L'Austral: A Yachtlike Cruising Experience

Exterior of the ship L'Austral at sea. Heidi Sarna
By Heidi Sarna

In this age of gigantic ships lumbering through the high seas and flaunting water slides or zip lines, thank goodness for small ships that buck the system and offer a refreshing alternative.

France-based Compagnie du Ponant's (www.ponant.com) new 264-passenger L'Austral simply focuses on good food and wine, off-beat ports of call, and a casual yet elegant onboard vibe.

As our handsome French Captain repeated often during a recent L'Austral cruise along the Croatian coast: "We want you feel like you're on your own private yacht."

Photo Caption: Exterior of the ship L'Austral at sea
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L'Austral offers passengers the chance to cruise close to ports, because of its small size. Heidi Sarna
The ship's small size means it can navigate into small harbors and anchor close to shore (unlike the megaships). For example, on a recent Croatia cruise, L'Austral anchored offshore Split and that evening at dusk, the captain's cocktail party was held on deck at the stern.

Other L'Austral perks include a mini marina at the stern for water sports when at anchor and a fleet of Zodiac adventure craft for remote landings in places like Antarctica.

Photo Caption: L'Austral offers passengers the chance to cruise close to ports because of its small size.
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Ponant ships are smaller and more intimate than the average cruise ship. Heidi Sarna
With a maximum of 264 passengers, L'Austral is gloriously intimate: You won't get lost on this ship, and you don't need to designate meeting points. You also don't need to pack walkie-talkies or rush to save deck chairs.

The small size also means there are no long lines to get on and off the ship in port, to sign up for tours at the shore excursion desk, to order a cocktail, or to graze at the buffet lunch.

Still, the ship is big enough to offer two restaurants, several bars, a spa, a gym, a show lounge, a shop, and a corner with a Wii station for the occasional families with kids who are on board. There is no casino.

Ponant is big on fostering a casual yachty vibe, so each vessel has an open-bridge policy where guests can enter the control room. Plus, the captain often strolls through the restaurants and decks (sans formal jacket) to chat with guests as though he was one of the passengers.

Photo Caption: Ponant ships like L'Austral (right) are smaller and more intimate than the average cruise ship.
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French flag aboard L'Austral at sea. Heidi Sarna
A Ponant cruise attracts a mix of well-traveled passengers. On a recent Croatia cruise, a typical crowd included about 50% French and Swiss; the rest includes Europeans, North Americans, Australians, and Asians. Announcements are made in both French and English (and there are very few). Meals are varied but always include plenty of salads, seafood, salamis, cheese, and rich desserts. Having a glass or two of wine at lunch is the norm (and also included in the rates).

Jackets are not required, though most passengers wear them on the captain's cocktail night. Passengers typically dress well even if donning bathing suits and shorts. This is definitely not a flip-flops and tank-top crowd.

Families are welcome, but kids should be able to entertain themselves with the ship's Wii, board games, and whatever electronics they may bring from home. (Note: the ship is non-smoking except for a few designated smoking areas outside on deck.)

Photo Caption: French flag aboard L'Austral at sea.
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Lunch aboard L'Austral. Heidi Sarna
Your cruise fare includes wine at lunch and dinner. Not being charged extra for bottled water is another plus. Ponant would be classified as a partially inclusive cruise line, and its cruise fares are often more than half as much as inclusive lines such as Silversea and Seabourn (those fares include all booze, stocked mini-bars, gratuities, and some shore excursions).

A 7-night Croatia cruise in July 2012 aboard L'Austral round-trip from Venice starts at €1,740 ($2,365) per person. Stops include Split, Korcula, Dubrovnik, Kotor (Montenegro), and Hvar.

Photo Caption: Lunch aboard L'Austral.
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Cheese and fruit plate aboard L'Austral. Heidi Sarna
Desserts aboard a cruise ship are rarely excellent, but L'Austral's homemade melt-in-your-mouth dark chocolate mousse was quite possibly the best dessert I've had at sea (high praise when you consider that I've cruised on 100-plus ships over 15 years). The mousse is served daily at the lunch buffet. The hazelnut mousse cake, berries mascarpone, and lemon meringue tart will also have you coming back for seconds.

Be sure to sample the cheese selection sourced from France and Italy, including Camembert and Gruyère. Other standouts included the refreshing French wines (many from Chateau Mas Neuf), grilled seafood, and soups.

The down side to all this culinary perfection is the likelihood of putting on a few pounds, but c'est la vie, it's worth it.

Photo Caption: Cheese and fruit plate aboard L'Austral.
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Lounge aboard the Ponant L'Austral. Ponant
L'Austral's interiors are designed with impeccable taste. The color scheme mixes muted silver with ash gray, white, and browns. Occasional bursts of color are spotted in the red seats in the theater. As my husband aptly put it: "L'Austral is the St. Regis of ships with its elegant minimalism."

The design vibes carries over to the subdued atmosphere aboard the ship. No wild bachelor or bachelorette parties here. As the cruise director told us: "our clients want peace and quiet and luxury."

Photo Caption: The lounge aboard L'Austral.
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Complimentary toiletries from L'Occitane aboard L'Austral. Heidi Sarna
Each stateroom is decorated in shades of champagne, ash gray, and white. Little touches include split bathrooms (a toilet in one little room and the large shower and sink in another), L'Occitane toiletries, adjustable reading lights on either side of the bed, ample storage space, unlimited bottled water, and balconies with comfortable rattan-style furniture (there are balconies on all but eight cabins).

Photo Caption: Complimentary toiletries from L'Occitane aboard L'Austral.
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