So, we are back from our adventure and it was fabulous. I hope to have a review/diary posted in the next month or so (I'm very slow at those). Here's a stream of consciousness summary:
Le Lyrial is a gorgeous ship with a terrific crew. As you can see from my signature, we normally sail on large middle of the pack cruiselines 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 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) 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 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 transfers were never more than 5-10 minutes each way and getting off the ship was managed very efficiently. 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 excursions 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.
I had some issues with the land portion of the trip - we booked the full Monty starting with being picked up at EZE by A&K and ending there after the cruise - so, if we are fortunate enough to go again, I will book us independently to Ushuaia and pick up the trip from there. A&K gives a credit for some unused items, such as the charter flight - not all companies do.
Also, 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.