L’Austral: Small ship delivers big perks
Published in the Summer 2013 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Rebecca McCormick
Thinking about Greek food made my mouth water last fall when I answered a phone call from a mellifluous voice in New York City trying to sell me on the idea of cruising the Greek Islands aboard a luxury super yacht called L’Austral.
“We understand you’re not much of a cruise fan,” suggested the polite voice on the other end.
“Have you been stalking me on Facebook?” I asked, halfway not kidding – mostly because my singular experience on a cruise ship up until then was more like a sale day at the livestock barn than a relaxing vacation I’d want to repeat.
“We’d like an opportunity to change your mind,” the suave salesperson continued, describing how L’Austral’s small capacity preserves a sense of intimacy for her passengers and enables the ship to maneuver mythical ports of call and secret harbors inaccessible to larger vessels.
“What’s more, because this excursion is themed as a classical music cruise, we will be hosting a string quartet, a pianist and a clarinetist to perform for our guests each evening after dinner,” she said. Bingo. I’m a cellist. I was hooked.
Ponant’s Themed Cruises
While my new friend was still speaking, I searched the Internet for Compagnie du Ponant, the ship’s parent company. They specialize in “small capacity luxury yachts, five-star comfort, state-of-the-art technology, fascinating encounters and intensely emotional moments” in destinations like the Poles, the Antarctic Peninsula, the mythical White Continent, South Georgia and of course, the Greek Islands. New destinations include South America and the Caribbean. I also discovered Ponant’s other themed cruises include golf, opera, bel canto, cinema, gastronomy, and family cruises – each of which is appropriate for amateurs and experts alike.
By the time we had concluded our introductory conversation, I was simultaneously drooling on the computer keyboard and emailing my mother, who ended up sharing this dream trip with me.
From the moment we landed in Athens, representatives from Compagnie du Ponant handled every detail with precision and professionalism – from airport transfers and hotel accommodations the day before departure to ship boarding.
Fleet of Super Yachts
“We want each passenger to feel as if he or she is cruising on their own private yacht,” said Captain Jean-Philippe Lemaire.
We did. Especially because of the butler service, available round the clock on all six decks. Somehow, breakfast tastes best when someone else cooks it and delivers it for your dining pleasure at sunrise on the balcony of a super yacht sailing the Mediterranean.
With only 132 staterooms and suites, L’Austral is small enough to be intimate, but large enough to allow privacy. The ship’s elegant, sophisticated décor creates a unique ambiance somewhere between chic and relaxed casual.
Dining aboard L’Austral is a delight, particularly if you like French and international gourmet cuisine and don’t get bored with a variety of freshly baked breads, a smorgasbord of cheeses and a sinful selection of desserts. (Don’t worry: You can work it off in the fitness center.) In addition, complimentary fine wines are served during meals. (Yes, the coffee is spectacular, too.) What’s more, a discreet yet attentive crew will make you feel like visiting royalty, no matter what you’re doing.
Each day, many of us took advantage of the opportunity to go ashore for optional excursion on the Greek islands. Others among us chose to stay on board to indulge in treatments at Sothy’s spa or to lounge around the pool.
On the aristocratic little island of Sifnos, for instance, we toured Kastro, a village inhabited since prehistoric times. Built on steep sided-cliffs with a panoramic view of the Agean Sea, Kastro stands staunch like the fortified village she once was. Still, she charms her guests with flickering lanterns, intimate chapels and balconied wooden houses identified by coats of arms carved above her decorative doors.
On Simi, we wandered squiggly roads between tile-roofed homes where fuschia bougainvilleas hang like giant corsages on diminutive front porches, fishermen are more common than mailmen and bargains beckon the best boutique shoppers.
Mastic and Mosaics
On Chios, we visited a grove of rare mastic trees to learn about “the tears of Chios.” Harvested as a liquid resin, the mastic is sun-dried into hard, translucent drops, or tears. When chewed, the resin softens and becomes a white, opaque gum – bitter at first, but eventually refreshing and slightly piney. Over the years, mastic has been marketed for a variety of commercial uses, with applications in the food, pharmaceutical and photographic industries.
The cypress- and pine-rich island of Chios is also home to Nea Moni Monastery. A jewel of 11th century Byzantine art, the monastery is a UNESCO World Heritage site where intricate mosaics are valued among the most beautiful in the county.
The island of Rhodes comprises another UNESCO World Heritage site, partly because of the Knights of St. John, who ruled the island from 1310 to 1522 and built the impressive city walls and picturesque gates.
On Patmos, we stirred the sacred in us to walk steep steps to a monastery established in 1088 to commemorate the site where Saint John the Divine wrote the Apocalypse.
For some in our tour group, the scope of Greek history was almost overwhelming. But thanks to our amazing excursion guide, Dionysia Sklavourakov, centuries of history were distilled and fed to us in portions we could assimilate in the limited time we had available. I especially appreciated Dionysia’s patience to give us a few extra minutes to post pictures and text to social media outlets wherever we had available WiFi.
My favorite experience of the trip happened on the day we visited Santorini when Kristi, one of my new ship friends, asked if I’d like to hike to the north end of the island with her. Sensing my hesitation, Kristi assured me this was not her first Santorini experience; and even if I didn’t go with her, she still planned to do the hike solo.
“By late afternoon, we’ll end up in a little town called Ammoudi,” Kristi explained patiently. “We’ll walk down some steps to the water’s edge where fisherman will have parked their boats in front of three restaurants. We’ll choose a fish for them to grill, and we’ll eat it while we watch the sun melt into the horizon. How does that sound?” Sold again.
The next thing I knew, we were standing in line with hundreds of other people waiting to ride cable cars to the top of the cliff, where Kristi indicated we would start our hike.
“Do you have a map?” I asked like a good Girl Scout when we got out of the cable car.
“Map? No! All we’re going to do is follow the spine of this mountain ridge until we get to the end of the island,” she said, forging ahead on the pebble path.
“Seriously?” I questioned again, realizing I had watched entirely too many television crime dramas.
“All we have to do is keep the water on our left and we’ll get there, no problem,” she insisted. “The one thing we must do is return to the ship before it leaves at 8:30.”
Three and a half hours plus seven miles and several mountains later, we made it to Ammoudi and the 500 steps leading down to the water’s edge. The donkeys were there, just as I had heard they would be. But my friend Kristi said we didn’t need to ride down the steps; we could just walk. Through the donkey poop.
We finally got to the water about 30 minutes before sunset, just as Kristi promised. Looking way back up the cliff, hundreds of people were perched like birds nesting for the night.
But we were eye level with the boats. Golden, glittery light bathed us in the glory that is Greece at sunset. Lovers kissed. Fish sizzled on the open grills. Cats nudged against our ankles. And my eyes filled with tears.
Grace For The Journey
Once again, I bowed my head in gratitude, drinking deeply of the mystery in that moment. And I thanked God one more time for the privilege to travel, for a world to explore, for a phone call from New York, for a captain and crew and a very cool ship, for my family and for new group of friends – especially Kristi, who encouraged me to get out of my comfort zone in Santorini long enough to expand the borders of my life.
After dinner, I also thanked God for the taxi driver who hurriedly delivered us back to the ship only moments before departure.
Bravo, Kristi! Bravo, L’Austral! Bravo, Compagnie du Ponant! And bravo, Greece!
Rebecca McCormick is a travel writer from Hot Springs, Ark., USA. Connect with her at www.rebeccamccormick.me.