main part of the cabin is the bed and a chair. The balcony has 2 small chairs and a small table. On most ships, we try to book cabins approx. 300 sq. ft. On this ship, that was not an option. You went from the 200’ cabin to the large suites. The cost of the cabins increases slightly as you go higher on the ship but the cabins are the same size whether on 4, 5 or 6. Try to get a cabin in the middle or towards the front for the best ride. On this itinerary, we traveled in a clock-wise direction so you really needed an “odd #” cabin (starboard side). Get “even” (port side) if taking in reverse.
Entertainment – I never book a cruise for the entertainment value. This ship had 4 dancers and 2-3 singers. We did not go to any of the main evening performances. The theatre is small but could accommodate all passengers.
Ports and excursions – We had $500 of shipboard credit and we used our credit on 2 shore excursions. The cruise line offered 2-3 excursions per port. The excursions were well selected but very pricey. If we did not have the shipboard credit, we probably would have arranged all of our tours ourselves. I have reviewed the ports in more detail in the Port Review section. Here are the highlights:
Tauranga – Took a tour to Rotorua arranged via Zealander. We ended-up as the only guests so we got a very personal tour. Saw geysers, Rotorua Lake area, Redwoods, waterfalls, Kiwi farm and Maori show.
Napier – Took a Whirlwind Tour arranged with Hawkes Bay Scenic Tours. Once again, we were the only guests so our tour was private. We saw all the sites of Napier and had a wine tasting at Mission winery.
Wellington – We rode the Red Cable Car and then did our own walking tour of the city.
Picton – This was the first shore excursion booked from the ship. Their vendor was Cougar Tours. We had a boat ride across the harbor and were dropped-off for a guide-led hike along a portion of the Queen Charlotte track. Very nice!
Akaroa – We booked the “Swim with Dolphins” from Black Cats. The bay has Hector dolphins. We did see the dolphins but the water was too rough to swim with them. They refunded a portion of our cost.
Dunedin – This was the 2nd excursion arranged from the ship. The tour took us, by bus, to the Ortago Peninsula. On this peninsula, we saw nesting Albatrosses, nesting penguins and many very young, baby seals. A great wildlife area!
Disembarkment and Queenstown – The cruise ended at Milford Sound. Milford Sound is a beautiful area in the fiords of the South Island. We met the bus at 7:30 which was earlier than we expected from the printed material (which said 9:00). Disembarkment was no problem. The cruise fare included bus service to Queenstown. In Queenstown, we stayed at the St. Moritz hotel. This boutique hotel is located within walking distance to the CBD. Queenstown is a very vibrant area with many adventurous activities. We took the gondola to the top of the mountain and hiked some trails at the top.
Summary ---- Overall, we enjoyed this cruise very much. The itinerary was great and I would cruise with Ponant again. In particular, we enjoyed the small size of the ship.