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Get onboard the luxury-expedition cruise boom

Meet Australia’s First Lady of Cruising, Sarina Bratton, to discover why Ponant is leading the charge in this hugely popular sector.

Meet Australia’s First Lady of Cruising, Sarina Bratton, to discover why Ponant is leading the charge in this hugely popular sector.

Known as Australia’s First Lady of Cruising, Sarina Bratton AM recently took on the new title of Ponant Global Senior Strategic Advisor, Honorary Chairwoman Asia Pacific. Sarina joined the French luxury-expedition cruise line in 2013 as Chairman Asia Pacific and since then the fleet has grown from three ships to 13.

Le Soléal and Le Lyrial, which arrived in 2013 and 2015, were the third and fourth of the quartet of four luxury Sister Ships. Between 2018 and 2020, six sleek Ponant Explorers were delivered and in 2019, Ponant took over Paul Gauguin Cruises and added the refurbished M/S Paul Gauguin to the fleet.

The world’s first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship, Le Commandant Charcot, was delivered to Ponant in July 2021 and reached the geographic north Pole in September. In June 2022, the ship sailed within 1,283 kilometres of the South Pole.

“She really is one of a kind,” said Sarina at the time.

“She has travelled the furthest north and the furthest south.

She has pioneered new technology to allow guests to explore beyond frontiers that they never would have thought possible.”

Earlier this year, Ponant and long-established pearling company Paspaley Pearls joined forces to buy a brand-new, 30-guest luxury motor yacht from the former Island Escape Cruises NZ. She will start sailing year-round itineraries in the Kimberley, Indonesia’s Spice Islands and Raja Ampat, and Papua New Guinea next year under her new name, m/y Paspaley Pearl by Ponant in 2024. She will be the only motor yacht with private balconies to sail in the sought-after Kimberley region and will feature an advanced level of environmental and technical systems.

Sarina revealed more about Paspaley Pearl by Ponant at a media function in Sydney this afternoon.

“I had one of the more uplifting itinerary planning sessions last week with Nick Paspaley and Mick Fogg [Ponant’s Director of Expeditions and Destination Development, Asia Pacific], identifying the many opportunities to incorporate exclusive Paspaley pearling experiences into our Kimberley itineraries,” she said.

“Until now, the opportunity to observe harvesting operations or the highly technical seeding operations undertaken by Japanese technicians and specialists onboard Paspaley’s fleet of pearling vessels has been limited to just a few people. Added to this, the benefit of Paspaley’s 80 years of navigating these uncharted waters places us in a unique position to take guests where others have not been.”

Sarina added that Ponant has been working with Paspaley’s appointed naval architects, superyacht designer and Paspaley’s stylist to bring together a high-quality, comfortable boutique expedition ship that will be able to explore the more remote areas of not only the Kimberley, but the Sepik River, Raja Ampat, and wildlife experiences in Indonesia – areas that are only accessible to small vessels and small numbers of guests.

Because the companies are waiting for quotes and timelines from various shipyards to complete this work, the initial start date of Paspaley Pearl’s cruises in 2024 is still to be confirmed.

“Too often, we hear of ship delays in the industry and the resultant displacement and disappointment of guests already booked,” Sarina explained.

“We wish to ensure this will not be the case with Paspaley Pearl.”

Since it was founded in 1988, Ponant’s philosophy has always been ‘small is beautiful’ and the company has a deep commitment to the environment. The company has won a swag of international awards for sustainability and is working on a zero-emissions expedition ship, to be launched by 2030 or earlier.

PONANT's Swap2Zero vessel.
PONANT’s Swap2Zero vessel.

“Our Swap2Zero program with the development of our 14th ship is progressing well,” said Sarina.

“Bringing together specialists in shipbuilding and renewable energy to imagine and develop an energy model that aims at zero emissions takes time and commitment.

“We are offering much more than a new ship. We want to offer a new mode of navigation and actively contribute to decarbonisation of the maritime sector. However, the standard of this vessel will be the same as for Le Commandant Charcot. It will be a slow-cruise concept with navigation by the wind and more time in each port.”

What are Sarina Bratton’s forecasts for the luxury expedition cruise sector?

“I have been so fortunate to have been a part of this sector’s growth over the past 20 years,” she said.

“In 2003, when I was preparing to launch the luxury expedition operation Orion Expedition Cruises, there was just a handful of luxury expedition ships in the world.

“Having come from a large-ship background (Cunard) and understanding the break-even dynamics and numbers that fuel that sector, there was little interest in the small expedition or luxury space. How things have changed!

“Carnival Corporation owns Seabourn, Royal Caribbean has bought Silversea and both companies are now heavily invested in the expedition sector. Operators like Lindblad have expanded their fleet and single or two-ship operators like Scenic are building vessels. Other companies are chartering expedition vessels for seasonal, polar expeditions or year-round operations. There’s a huge number of ships already entering, or about to enter the sector.

“And the most exciting progress of all would have to be Ponant’s. Growing the fleet from three ships to 13 in the past 10 years – with more on the way – shows the strongest commitment to leading this luxury expedition sector globally.”

As for upcoming expedition-cruise hot spots, Sarina points out that it takes years to create new destinations, engaging with elders of local communities to request and negotiate access to their villages and cultures.

“We need to work with regional and local Government officials to educate them on the sector, and how our small ship operations will provide sensitive and respectful benefits – economically, culturally and socially. We do not wish to harm any of their precious cultures or traditions.”

Ponant has been working for two years on pioneering luxury expeditions in Japan and next year sees an exciting collection of new itineraries that will link ancient towns and small villages by zodiac, a first for an expedition ship in the island state.

Sarina said, “I have been to Japan many times but I’m super-excited about experiencing different regions and cultures with our multi-lingual crew.”