Style: Elegantly understated.
Scene: Cannes afloat.
Seen on Deck: French, Italians, Spaniards, north and South Americans, Australians. Leisured travellers and culture vultures.
Oh la! When it comes to cruising I think my very favourite thing would be a pretty French boat, with elegant French passengers (plus some Americans and Aussies for fun), and delicious Mediterranean food, travelling from - let's say - Venice, to my dream destination of Istanbul.
No shuffleboard or deck quoits, plenty of sunshine, a good serving of classical culture and a smattering of island-hopping shopping along the way.
Good heavens, Ponant - is that what you offer on Le Soléal? All aboard!
The Frenchwoman standing at the ship's rail is the very essence of chic. Her dramatically plain ankle-length scarlet sheath is fluttering in the breeze. Her cropped hair is perfectly white; she could be 60, she could be 80. One hand is holding a glass of champagne, the other is resting in the arm of a rather younger man, with a pony tail.
I am suddenly under-dressed. Or over-dressed? And under-escorted. There is a little French toddler-princess, sitting on her doting young father's arm, who looks classier than I do.
This welcome-aboard scene is lit by a Technicolor sunset behind the spires and cupolas of La Serenissima: it appears to be timed for our departure through the Venetian lagoon.
In case you think I'm easily impressed by cruise glamour, I must tell you I was second-prize winner (age nine) in the fancy dress competition on P&O's Northern Star, Sydney-Southampton. I was also Youngest Adult Passenger (age 12) on Lloyd Triestino's Victoria, Bombay-Trieste, and wowed them on the dance floor in my maxi muumuu.
I've scored the trifecta of ship canals (Panama, Suez and now, hooray! the Corinth canal – of which, more later). And I've been seasick in every ocean of the world except the Arctic.
It's true that, up until now, my experience of maritime interior decor has been cabins with shiny-varnished bunks and very small sea-stained portholes, and endless passageways punctuated by step-over bulkhead doorways and an all-pervading smell of engine oil (viz: seasickness, above).
But I have a low tolerance for checked Bermuda shorts, dancers in feathered headdresses, any remotely competitive behaviour relating to sun-loungers and towels, and organised fun involving an MC with a microphone. In fact, any organised fun.
So... not a natural Cruiser. But willing to be delighted.
Our hotel afloat
If you're going to be confined to a mobile hotel for a week, you really care about your environment, your fellow guests, and where you can hop off along the way.
So thank god our maritime hotel is the best-looking ship parked at the Venice Cruise Terminal this July afternoon. Sleek, modernistic curves: not too dinky, but not a mobile city casting a shadow over small islands: only 132 cabins and staterooms.
We walk up the gangway into a completely chandelier-free reception area decorated in quiet grey and sand colours, with restrained maritime references.
All thanks to big-name interior designer Jean-Philippe Nuel, who happens to be on board with his handsome young family for this first-anniversary voyage. It's all very calm and deco: more like an exclusive tropical club than a party palace.
Goodbye portholes: every cabin on this ship has a wall of glass doors out onto its own balcony.
Our Cabine Prestige is a compact 18.5 sq m, which is snug around the beds but doesn't feel cramped with its crisp mink and white colour scheme, curved edges and cunning details. Plenty of room to stow suitcases, and the balcony becomes our breakfast area, our reading room and private sun lounge.
We're only three stories above the waves – not a scary height – and at night we decide to sacrifice air conditioned comfort for having our door open to the Mediterranean breeze and the swish of the sea.
More to discover
It's lovely to quibble when surrounded by well-considered glamour, so I'll say we would have appreciated comfier chairs out there, and the odd cushion. And (this is a bit of a TLTB beef) there was no iron or ironing board in our cabin, and, on the first evening, there's no time to send away your cocktail dress to housekeeping. Shake out that crush-proof frock.
We were late for the welcoming drinks on the after-deck because we couldn't resist a good explore to find the sun deck up top, and the Panoramic lounge at the pointy end.
