Le Commandant Charcot - Cruise Ship Review (2024)

Reviewed by Travis Levius

What is the line? Ponant

Name of ship? Le Commandant Charcot

Passenger occupancy? 245

Itinerary? Geographic North Pole; also sails to The Arctic, Antarctica, Scandinavia, and North America

Start out with the big picture—what is this cruise line known for?

Ponant is a (proudly) French luxury outfitter with itineraries on all seven continents, from tropical Indian Ocean sails to Arctic expeditions. Though it operates a dozen ships and has gained an international following, their voyages remain intimate; even the passenger count for their ocean liners clocks under 300. No matter the itinerary or vessel, one can expect elegant spaces and accommodations, well-versed onboard guides and naturalists, and superb French gastronomy.

Tell us about the ship in general

Launched in 2021, Le Commandant Charcot is the industry's first-ever purpose-built Class II icebreaker for commercial passengers. This allows the 245-passenger vessel to smash through eight-feet-thick ice and explore the Earth’s extreme latitudes (including its northernmost point) that other ships cannot access. It also leads the pack for environmentally sensitive sails, being the first hybrid polar exploration ship partly fueled by liquefied natural gas, reducing harmful emissions.

Outside of its eco-credentials and engineering feats, the ship is a thoroughly luxurious experience—an Alain Ducasse-branded culinary program; all balcony-equipped staterooms and suites; a first-rate spa complex; Diptyque toiletries; elegant neutral-toned interiors in tanned woods, leather and soothing shades of blue. Out of the several custom artwork commissions, Miguel Chevalier’s landscape-inspired "Oscillations" is the showstopper, a digital piece scaling four floors of the ship’s atrium running parallel to the main glass elevator. My personal favorite onboard feature was the ship’s new Starlink Wi-Fi installation, launched in Summer 2023. Whereas previous North Pole-bound Charcot voyages endured zero internet for 10-plus days, my cruise cohort enjoyed consistent satellite internet connection, even at the North Pole itself, where we could connect with loved ones in real-time.

Who is onboard?

It’s a mixture of well-traveled couples, a sprinkle of solo adventurers, and some families. In general, Ponant mainly attracts Americans and Europeans (the ship’s main tongue is both English and French) but their special, rare North Pole offerings seem to cast a wider net. More than 20 nationalities were represented on my sailing, including a sizable number from China, Japan, and Kazakhstan, and there were more onboard translators than most other Ponant sailings. The overall age also seemed slightly younger than the typical Ponant demographic, too. After chatting with some of my fellow passengers, I realized many had visited Antarctica (a few had even reached the South Pole), and the North Pole was their big bucket list trip after ticking off many, many other places around the globe.

Describe the cabins.

There are 123 staterooms and suites, all equipped with balcony or terrace space with seating. Each room is designed in neutrals and muted blues in line with the ship’s chic, contemporary interior aesthetic. The entry-level Prestige Stateroom is 215 sq. ft. My room was one category higher, the Deluxe Suite, at 301 sq. ft., and while it was a comfortable stay, calling it a “suite” might be generous. The rooms’ best bits are the fig-scented Diptyque Paris bathroom goodies, 24-hour room service, an ever-replenished minibar, and both American and European-style plug outlets. For the ultimate in comfort and space, the Duplex Suite and the Owner’s Suite can sleep up to four and six people, respectively, and come with several VIP-style amenities and privileges. Of the seven room categories, the premium four include a bathtub.

Tell us about the crew.

Charcot enjoys a nearly 1:1 crew to guest ratio, so assistance is never too far. Overall, service and staff interactions nailed the sweet spot of professionalism and kindness, without being either too stiff or overfamiliar. Each room comes with butler service, and activity inquiries and changes were seamless with the knowledgeable front desk team. Kudos are in order for Charcot’s 20-something army of erudite naturalists, biologists, guides, and the like, making the North Pole and Svalbard itinerary shine with fascinating lectures and well-run excursions.

What food and drink options are available on board?

