We just returned from a 17 day sailing on board Ponant's LeSoleal ship, and as promised, below is my review. I wasn't sure where this should best be posted (Other Cruise Lines, Reviews, Antarctica board) but felt I gained a lot of valuable information from postings on the Antarctica board, so am placing it here. Warning, this may be ridiculously long.
Some background about us, we are a professional couple, 53 and 58, active, foodies, reside in Louisiana, USA, and travel internationally about 4 times per year. We enjoy both land based vacations and cruises, and I believe this makes our 30th cruise. We have visited 75+ countries, and all 7 Continents.
We booked cabin 327, a Deluxe Stateroom with Balcony, on LeSoleal, in March, 2016, the week the sailing was released, for the 17 Day "Beyond the Polar Circle" sailing to the Falkland Islands, South Georgia, and Antarctica, January 23 to February 8, 2018. Ponant's pricing strategy is to offer the highest discounts when sailings are released, and as cabins sell to offer less of a discount. By booking 22 months ahead we saved a lot of money on an expensive sailing, but there is a risk in that the $5000 deposit is non-refundable.
Leading up to the cruise, our communication with Ponant was without problem, and received documentation in regards to required Medical Questionnaires, Boot Rental, Compulsory Packing Lists and Suggested Packing Lists, and Optional Activities on Embarkation Day.
Of our own accord, we flew into Buenos Aires, but only one day ahead as we had recently spent time here. Our flight from EZE Buenos Aires to USH Ushuaia was included in our Ponant booking and departed at 6am on January 23, and arrived about 10am. We were met at the airport by Ponant representatives, our luggage was taken to the ship, and we were taken to the Arakur Resort where we had a high end buffet lunch with many options, including local wines, a scenic hike, place to relax, and a coffee/tea station, for about 3 hours. We were then taken to downtown Ushuaia and given about 2 hours free time to shop, visit museums, wander, etc. We were taken to the ship around 3:30pm. The Optional Tour was to the National Park.
Boarding the ship was very simple and efficient, taking only a couple of minutes. Much of the crew, including the Captain, was lined up to greet us individually as we boarded. We were handed steamed towels to freshen our hands, those were collected by another person, and we were directed toward our room. Our luggage was in our room.
Our room was of a standard size for a balcony cabin, at 18 sq meters, or 194 sq feet, and felt very open and elegant due to the pale color palette of oatmeal, whites and grays. We found the closet space of approx 5' width, with adjacent shelf space with 3 drawer section, plus another 4 drawers across from the bed, to be ample for the 2 of us, even given the extra gear we brought for expeditions. Our room also had some hooks which came in handy for our parkas, an included mini bar stocked with sodas, juices, waters, beer and hard liquor. A separate tray contained larger bottles of both sparkling and still waters, and glass ware. We also had a bottle of nice French red wine, and a small bowl of fruit. A long built in provided lots of counter space, and there was a little table space on either side of the bed. Also a small round dining table and a chair. The bathroom is French style, with the toilet having it's own room, something we like, and the shower/sink have a different room, the bath products are Hermes. There is a wall on the shower room that can slide back, revealing a glass wall, so that you can shower with a view of the ocean if you like. The shower is a larger walk in style with heavy glass doors, always good water pressure and no shortage of hot water. The sink had some counter space, a couple of shelves on the wall, and a couple of drawers underneath, one containing a blow dryer. The electrical outlets in the room were both US and European, we brought along a 2 prong D adapter plug so that we could utilize all the outlets. Our balcony was of a comfortable size and contained 2 comfortable mesh chairs and a small table. We utilized the balcony quite a bit, as sometimes we might we getting ready, showering, or even asleep and here an announcement of a sighting such as whales, or penguins on icebergs, and be able to run out to see them. We also enjoyed watching the unloading of zodiacs and other manueverings from this space.
The ship itself felt very upscale and elegant, but never snooty or stuffy. The pale color palette continued throughout, and was serene. The ship holds about 240 passengers, but limits to 199 on Antarctic sailings. We were 194 passengers: 55 France, 37 Australia, 29 Canada, 23 Switzerland, 16 USA, 12 Hong Kong, 11 UK, 3 Luxembourg, 3 Germany, 2 China, 2 Spain, 1 New Zealand - a very pleasant mix. Announcements are made in French and English. Lectures are given separately in French and in English, although there were some events that featured the Captain given in both languages at the same time.
