Antarctica has some of the finest scenery on earth as well as intriguing wildlife. Credit: Shutterstock

A journey to the end of the world

Author: Lauren Ho

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Ponant’s new flagship Le Commandant Charcot takes polar expedition cruising to a whole new level.

At 6am, just off the north eastern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, the temperature is minus 14 Celsius as the pastel wash of sunrise streaks the sky and bright blue chunks of ice float silently past the ship. This is the third morning of a 17-night journey aboard Le Commandant Charcot, French line Ponant’s ice-breaking expedition vessel.

On her final Antarctic voyage of the season, the ship departed from Punta Arenas – capital of Chile’s southern most region – and sailed through the Strait of Magellan before crossing the notoriously wild Drake Passage. From here, we will go on to explore the Weddell Sea before turning north again to South Georgia and the South Sandwich Islands.

As Ponant’s flagship, Le Commandant Charcot is a showpiece of technology, sustainability and sleek interior design, with an all-star expedition team leading a programme of immersive excursions. She has attracted her fair share of hype so my expectations were high – but they were not disappointed.

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To start with, this ship is a beauty to look at. The work of longtime Ponant collaborator Stirling Design International, the ship’s exterior combines sleek aesthetics with state-of-the-art specifications (her innovative hull, with its bulb-less bow, can sail through two-and-a-half metres of ice).

Under the skin she is kitted out with a number of pioneering features, being the first polar exploration ship to be powered by liquefied natural gas – currently the cleanest fuel on the market – and also the first to be equipped with Azipods, a steerable electric propulsion system designed for the toughest polar conditions.

She navigates with the help of advance dice-routing software and, thanks to her innovative hull, she is the first Polar Class 2 ship of her type.

-READ MORE: Everything you need to know about Le Commandant Charcot-

Le Commandant Charcot is Ponant's first polar expedition ship. Credit: Shutterstock

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Inside, Ponant has taken the opportunity to fine-tune its understated and contemporary design style, this time splitting the task between Paris-based architect Jean-Michel Wilmotte and designer Jean-Philippe Nuel, who has masterminded the look of Ponant ships ever since the launch of Le Boréal.

In keeping with the brand’s elegant ethos, the duo have created a cohesive design that takes its cues from the beauty of the polar landscape.

One highlight is the Observatory Bar on deck 9, which is spacious, light-filled and layered with tactile natural materials. Between the timber-panelled walls and the marble bar it’s dotted with custom-made furnishings in intimate seating groups.

And if you’re not feeling so sociable, there are well-stocked bookshelves and some spectacular ice-scape photographs to keep you absorbed.

Going on a cruise is one of the best ways to explore the Antarctic. Credit: Shutterstock

On this level you’ll also find a bijou gym with a view, as well as a generous wellness area with a snow room, indoor pool and juice bar. Nearby is the main buffet restaurant, which leads to a welcoming open-air bar with a heated lagoon pool that wraps round a large fire pit.

On deck five, you’ll find the main lounge – a cosy nightcap kind of space – as well as a cigar lounge, a theatre and the ship’s fine-dining restaurant, Nuna.

The ship’s 123 staterooms and suites are a delight, too, with curvilinear walls and concealed lighting that creates a soft glow over tactile materials (think bed throws by high-end Danish brand Kvadrat and leather finishes in dark grey and oatmeal).

It all adds up to the perfect base for days spent either at sea or exploring some of the world’s most magnificent and remote landscapes.

The Antarctic is home to lots of wildlife including many penguins. Credit: Shutterstock

Over breakfast – which could be taken either in the main buffet restaurant or at Nuna – we’d watch the ship’s expedition team zip away on the Zodiacs to scout our landing for the morning. Very much dependent on the prevailing weather conditions, our itinerary and the experiences on offer were diverse and fluid, often changing at a moment’s notice.

One sunny morning we motored in the Zodiacs through a smattering of floating icebergs and frolicking fur seals towards Devil Island, a postage-stamp of land right at the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula that’s home to about 15,000 pairs of Adelie penguins.

The sea lapped the stony shore as we disembarked, picking our way past snoring fur seals, and hiked to the top of a snowy peak for breathtaking panoramic views of the iceberg-strewn Weddell Sea.

Later that afternoon, with the weather taking a turn for the worse, we abandoned our original plans and headed towards a gigantic ice sheet where Le Commandant Charcot could really show her prowess.

After breaking a channel through the compacted ice, the expedition team did a quick scout before summoning us off the ship to gingerly pick our way across the icy terrain, the late evening sunshine turning the landscape bright white before us.

At South Georgia, home to an amazing profusion of wildlife, we made several landings, the most memorable being our last, at Saint Andrew’s Bayon the island’s north coast. Here, amid the pungent whiff of guano, we boarded our Zodiacs and sped under a cloudless blue sky towards a shore scattered with dozing elephant seals.

Then, as we hiked along the coast, it sounded almost as though we were approaching a roaring sports stadium. But the noise we could hear was the world’s largest colony of king penguins – more than 150,000 of them.

-READ MORE: Everything you need to know about cruising in Antarctica-

Zodiacs ships are small inflatable vessels that allow you to get up close to the wildlife. Credit: Seabourn

In between excursions, lunch in the main restaurant was a buffet with daily specials (such as caviar and grilled lobster tails), usually followed by a lazy afternoon sipping fresh juices in the wellness area, or simply watching the world go by in the Observatory Bar.

In the evenings, we’d all gather in the theatre for a debrief on the day’s events, before heading to one of the bars for a pre-prandial cocktail.

Supper – which could also be taken in the buffet dining room – was mostly eaten in Nuna, the creation of French celebrity chef Alain Ducasse. Changing daily, the menus here were a fabulous compendium of M Ducasse’s greatest hits, from truffled rack of lamb with sautéed potatoes and porcini mushrooms to lobster thermidor.

This could be followed by a night capin the cigar lounge or various programmed entertainments in the theatre, ranging from live opera recitals to movie nights.

Le Commandant Charcot has stylish and comfortable cabins. Credit: Shutterstock

But delightful as life on board proved to be, the real thrills of this voyage came on shore. Perhaps my favourite of all our trips – though no on our original itinerary – was a visit to the South Orkney islands, about 375 miles north of the tip of the Antarctic Peninsula.

Early one morning, under a vast dome of puffy cumulus clouds, we boarded the Zodiacs for a spin round the aptly named Iceberg Bay, where we puttered along with giant ice formations looming blue and black above us.

Later, as we sailed away, the sky awash with the brilliant orange of sunset, we gathered in the Observatory Bar to watch the icebergs float past in this unique, silent and magnificent corner of the world. We were drinking champagne but no one said a word.

Get on board:
Ponant's 18-night ‘The Weddell Sea and South Sandwich Islands’ cruise aboard Le Commandant Charcot, from Ushuaia to Monte video via Drake Passage, South Shetland Islands, Antarctic Peninsula, Weddell Sea, South Sandwich Islands and South Georgia, departs March 11, 2023, and costs from £19,670 per person.

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