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Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Travelogue - "Le Boreal" French Cruise Line

August 4, 2010
Posted By - Frank Murgia
Story By - Wendy Riddle

One of my favorite experiences lately has been a cruise aboard Le Boreal. We sailed the “Secrets of the Adriatic” itinerary which includes Venice, Sibenik, Split, Korcula, Kotor, Dubrovnik, Hvar, Pula, Rovinij, returning to Venice.

Le Boreal is a brand new ship under the Compagnie du Ponant, flag. To state the obvious, Compagnie du Ponant is a French cruise line. Sounds fussy, right? Not really. I am not sure if it was because I was aboard the third-ever sailing and they just didn’t know better, or if it is the personality of the staff, but the entire experience was extremely laid back.

The ship is amazing. Modern technology on the ship makes it more environmentally friendly than its peers. It doesn’t even have to drop anchor in ports. The ship décor consists of clean, sleek lines, very modern – think W hotel on the sea. Although the décor is modern there is still a comfortable warm feeling to the ship. The public space is elegant but still inviting. Le Boreal is small, especially if you are used to the floating cities that Royal Caribbean sends out to sail. I don’t need a rock wall, skating rink and casino; I need an attentive bartender and comfortable deck chair – both well done aboard Le Boreal. The other basic human necessities, like a spa and fitness center are accounted for as well and are very nice.

Le Boreal is more like a yacht than a cruise liner – maximum capacity of 264 passengers as there are only 132 cabins. All cabins face the sea, most with balconies; you have to try really hard to get a room without a balcony. Note that all balconies are not created equal. I learned the hard way that some balconies are just bars and can be seen through from anywhere in the room and others are more like windows that you have to stand up next to in order to enjoy the view….guess which one I had…oh well, I am not one to spend crazy amounts of time in my room. Rooms are smaller than the standard you will find on Crystal, Silver Seas or even Azamara, but they are immaculate, after all, the ship is brand new. The creepy glass wall separating the bathroom from the bedroom area seems odd at first, but when you realize that the occupant of the bathroom controls the sliding privacy wall to cover the glass wall and not the prankster in the bedroom area, it makes sense. You can open the privacy wall to help alleviate the feeling that you are getting ready in a closet. The beds could rival any Heavenly Bed found on land. The room has a flat screen television, but I couldn’t tell you if it worked or not, I rarely turn on the television when I travel, mostly because I can’t bring myself to touch the filthy remote.

There is something like 138 staff on board. Think about it 138 staff and only 132 cabins – a high maintenance person like myself likes those odds. Speaking of 138, that is coincidentally the average age of the average passenger aboard Le Boreal. Of course I was not surprised; in fact it was one of my worries when booking this cruise for my young hip friends. Cruisers are always older unless you are on some Celebrity theme cruise, ick! Don’t get me wrong, it isn’t all bad cruising with the older folk, for someone as young and spry as me and my thirty best friends that cruised with me, it meant that we had the disco and bars mostly to ourselves.

You better really like the people that you are traveling with, because they will be your entertainment. There really isn’t any entertainment on board to speak of, there are a few singers that perform at odd times, but they aren’t great. At first I thought it was karaoke night, but soon realized the duo was actually employed by the ship. I didn’t make it to any of the (few) shows in the theater, but I am confident that I didn’t miss much. We quickly surmised that the entertainment provided late night in the disco by DJ Maksym (as listed on the daily newsletter delivered to each cabin), must have been the name affectionately given to the laptop that sat alone to play the party tunes as there was not a human in site that wasn’t tending bar or part of my group. Allegedly, one night there was a hostile takeover of DJ Maksym to allow for the playing of a much more fun iPod, I cannot confirm nor deny such story.

Not surprisingly, after the first night onboard the bar staff knew what account to charge, the drink package we had signed up for and most importantly, our favorite drinks. Baby, not his real name, but the name I gave my favorite bartender had a smile and a glass (or maybe it was a bottle) of bubbly ready for me every night. Other than Baby and the bar staff, the service onboard was spotty. This, by no means is a Crystal cruise. There is not a butler for each room that jumps out of nowhere to open your cabin door for you when you return to your room. No one will fold your extra towel into a sunglass wearing monkey attached to the hanger. Some of the staff was extremely attentive, taking the time to become familiar with the group. Others were on the opposite side of the spectrum. It was like they had never laid eyes on me…every day…even at the end of a seven day cruise. They never once acknowledged that they had seen me before or that I had ordered the exact same thing from them for breakfast EVERY DAY for SEVEN DAYS. But, after several conversations with the captain and his executive staff it was clear that the current staff was very much in a trial phase and they knew that many weren’t long for the Le Boreal world. I have confidence that they are weeding out the duds and keeping the best. I hope Baby is faring well.

