Ponant review: Costa Rica to the Caribbean on Le Champlain

Trip Reports
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Our back-to-back cruise on board Le Champlain began in Puerto Caldera on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, and took us via Panama and Colombia to the islands of the Caribbean.

The ship is beautiful and, of course, still shiny new. There is a unity in décor throughout the ship: abstract style pale grey carpets in suites, corridors and public rooms; an ethnic style of decoration in the main lounge and suites; and the use of a pale golden wood finish on walls and floors in suites, corridors and the main staircase.

Ponant - Le Champlain decor

The main cluster of public rooms are located to the rear on decks 3 and 4. The main lounge, with bar and grand piano, is on deck 3, opening onto the grill restaurant and sundeck with swimming pool. The lounge was used also as a gathering point for Zodiac services and shore excursions, quizzes, and line dancing classes, and was the main cocktail lounge in the evening.

The main restaurant, which could flexibly seat the full passenger compliment at one sitting, was on deck 4, with limited outside seating towards the stern. There is a buffet area for breakfasts and salad and dessert bars at lunch time, which was occasionally used at dinner, for example on the special Bordier cheese nights. The restaurant is laid up bistro style with table mats for breakfast and lunch, and full-service style with linen for dinner.

The theatre, seating 198 people, is towards the front of deck 3. The seating is exceptionally comfortable and laid out so that everyone gets a line of sight to the stage, with velour seats in tints of blues and turquoise. The theatre was used for pre-expedition and shore excursion briefings, talks by the expedition team and a guest lecturer, captain's gala receptions, stage performances and films.

Performance in Le Champlain's theatre © Margaret Smart

The Blue Eye Lounge is an area to be seen, with its cetacean style windows (made of 18 sheets of laminated glass) and external lighting and listening systems. The cynical view expressed by some passengers was 'what a waste of money', but once we had sat mesmerised watching hundreds of small fish as we sat at anchor off Mayreau, with a glass of something in our hands, we were sold on the concept.

The 92 cabins and suites all have a balcony, and most of the facilities one would expect from a top end cruise ship. Our deluxe suite offered a large walk-in wardrobe dressing area, with more hanging and shelf space than we could fill. The bathroom had a good-sized walk-in shower cabinet, a large vanity unit with two enormous drawers below for cosmetics, and was well-stocked with Hermès bath and shower products. The toilet, oh! so French, was in a separate little cubicle.

Stateroom on Ponant's Le Champlain

The king size bed configuration was spacious and very comfortable, with plenty of storage space underneath for suitcases. Everything was carefully thought through in terms of design and layout, with one exception that all the ladies we spoke to agreed upon: no socket for the hair dryer close to a mirror! ('You can tell a man designed the cabins', was a comment heard more than once.)

Almost without exception, the officers and staff were approachable, listening, caring and smiling. We'd not been on a cruise before where the captain greeted every boarding passenger at the top of the gangway - but this was another photo opportunity for the on-board photographer! Commandant René-Paul Boucher seemed to be omnipresent, as did Kamel, the Cruise Director.

Our cruise began with a couple of unexpected alterations to the itinerary: at the briefing on the first evening, it was announced that passengers on the previous cruises had criticised Herradura, so the expedition team and Captain had decided to substitute a local wildlife refuge at Curu. Similarly the visit to Quepos, which should have involved mooring off the small town and making visits by coach, was substituted by a stop closer to the national park, where we could land straight onto the beach by Zodiac. We had originally booked to go on a river drifting tour, since we had been to this national park before - in the end, it was the one day we took the chance to sleep in!

Monkey in Curu Wildlife Reserve, Costa Rica

Two days later, we had another change in itinerary, this time because of sea conditions where we were due to land to visit the indigenous Embera people, but this was an added bonus. The Captain was given special permission from the Panamanian authorities to moor off a small town close to the Colombian border. The intention was initially to offer cruises up the local river by Zodiac, but the expedition team made a recce and found that river and sea conditions made this impossible. So we were all offered a chance of a 90-minute cruise along the coast, to spot birdlife on the wild cliffs, traverse some pretty hairy eddies and generally see and do things we wouldn't have experienced had we gone straight to the Embera.

We then got our visit to the Embera later in the afternoon, when the sea conditions made for a safe landing by Zodiac on the local beach. We were greeted by the village musicians, then taken to an open part of the beach where the women gave a display of traditional dance, and we were of course encouraged to spend our dollars on their handicrafts, many of which were beautiful and reasonably priced.

Embera children in Panama

The transit of the Panama Canal is always a highlight of a cruise between the Pacific and Atlantic. We had moored off Fuerte Amador, Panama City for the night. Our pilots came on board just after day break, and we headed for the entrance to the canal during breakfast. The first set of locks heading north is the Miraflores locks, where there is a 'staircase' of three locks rising about 25 metres from sea level to the Gatun lakes. Ships are towed through the locks by a complex system of 'mules' - very powerful electric locomotives on tracks each side of the lock to edge the ship in and to keep it central whilst each lock fills with water, opens to the next one, and so on.

From Miraflores, we continued our passage at about 6 knots through the Gatun Lakes - man made as the reservoir for the locks, kept topped up by the regular heavy rains and flow from the Chagres river. There are plenty of opportunities to spot wildlife, including crocodiles, birds of all shapes and sizes and colours, monkeys and - if you're really lucky - sloths.

Frogs in Panama

The historic centre of Cartagena was another highlight: a splendid well-preserved city within a city, with buildings going back to the 16th century. The tour started with a quick stop by the main fortress built by the Spanish, but also captured by the British at one stage - just long enough to see the fortress from the outside, and to be bothered by the hawkers of sun hats, knickknacks and tourist tat.

The balconies of the many old buildings were decorated with floral displays, and the courtyards were cool and inviting from the midday heat. We visited the Inquisition Museum (the gallows and guillotine are still on display, along with various instruments of torture, and we learned that the Inquisition continued until 1812 in Colombia) and the Maritime Museum (mainly of naval history and piracy) and crossed various plazas.

Cartagena, Colombia

On the Dutch island of Curaçao we took the complimentary coach tour to remind ourselves of some of the places we remembered from earlier visits - the beautiful beaches, the former plantation house from the times when slaves were used to grow and harvest sugar cane whilst the owners grew and harvested their wealth, and the former salt ponds, now a centre for breeding flocks of flamingos.

Our lunch on Mayreau, one of the Grenadine islands, was no amateur barbecue of charred burgers and sausages. No! The main grilled item was lobster - seemingly hundreds of them, quite gigantic in some cases - with meats as well, plus two extensive salad bars and a dessert selection. It was said later that the patisserie chef had been working since 4am to get the puddings ready. Champagne, wines, beers and other drinks were dispensed direct to table by the ship's restaurant staff - a day to remember!

Beach barbecue in Mayreau, St Vincent & The Grenadines

On the last full day of our cruise Le Champlain anchored at Pigeon Point, on the northwest corner of St Lucia. We took a full day trip which started with a catamaran sail down the west coast, past the capital, Castries, then into various bays for sightseeing and swimming, before ending at Soufrière, a small town tucked under the world famous Pitons.

Then it was back to the ship, as we were getting close to sailing time. Once aboard the tender, we guessed that the captain really was waiting to sail, as the marina had been folded away and we had to climb an extended gangway from sea level to the main reception area on deck three!

Ponant - Le Champlain

And so, during dinner, we cruised north to Martinique, where we docked late evening, ready for disembarkation after breakfast next day. The end to what was, for us, a truly unique cruise.

Cruise photographs © Margaret Smart, used by kind permission.

Meet the author

Peter Smart is a Mundy client and guest author

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