From North Shields to Stavanger: sailing in five-star style with Ponant cruises
Gliding across the North Sea with a flute of Champagne in your hand as the French flag flaps in the tailwind – surely there can be no more chic a way to sail than aboard a Ponant vessel.
“Once you sail with Ponant, no cruise is ever the same,” someone said to me when they heard I was travelling with this boutique cruise company. It’s a bold statement but one, I discovered on my maiden voyage with Ponant, was entirely true.
Prior to my recent trip on one of their Northern Europe cruises, I’d only been on drive on / drive off cruises which are functional, but forgettable, a means by which to get to a destination. This trip, however, took cruising to a whole new level.
You need never lift a finger on this most memorable of holidays – unless it’s to ask for another glass of Champagne which is unlimited and all inclusive for all passengers – with a cruise company where the service is as important as the destination.
I embarked at North Shields to join Ponant’s Green and Gentle Lands: Exploring Gardens and Historic Sites cruise, which had started in London, its vessel’s large yacht size meaning it could sail under the landmark Tower Bridge, before heading to Ostend, Antwerp, Newcastle, Rosyth, Stavanger and Bergen.
Ponant cruises are themed around experiences of discovery, whether it be marvelling at humpback whales breaching in the Antarctic, to whetting your appetite for Italian foods with a Sicilian food-themed package, to following the trail of majestic polar bears in the Arctic circle.
The cruise I joined mid-way was about showcasing the gardens of the British Isles, Belgium and Norway for passengers, many of whom were American or French, which are two of Ponant’s biggest markets.
Our vessel from the fleet for this trip was the mighty Le Boréal, meaning of northern regions, a fitting yacht to sail these waters, its manageable size meaning it can visit ports the huge cruise liners just can’t access.
As the rest of the passengers enjoyed a trip to Alnwick Gardens, I got familiar with the ship and her six decks. People will be well used to seeing colossal cruise liners and ferries on the Tyne. Le Boréal is more understated with just 132 staterooms and suites, but it makes for a more intimate, and stylish, sailing experience where the amount of crew outweighs the number of rooms to ensure a premium level of hospitality.
It also makes the ship itself easy to navigate and you soon get to grips with the two restaurants, one casual buffet, the other fine dining; its two lounges; observation deck; pool; gym and spa.
The en-suite stateroom bedrooms are an experience in themselves with balconies as standard, 24-hour room service, Bose speaker, TV and Wifi, free mini bar which is restocked daily, and an incredibly meticulous twice-daily cleaning and turn down service.
Ponant is the only French cruise company in existence. It was formed by former French merchant navy officers 30 years ago, and the chic flair of its birthplace is something that’s evident throughout the vessel, from the tricolour flag which is flown proudly on all seven of the ships in her fleet to the luxury iconic French brand Hermès toiletries in the bathrooms.
Then of course there’s the French fine dining! Once the other passengers had returned from their excursion we set sail for our next port of call: Rosyth on the Firth of Forth and the overnight sail was the chance for me to put my waistband to the test with the first of many sumptuous meals on the trip. I tried the more formal Gastronomique restaurant first where the menu changes each night, but the French culinary flair flows throughout, with options such as duck foie gras, veal and roasted rack of lamb. A beautifully-executed six-course supper, paired with French wines, at the Officers’ Table set the bar high for the trip, but it’s a high standard Ponant maintained with faultless ease.
All meals are included in the price of the cruise, as well as all alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, unless you choose to order premium cocktails and wines.
The next day we disembarked at Rosyth to the tune of a bagpiper, before boarding coaches to the optional excursion to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden for a private tour of the 70 acres of stunning grounds at this historic site which dates back 300 years. Plants from all over the world, from steamy tropics to the arid desert, have taken root at this garden lover’s paradise and its different climatic zones overlooking the distinctive gothic skyline of Edinburgh. It was the perfect way to build up an appetite for a gala luncheon hosted by garden staff at the site’s Caledonian Hall.
The excursions are planned to the smallest of details so cruise passengers need not have to think about anything, other than taking in the sights and sounds of the location.
From Rosyth we set sail under the Forth Bridge for Norway, a memorable way to see this symbol of Scotland and its world famous red architecture from a whole new perspective. Le Boréal departs as she arrives: in style, leaving admiring glances in her wake.
It takes a day to get to Norway and these sailing days are the perfect chance to get your sea legs and take advantage of the ship’s varied facilities, whether it be working off the Champagne in the ship’s well-equipped gym, taking a plunge in the heated pool, relaxing in the hammam, or booking a spa or hair treatment, which is a seafaring branch of Sothys Paris, no less. (The latter treatments are one of the only things not included in the price of the cruise.)
After a day at sea, we awoke in the very heart of Stavanger, a culturally-rich city dating back to the 12th century which is now the centre of Norway’s thriving oil industry.
Its streets are fascinating to wander, whether it’s checking out the striking contemporary street art peppered throughout the city or exploring the historic old town cobbled streets and its 170 traditional white wooden homes, complete with blooming hanging baskets and white picket fences.
The Petroleum Museum in the harbour is also well worth a visit and gives a real insight into how oil and gas has helped Norway to become one of the wealthiest countries in the world. Since production of the fuels began in 1971, Norway has recovered oil and gas worth more than NOK 11 billion and this museum is an interactive tribute to this modern chapter in the country’s rich history where you can dress in the space age safety gear or head feet first down the escape chute.
As we were docked in the centre of Stavanger we went back on board for lunch where crêpes were served on the pool deck which we tucked into while watching the hustle and bustle of this forward-thinking city.
An overnight sail brought us to our final port of call on this cruise: Bergen. Still, calming waters and an atmospheric mist which hugged the historic waterfront buildings welcomed us at this former Norwegian capital. Its narrow, winding streets take you back to a time when this city, surrounded by mountains and awe-inspiring fjords, was home to Royalty. If you have time it’s worth catching the Fløibanen Funicular for a bird’s eye view of this charming city.
Once you’ve disembarked, Ponant take care of your transport to the airport for your connecting flights home. By that point you feel so spoiled by Ponant’s exceptional service that the airport and flight experience brings you back to reality with a bump. If only all travel was as smooth sailing as Ponant.
Le Boréal statistics
Staterooms and suites: 132
Passengers: up to 264
Average speed: 16 knots
Ponant sails across the world, but its next North Sea cruise, on board Le Bellot, is the Treasures of the North cruise, which departs from Bergen on September 11, 2020 and arrives in Honfleur on September 18, 2020.
Ports of call include: Bergen, Stavanger, Amsterdam, Antwerp, Ostend and Honfleur.
Price starts from £2,947 per person based on two people sharing a Deluxe Stateroom
To book or for more information visit www.ponant.com or call 0808 23 43 802