We booked with Abercrombie & Kent, which chartered Le Lyrial, a ship in the Ponant line. It was a lot of firsts for us - first formal tour trip, first French ship and first time to the destination.
The land portion of the trip was just ok - Buenos Aires is a lovely city, and I wish we had booked an independent tour of the city just for the two of us. The A&K tour was the kind that I loathe - large buses with 40 passengers and limited time at the venues we saw, although the guide made sure we had plenty of time for shopping. But we had a nice 5 mile geocaching walk in the morning and the Sofitel was a great hotel, so all in all it was ok.
The charter flights to Ushuaia on LAN were horrible. The planes were in disrepair (both rear bathrooms were non-operational for most of the flight doing down and one was out for the entire flight on the return plus the TV in front of us didn't come down so we couldn't see the safety briefing), the catering for a 3-1/2 hour flight was a box with stale crackers, one lemon cookie and a chocolate and the seats were miserably cramped. On the way down we were so tired from our early morning departure that it wasn't that big of a deal, but on the way home it was a marked contrast to the 2 great weeks we'd had.
Once we arrived at Ushuaia, we had another large bus take us up the hill to the Arakur hotel for a lovely lunch and then were basically stranded there for a few hours while the ship was being readied. On our return, we had another bus ride to the Tierra del Fuego National Park (had to kill time until the charter flight back). There was no chance to wander around Ushuaia town on either side of the journey, other than going out after 9:00pm upon our arrival back in port. So if we are fortunate enough to have a next time, I'll book us straight through to Ushuaia to give us a day or two to explore.
But none of the above was the main attraction, which was amazing. Once we stepped onboard, it was 16 nights of almost heaven.
Le Lyrial is a gorgeous ship with a terrific crew. We normally sail on large middle of the pack cruise lines and I really enjoyed the small ship luxury experience (which doesn't bode well for our wallets in the future). Because of the charter, the primary language was English. The officers, front desk and dining/bar management were French while the stateroom, dining and bar crew were a mix of Indonesian and Filipino.
There is a small but serviceable gym on Deck 5, which would have been interesting on some of our rougher days. Also a steam room (the Hammam), a spa with three techs (I didn't visit), a photo gallery and a small shop selling sundries (kept behind the counter), clothing (lots of expedition-related items), binoculars, walking sticks and jewelry.
Service was top notch, the food was mostly excellent (even 14 days in when the lettuce was still green even if the bananas were brown on the outside). The dining room had trouble keeping up, however - we prefer to dine on the later side (after 8:00), but found that if we didn't stampede to the dining room, we would be at dinner for 2+ hours. By the end of the cruise we were having dinner in the buffet and breakfast/lunch in the dining room, when the service was much more expeditious. I asked the buffet maitre d' if we were having the "real" Ponant experience and he said, "sort of." On a non-charter, dinner reservations are required for the buffet, but not in the dining room, except for parties of 8 or more. But the menus were typical.
We had stateroom 337, the first cabin after the reception area. I wouldn't book it again - although everything in the cabin was in good working order once the seal around the door to the balcony was repaired, there was noise from a distant slamming door that went on all day, every day. I think it was from a galley and the sound carried up through a vent, but it drove me nuts for the first few days (thankfully it didn't seem to happen at night). The front desk dutifully noted the issue and I never heard from them again. Our stateroom attendant, Marylou, was great and kept our cozy cabin clean.
We didn't use our balcony much, not surprisingly, but it was nice to have the option. I got some great photos from there without having to deal with somebody's long lens hitting me in the head or getting in front of me just as I was about to take a picture. And it was awesome to see waves higher than the rail during our Drake Passage crossing (one day of lake, 12 hours of being in the washing machine, mostly as we slept, thankfully).
I believe that Ponant offers complimentary house wine and beer with lunch and dinner. The charter offered that plus a range of spirits all day. Premium brands were extra, but there was a good range in each spirit - vodkas were Smirnoff, Stoli and Absolut, for example. The mini fridge in our stateroom was stocked with airplane-sized bottles of liquor, still and sparkling water and some sodas. Bottled water was always available at reception.
I found the house wines (all French, of course) to be eminently swillable, although I only had the rose and red offerings. DH enjoyed the whites. I wish I had remembered to take a picture of the wine list that was in our stateroom - it featured bottles up to E600 or so. I can't imagine what condition they are in with the pounding they take.
The senior officers were out and about the ship, but they didn't socialize with the passengers much that I saw. The Captain threw a Welcome Aboard cocktail party (featuring Veuve Cliquot) and dinner plus a farewell dinner on the second to last night. The Captain has an open bridge policy, but we never made it in there - every time we looked, the red sign was posted. Maybe they saw us coming. We did take a tour of engineering, though.
