For More Than Just A Luxury Cruise, Travel With The Experts – Forbes

The first hybrid polar expedition ship, Ponant’s luxury Le Commandant Charcot pairs guests with … [+] experts from the Smithsonian for the ultimate experiential Arctic and Antarctic cruises
Some pundits thought COVID was going to kill the cruise industry. They were wrong.
2024 will see record cruise ship capacity around the world, and according to Cruise Industry News, “Continuing a trend that started in 2023, the world’s largest cruise lines are seeing high occupancy rates and longer booking curves.”
Cruising is hot, but personally when it comes to this type of travel, I have little interest in the “world’s largest” anything. To get me on a cruise ship requires much more than water parks, casinos, buffets or private islands. The handful of cruises I’ve taken have all had a big “extra,” or “cruise-plus” component, like active cruising, which combines biking or hiking, or an extra special educational add-on. Fortunaetly, there are more of these kinds of cruises with something extra to choose from than ever before.
That’s why I found myself on the waters of Greece last fall with one of the top collaborations in travel, Smithsonian Journeys x Ponant, a partnership between two of the top specialists in their respective fields, luxury cruises and knowledge.
Ponant is the only French-flagged cruise line, and was launched in 1988 by several French naval officers who felt their nation deserved a line worthy of its luxury hospitality and culinary reputation. In the decades since, Ponant has won dozens of prestigious awards including titles like “Best Luxury Cruise Line For Adventure,” “Best Expedition Line,” and “Best Ocean Cruise Line Itineraries,” from the likes of Cruise Critic, Luxury Travel Magazine, Travel + Leisure, Travel Weekly, Time Magazine, British Cruise Awards, and Conde Nast Traveler UK. In 2022 alone, Ponant won over 30 industry awards, including #1 Best Small Ship Line and #1 Expedition Ship Line from Conde Nast Traveler.
The Ponant ships that Smithsonian Journeys uses have large, luxurious accommodations with private … [+] balconies.
Ponant uses only small ships, and its strategy is to make customers feel as if they are guests on a private yacht. There is a high level of focus on accommodations, service, and of course cuisine, with fine French cheeses, butter, wines and more. In addition, there are several special pre-dinner “tastings,” which on my trip included caviar night and Spanish pata negra ham night, with wine and cocktail pairings. While they lack casinos and waterslides, ships are modern and very well equipped, with spas, multiple bars and restaurants, underwater viewing lounges, marinas for launching Zodiac inflatables, but because they are much smaller than the vast majority of cruise ships, they can get to places others cannot, including polar regions. They can also dock in a lot more places including small harbors mega-ships cannot visit, greatly reducing the number of stops that require tendering in small boats, a cumbersome and time-wasting part of the cruise process.
Even when all size ships can dock, its lot easier to embark and disembark from one with 200 passengers than one with 5,000. The day our cruise departed from Athens, we arrived, got on the line to check in, that took a few minutes, we were immediately shuttled to the ship, walked on and were in our room with luggage, sipping champagne 10 minutes later. Our departure was even early. The check in lines I saw for the big ships did not look as appetizing an experience.
Greece’s Delos archaeological park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, so why not see it with an … [+] award-winning archaeology professor from Smithsonian?
Here’s another good example: for visitors to Mykonos, one of the most popular activities is to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Delos, an uninhabited nearby island that is one big national archaeologic park. On many cruises this means taking tenders to Mykonos and then catching one of the usually full ferries to the island, then doing that all-in reverse. In contrast, our Ponant ship—with Smithsonian experts onboard—simply went directly to Delos before visiting Mykonos, making the trip much easier and with far less wasted time.
Ponant is also a very sustainability-focused travel company, and in survey after survey, travelers today say this is increasingly important to them when deciding where to go and with whom. Unfortunately, there is a lot of lip service and eco-exaggeration in the travel industry, but Ponant is the real deal, with cutting edge energy efficient technology and the Ponant Foundation, which protects ocean habitat and polar regions. They are partnered with National Geographic and Monaco’s Oceanography Institute, and hold numerous major international certifications including Cleanship and Cleanship Super for polar vessels. Ponant built the world’s first hybrid-electric polar expedition ship. Le Commandant Charcot, won France’s eco Blue Charter Trophy, and were the first European cruise line awarded the Green Marine label.
I was happy to join the Chef for a tasting of the world’s finest ham, Spain’s pata negra.
In the main fleet, four sister ships each have 132 large, hotel-style staterooms, most with outdoor decks. There are 145 crew for a maximum of 264 guests, full spa, two restaurants, main bar, forward bar/lounge, fitness center, theater, pool, and multiple observation decks. The smaller Explorer ships each have 92 rooms and suites all with private balconies.
The Smithsonian Institution is simply the biggest name in museums, natural history and scientific research, For more than half a century, Smithsonian Journeys has been its educational travel division, using its litany of experts to guide trips around the world, by land, rail, river and sea. The Smithsonian Institution has a huge slate of world-class experts in science, history, food, archaeology and other areas to draw from.
This Smithsonian x Ponant partnership just launched in 2022, and based on my experience, is a huge success. More trips have been added for 2024 and even more for 2025. Each sailing is co-hosted by two Smithsonian Journey Experts, and they also have experienced Smithsonian Journeys trip leaders and staff on board to facilitate logistics, as the excursions and schedules are very different from normal cruises. Because these are whole ship takeovers, all the shore excursions are included in the rates (not the norm in cruising) and the trips are English-speaking, whereas Ponant’s normal clientele includes a lot of French customers.
Smithsonian guest expert Diane Kochilas, Chef, cookbook author and TV show host, lecturing on Greek … [+] cuisine.
Each expert gives a series of onboard lectures throughout the cruise related to the location and theme, and we had the perfect mix, an award-winning archaeology professor specializing in the Mediterranean who had been on digs at some of the sites we explored, and one of the world’s leading authorities on Greek cuisine, Chef Diane Kochilas, host of the PBS series My Greek Table, as well as a cookbook author and operator of a cooking school in Greece. In addition to the lectures, experts are generally available for chatting, go on shore excursions, and each night each one hosts a dinner table guest can sign up to join. As an added bonus, Chef Kochilas brought a selection of Greek extra virgin olive oils to the restaurant on board for a tasting for passengers.
This structure allows those less interested to learn something about what they are seeing, and those more serious to dive deep with one-on-one questions. But for all passengers the result was a more enriching travel experience, not just seeing Greece, but experiencing Greece and appreciating every stop along the way.
For 2024 there are 24 itineraries, and 25 in 2025, which is already available, many of them with multiple dates. The variety is huge, from Antarctica to Ireland, a circumnavigation of Sicily to Japan, Alaska and the Great Lakes to Central America and New Zealand.
The experts were great, the food was great, the ships and service was great, but one of the things that surprised me most was that these trips are also relative bargains for luxury travel. Many of the 8-night trips (there are other lengths) begin at under seven or even six thousand per person, and include all meals, all shore excursions and open bar onboard, as well as the expert guides, free Wi-Fi and airport transfers at both ends. In addition to the expert presentations, there is entertainment daily, from live music to dance performances. Meals can be enjoyed in restaurants, on deck or through 24-hour room service. For example, an 8-day cruise From Morocco to Spain’s Andalusian Coast starts at $5,090 per person, or around $725 a day, inclusive of luxury lodging and cuisine, activities, entertainment, adult beverages and more. Even the gratuities are included.
In terms of experts, themes and destinations, there is something for every taste, and I loved the combination of touring Greece and learning so much more about it than I would have on my own, while enjoying great food and friendly service along the way. If you want more than just another cruise, this might be the answer.