The crew was all, at minimum, bi-lingual, and the service was top notch, efficient, and pampering, in all areas of the ship. They excelled at remembering passengers and their preferences in the dining rooms, the bars, and the cabin set up, which goes a long way in making guests feel special. We also loved our Captain, Patrick Marchesseau, who had a fun, lighthearted way about him giving us a laugh on many announcements, while also maintaining the professionalism you want from a ship's Captain. He was accessible and could be found around the ship, in the restaurant, on the dance floor doing the YMCA, and on shore. He is a bit of a celebrity in France due to a Somalia pirate incident in 2008.
We had been concerned with the dress code before we left, wondering if we needed some formal attire, but this was a non-issue. We were either in the stuff we wore on expeditions, or sometimes in smart casual for dinner, but nothing more than that. As an example, I generally wore leggings and turtle neck under my waterproof pants and parka on expeditions, I would then reboard the ship, take off the outer layers and put on a longer hooded workout jacket over my leggings and turtle neck, and some slip on leather sneakers, and be dressed for lunch in the dining room or lectures, or whatever. Most nights to dinner I wore black leggings, a casual shirt topped with a multi colored duster length cardigan sweater, and some slip on leather mules. On the 2 formal nights I dressed it up a bit more with some blingy costume jewelry pieces I had brought, or a scarf. Most people did the same. We saw a few suits, a few sport jackets, a few ladies in nicer dresses with heels, but never felt we needed any more than we had brought.
The food was the best we have ever experienced at sea, including Oceania Cruise Lines who prioritizes food on their sailings. This was a huge factor for us considering we were 17 days on board, with no possibility of restaurants on land anywhere. We live in Louisiana and enjoy good food here, as well as travel to foodie destinations, and food is an important factor for us. There are 2 restaurants, the Main restaurant on Deck 2, which is the more formal of the two, with waiter service, and the Buffet on Deck 6. Oddly, the Buffet requires reservations, and is quite popular; we ate here twice and found it to be a very elevated form of buffet service. All other meals we ate in the Main dining room as we like waiter service. Room service is also available and included, and has any option available on the ship available.
Breakfast featured both hot and cold items, and a buffet spread to serve yourself or waiter service for cooked to order eggs, omelettes. Each morning they offered a different juice called a "morning detox" of an interesting mix such as cucumber and pineapple, or watermelon and tomato.
Lunch was menu service with multiple courses and selections in each course. Soup, starter, main, dessert. There was also a buffet laid out in the Main dining room at lunch with many different salads, sides and breads.
Dinner was similar to lunch service, but without the buffet laid out in the Main dining room, all waiter service, and slightly more elegant table dressing such as fancier charger plates.
We enjoyed many great fish dishes, duck, lamb, beef filet. The menu was creative and varied, and we did not grow bored. A sample dinner from my notes is Candied Lamb shoulder with apricot cous cous for hubby, and Monkfish with crispy vegetables for me.
At each meal, a red, white and rose' wine was offered, and they were changed daily. There were many French selections, and a few New Zealand and Argentinian selections. We very much enjoyed the included wines, but there were other options available for purchase if one wanted, at all price points.
The bar service alcohol was also included in our cruise price, and we enjoyed this frequently with champagne, Vodka martinis, Espresso martinis, Cosmopolitans, Manhattans, and whisky on the rocks.
Now, onto the itinerary itself. We picked this sailing because of it's inclusion of the Falklands and South Georgia, and in retrospect this was an excellent decision. While Antarctica is remote and beautiful and icy wonderland, Falklands and South Georgia are a wildlife explosion. We had ordered our "free rental" boots in advance, but were still fitted once we boarded, which is good as the size we ordered was not our best fit. We were also fitted and gifted with our very nice and warm expedition jackets, red ones with some patches and swag in reference to Ponant and Antarctica.
Before our first landings, on our sea days, we attended lectures on de-contaminating our clothing and gear, getting in and out of Zodiacs, wildlife encounters, and so on. We also were introduced to our spectacular expedition staff, whom we grew to thoroughly enjoy. Comprised of 12 naturalists of varying ages, from France, Germany, UK, Norway, Canada, Brazil and Argentina, they each had a specialty such as whales, penguins, ice, etc, and all had a great passion for the work they were doing. These people really do make this type of trip.
Day 1, we sail away from Ushuaia around 6pm.
Day 2, we arrive in the Falkland Islands in the evening and go ashore on New Island from 6:30p-8:30p, thousands of Rockhopper penguins with their dark brown chicks, and Black Browed Albatross with their pale gray chicks. 52 degrees (fahrenheit) and sunny.
