Why we should all be more French about cruising

You experience a different kind of travel with upscale French cruise line Ponant
You experience a different kind of travel with upscale French cruise line Ponant - ©PONANT/Julien Fabro

The century-old plane trees scattered across St Tropez’s famous Place des Lices added a welcome splash of green to this square, their dappled shade tracing an intricate patchwork of shadows across the dusty ground.

My focus, however, was firmly elsewhere. I was concentrating hard as I curled my fingers around a plum-sized metal ball, flicking my wrist to send it soaring up into the air. Around me, groups of locals were earnestly doing the same – though with considerably more panache.

But then, in this corner of France, the game of pétanque is not so much a pastime as it is a way of life.

Sampling such a Provençal tradition seemed a natural fit during a voyage along this stretch of the Côte d’Azur with upscale French cruise line Ponant. I’d stepped aboard its three-masted schooner Le Ponant just a couple of days earlier, its graceful profile marking it out among the brasher mega-yachts lined up in Nice’s pretty harbour.

Upon setting off on a voyage that hugged the beautiful rugged stretch of coastline towards the pretty former fishing village of Cassis, our captain gave the order to cut the engines and unfurl the sails which crept up the masts to catch the strong sea breeze.

This grand-mère of the waves is pristine
This grand-mère of the waves is pristine - ©PONANT/Julien Fabro

This was sailing at its authentic best – yet life on Le Ponant came with something more: a distinctive French flavour. A certain je ne sais quoi, if you will.

For you see, French cruise lines – and, indeed, French cruise passengers – have made an art form of holidaying at sea. For the French, a cruise is a thoroughly refined experience, peppered with sophisticated service, chic understated ensembles and varied intellectual pursuits.

And though Ponant’s 14-strong fleet of small ships and yachts attracts an increasingly international crowd (Americans account for around 25 per cent; 50 per cent hail from Europe, with the French-speaking market making up around a third of that), it remains an excellent example of this chic seafaring pedigree.

Built in 1991, Le Ponant was the first member of Ponant’s fleet, and is the oldest vessel in the company line-up – not that you’d know it. Like the archetypal well-preserved Parisienne, this grand-mère of the waves is pristine (though, like many of them, she’s had a helping hand – a comprehensive bow-to-stern refurbishment completed in 2022).

The elegant interiors are by French designers Studio Jean-Philippe Nuel
The elegant interiors are by French designers Studio Jean-Philippe Nuel - ©PONANT/Tamar Sarkissian

On board you’ll find immaculate teak decking, and elegant interiors from the hand of French designers Studio Jean-Philippe Nuel in muted shades, with bleached woods, leather and sophisticated, modish artworks carefully placed throughout. The majority of the crew is French, and sailings are completely bilingual. Le Ponant is so refined, in fact, that in 2023 it became the first sailing yacht to join the ranks of Relais & Châteaux.

The revamp reduced the number of staterooms to 16, and thus the number of guests to just 32 – meaning that sailings now feel more like exclusive floating house parties than commercial cruises. No surprise that the yacht is often privately chartered by wealthier guests looking for a plush family holiday base.

That feeling of cosy camaraderie shone through repeatedly during my recent sailing – most notably as we cheered on those who opted to plunge off the yacht’s marina deck, slicing through the chilly early-summer Mediterranean waters of Le Ponant’s floating pool. Meanwhile, others paddled off on kayaks and paddleboards, or took advantage of the yacht’s snorkel and scuba-diving equipment.

Like any self-respecting French establishment, there is also a strong emphasis on gastronomy. Naturally, fine wines play their part – and are largely included in the price, though oenophiles wanting a more exclusive experience can choose from a wine list where all but two varieties were from France, led by five types of champagne (though the most expensive tipple was floral Bordeaux, Chateau La Mission Haut-Brion at a whopping €835 – or £710 – a bottle).

Naturally, there is a strong emphasis on gastronomy
Naturally, there is a strong emphasis on gastronomy - ©PONANT/JC Pieri

And the food? The French cruise passenger does not concern themselves with le buffet – and as Ponant’s chefs train at the culinary school founded by Michelin-star garnering chef Alain Ducasse, they needn’t worry.

That said, those who prefer not to navigate the occasionally choppy waters of experimental French cuisine (the “Tunisian egg brick”, for example, which turned out to be a filo pastry square with herbs and egg, or the “exotic fruit salad”, which appeared to be just diced melon) may find themselves grateful for the comforts of afternoon crêpes suzette freshly prepared on deck, and the rainbow-hued assortment of macarons that greeted us when we returned from trips ashore.

Each evening we gathered on the sun deck, bathed in the golden glow of evening light for pre-dinner drinks, indulging in cocktails and champagne and, on one occasion, sampling delicious slices of Iberian ham freshly carved.

In St Tropez, we finished a walking tour in the most indulgent of ways: with chilled glasses of French rosé and a plate overflowing with fromage, served amid the fragrant blooms of the town’s flower market in the morning sunshine.

A perfect finish: the sun-dappled market in St Tropez
A perfect finish: the sun-dappled market in St Tropez - Gavin Rodgers / Alamy

Earlier, we’d followed Le Ponant’s chef deep into the old town for the fish market – the Passage de la Poissonnerie – where, as a reminder of St Tropez’s rustic origins, fishermen still come to sell their catch each morning under the old porticoes.

As our sailing neared its end, I snuck off to the pocket-size spa – run in partnership with Paris-based skincare professionals Biologique Recherche – in search of a massage. Though the price of my hour-long treatment (£125) was typical of most cruise spas, I was pleasantly surprised to discover there was no expectation of a tip, nor a pushy product sales pitch. Silly perhaps, but of the many advantages to cruising à la française, this was one of the most unexpected – and the most welcome.


Sara Macefield was a guest of Ponant (020 7660 4089; uk.ponant.com), which this summer offers sailings on Le Ponant in Croatia between August and October, with a one-week round-trip voyage from Dubrovnik with stops including Korcula, Hvar, Vis and Brac. From £8,280pp for an August 18 departure, all-inclusive. Flights extra.