A French tour boat carrying about 250 people is visiting Southeast Alaska this week. It’s the first of several visits planned this year and next. L’Austral stopped at Petersburg last week.
“Bonjour. Welcome on board.”
Christel Bonomme is Guest Relations for the tour ship and greets our group of ten Petersburg residents with a warm smile and a thick French accent.
It’s a pretty fancy mega-yacht that’s four years old, part of a new fleet of ships owned by the French company called Ponant and passengers pay for it. A week-long trip through Alaska this summer starts at $6,000.
Inside, the color scheme is whites and neutrals with leather furniture and wood trim. Even the standard rooms have king-sized beds which impress the visitors.
There’s a two-story sculpture that depicts rain drops made of hundreds of crystals. There’s a spa that smells like perfume; a dance floor for live music events, and a dining hall for formal evenings.
The ship is parked in front of Petersburg which is an unusual site. Smaller cruise ships this size show up on occasion but the town never gets large ones. It can’t. There’s just not enough room for them to maneuver. The water in front of town, called the Wrangell Narrows, resembles a large river. It’s a channel between Mitkof and Kupreanof Islands and it’s known for its tides which can create strong currents. Today, the conditions were just right for this large ship to park.
In the bridge, Captain Jean Phillipe Lenaire greets the tour group.
“We enjoyed amazing whale watching this morning, exactly what we are looking for,” says Lenaire in a French accent.
The captain brought the ship into the Narrows this time because the water was calm and the tides were in his favor.
“I guess you have not so much cruise in Petersburg. That is why we are here,” Lenaire says. “It is just the reason we are here because our concept is to be able to go where the other one can’t go. That means the others, let them go to Ketchikan, Juneau, and other places, because it’s really our concept as a small cruise ship to be able to give another experience to our passengers.”
Although the ship does regular cruises to places like the Caribbean and Japan it also takes expeditions to the Amazon River and around the ice flows of Antarctica and Arctic. They have a dozen zodiacs which they can take out from the ship for impromptu excursions.
Lenaire says they pride themselves on their stewardship of nature. They have a dozen expedition staff on board including ten naturalists. Petersburg being a small community on an Alaska island is just the type of place his clientele want to visit:
“They are looking for how is the life here in the small community in the middle of nowhere, on an island and in winter, you know. You need to give more than just a nice landscape and a nice excursion,” Lenaire says. “The people enjoy a lot to feel a warm welcome of a community, to feel that all of the community have a true smile, not just something to commercial.”
The French ship is also scheduled to visit Juneau, Ketchikan, and Haines and Skagway this summer.