A beautiful Mediterranean morning aboard Ponant’s Le Lyrial. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
It’s become fashionable to hate on the gigantic cruise ships out there, but I have a confession to make: I love `em. Like New York City, these gigantic ships might be too massive for their own good. And the swarming multitudes of humanity they host might be unnerving to some. But I get a charge from the energy and the sheer grandeur of these massive vessels. They’re usually teaming with activities and amenities. Plus, they truly are marvels of engineering. As far as my past cruising experience has gone, the bigger the better. I like big boats and I cannot lie.
But recently, in the name of switching things up, I decided to try downsizing my typical cruises in favor of a smaller, more intimate voyage. So I took an Italy-to-France Mediterranean cruise aboard Le Lyrial, the newest ship in the fleet of posh French cruise line, Ponant. While the current crop of gigantic mainstream cruise ships hold more than 5,000 passengers, the yacht-like Le Lyrial accommodates a minuscule 244 guests.
Tiny and tony: the elegant 244-passenger Le Lyrial is the baby of Ponant’s small fleet. (Photo: Ponant/Laurence Fischer)
Sure, a small yacht-like cruise ship such as Le Lyrial can’t compete with the bells and whistles offered by its larger competitors (nor does it try). But there are definite advantages to such a smaller, more high-end vessel.
Here are some reasons why Le Lyrial proves that it may be time to downsize your cruise vacation.
Cruising small means you don’t have to fight thousands of people for a deck chair. (Photo: Ponant/Agence Nuel–Christophe Dugied)
1. No crowds
Not that I’ve ever minded cruise ship crowds, but not being elbow-to-elbow with tons of fellow cruisers for once was extremely refreshing. There are benefits you notice immediately, like how much easier embarking and disembarking are. And there are benefits that are revealed over time. Like being able to get a drink from the bartender immediately. Or not having a pool that’s swimming in passengers.
Being able to breathe while walking around a cruise was extremely refreshing and definitely gave me an “I-can-get-used-to-this” moment.
The elegant lobby, the first thing you see when you board Le Lyrial. (Photo: Ponant/Agence Nuel–Christophe Dugied)
2. Ship-wide Luxury
While the large cruise ships are teaming with frills and activities, life aboard Le Lyrial is devoted to just one thing: tasteful luxury. When you board, you aren’t greeted by a loud mariachi band or a rum punch (not that there’s anything wrong with either of those). Instead, you’re greeted by an elegant and understated lobby adorned in crystals.
That sets the tone for the tasteful look that’s consistent throughout the whole ship. There are muted colors featuring various shades of blue the cruise line says are inspired by everything from “the grey-blue of the Polar ice to splashes of the vivid turquoise blue found in Mediterranean coves.” There’s modern but comfortable furniture. And the decor does not scream "WE’RE ON A CRUISE SHIP!!” as you often find on bigger, more mainstream cruise ships. During my time aboard Le Lyrial, I didn’t see a single carpet with pictures of anchors or sailboats.
Chances are, your room will have a balcony view. (Photo: Ponant/Francois Lefebvre)
3. Better staterooms overall
Staterooms on large cruise ships can vary widely according to class. There is some variance in Le Lyrial’s staterooms as well; there are luxury suites down to pretty basic staterooms. But there are some amenities they all share. Unlike what you’ll find on large cruise ships, there are no windowless interior staterooms aboard Le Lyrial. All cabins have at least an ocean view. Plus 114 of the ship’s 122 suites and staterooms have balconies.
My mid-level Prestige cabin was a standard yet well-appointed 199 square-foot stateroom. There were 110 and 220-volt outlets to accommodate Ponant’s European and American clientele. An interesting decorating quirk in my cabin: you could see into the shower from the cabin (although you can close it off for privacy).
I found this part of the ship early in the trip: the Salon Panoramique (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
4. It’s easy to learn your way around
Anyone who’s spent time aboard one of the major cruise line superships can tell you that it can take the entire trip to learn your around. Plus, it’s easy to get lost (I need to get a GPS app that tells you where you are aboard a cruise ship). That’s hardly a problem on smaller ships like Le Lyrial. You can fully explore the ship in about 15-20 minutes, which goes a long way to making you feel relaxed and at home.
Logistically, being able to navigate an entire ship in just a couple of minutes makes planning activities a breeze. I found that while in the main dining area, I could make plans to meet my traveling companions in the lobby for a shore excursion in five minutes and still have time to run to my cabin, upload the previous day’s photos, go to the bathroom and still be in the lobby a minute early. Le Lyrial doesn’t advertise “passenger punctuality” as one of the ship’s perks, but it probably should.
