Rovinj, Croatia: The tangerine glow of the evening sun mesmerized us all. iPhones poised, snap: A swath of sunlight cast against a colorful row of seaside houses (think Cinque Terre without the dramatic cliffs). Snap: Ribbons of reddish-orange reflecting off the rippled sea. Even the captain and crew were out on deck with their smartphones trained on the scene before us. “The fishing boat.” Our cruise director had paused for a moment to speak to a group of guests. “We arranged for it to be there.” He was joking about a boat silhouetted by sunlight, but the joke underscored the fact that this was a picture-perfect ending.
I was satiated from our experiences ashore in Croatia and Montenegro – and from the relaxing moments at sea. If you have cruised before, you know the feeling. Your mind consolidates the experiences, imprinting what the senses have been exposed to – the images of ancient Croatian cities, the taste of homemade grappa, the smell of wildflowers and lavender, the sound of church bells echoing along cobblestone walkways. You know that the cruise will soon come to an end, but you savor every last morsel, which was precisely our state of mind while admiring the surreal sunset.
For much of the voyage on Ponant’s Le Lyrial, I spent time ashore hiking and pedaling with Backroads, which bills itself as the world’s number-one adventure company. We explored the countryside while guests on Le Lyrial chose from a variety of excursions.
Among the excursions for Ponant guests: Korcula, an island where Ponant offered a 3-mile hiking tour while we cycled 12 miles; Sibenik, the oldest native Croatian town on the coast, where guests visited the beautiful Krka Waterfalls; Split, dominated by the Diocletian Palace, built by the Roman Emperor Diocletian for his retirement; Dubrovnik, the well-known UNESCO World Heritage Site; Kotor, surrounded by the “black” mountains from which Montenegro takes its name and where Backroads took us on an 11-mile hike that ranks among my top travel experiences; Hvar, home to Croatia’s oldest town, Stari Grad, where Ponant offered hikes and four-wheel drive excursions while we pedaled more than 20 miles through villages and over mountains with Backroads.
As I stood on the aft deck in Rovinj, an uber-charming fishing port and our final Croatian port of call, I was struck by the notion that Ponant’s Le Lyrial was among the most yacht-like vessels I had ever experienced. While SeaDream’s two vessels are positioned as yachts (the company’s slogan, after all, is “It’s Yachting, Not Cruising”), they are more than three decades old now (SeaDream does have a new “yacht” on order). Le Lyrial turned four this past May.
What made Le Lyrial yacht-like was its size, which raises a question: At a time when many ultra-luxury lines are building larger new ships, what does being smaller bring to the table? As it turns out, a veritable feast.
Getting To Know Le Lyrial
Capable of carrying only 264 guests, Le Lyrial was intimate and cozy. The meant not only that crew and guests were familiar with one another soon after we set sail but also that Le Lyrial, with seven decks and spanning only 466 feet (only 33 feet longer than a Viking River Cruises vessel), was easy for guests to navigate and get around. I remember once on a Princess Cruises vessel having to return to my room to fetch a camera. The roundtrip took me 15 minutes.
It wasn’t only its diminutive size that imbued Le Lyrial with its yacht-like feel. The ship’s nautical design featured colors from a palette of blues, ranging from the grey-blue of the Polar regions, where Le Lyrial is capable of sailing, to the Windex-blues of Mediterranean coves where big ships can’t fit, such as our snug docking place in Rovinj.
Staff were primarily Indonesian, Filipino, Indian and French, with a handful of Belgians thrown in for good measure. Ponant, in fact, is a French company, flying the French flag on its voyages. As such, Le Lyrial features French service and cuisine. If you’re not a Francophile, don’t let that put you off. The language on board is both French and English, and while cuisine skews toward French tastes, international dishes are served at every meal.
Of the two dining venues, I particularly enjoyed the indoor and al fresco casual seating at Le Comète, which featured a buffet for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Breakfast featured the usuals: eggs, bacon, sausage, a selection of breads and yogurts, along with fresh-squeezed orange juice and flaky croissants. Nearly all of my lunches were off the ship. For dinner, I enjoyed sushi and salads for starters, and for the main course, I selected from a range of dishes, from pasta to meat, or from whatever was being served at the carving station.
Desserts consisted of bite-sized portions, which helped me control my waistline, although the cheese selection presented a force majeure that proved impossible for me to resist (you’d be hard-pressed to find a better cheese selection at sea than on Ponant).
The al fresco seating faced an extended aft deck featuring the ship’s one pool and beautiful views in ports and while at sea. On many small vessels, the casual grill is situated midship, with windows and framing obscuring the views.
For an even better view on Le Lyrial, I headed up to the aft bar on deck-seven, situated right above the Grill. Being French means that Ponant serves up true champagne on its nearly all-inclusive cruises. Ponant charges for premium drinks and excursions.
Our accommodation for the week was a Prestige stateroom, measuring 199 square feet and with a balcony spanning 43 square feet. The room was compact, yes, especially by luxury cruise standards, but well-designed with separate rooms for shower and toilet, handy for two traveling together. Bottled water and stocked bar (replenished daily) were among the inclusives, as was WiFi. Gratuities of 12 euros per person per day are not included on Ly Lyrial.
Le Lyrial also features a gym, Hammam and the Ponant Yacht Spa operated by Sothys of Paris. There is a small shop on board, and an Observation Lounge situated forward on deck six.
Complementing all of this was a gorgeous ship with a sleek profile and a professional and polite staff who knew how to have fun with guests. Back in Rovinj, we watched the sun slide below the horizon. Our cruise director put a walkie-talkie to his lips. “Cue two more fishing boats.”
Snap: Two trawlers sailing into a sun-streaked sky made for a nice photo and an appropriate end to a wonderful cruise.