Dinner and dancing with a new Aussie friend.
Day 3, Saunders Island, 7a-9a, Rockhopper, Magellanic, Gentoo & King penguins, Albatross colony with chicks, beautiful beach, 57 degrees and sunny.
Steeple Jason, 2:30p-5p, Great hike to see the largest Black Browed Albatross colony in the world, way cute chicks. Gentoo penguins too feeding their babies. Returned to made to order crepes and French coffee.
Captain Cocktail Party with free flowing Veuve Cliquot champagne, and incredible dinner. Joined table of new friends from Australia and US. Top deck after dinner to view the Southern Cross.
Day 4, At sea, 52 degrees. Lectures, reading, nap, shopping in boutique. Lovely duck breast with orange sauce for dinner.
Day 5, At sea again, 41 degrees and cloudy. Watched Frozen Earth documentary, napped, lectures, briefing on upcoming days. 7pm, scenic sailing by Shag Rocks.
Day 6, We arrive in South Georgia. Elsehul, 7:30a-9:30a, scenic Zodiac cruising around beautiful cove to see Macaroni penguins hopping down cliffs to sea, some Gentoo and King penguins. Fur seals with their charming dark brown pups are everywhere. 41 degrees and sunny.
We return to banana hot chocolate. Great lunch with incredible view of hundreds of seals jumping in the waves with snow covered mountains in the background.
We arrive in Stromness in the afternoon to 39 degrees and misty rain, and do a landing from 4:30p-6:20p. Abandoned whaling station on a cove teaming with fur seals and their pups, a large field of Elephant seals lazing around, group of King penguins.
We re-board to coffee with Kahlua and whipped cream, and French macaron cookies.
Dinner of cauliflower soup, beetroot carpacchio with crispy vegetables and walnuts, herb crusted beef tenderloin with potato rosette, cheese plate, accompanied by a dry French red, and Gran Marnier.
Day 7, we port in Grytviken, 43 degrees and misty rain with light cloud cover, the South Georgia Heritage Trust sends someone onboard to talk to us about wildlife population and protection. We do a landing at 8:45am, and walk around the abandoned whaling station, whaler's church with old library, museum, gift shop. At 10:30am we join a 2 hour slightly strenuous but magnificent hike over to Maiviken, the weather has cleared and it is quite warm. Taken back to the ship at 12:30pm where we devour cheeseburgers and fries.
We sail on a bit more, and do another landing at 3:30pm in Saint Andrews Bay, South Georgia. Walk through many King penguins, fur seals, and a few elephant seals to see a glacier, then cross a glacier melt river with the assistance of a rope and naturalists to view more than 200,000 King penguins on a beach, the most amazing thing ever!
Welcomed back at 6:15p with Irish coffee. Our balcony furniture is being brought in and we have to make a hasty and early departure from this area as a storm is coming in quickly.
Day 8 & 9, we are sailing in some rather rough seas, trying to outrun a storm, and heading to Antarctica. Lectures, naps, feeling a bit green with motion sickness.
Day 10, arrive in Penguin Island, Antarctica, and go ashore 4pm-6pm. Hiked up to a dormant volcano ridge, then to see some Chinstrap penguins in a large colony. 43 degrees and sunny.
Then we Zodiaced over to Turret Point to visit lots of fur and elephant seals, and took a hike up through a river bed of glacier melt to view a glacier.
During dinner we sailed by an iceberg with a bunch of penguins on it while I enjoyed seafood risotto.
Day 11, Half Moon Island, Antarctica, 7:15a-9a landing, walked over some loose stones, icy snow and mud to see a Weddell seal on the beach, then up to a scenic lookout. Back down and over to a Chinstrap penguin colony on a large rock, cute chicks about 2 months old. 36 degrees, partly cloudy.
Deception Island, 3:30p-5p landing in Whalers Bay. This is an active volcano with a sunken crater, the crater has a break in the side where the ship sails right in. The last eruption was 1970. Steam comes off the beach. Walked up to a lookout, checked out old buildings left behind from the whaling station, airplane hangar, tanks for boiling and storing whale blubber, old dorm housing. Great look with the black volcanic rock and contrast of the snow. Seals lazing around. 41 degrees and sunny.
Mike did a bit of karaoke after dinner.
