This week, Simon and Susan Veness take a look at what Ponant’s recent acquisition of Paul Gauguin Cruises means for those looking to cruise the South Pacific and French Polynesia in the future.
This is one of those stories that starts, “In the beginning,” because there is a distinct origination point to this particular tale, and it harks back to 1990, or the dawn of a whole new era in cruising.
Picture it with us – a still-young modern industry, trying to find its feet (or, at least, its rudders) at the start of a new decade, with little track record of innovation but plenty of incentive to learn.
The end of the 1980s had already seen the establishment of the Sea Goddess ships, Seabourn Cruise Line and Windstar Cruises, and the Carlson group of companies wanted in on this revelatory maritime trend. The operator of Radisson hotels had seen the sudden, explosive growth in luxury cruising (as opposed to the big-ship mainstream version as purveyed by Carnival, Norwegian and others), and decided it was for them.
And, under their own Radisson Cruises brand, they brought a whole new name in deluxe sea-going voyages into being, buying up the unique, twin-hulled Radisson Diamond to create the most fledgeling of fleets. Within two years, the line merged with another one-off operation, Seven Seas Cruises, which operated the boutique little Song of Flower.
Becoming Radisson Seven Seas in 1992, the overall style didn’t quite match that of Seabourn and, in 1994, the even newer Silversea Cruises, but the company definitely created its own distinctive niche and, by 1996, was looking to expand further.
Radisson decided that an all-new ship was required, and they went to the history-rich Chantiers de l’Atlantique shipyard in St Nazaire, France, for the necessary expertise. The company wasn’t looking for anything startling in terms of size, but they did want a refined and updated version of the Song of Flower that would take over the mantle of the line’s trailblazer.
And get it they certainly did. The all-new Paul Gauguin was an intriguing prospect at 19,000 tons and carrying 332 passengers, with all-exterior staterooms, 70 per cent with balconies. It was ahead of its time on delivery in 1997, and quickly became a favourite with Radisson regulars.
She was unusual, though, in that she was designed primarily to operate in the waters of French Polynesia and the South Pacific, island-hopping from Tahiti to the Cook Islands, Fiji and Tonga. In no time at all, the ship had taken on the laid-back character and style of the islands she visited on a weekly basis.
In 2008, Radisson became Regent as part of a $1billion acquisition by the Apollo Investment group, and the new company embarked on an ambitious expansion plan that had the unfortunate side effect of making the little Gauguin something of an anachronism within the fleet. Cue the intervention of Pacific Beachcomber, a Polynesia-based hotel company who saw an opportunity to expand their portfolio of South Pacific luxury and swooped in to acquire the ship, creating Paul Gauguin Cruises in 2010.
And there things had stayed, largely in a comfortable, annual routine of South Seas voyaging that continued to have its own unique onboard style, including the ship’s Tahitian host and entertainment staff of Les Gauguins and Les Gauguines, who add their individual cultural ambience to each cruise. Until last August.
Luxury expedition line Ponant Cruises – looking for their own expansion project – acquired Paul Gauguin Cruises three months ago and the cruise industry waited to see what would come next. After all, the Gauguin is now 22 years old, and Ponant has earned a reputation in recent years as an ambitious innovator and creator, adding no fewer than seven ships of their sleek Boreal class and even newer Explorer class in the past nine years.
Knowing Ponant’s proclivity for new-builds and new designs, it seemed only a matter of time before we learned of their plans for the Gauguin brand and, as of last week, we now know the future for this distinctive line.
And it should be pretty impressive. In the course of the next three years, the company will actually triple in size, with Ponant adding two brand new 230-passenger vessels to the existing flagship by 2022. It makes for a dramatic expansion, but one that seems in keeping with the desire to be both local and sustainable in and around French Polynesia.
The two new-builds – with the option for a third – will be constructed at the Fincantieri shipyard in Ancona, Italy, that has produced Ponant’s quartet of Boreal class vessels, but which will also be an evolution of the Explorer class design. French CEO Jean Emmanuel Sauvee explained: “We are delighted to continue our historic collaboration with Fincantieri. This agreement for two additional ships allows us to develop the Paul Gauguin brand [we] acquired a few weeks ago and consolidates our position as the world leader of luxury expedition cruises.
“For the first time in the world of cruising, these two new vessels will cut their engines and cease all emissions each day during each stop, for nearly ten hours per day. Small-capacity ships at the cutting edge of technology and environmental preservation: this project fully matches our philosophy of sustainable tourism.”
There are no major details about the ships as yet, but Fincantieri insisted the vessels will partially use battery power, allowing them to operate without emissions when at anchor and in environmentally sensitive areas.
But, if they are using Ponant’s Explorer class as a foundation, these wonderfully chic 9,900-ton ships are noticeably smaller than Paul Gauguin and offer a genuinely opulent level of service and cuisine.
They will still, of course, sail in French Polynesian waters, and you can be sure they will offer a truly luxurious experience all round, as befitting their distinctive status.
It is definitely a welcome development in the area of small, deluxe cruising, and it ensures Paul Gauguin Cruises has a distinctly healthy future in this idyllic part of the world. And, with three ships plying these gorgeous waters, there should be plenty of opportunities to discover Tahiti and its fellow Society Islands in a genuine high society style.
Have you cruised with Paul Gauguin? What do you think of their expansion plans? We’d like to know your thoughts in the Comments section below.
By Simon & Susan Veness