It turned out that even after a week we hadn't had time to discover the hammam, a Relaxation room and the gym. Thank god we made time for massages in the Spa one morning un-filled by shore activity. (The Swedish was indulgently relaxing; the lomi lomi was a bit softer than my rigorous companion usually likes hers.)
The glittery Le Pytheas restaurant offered classic French-influenced a la carte and an opportunity for dressing up for the captain's table.
Captain Etienne Garcia's glamorous Singaporean wife turned out to be an accomplished party-girl: "Shall we go to the bridge?" she asked the table. "Etienne, we all want to go to the bridge!" And we trit-trotted in our stilettos down one deck and along to the furthest end of the companionway to push open a surprisingly low-key door.
‘We operate an open bridge policy,’ said Captain Garcia proudly, rather like a confident teacher inviting parents to visit his classroom at any time. The hushed command-station overlooking the night sea was lit only by winking neon navigation instruments: ‘Quite the nightclub vibe,’ was the dry comment of fellow-passenger Aussie photographer Tony Amos.
We found that we preferred eating in the relaxed poolside buffet restaurant opening out onto the pool deck (this is French-style ‘relaxed,’ so there was no danger of a towelling beachsuit at the lunch table).
The salad bar may have offered grated carrot as an ingredient, and perhaps there was a family-friendly lasagne on offer on the hot buffet, but we found plenty to keep ourselves grazing to gluttony. There was an almost unseemly Gallic stampede on the day the chef was shucking oysters poolside, under the shade of a sun umbrella.
In theory you needed to book for a dinner table at the family-friendly buffet restaurant, but it never seemed to be a problem, and both restaurants ran like clockwork under the command of the self-effacing Maitre D' Veronique, who exercised a quiet charm in introducing spare singles and couples to shared tables.
I have to confess: we never made it away from room service on our balcony for breakfast. Orange juice: gorgeous; softly boiled eggs: perfect.
Not being dedicated sun worshippers, our preferred daytime hangout was the small outdoor bar area above the pool, which offered shade and comfortable wicker-style sofas. At night it turned into a hip hangout for the young and determined, but somehow we resisted the handsome barman's mixology skills.
Likewise, we never made it to tea in the cocktail lounge, and only caught the evening floorshow there once – but there were other passengers who hurried back from shore excursions to catch the nightly cha-cha's.
There were only 231 of us on board, which is enough for you still to be guessing at the end of the week who goes with who (and is that his wife or his daughter?). And not so many that you don't recognise a few faces to smile at when you're wandering shady back-alleys ashore.
Ponant being a French company there was a strong French contingent, with beautifully behaved children (first announcements and speeches were always in French). Plus an interesting mix of Italians, Spaniards, north and South Americans, entertaining Aussies and only one hilarious couple of mid-Westerners who assumed everyone would be as delighted as they were when hamburgers featured on the buffet.
There were a couple of pairs of women friends travelling together, like ourselves, and three singles who were buddied up by the tactful Veronique. And an encouraging number of multi-generational family groups – elegant parents, their children and grandchildren, with dads handing out wads of local currency before each shore excursion. There was usually a variety of excursions on offer (with the odd cycling and kayaking as well as walking tours and culture), which could make for a much more successful big-family get-together than a villa in Tuscany.
We found ourselves well-suited to the Le Soléal itinerary which usually involving arriving at our destination around midday, allowing for proper respect to be paid to lunch on board before the afternoon's excursion.
And our destinations were so appealing we took advantage of evening departure times of 10 or 10.30 to enjoy a taverna dinner before catching on the last tender back to the ship. (After a day ashore, finding a welcoming crew-member at the jaunty little Ponant gazebo and scrap of carpet on the quay was always a surprisingly welcome sight).
Truly, you would need to be a grouch of the first order not to be delighted by any and every anchor-point that could be offered between Venice and Istanbul.
The quality of the excursions is always hotly debated on cruises. Are they just trying to sting you with overpriced extras? Too touristy? Too highbrow?
