Cruise & Travel Lifestyles

Great Explorers: Ponant’s Le Champlain

Great Explorers: Ponant’s Le Champlain

RELAXING IN MY STATEROOM, post-lunch, during a long, lazy sea day, teetering on the edge of a nap the realization comes all at once. We had made good, fast progress since our departure from the tiny, lovely Spanish island of Minorca, steaming steadily west toward Sicily. But now, looking out the window of my stateroom, it’s unmistakable – and highly unusual.

The ship is no longer moving. At all. Rising from my cushy king bed, I stride outside the glass slider onto the balcony to confirm it. The waves are calm, the sea, just an endless expanse of blue. Pulling on a pair of jeans, I head to reception to see what’s up when an announcement stops me short and turns me around for a costume change. “On va se baigner,” Claire, the cruise director, announces, in part. My French is definitely rusty, but I recognize enough words to realize the main message before she repeats in English. Which is: get ready, folks, because it’s time for a swim.

Guests enjoy an impromptu swim from the marina (photo by Tim Johnson)

I’m on board Ponant’s Le Champlain for seven nights, sailing from Barcelona to Malta. Built to be small and intimate, this Explorer yacht is also equipped for adventure. Everything is overlaid with French flair. And while we call at some traditional cruise ports, the vessel’s relatively tiny size means it can navigate into equally small, shallow, unlikely harbours.

And, we can also, of course, pause mid-voyage for a little dip. The ship features a unique retractable marina that crew can lower to three different positions to launch Zodiacs to explore wild and beautiful places. Today the marina doubles as our waterfront deck and diving board. Staff line up to hand out pool noodles and guests leap into the gentle swell. Even the captain gets a little time to enjoy this vast, natural piscine, emerging finally to supervise the crew, with a wet swimsuit on the bottom, and formal epaulettes on top.

It’s a fitting look for a trip that brings together fancy and fanciful, and Le Champlain is the perfect craft to deliver both. The second of Ponant’s six Explorer Class ships, it’s named for Samuel de Champlain, the “father of New France” who travelled to the New World, creating an accurate coastal map, establishing settlements in modern-day Canada, and crossing the Atlantic more than 20 times.

Panoramic Restaurant (photo courtesy of Ponant)

But he presumably didn’t do so in the comfort and class available on the ship that bears his name. The culinary experiences are top-notch, supervised by Michelin-starred chef Alain Ducasse. The 92 staterooms are snug but perfectly appointed, making you feel as if you’re sleeping on a luxury yacht. Evening shows in the 188-seat theatre are unmistakably French, with touches of the Moulin Rouge.

Public spaces are gracious and perfectly sized, with an upscale design aesthetic that’s never too fussy. The elegant yet relaxed onboard lifestyle includes Champagne, wine, beer and cocktails, and gratuities, all included in the fare.

The pool deck on the stern opens to the ocean on two levels, perfect for an open-air lunch or a late afternoon Spritz. A forward lounge offers direct access to an outside deck for wildlife viewing – it’s the place to settle in for a quiet afternoon with a book, or with a Scotch or digestif after dinner. And the subaquatic Blue Eye Lounge is a marvel. Inspired by Jacques Cousteau and Jules Verne, it is the world’s first undersea lounge on a ship. Sip a martini while the boundless depths of the sea appear outside the windows, clearly visible, but held back by 18 panels of glass.

“We go where nobody else is going,” the captain tells me during a bridge visit. “We’re mainly focusing on the small places.” While our voyage calls at larger ports like Mallorca and Palermo, we manage to see much tinier, less-visited places, including Trapani (Sicily) and Minorca.

The latter, which literally means “smaller island,” has a legendary harbour – one rarely seen by cruise ships. Using a scheduling flexibility that would be unimaginable on a larger ship, the captain delays our early morning arrival so more guests can experience it. I’m enjoying my first cup of coffee on the aft deck when I realize what’s going on.

Stateroom (photo courtesy of Ponant)

We roll softly into one of the longest deep-water harbours in the Mediterranean, slender but almost six kilometres in length. Soft light bathes the scene – colourful homes in pinks, and oranges, climbing the hillsides. White sailboats, sails puffed, are out for an early spin. The old fortifications, still look formidable, despite their obvious obsolescence. The beauty of the scene keeps unfolding as we dock in the capital, Mahon, and meet a guide for a trip across the small island.

“We don’t get any of the bigger ships here,” she explains, as we coast in a coach across verdant fields. “They have to be small enough to enter, turn around, and sail back out.” Mahon’s deep-water harbour has long been legendary, she notes, a famous place for refuge when weather gets rough at sea. If the wind and the waves are too much, sailors used to say, then make a run for Mahon.

We pass tiny, whitewashed towns with Moorish names, some of them dating back to the Arab arrival in the 10th century. This is a place where many civilizations blew through on the trade winds, each one leaving their mark on the language, people, culture, and culinary traditions. Phoenicians, Romans – and, of course, the Ottomans.

We arrive on the far side of the island to tour the old capital of Ciutadella. Walking down the cobblestones between ostentatious palaces owned by rich shipping families, each one trying to out-do each other, we arrive at the Cathedral. Once a 14th century mosque, it was converted, the former minaret now a bell tower. In the friendly little fish market, a young woman tells me that the waters here are deep, and rich with sea life.

The Blue Eye underwater lounge (photo courtesy of Ponant)

“Everything here comes from this port – we can even tell you the boat that caught it,” she says. On ice, all around, I see prawns and cuttlefish and squid and monkfish. Some will be used for that Spanish classic, paella. But when I get back on board and

head to the pool deck, the sous-chef is preparing and serving a French favourite instead. Beef or tuna tartare, made right in front of you. I settle back as the ship readies to sail, back out that long, deep harbour.

Will we swim again? That’s anyone’s guess here on Le Champlain. But I’ll certainly keep my swimsuit handy for the rest of the voyage, just in case.

Ponant’s Explorer Class ships are built to provide class, luxury, and adventure. Voyages range from the Mediterranean to East Asia, Canada to the Caribbean. The cruise line also has vessels which sail to both Polar regions and many places in between. My sailing was seven days from Barcelona, calling at Valencia, Mallorca, Minorca, Trapani, Palermo and Valletta (Malta).

Written by Tim Johnson for Cruise & Travel Lifestyles (winter/spring 2023)