Overlooking Bonifacio and the few boats I saw that week that were smaller than Le Lyrial. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
5. You dock in more diverse ports
A small ship means you can dock in many ports that simply cannot accommodate one (or in many cases, several) of those massive, 200-ton superships. During my time aboard Le Lyrial, we docked in Cagliari on the Italian island of Sardinia and Bonifacio on the French island of Corsica — both small towns that you probably wouldn’t be able to visit aboard the gigantic cruise lines. That makes for a refreshing change of pace if you’ve already been on several Mediterranean cruises and are tired of seeing the same ports like Naples and Barcelona (assuming one can ever tire of Barcelona). Speaking of the ports…
The Cathedral of Cagliari, one of the sights you can enjoy in this small Italian city. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
6. You can visit a port without feeling like an occupying force
Too often when you visit a port city, you’re one of several cruise ships docked at the town, whose population instantly quadruples with the mass influx of tourists. Such a mass swarm of passengers landing ashore tends to overwhelm a town, to the point where you no longer feel you’re at a foreign city with a life of its own; instead, you’re in a life-sized gift shop designed solely to satisfy the whims of big-spending vacationers.
The gorgeous views from the citadel in Bonifacio will make you glad you took a cruise ship small enough to bring you there. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
No such sensation on a small cruise ship like this. As I sipped a glass of wine near the beautiful Cathedral of Cagliari as only a few dozen of my fellow passengers explored that town, we truly felt like we were within the fabric of the town rather than dominating it. And the next day, we took in the beautiful views from the citadel in Bonifacio without feeling like we’re the invading force it was constructed to defend against.
Ponant is one of the few major French cruise lines, so you know they’re not going to skimp on the food. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
7. The main restaurant is the specialty restaurant
On a small ship like Le Lyrial, there’s no room for a main dining hall, a buffet, several grills, and four specialty restaurants that charge you extra. Fortunately, Le Lyrial’s main dining hall, called “Restaurant Gastronomique,” is every bit a specialty restaurant specializing in French cuisine. And unlike specialty restaurants on board other cruise lines, everything you ingest on Le Lyrial is included in your fare (more on that later). There’s also buffet-style dining available at Grill Restaurant.
One of the few places to spend your money aboard Le Lyrial: the bar. (Photo: Ponant/Agence Nuel–Christophe Dugied)
8. No casinos or shopping centers to separate you from your money
On many of the larger cruise ships, once you’re on board, the fleecing begins. In addition to the specialty restaurants, there are specialty department stores, jewelry stores, and don’t forget that casino, all designed to balance out the weight you gained on the cruise with the money your now-lighter wallet has lost.
On the stripped-down Le Lyrial, there’s a small boutique with a few odds and ends. That’s it. Basically, the only things to spend money on while on board are the bar and Ponant’s hair salon and spa (which — in conjunction with partners like Sothys Paris, L’Oréal Professionnel, and Kérastase Paris — offers a variety of hair treatments, manicures, massages and facials). The rest, you’re going to spend offshore. Or, better yet, not at all.
Bask in the utter lack of noise from a crying baby or a bikini contest. (Photo: Ponant/Agence Nuel–Christophe Dugied)
9. It’s for grownups
With a high-luxury, Europe-based cruise line with precious little in the way of amusement park activities, you’re naturally going to attract an older, more well-to-do clientele — think 50s and 60s. That means no loud spring breakers doing shots in the bar, and very few children; the only kids I saw on board Le Lyrial were a couple of extremely well-dressed French children who I could tell with one look were already classier and better traveled than I (but I didn’t have a bedtime, so there). With the piano lounge entertainment in the Salon Principal, the dance performances in the 200-seat theater and a generally fun-loving crowd, this may not be the most raucous cruise, but it certainly is a lively one.
I even made friends with this bird in Bonifacio, although he didn’t appear impressed with Le Lyrial. (Photo: Sid Lipsey)
10. It’s easier to make cruise friends
It almost sounds cliché, but sailing on a smaller cruise line does promote more meaningful interactions with your fellow passengers. Being at sea with roughly the same number of people as you find in some wedding parties makes for an intimate, “we’re-traveling-together” vibe. And this being a French cruise line, you get plenty of opportunities to practice your French speaking skills with fellow passengers (all of the ship’s staff speak English and ship-wide announcements are made in both languages).
Going small on a ship like this does come with some disadvantages in comparison to the big cruise lines. For starters, you’re paying a lot for all that on-board intimacy: the cheapest advertised fare for my particular itinerary was $4,190 per person — roughly four times more than what you’d pay for a similar Mediterranean cruise aboard Royal Caribbean. And if it’s not apparent by now, this is not the way to cruise if you’re in need of constant stimulation via casinos, water slides, bumper cars, poolside limbo contests, robot bartenders, and loud DJs.
Stripped of all those mainstream cruising accoutrements (see? My French is getting better already) to which I’d grown accustomed, I found that going small aboard Ponant’s Le Lyrial came with enormous pleasures I’d never before experienced with cruising: taking in a sunrise by myself on a deck with absolutely no one around, for instance. Or walking around a ship that felt like a yacht on which I’d invited a few dozen sophisticated European friends.
Sure, as much as I enjoyed my time aboard Ponant’s Le Lyrial, I remain a fan of the ginormous cruise ships. But while I can continue to love the big ships, it’s good to know that small ships like this can make for an elegant (albeit expensive) affair.