Our first stop was Hvar, the ‘Côte d'Azure’ of Croatia, which was a last-minute substitute for Triluke Bay but turned out to be our perfect combination of low-key sightseeing, boutique-browsing and eating.
The next day took us to Dubrovnik, and we opted for some appetite-building exercise with a cycling tour round the Konavle valley vineyards before an afternoon of museums and walking round the city walls of the old town. Perfect.
Lunchtime on Day 4 brought us to Greece, and Parga. The afternoon excursion we chose was described as ‘River Safari on Acheron River’, which completely failed to describe the magical experience of walking thigh-deep up a canyon of crystal-clear (and freezing cold!) waters which are allegedly the mystical river Styx emerging from an underground cavern from the underworld.
The ‘safari’ element of rubber-rafting downriver afterwards was merely the action-icing on the cake.
A classical education
The following day proved the suitability of exactly the size of ship we were on. Our shore excursion to the site of ancient Corinth (Paul's 'Letters to the Corinthians' and all that) proved a little underwhelming. Perhaps it was the scorching heat, perhaps it was our slightly dour local guide, but somehow we failed to connect with its significance.
But after a brief coach-stop to walk back and forth on one of the bridges across the 25m-wide Corinth canal, it was back on board for the breathtaking passage of our ship down the length of the 6km waterway. The canal was carved from solid rock in the 19th century to join the Ionian and Aegean seas, and with barely metres to spare on either side, and evening swallows swooping from the near-vertical walls above us, it was a big-tick lifetime moment.
And the next morning we had our real classical connection, with an early-morning arrival (to beat the heat and tour-boat crowds) at the tiny, barren island of Delos.
It's an insignificant low brown smudge in the Cyclades, but its claim to fame as the birthplace of Apollo and Artemis means it's crowded with ancient Greek and Roman temples and sanctuaries, statues, houses and marketplaces, and an atmospheric amphitheatre. It's one of the best-preserved archaeological sites in all of Greece and to arrive by ship, as the self-made trader inhabitants did in ancient times, was a thrill.
Jewel of the Aegean
The afternoon took us to nearby Myknos, of white walls and windmills fame. Its dinky tourist prettiness, high-end jewellery boutiques, luscious yogurt ice creams and chi-chi tavernas were a high contrast to our morning's blast of ancient history.
It was as well we'd had such a satisfying serving of classical culture, because the next, and final, day's trip to the big-ticket classical site of Pergamum, in Turkey, was cancelled.
That's sea-travel for you. Bad-weather wasn't the culprit, but a fouled anchor chain which meant we arrived too late at the sleepy Turkish port of Dikli to set off on the half-day excursion.
For one of the passengers on board, Australian classical enthusiast Frances, the chance to visit Pergamum had been the reason he'd chosen this cruise. It was a tribute both to his forbearance, and the riches of everything else we'd seen, that he was able to say equably: "Ah well, it's a reason to come again."
And the next morning at dawn I took advantage of the "open bridge" policy to be standing next to the (tiny) steering wheel, alongside a crushingly handsome young French executive officer, as the Soléal cut a wake through the Sea of Marmara towards the glittering minarets of Istanbul rising out of the morning mist.
The choreography of geography and timing were restored to pitch-perfect once again. There had been minimal feathered headdresses, only one pair of Bermuda shorts, plenty of sun loungers, and top-notch shoregoing fun.
|Ultimate Luxury: The top deck Owner's Suite of course!
|Most Indulgent Moment: Standing on the foredeck, Bollinger in hand, travelling through the Corinth Canal.
|Insider Secrets: Icy cold bottles of drinking water and fluffy white towels on hand to take ashore at every stopover.
|Junior Luxies: Children and young teens welcomed rather than specially catered-for.
|Dress code: Parisian chic rather than bling. Cream linen suit or blazer instead of a tux. Deck shoes rather than Tevas for going ashore.
|Dent in the platinum: Approx 2488 Euros / £2,000 for 8 days
|Luxury Cruise Link: en.ponant.com/Ships/Le-Soleal
Jennifer Stevenson 10/4/15