Luxury hotels that want to see an epitomal example of seamless service should look at Ponant, the boutique cruise line – named for ‘look west’, opposite of Levant – that is actually more like private yachting. The gal took a week-long cruise, Treasures of the Mediterranean World: a Family Learning Adventure, on the good ship Lyrial, called after the constellation Lyra: 2015 vintage, 142 metres long, seven decks high, 122 cabins, maximum 244 crew, led by a blue-eyed captain, Christophe Colaris, who was with the company when it started 1988 (though he took a prolonged break to be a maritime pilot in Guadeloupe, returning to Ponant, by then owned by the Pinault family, in 2017). Now, when he has his two months’ break every three months he merely goes long-distance gliding from his home near Avignon. Lyrial is registered in Mata Uta, capital of Wallis and Futuna.
Seamless service with Ponant starts long before a voyage. I was sent a proper bound welcome booklet, personalised on the cover and inside. The booklet had welcomes, with photographs, from both Ponant CEO Jean-Emmanuel Sauvée, and the captain (most cruise companies never tell you these names beforehand). I also learned the exact itinerary, and the history of Ponant. The trip started the moment I flew into Rome. I was met airside, had a private car to the hotel, where all passengers on a Ponant USA programme had a welcome cocktail buffet, and, the following day after breakfast, we were bussed, with our luggage, to tour the Colosseum. After a deliberately leisurely lunch at Tanagra, by the flowing Tiber, we all arrived at the ship in plenty of time for safety drill and 6 p.m. sailing. Interestingly, as well as the Ponant USA programme, which included 27 youngsters, plus two board members of the Archaeological Institute of America, and a tour arranged by The New York Times (this group, led by Arthur Sulzberger Jr, chairman of that eminent paper until 2017, did their own thing much of the time).
Of course I quickly checked out the gym, which had three runners, three bikes and a rower, all Technogym, a Kinesis wall, and big windows offering stunning views. Best things were, unusually for cruising, it was open 24/7, and on the fifth deck, just along from my temporary home. Cabins, called Staterooms or Suites, are 18-45 sq m, and 95% have balconies. I was in #503, an 18 sq m Prestige Stateoom, with 4 sq m balcony holding two armchairs and a table. It was plenty big enough for one, or for two people – a screen pulled across the bathing area for privacy. Actually I loved having that all-glass wall between bedrooms and basin-shower (the toilet was properly enclosed): I also liked Nuel’s use of curves, vertically for the corner of the bathroom, and on the edges of the main drawers. There was plenty of storage space, and I had enough wood hangers for an entire Gucci wardrobe (interestingly, the toiletries are Hermès, the most important brand that has eluded both predatory French fashion giants, although LVMH did have a small stake for four years). I had a bottle of Veuve Clicquot (LVMH) and fruit was replenished daily, though interestingly I was never told the name of the cabin attendant.
She was Filipina, like nearly all the housekeeping staff, though some were Indonesian. She had the sense not to reprieve the artificial orchid, banished to obscurity behind my umbrellas. I loved the sound quality of the Samsung television: listening to Bizet’s La jolie fille de Perth – Sérénade et Marche, London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Claudio Abbado, was sheer bliss – as was listening, live, to the Ukrainian pianist, Andrey Shabala, playing on the ship’s perfectly-tuned Steinway, especially when he began a post-dinner concert with Beethoven Sonata 21. One of the differences between static hotels and always-moving cruise ships, incidentally, is that most hotels, unless they happen to be on a distant island, can call in someone to tune a piano or get an out-of- order jogging machine in the fitness centre to start working. At sea, challenges in having hiccups fixed are not always easily overcome. NOW SEE MY STATEROOM (CABIN, SUITE) AND THE CAPTAIN’S WELCOME