Le Laperouse

(2:45 p.m. EDT) -- On an unseasonably chilly morning in Iceland, French cruise line Ponant christened the first of its new class of luxury expedition ships, Le Laperouse.

The 184-passenger ship is the first of six Explorer-class expedition vessels the line will launch in the next few years. By 2021, its fleet will have expanded from five ships to 12. All of the ships will have a reinforced hull for polar exploration, a dining room affiliated with French chef Alain Ducasse and a lineup of destination-immersive itineraries that aim to help passengers check off their bucket lists.

Maryvonne Pinault, wife of Francois Pinault, the chairman of Ponant's parent company Artemis Group, served as the ship's godmother. Speaking through a translator, she noted that her previous sailing on Ponant was "a great adventure for the senses and the spirit." The Champagne bottle broke on first try, while music was provided by Bagad Lann Bihoue, a Breton pipe band that's also the only remaining French military band. (The breaking of a Champagne bottle is a traditional part of new cruise ship launches.)

Other nods to the company's history included a rendition of the anthem of Brittany, where Ponant CEO Jean Emmanuel Sauvée co-founded the company 30 years ago, and a blessing given by a priest from Marseilles, Ponant's current headquarters.

Le Laperouse has been sailing since mid-June on a series of Iceland-intensive cruises. Five of the 2018 Iceland cruises and eight of those for 2019 are full-ship charters by Tauck, one of the Ponant's main partners (others are Abercrombie & Kent and Gohagan, which specializes in university affiliate sailings). Between 25 to 30 percent of Ponant's itineraries are global charters, said Navin Sawhney, Ponant Chief Executive Office for the Americas.

The size of Le Laperouse and its upcoming sibling -- the second Explorer-class ship, Le Champlain, which debuts in October -- make them a perfect match for luxury tour groups focused on destinations, said Jennifer Tombaugh, Tauck's president. "We believe small is big," she said at a cocktail reception onboard. "There are so many places that are best discovered at sea. These ships are ideal."

Scandinavian-inspired interiors on Le Laperouse

A tour of Le Laperouse revealed Scandinavian-inspired interiors with upscale furnishings and textures, as well as public spaces full of light. All of the 92 cabins have balconies and four of them are suites with butler service. While there is only one dining room, Le Laperouse has a spa and a gorgeous sauna with sea views, as well as an infinity pool.

The ship carries nine Zodiacs, including one that can be used for diving and one that can be used for fishing, on certain itineraries. There's also a fairly large photo studio onboard, where passengers can buy highlight albums and videos of their expedition cruise if they don't want to take their own; a professional photographer and videographer also travel on each itinerary. And finally, there's a large watersports deck and marina that allow easy access to the water.

Unlike other luxury expedition ships launching soon, Le Laperouse does not have a submarine. What it does have is the Blue Eye Lounge, a "first for the industry" underwater space designed for viewing marine life.

Accessed by a special elevator and then down a set of stairs below the water line, the Blue Eye Lounge feels like a special experience as soon as you walk in. Dark blue lighting, curvy moldings inspired by a whale skeleton and digital displays of marine animals such as jellyfish complement the main attraction -- two large windows, shaped like whale eyes, that allow passengers to look out. Undersea sounds are transmitted into the lounge, which features sofas that vibrate.

During a typical sailing, the Blue Eye Lounge is open part of every night as a bar. There are also two special Blue Eye Experiences on every sailing given to groups of 30, the area's maximum capacity. During the presentations, outside sound is kept to a minimum so passengers can concentrate on the marine life.

(At the christening, world champion French diver Aurore Asso swam past the Blue Eye to wave to attendees. Otherwise, the cloudy Icelandic waters showed little; the Blue Eye Lounge likely works best in destinations that don't receive frequent storms.)

A french diver greets the guests in the Blue Eye Lounge on Le Laperouse

Among other Ponant highlights are the fact that every sailing is bilingual, as well as its inclusive pricing structure. Drinks, gratuities and expedition excursions are part of the fare, said Edie Rodriguez, Ponant Brand Chairman. Longer excursions that might involve buses or private drivers are extra, as is Wi-Fi. (Passengers who sail with Tauck on a charter might have different inclusions, however.) Ponant also partners with the adventure company Backroads on some itineraries.

Ponant's rapid expansion is dovetailing with the growth of luxury expedition cruising and, given the size of the ships themselves, is keeping up with rather than outpacing demand, Rodriguez noted.

"If you take our whole fleet, it's still less than the size of one megaship," she said.

Also driving growth is Ponant's foray into cruise markets beyond France. Sawhney noted that before 2013, the company remained primarily focused on French customers. Now the company has offices in Australia, Hong Kong, Britain and the United States, among others, he said.  

"Ponant has evolved into a global company with French flair."

--By Chris Gray Faust, Managing Editor