The laundry service was good - the prices were ok and our clothes came back the next day (we would leave the bag in the evening) pressed or folded, on wooden hangers and the same size as when they left.
A&K ran the rest of the show - the Ponant Cruise Director went on vacation and the CD for our trip (the fourth of four run by A&K on Le Lyrial this season) was an A&K employee, as were all of the naturalists and expedition leaders. Even the future journey consultant was A&K; I'm not sure that we could have booked a future Ponant cruise if we'd wanted to. The onboard experience was all about our destinations (Falklands, South Georgia & Antarctica), with up to four lectures per day on varying subjects from geology to wildlife to photography to Ernest Shackleton. We also had a pre-dinner Expedition recap/what to expect tomorrow meeting every night.
Entertainment (other than the wonders we saw at every turn) was limited: There was a movie shown every night after dinner, and each one had a theme relative to our adventure, from "Thatcher" (starring the overrated Meryl Streep) to documentaries about Antarctic explorers to Eight Below (starring Paul Walker) and Madagascar. I didn't stay up for any of them. The ship had a couple of singers and a wonderful pianist, all of whom provided background music in the lounges. We did dance a couple of times because we wanted to.
We had two landing groups that alternated early and late departures (other than in the Falklands and Grytviken, where we could go ashore at will). Our time off the ship once we got to South Georgia, including the Zodiac transfers, was up to 2 hours. The Zodiac rides were never more than 5-10 minutes each way. For us that was plenty of time - we got to see what we wanted to see without having to rush and fall over our fellow red penguins. There were excursions in the Falklands (DH did the Battlefield tour and I visited a working sheep farm), all included in the trip (we were there all day so had time to explore on our own). We had Zodiac rides at Elephant Island (our itinerary changed because of storms so we had that instead of a third day in South Georgia) and Salpetriere Bay. Otherwise we had two landings each day.
We had mostly smooth sailing with two exceptions. First, the Captain made the decision to run away from a storm that was brewing in South Georgia and we were right on its wings. The downside was waves up to 10 meters and winds up to 40mph. The upside was that we got to visit Elephant Island, which is not normally on the itinerary. And we had about 12 hours of really nasty weather in the Drake Passage, noted above.
I don't know if I would book directly with Ponant for this itinerary - I don't speak much French, and I don't see how they would have time to have lectures in multiple languages, as there aren't enough hours in the day to do everything twice. But I never say never. The A&K staff were so awesome that I would really like to do with them again.
I'll be revising my signature in due course, since this trip bumped the Galapagos to second place.
I'm happy to answer any questions.
Block Island Ferry 1965
Nordic Empress 4/95; Vision of the Seas 10/02, 5/03,1/06,11/07, 12/07, 11/08, 9/12; Splendour of the Seas 10/03; Monarch of the Seas 2/04, 12/04, 9/05, 6/06, 9/06, 1/07, 02/07, 04/07, 05/07B2B, 08/07, 11/07, 2/08, 03/08, 04/08B2B, 6/08, 7/08-2x,08/08x3, 9/08x2, 10/08, 6/09, 12/11; Radiance of the Seas 9/04, 9/07, 10/09B2B, 11/09, 4/10, 5/15, 04/16, 06/16B2B; Brilliance of the Seas 10/05, 9/12; Serenade of the Seas 10/06, 9/14, 12/14 2/15, 10/15, 8/16; Jewel of the Seas B2B 11/06, 7/07, 10/11, 12/12x2, 1/13; 2/13, 12/13, 5/15, 9/15; Liberty of the Seas 5/07, 3/11, 11/11; Mariner of the Seas 3/08, 02/09, 04/09, 09/09, 01/10, 12/10x2, 01/11; Navigator of the Seas 12/11; Oasis of the Seas 11/09, 01/16 B2B, 10/16 B2B; Rhapsody of the Seas 2/10, 4/11, 5/13, 5/14; Allure of the Seas 11/10, 1/14, Quantum of the Seas 11/14 (89)
Star Princess 5/02, 9/02, 5/12; Diamond Princess 5/04,4/05,5/07; Sun Princess 5/05; Island Princess 05/06; Sapphire Princess 12/09, 3/13, 3/14, Golden Princess 10/13, 11/13 x3, 10/14, 11/14, 4/15, 7/15, Crown Princess 12/14, 1/15 Ruby Princess 2/16, 12/16; (23)
Azamara Journey 12/08 Azamara Quest 05/09, 03/16 (3)
Carnival Paradise 2/09, 07/09, 8/09, 12/09, 3/10, 10/10, 2/11, 09/11 Carnival Inspiration 12/11, 2/12, 11/12, 3/13, 8/13 (13)
HAL Oosterdam 4/11 (1)
Celebrity Xpedition 9/13 (1)
Ponant Le Lyrial - Antarctica - #1 Trip of a Lifetime! (1)