The Captain was amazing. My seemingly small group was very important to the Captain. Unknowingly we had planned for dinner off the ship while in Split, what is normally the night of his formal Captain’s dinner. He rearranged the dinner for the entire ship to accommodate our group. Not because we asked him to, because he wanted us onboard for the dinner. Needless to say, we were tres impressed. Come to find out, the captain admitted that while he loves his octogenarians, his goal is to attract a younger, high net-worth crowd like I was hanging out with. He and his executive staff took several opportunities during the week to pick our brains for what was working for us and what wasn’t working for us.

One thing that wasn’t working – the meals. I expected so much more from a French cruise line. The dinners were so-so and the breakfasts were almost painful. Dinner is an open seating style, no pesky seating time to deal with. The meals were fine I guess, just lacked taste. I can think of one soup that was somewhat impressive, the rest of the food was just…fine. The wines offered with dinner (and included in the cost of the cruise) were good, nothing to write home about. Le Boreal has a nice wine list, but of course anything off of that list is at an additional expense. If you REALLY want wine, ask the sommelier for something not on the list, he has some great wines not listed anywhere. All in all, it was a good thing the ship had several late nights in ports where we were able to find some impressive meals on land.

The breakfast, on the other hand was horrible. The buffets were weak – stocked with odd food, I think even the Europeans have no desire for a salad bar in the morning, and there is nothing worse than staring down a chafing dish of soupy scrambled eggs after a night of dancing and bubbles. In theory, you could order off the menu, but getting a waiter to take your order was difficult at best.

I only experienced a handful of lunches on the ship and they were better than the dinners, but I am a sucker for an action station. The worst thing about lunch – the lines. It seems that young and old alike need their lunch.

The timing for outlets was odd. Both breakfast and lunch had a very small window of opportunity, especially by cruise ship standards. The tiny boutique was forever closed. I saw it open only once, it was the last night and Baby had already opened my evening bottle of bubbles. It just felt rude to leave him to shop.

The size of the ship allows it to hit some ports that the sailing mammoths can’t reach, making for a truly unique itinerary. The ship is nimble enough for a stop in Montenegro. The sail into the harbor surrounded by mountains was worth the price of admission. The ship also seems to stay in port much later than other cruises I have experienced. It happened that in the ports I was most excited about we were able to stay until 11:00 or midnight. This allowed us to experience several amazing dinners along the Dalmatian Coast and to avoid the ship’s dining room.

I will be honest; I did not partake in the excursions offered by the ship. Instead, we utilized a Croatian DMC to organize private tours for just my group; that is just not how we roll. We were able to pick tours that I knew would be interesting to my friends and do them at our pace, not the pace of the dear sweet lady with the walker. No headsets, no following a flag on a stick, our tours were much more personal.

This cruise/ship isn’t for everyone. If you are a seasoned cruiser and expect all of the amenities of a metropolis, this isn’t the ship for you. If you are expecting over-the-top service, get yourself to a Crystal cruise stat. If you are on a small budget, try something closer to home. All in all, my group had a great time. I think it was a combination of factors:

  • the group truly enjoys the company of each other – helpful no matter the location
  • the group is well traveled – they loved the itinerary and visiting ports they would have never ventured to on their own, ports that in my opinion are better visited by sea than by land
  • the newness – the group loved the idea of ‘discovering’ a new ship
  • money isn’t a huge object for this group – this cruise wasn’t cheap
  • copious amount of wine, champagne and cigars
As the week ended we said good bye to the staff that acknowledged our attendance onboard Le Boreal. Although not mandatory, we tipped our favorites. I said my good bye to Baby and gave him some cash to remember me by. He said good bye to me in his way – let’s just say, that if I represented the Adriatic Sea, Baby kissed me in Venice and tried to put my hand on the Greek Isles. Is that how the French say good bye?

Compagnie du Ponant - Le Boreal (Video)

Related Links:
Le Boreal Virtual Tour
Compagnie Du Ponant - Yacht Cruises

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