Le Ponant Exterior //
(c) 2010 Le Ponant
Mention the Mediterranean and what comes to mind? Topless beaches? Elegant villas? Casinos? But concentrating on these features alone would seriously shortchange this area of amazing natural beauty, deep history and cultural significance.
Recently, my husband and I participated in Tauck’s Mediterranean Discovery, sailing eastbound from Barcelona to Nice, France, onboard the majestic three-masted schooner, Le Ponant. This stylish ship, built in France in 1991, accommodates 60 passengers and is ideally suited to the region. All cabins face the sea and have a private bathroom, good storage space, a minibar, air conditioning, a telephone and satellite television access, and the ship’s young French crew is hard-working and accommodating.
Cuisine onboard Le Ponant is exceptional. Breakfast and lunch are served outside, buffet-style, in the Diamond Restaurant, with regional produce and preparation as its featured fare. Dinner was a three-course affair with several choices, all beautifully prepared by a talented chef and served in the window-lined Karukera Restaurant. Complimentary wine, beer and soft drinks were included with lunch and dinner.
Our itinerary began with a two night pre-cruise stay in Barcelona. We toured the Gothic Quarter, with its medieval buildings located in the center of the old city, on foot. We also visited architect Antoni Gaudi’s unfinished cathedral, La Sagrada Familia.
Daily on-shore excursions were well chosen and memorable. During the course of our cruise, we visited several art museums: Figueres Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres, Spain, and the Matisse and Chagall museums in Nice. At Valldemosa on Mallorca, Spain, the site of George Sand’s tryst with Chopin, we were treated to a short Chopin concert. In walled Carcassonne, France, now listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, we walked through centuries of history. Its old town is an excellent example of medieval fortification. In Arles, France, we observed Gallo-Roman antiquities from its glorious past. We also had opportunities to walk through the colorful local markets.
Perhaps our most memorable excursion was the visit to a manade (private ranch) in the Camargue, France, an area where wild bulls and white horses roam freely. In a bullring on the manade, young men known as razzateurs, daringly remove colored ribbons from a bull’s horns and then barely escape when the bull charges. In Camargue bullfights, there is no killing. Following the program in the arena, we enjoyed a well-prepared meal of regional dishes. Nature lovers were rewarded by the sight of flamingos and other bird life in the Camargue.
During our last day onboard, zodiacs took us from the ship to the island of Porquerolles, France, a National Wildlife Sanctuary off the coast from Nice. While on the island, we played petanque and drank pastis and rose like the natives. After bidding farewell to Le Ponant, our motorcoach delivered us to elegant Monaco, France, where we toured the palace and exotic gardens prior to a lovely farewell dinner and overnight in Monte Carlo, France.
Our escorts, Kim and Scott, proved experienced and professional. They have lived several years in Arles and know the area thoroughly. Both were extremely attentive to their guests. For example, when we left our Monte Carlo Hotel for the airport at 4:30 a.m., Scott was in the lobby to see us off — a very nice touch. They also introduced us to The Whisper, an individually worn device that allows a guest to hear the leader’s commentary without having to remain in close proximity.
This is not an inexpensive trip. However, it is extremely inclusive, covering shore excursions, port charges, transfers and all gratuities. Whether onboard Le Ponant, in our luxury motorcoach or ashore in a fine hotel, we had every amenity.
Our sailing had 43 passengers representing 13 states, as well as Australia. Most, like us, had previously traveled with Tauck. Our personal travel experience in this region dates to 1969 when we toured with a five-year-old in the back seat of our rental car. That, too, was a great trip. It is, however, nice, at this stage in our lives, to relax, leave the driving and planning to professionals and just sit back and enjoy the scenery.