Cruise control – my trip on the world’s first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship
Cruising and sustainability don’t always go hand in hand, but Ponant’s Le Commandant Charcot hopes to change that
The ship on which I sit is moving silently through the waves, barely swaying as we sail over the grey sea.
“It’s crazy how quiet it is,” says Alison Thieffry, a young Belgian scientist who works on-board as a citizen science mediator. She’s telling me about a recent adventure when she sailed on this, the newest ship from Ponant, as it made the ‘dry run’ voyage to the very tip of the planet. Along the way, they encountered wildlife sightings that took her breath away.
“I was super excited. Even on the ice, we could observe the beluga whales so closely. They are really sensitive to sound, so usually they swim away when they hear a ship. But this time they were right by us. They didn’t mind us at all.”
Sadly, I’m not gazing out at ice caps myself. I’m sailing around the shores of northern France on an inaugural event on Le Commandant Charcot, the 13th ship in the Ponant fleet.
This is the world’s first luxury hybrid electric polar exploration ship, powered by liquefied natural gas and with enough eco technology to make anyone dizzy. The result? A green polar exploration vessel that’s able to travel to places previously inaccessible by cruise ship, like the remotest corners of the Arctic, Antarctica, or even the geographic North Pole, where Thieffry sailed, accompanied by blue whales, belugas and polar bears.
As the grey buildings of Le Havre fade into the distance behind me, I squint and try to imagine the distant cliffs as ice caps dotted with polar bears. One more glass of the ship’s house Champagne might help...
The ship doesn’t look like the exploration vehicle you might expect. The rounded hull can break through ice softly, and the stern can do the same, which means the ship can move back and forth with ease.
If, like me, you aren’t that bright, you’ll be pleased to know that icebreaker ships don’t smash through precious fields of solid ice like a sledgehammer. Instead, these ships sail smoothly through the broken ice that forms on the surface of the sea. And, in the case of Le Commandant Charcot, they do so in complete silence.
When the commanders on board spot interesting wildlife approaching, they can turn off the engines and rely solely on battery power. Which is exactly what happened when Thieffry was en route to the North Pole and an inquisitive pair of polar bears decided to say hello.
“The mother and cub actually came toward us to check us out,” she tells me. “We didn’t even want to whisper, in case they heard us. It’s not just seeing them that’s magical. It’s hearing them, feeling their presence. It’s a whole multi-dimensional observation.”
The green credentials at play here are mightily impressive. Every single scrap of waste is recycled on board, with the results transformed into nifty touches like the outdoor swimming pool and heated benches on the decks, so you can stay nice and cosy while you scan the ice for polar bears. Unsurprisingly, there is no single-use plastic — your drinking water comes from the sea and is filtered and chilled on board. There are also research facilities and science equipment, alongside dedicated science mediators and expedition leaders.
Inside, there’s an effortless sense of chic to the interiors, with cosy bouclé sofas and plenty of curved, dark wood. Each of the 123 suites and staterooms are spacious and sleek, with heated balconies and Diptyque toiletries in the bathrooms (in refillable bottles, naturally).
And the food is next level, with menus designed by Alain Ducasse, the chef with the most Michelin stars in the world (17, if you’re asking). This means you’ll sail past glaciers and icebergs while you dig into scallops and caviar, or thick hunks of lobster doused in truffle. The only interruption to your dinner may come from the captain, when he alerts you to a nearby whale dancing in the ocean.
All of this does, of course, come at a price. The full cruise to the geographic North Pole starts from an eye-watering €33,700. But there are shorter cruises available that will showcase all kinds of places from the Svalbard archipelago to the glaciers of Hinlopen Strait. If this is a trip that’s long been on your bucket list, you couldn’t ask for a ship that blends sustainability and luxury with more aplomb.
Because, let’s face it, sustainability and cruising don’t exactly go hand in hand. The largest ships can have a carbon footprint greater than 12,000 cars, according to a study by Marine Pollution Bulletin. But that doesn’t mean the industry isn’t making changes. Hurtigruten Expeditions was the first cruise line to ban single-use plastics. It also built the world’s first battery-hybrid powered cruise ship, MS Roald Amundsen, in 2019. They have been at the forefront of alternative technologies too, including powering ships with liquefied biogas (or dead fish, to you and me).
The world’s newest cruise line, Virgin Voyages, was one of the first to use Climeon, a clean energy technology that converts heat from the ship’s engines into electricity. That means if you book in to get inked in their on-board tattoo parlour (seriously), the tattoo needle might be powered from the engine’s waste energy.
Even the larger cruise lines are jumping on board. Royal Caribbean has announced plans to achieve net-zero emissions by 2050, for example. Their newest ship, Icon of the Seas, will be their first powered by liquefied natural gas when it launches next year.
It would be easy to discount the entire industry as an environmental scourge. But we need to be realistic. Just as tourists aren’t going to stop visiting Venice, or flying to the US, they’re not going to stop going on cruises. This isn’t an industry that’s going anywhere. So the more moves made in the right direction, the better for us all.
It might seem a little counter-intuitive in a polar region, but the snow room in the spa on board Le Commandant Charcot is a winner. After getting hot and steamy in the sauna, you can literally sit on piles of snow in this cool little cabin.
A 10-night tour of coastal Greenland starts at €13,250pp. A six-night sailing from Le Havre to Reyjkavík starts from €2,990pp. Nicola was a guest of ponant.com
Virgin Voyages has a 10-night Antarctica cruise with Hurtigruten from €7,936pp; Virgin Voyages has a four-night cruise from Miami to the Bahamas from €740pp, ex flights. trailfinders.ie; virginvoyages.com