You might think it a little odd to cruise around tropical South Africa on a luxury cruise ship built to withstand the harshest of polar weather. Yet, despite the lack of blizzard conditions, Andy Mossack goes aboard Le Lyrial to experience Ponant’s distinctly French approach to cruising.
It’s early evening in Richards Bay and I’m on the bridge of Le Lyrial sitting in Captain Etienne Garcia’s chair. I’m tempted to use the opportunity to make a passenger announcement but, luckily for Ponant, my French is not quite good enough for that and Captain Garcia is close enough to clap me in irons. Still, I get enough of a frisson simply sitting in the skipper’s hot seat.
Ponant has an open bridge policy so guests are welcome to have a peek up here if they ask nicely. It really is quite an experience; perhaps better resembling the Starship Enterprise than a ship’s bridge. Not so surprising when you consider Ponant ships provide luxury expedition cruises to the world’s remotest locations. Ready and equipped for all eventualities.
Rewind a few days and Le Lyrial looked none the worse for wear after her latest adventure in Antarctica as I joined her in Cape Town. Sleek and elegant, looking more like a billionaire’s yacht than a cruise liner, she sat there silently as I came onboard. An eight-night cruise around South Africa’s coast to Durban lay ahead with a few stops to visit South Africa’s game reserves along the way. A piece of cake compared to polar ice caps.
With just 122 cabins and a couple of hundred passengers, this is light years away from the ever-expanding floating behemoths that graze the high seas. It’s personal, informal and distinctly French. It’s like waking up in the south of France each morning to blue skies, freshly baked pain au chocolat and great coffee.
My stateroom was on the Prestige deck, one down from the top. It was a little bijou, as the French say, but very comfortable just the same. Designed by Jean-Phillipe Nuel in cream and turquoise pastels with high thread-count bed linen, luxury French toiletries in the shower, flat screen TV, a writing desk and patio doors leading out to a balcony.
Back down in the main lobby, I decided to be smart and reserve the gastronomic restaurant for a couple of nights ahead of everyone else.
The receptionist smiled at me in the way the French do when they are explaining something, that to them, is patently obvious. “Monsieur Mossack, our main restaurant is full service gastronomic and no reservations are needed. However, if you would prefer our informal buffet restaurant on deck 6, you might need a reservation on some nights as it is a little smaller.”
An awkward moment ensued while I attempted to act like I knew this all along. But In my head, I was berating myself. It’s a French ship, of course, the main restaurant is gastronomic. What else would it be?
In the end, I found myself hopping between both; enjoying the sumptuous buffet breakfasts and lunches at an outside table on the pool deck and then having à la carte dinners down in the gastronomic La Celeste restaurant on Deck 2. It was all deliciously French. The wines, the cheeses, the charcuterie, the salads and of course the fish, seafood and meats. As with most cruise ships, the bulk of the serving staff are Filipino and I can’t speak highly enough for the clutch of servers who looked after me during my meal times. They remembered everything. How I liked my eggs, what coffee I preferred and even my penchant for freshly sliced avocado and kiwi every day. The plate materialized almost before I sat down.
Ponant has an all-inclusive policy on meals and non-premium bar drinks, wines and cocktails with enough quality brands in stock to satisfy most preferences. There are, of course, a full complement of premium brands for those connoisseurs who prefer to only drink their favourite tipple.
In spite of its smaller size, Le Lyrial has plenty of spaces to hide away if you want some peace and quiet. Particularly for me, up on the top deck or in the library or the panoramic lounge. Each of them light and airy, contemporary and elegant. The ship also has a theatre for shows and guest speakers a spa, hammam, hairdresser and an impressively modern gym.
We stayed overnight in Cape Town and I spent my first dinner in the company of a couple of highly entertaining South Africans. I bumped into them at the welcome safety briefing when we discovered we would be sharing the same lifeboat if disaster struck. It’s worth pointing out here that although Ponant is French, all announcements are in English and French and the crew bilingual.
Over an excellent dinner (where an adjacent French table of diners debated the merits of the white over the red with the wine waiter for a good ten minutes. True story) we compared notes on their home city and I got a few local tips on the upcoming stops at Port Elizabeth, Richards Bay and Durban.
After dinner, I found myself in the main lounge listening to a talented French singer who I swear not only looked like Celine Dion but almost sounded like her too. After my second Cognac, I had convinced myself she was no doppelganger. Celine was most definitely in the auditorium.
Leaving Cape Town behind the next day, we spent it at sea following the famed Garden Route along the coast. It was a perfect opportunity to relax and soak up the South African sunshine despite having to endure my French shipmates somehow managing to still look chic and elegant just wearing swimming costumes.
South Africa’s famous wildlife offers up exciting game drive excursions and this cruise takes full advantage with numerous trips ashore (excursion fees applicable). Out first stop at Port Elizabeth provided the prospect of a trip to the Addo National Park and its 500 elephants. Another stop at Richards Bay, bordering the Indian Ocean, offered a safari drive around the Hluhluwe Game Reserve, the second biggest in South Africa after Kruger. Other guests opted for a chance to experience Zulu culture and tradition at Shakaland.
Back up on the bridge, Captain Garcia skilfully avoids my offer of assistance and waves me adieu as I leave him to guide us safely out of port and on to Durban. Tonight is the second and final formal night of the cruise and I inwardly groan knowing my fellow guests will no doubt all materialise looking fashionable chic. I, on the other hand, will be wearing a repeat of my previous outfit. Distinctly non-chic. C’est la vie.
Tell me more about cruising around South Africa with Ponant
Along the South-African coastline from 24 March 2019 to 1 April 2019
9 days / 8 nights
Departure Port : Cape Town
Arrival Port : Durban
Ship : LE LYRIAL
Prices start from £3,253.67 per person – excluding flights. Excursion fees are applicable and start from €45 per person.
For more information or to book, visit www.ponant.com or call 0800 980 4027
Getting to Cape Town
Parking at London Heathrow