Between the ship’s two main restaurants, there are no reservations required for guests to relish in Michelin star-quality meals. Ponant tapped the team of French culinary demi-god Alain Ducasse to create the menus, and the quality is evident. Deck 5-based Nuna is the flagship restaurant, providing refined French and international cuisine via set menus and a la carte selections. Stand-out dishes included beef Wellington and lobster tail with peppered morello cherry chutney. Sila, on Deck 9, is the buffet restaurant (albeit an opulent one) and was my go-to venue for an eclectic range of savory and sweet offerings for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. The rate-inclusive French red, white, and Champagne selections are excellent, though more premium sips are available from their fancy glass encased wine cellar. There is also an open-air “rooftop” bar serving drinks and bites on certain days.

Is there a spa on board and is it worth visiting?

If there was one other place you’d spot me on the ship—besides my cabin and the restaurants for mealtimes—it would be the spa’s Detox Bar, where I’d enjoy fresh-made smoothies on a lounger, with widescreen views of the frosty Arctic horizon laid before me. The ship’s wellness wing contains an indoor pool with ample lounge seating, massage rooms featuring Biologique Recherche product treatments, hair salon, a sauna with sea views, and a snow room.

What about activities and entertainment?

A diverse, daily-changing roster of activities keep guests plenty busy, a necessity given that much of the two-week-plus journey is spent at sea. Charcot’s multi-functional theater space can accommodate all passengers at once, and serves as the base for most offerings. Morning yoga and fitness classes take place here, as well as voyage-related movie screenings, lectures, and assorted live entertainment. I skipped most of the post-dinner music and dance performances in favor of daytime lectures provided by a rotation of on-board naturalists and esteemed special guest speakers.

On the ship’s top floor, the ample-sized Observatory Lounge provides board games, books, and occasional live piano sessions. Since the curvy outdoor pool was widely unavailable for our extreme North Pole voyage, guests took dips in the heated indoor pool instead.

How was the experience for families?

Given the extreme nature of the Arctic/Antarctic itineraries, Charcot isn’t an ideal sail for children. Minor passengers must be at least 8 years old, and there are no made-for-kids activities or services.

Where did it sail and how were the excursions? Did anything stand out?

My cruise went to the North Pole, and I’d be willing to wager that there’s never been a more sumptuous means to reach this landless point on the Earth’s axis. As of now, one can only access the North Pole by two ships: Charcot, and the Russian nuclear icebreaker vessel 50 Years of Victory, which is not a luxury ship by any stretch.

The North Pole cruise is not for everyone…especially those who need frequent off-ship excursions to feel, well, grounded. Voyages are at least 15 nights. After embarking from Svalbard, Norway, it’s all ocean water and ice for a week before reaching the Pole, and about the same for the return. My final few days, though, were packed with exciting Svalbard excursions, from walrus, polar bear, and glacial calving sights on Zodiac boats; kayaking along a jagged cliff wall hijacked by bird colonies; gentle mountain hikes; and a tour of the beguiling port town Longyearbyen, the world’s northernmost permanent settlement. Another highlight of the trip was a North Pole polar plunge (many guests, including myself, participated and we all lived to see another day).

Are there any stand out sustainability or green initiatives about this cruise?

The ship is the world’s first hybrid electric passenger ship that uses liquified natural gas, and is a sign of Ponant’s more ambitious endeavors to produce gas emissions-free ships with “zero impact” by 2030. With no single plastics in sight, drinking water aboard Charcot is produced onboard and bottled in glass; guests receive stainless steel flasks for refills. Recycled energy heats the outdoor pool (Blue Lagoon) and promenade benches.

Anything we missed?

Select itineraries feature notable guest speakers—my sailing featured French astrophysicist François Forget and astronaut Jean-François Clervoy—and they come recommended as they deeply enrich the itineraries.

Finally, give a sentence or two on why the cruise is worth booking.

Cold climate cruisers who appreciate eco-innovation, utmost luxury, and world-class cuisine will swoon over Ponant’s latest groundbreaking (and ice-breaking) ship.

Le Commandant Charcot - Cruise Ship Review (2024)

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