Day 12, we woke up to the Captain singing softly in French on our PA system, we love this guy. It is gorgeous and snowing big fluffy flakes outside, 39 degrees. We do a morning scenic Zodiac cruise of 1.25 hours in Paradise Bay, Antarctica to see Adelie penguins, and Antarctic Shags and their chicks, incredible ice formations. We were chased back to the ship by playful penguins hopping through the water.
At lunch our ship sailed through the stunning Lemaire Channel. We sighted penguins on icebergs, and a couple of humpback whales.
2:50p, we do a 1 hour scenic Zodiac cruise through the Iceberg Graveyard in Salpetriere Bay, it is breathtaking. Amazing icebergs, Crabeater seals. Our driver stops and opens a box to pour us a champagne toast while we float among this magnificent site. 43 degrees and sunny.
At 4p-5:20p, we are taken to Pleneau Island, Antarctica, to see a Gentoo penguin colony with their cold looking chicks.
The sun will set around 1:30am tonight.
Day 13, we wake up to a sea of ice slush and icebergs. We crossed the Polar Circle at 4:53am.
Fabulous brunch served outside on Deck 6 with seafood chefs, meat carving station, delicious sides and desserts, live music, wines and champagne.
We then boarded Zodiacs for a surprise scenic cruise to see icebergs and seals, and were extra surprised when we rounded an iceberg and our Zodiac pulled up on a large floating piece of ice to a floating champagne bar the ship had set up. Literally champagne on ice! Wait staff, French macaron cookies, couches and blankets, photos. We all toasted to crossing the Polar Circle, and had quite a good time. Wonderful day.
Super Bowl Sunday, Mike went to the Main lounge to try to see the big game but the feed kept hanging up and he didn't stay.
Day 14, we are woken by the Captain making whale noises over the PA at 6:30a, as there are Killer whales about. We watch a pod of 8-10 Killer whales for about an hour, and then go to breakfast and watch them some more while we eat. 2 curious Humpback whales show up around 9:15a.
We land on a rock beach at Neko Harbor, 10:45a-12:15p, this is actually the Continent of Antarctica, the rest were islands in Antarctica.Nice hike to a high peak for a scenic lookout over a deeply crevassed glacier. On the way down the expedition team has created a snow slide for us, which is awesome. Lots of Gentoo penguins and their chicks. 39 degrees and sunny.
We spent the afternoon on the ship watching lots of whale pods, both Killer whales and Humpbacks.
At 5:30pm we start the big sailing back towards home. They bring in the balcony furniture again and project a medium shake on the crossing.
Day 15, we are getting the full on Drake Shake and it's not pleasant. Waves as high as 36 feet. Ugg.
Day 16, It starts calming down mid-morning, and we are getting closer to South America.
Boots are collected from outside the room, disembarkation briefing, recap by the expedition team.
Lovely Farewell Dinner with scallops, lobster, filet mignon, paired with lovely French wines.
We arrive in Ushuaia around 7pm.
45 to 53 degrees and sunny.
Day 17, we are off the ship at 8am, and are taken to the airport for our included flight from USH Ushuaia to EZE Buenos Aires, 11a-2:20p. We have a bit of a long layover and fly back to the US from EZE Buenos Aires around 10pm, arriving home the next day.
It was a truly amazing journey, a real lifetime experience. We enjoyed every single minute of it from the natural beauty to the wildlife to the luxury of the ship and the personality of the crew. It was worth every cent, and I highly recommend it.
Some thoughts are that I think you want to be in relatively good health, as landings are by Zodiac raft onto sand, rock or ice (there are no piers or docks), and landings involve stepping into water up to your knees. There is a lot of walking and hiking to sites to view things, but I guess one could limit this if they chose to.
Also, you are a long way from serious medical care if it were needed. There are no shops, restaurants, hotels in this area of the world, if you are a person who is not enthralled by the natural wonders of the earth, sea and wildlife, it may not suit you.
If you are prone to seasickness you'll want to take medicines, supplements or devices to assist with this. I am, and I did. Sometimes it was difficult to experience this, but was worth the trade off.
Bring the items recommended from the ships packing list. We needed waterproof pants the most. We were warm much more often than we were prepared for, due to all the hikes, and wish we would have had less turtle necks and a few more long sleeve cotton shirts and a couple short sleeve cotton shirts.
I know this was long, and if you are still reading, well thanks, you've got stamina. I have an online photo album of the journey I'm happy to share, and happy to answer any questions. You can reach me via email at: home(at)terryandmike(dot)com