L'Austral, near Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Roderick Eime
L'Austral, near Paradise Bay, Antarctic Peninsula. Photo: Roderick Eime

Vessel: Ponant’s brand new L’Austral

Once upon a time, a journey into Antarctica meant hard-edged adventure, appalling weather and privations. Those days are gone.

While modern adventurers still travel to the wild Southern lands for enrichment, a dash of adventure and the chance to relive - in a safe and comfortable way – the daring exploits of the pioneers a century ago, the latest adventure vessels ensure a level of comfort unheard of until only a few years ago.

Aboard the brand new Ponant ice queen, L’Austral, the journey becomes a decadent foray into the frozen realm complete with private butler, spa treatments, fine dining and a saucy after dinner cabaret with high-stepping Parisian showgirls.

At this point anyone could easily back a strong argument for either side of the cruising debate. Should Antarctica be left to the rugged, eco-warriors who throw themselves in front of Japanese whalers, or should it be opened up to the Mumm-sipping elite as a diversion between pedicures and foie gras ? Both, of course, are extreme but this is where we’re at.

La Compagnie du Ponant (or just Ponant) has been around since 1986 specialising in small ship, niche market and sophisticated cruise products. Their first vessel, Le Ponant, is a gorgeous 64-pax, three-masted sailing ship in the mould of Windstar or Sea Cloud – yes, the one in the 2008 Somali pirate drama. The company added an expedition ship in 2004 with the 1974-built Le Diamant, now sold (along with Le Levant) to make way for a trio of state-of-the-art vessels. Le Boreal was launched in May 2010, L’Austral just last June and la troisième will launch in mid-2013.

Scoff as the purists might, these ships represent the cat’s whickers in maritime design. They are the first to be “green ship” certified and, at 10,000 tons with 132 suites and staterooms, are huge by expedition cruise standards. Each can transport up to 264 guests in Rolls-Royce stabilised, Sofitel-level comfort to all corners of the globe, although numbers are limited to 200 for Antarctic operations. The 142m hull is ice rated 1C and the impressive satellite navigation will keep the vessel fixed without the need to drop anchor.

Seal basks in the sunshine. Photo: Roderick Eime

Dining is single seating in one of two restaurants with house wine included. Deck 6 has butler service and two out of three cabins have private balconies. There’s a big gym, Sothy spa, kids club, wheelchair access throughout, beaut observation lounge bar/library, pool and Wi-Fi internet access.

Staterooms and suites are all fitted with flatscreen TV coupled to an inflight-style entertainment system. Bath tubs installed on Le Boreal are deleted from subsequent vessels and bathrooms now have just showers with L'Occitane amenities. There are six price levels, ranging from the smallest at 18.5 sq m (with 4 sq m balcony) to the palatial 45 sq m owners suite with a massive 9 sq m private balcony.

Excursions are marshmallow soft compared to the hardy Russian counterparts, but still permit guests to get ashore and “tick off” their Antarctic continent landing. Costs, perhaps surprisingly, are not a lot different. When vessels exceed 100 guests, landing operations can get complicated. IAATO (the Antarctic tour operators association) regulations permit only 100 ashore at any one time so aboard Ponant, the parties must be spilt and rotated. Time ashore can be precious and at the in-demand Port Lockroy where you can visit a small museum and buy souvenirs, our allotted 30 minutes is painfully inadequate.

Passengers aboard Zodiac tender. Photo: Roderick Eime

Lectures and enrichment are provided and for those with a basic understanding of Antarctica and its environment, this will considerably lift knowledge. However those with an academic background – and this represents many travellers to the south – might find the content superficial and over-simplified. It’s a tough job for the expedition leaders trying to find a balance for the up to 200 guests of several nationalities and languages. French and English are the official ship languages, while German and Spanish are available too. As I was disembarking, a group of 100 Chinese were preparing to come aboard, demonstrating the growing global attraction for this delicate destination.

Are you planning an Antarctic cruise vacation? Decide if you are a cocktail sipper or a tree hugger, because now the choice is yours.

For detail on all Ponant cruises, contact Travel the World on 1300 950 622 or visit www.traveltheworld.com.au or www.ponant.com

About the Expeditionist

Roderick Eime has spent his whole life getting lost and the last two decades doing it professionally. From 4WD journeys across Australia to icebreakers in the polar seas, Rod isn't happy unless he's wondering where he is. In his quest to find oblivion, he's sailed all five oceans and many of the great rivers reporting for magazines and newspapers but has yet to fall off the edge of the world.

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