Rovinj, Croatia: The tangerine glow of the evening sun mesmerized us all. Even the captain and crew were out on deck with their smartphones trained on the scene before us: ribbons of reddish-orange reflecting off the rippled sea. A fishing boat sitting peacefully in the harbor looked as if someone had arranged for it to be there, silhouetted by the sunlight. It was, in fact, a picture-perfect ending to my 8-Day Best of Croatia cruise with Ponant this past June, roundtrip Venice.
I was satiated from our experiences ashore in Croatia and Montenegro – and from the relaxing moments at sea. 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 and which partners with Ponant to provide additional active adventures on select voyages. We explored the countryside while guests on Le Lyrial chose from a variety of excursions.
Among the highlights: Korcula, an island where Ponant offered a three-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. Rounding it out: 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, a charming fishing port and our final Croatian port of call, I was struck by the notion that Ponant’s Le Lyrial was the most yacht-like vessel I had ever experienced. 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.
Capable of carrying a fortunate 264 guests, Le Lyrial was intimate and cozy. That meant not only that crew and guests were familiar with one another soon after we set sail but also the yacht, with seven decks and spanning only 466 feet (only about 30 feet longer than many European river cruise ships), was easy to get around. Its small size also meant it could navigate into small harbors such as Rovinj, where larger cruise ships can’t fit. Staff were primarily Indonesian, Filipino, Indian, French and Belgian. Ponant, in fact, is a French company. As such, the language on board is both French and English, and while cuisine skews toward French tastes, international dishes are served at every meal.
Le Lyrial will spend the remainder of this summer in the eastern Mediterranean region. The ship then travels south to the Antarctic Circle and then returns north toward the Indian Ocean. By next summer, she will be back in the Mediterranean, Adriatic and Aegean Seas, providing a variety of itineraries for its inquisitive passengers.
Ponant is currently in an exciting period of growth, launching six new “Explorer Yachts,” each carrying 184 guests and capable of exploring some of the world’s most far-reaching destinations. Three of those six ships have now debuted, with the total number of ships in the fleet rising to 11 by 2020. Additionally, a luxury polar exploration vessel featuring hybrid propulsion is expected in 2021.