Le Boréal: Small ship cruising, French-style

By Lillian Africano

When I board a small ship, I sometimes feel like Donald Trump (but with better hair). Though I don’t own a yacht, on a small ship I know I’m about to have a yachting-style experience: a sophisticated, service-oriented voyage, the intimacy of a single-seating dining room, the quiet of a vessel that carries few or no small children, the luxury of private spaces in which to relax, the ease of arriving in port with no crowds rushing to disembark.

Le Boreal

I had that experience on Compagnie du Ponant’s Le Boréal from the moment I arrived at the dock. While boarding a huge ship with thousands of passengers can resemble controlled chaos, here it was a gracious process, with a welcome at the dock, an escort onboard and a personal greeting by the charming captain, Etianne Garcia. (I later learned that Captain Garcia is so popular that repeat passengers book cruises on whatever vessel he is serving.)

Le Boréal, designed by Jean-Phillipe Nuel and built at Italy’s Fincantieri shipyard and its recently launched sister ship, L’Austral, are the jewels of the French-flagged Ponant fleet, which also consists of the 64-passenger sailing yacht, Le Ponant, the 90-passenger yacht Le Levant and the 226-passenger Le Diamant.

Le Boréal has 132 staterooms and suites, ranging from 200 to 484 square feet; all are “outside,” 95 percent have private balconies. The staff-to-guest ratio is one to two—which makes for the kind of service that simply isn’t possible on big ships. The décor: light, neutral colors, mainly gray and white, accented with splashes of red (L’Austral uses beiges and caramels, rather than grays). The effect: Philippe Starck/the Morgan hotel. Both Le Boréal and L’Austral have Swarovski crystal rain tower sculptures in the reception area and chandeliers in the principal dining room Three passenger elevators, numerous ramps and stair lifts accommodate disabled passengers, making the ships fully ADA compliant. In short, both ships have a state-of-the art atmosphere throughout.

The main (single-seating) dining room serves French-accented international cuisine — usually two or three entrée choices – accompanied by French wines (complimentary, as are other beverages with meals). Buffet-style lunch and dinner are served at the casual indoor-outdoor Grill restaurant. At lunch, the executive chef prepares a specialty dish, usually tied to the destination.

A typical stateroom

Bar service is available on the sundeck; when weather permits, various meats and fish are prepared on the grill near the bar. The food throughout is imaginative and served with care; there is never a sense of eating something mass-produced.

Le Boréal’s Carita spa offers a variety of facials, body treatments, and massage therapies for men and women. The spa complex includes a fitness center with steam rooms and a Turkish bath, as well as a salon for hair and nail services.

The ship has several bars and lounges, shops, a large swimming pool and plenty of quiet nooks for reading and relaxing. There is no casino, as Europeans (the majority of passengers are French) seem to have little or no interest in gambling at sea. Le Boréal has a theater for lectures and shows (including stellar classical and opera events – but no Vegas-style revues), as well as Le Club for dancing and late-night mingling. A small library is stocked with newer books and is located in lounge with panoramic views and Internet access.

As there are no special facilities or programs for children (these can be added during periods when families tend to travel with children), Le Boréal should appeal to adults who prefer a quieter cruise experience, as well as those who enjoy luxury in a relaxed setting, without pomp or dress codes. At a gala dinner, for example, passengers will wear anything from couturier gowns to jeans (designer jeans, no doubt).

Le Boreal back deck

Once underway, the ship’s state-of-the-art propulsion system provides an exceptionally smooth, quiet and comfortable cruise, with little vibration or engine noise. Le Boréal has earned the international “green ship” designation for her numerous eco-friendly features.

Although Le Boréal is a French ship, the crew is multilingual; and though they spoke better English than I spoke their language, they were unfailingly patient when I took the opportunity the practice my college French.

Le Boréal travels the world, even sailing expedition-style cruises to Antarctica. (Aft of the main restaurant is a marina, from which her Zodiacs are launched.) This year, she cruises North Cape/Scandinavia, South America, Canada/New England, Antarctica. Prices start at around $2700 for an eight-day cruise.

In 2010, Le Boréal won the “Best New Ship of the Year” award from the European Cruiser Association (www.eucras.com).

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