Explora Journeys: First Impressions
Cruising has been on a fast track for some years now, with many new cruise ships being launched each year and occasionally a new brand appearing. In 2023 there’s a new luxury cruise brand, Explora Journeys, owned by MSC, the largest shipping company in the world (which also operates its eponymous cruise line).
Each cruise brand has its own vision as to the experience it seeks to provide its guests. I was eager to experience Explora Journeys’ “ocean state of mind” brand, and cruised for ten days from Quebec City to New York on Explora 1 just two months after the ship’s initial launch. Here are some impressions.
Size: Experienced luxury cruise travelers gravitate to smaller ships which offer more of a boutique, exclusive experience than mega ships, more personalized service and better dining. Smaller cruise ships, however, generally have fewer dining options and fewer public spaces. While large cruise ships accommodate over 3,000 travelers, Explora I accommodates just 922 guests, and is an ideal size in many respects: it’s easy to get around while there are still plenty of public spaces to enjoy. There’s even a full-size billiards table in the Astern Lounge.
Design and Décor: The ship is beautifully designed: it is elegant and refined. With the use of dark woods and beige, gray and brown suede-like and leather-like fabrics, comfortable and stylish sofas and chairs, it’s all beautifully and tastefully done. The art is contemporary with large black and white seascapes, numerous metal and marble sculptures and interesting paintings in select venue.
Service: Throughout the ship, the staff bends over backwards, is polite and respectful…everyone “owns” their jobs and tries to be meticulous in delivering the best service. I’ve not experienced better service elsewhere.
Dining: Ask anyone who has cruised on Explora I: the cuisine is excellent across the board. One of the points of differentiation between Explora I and most other ships is there is no main dining room (nor main show lounge) and there are no buffets. Instead there are several restaurants, each with its own theme and décor.
Five restaurants are complimentary to guests: Marble (a casual steakhouse), Sakura (Japanese-Thai), Med Yacht Club (Mediterranean), FIl Rouge (quasi-French) and the Market Emporium (offering various food stations where some dishes are prepared a la minute). Two additional venues have a fee. Anthology offers a prix fixe tasting menu featuring a guest chef. Chef’s Table offers a variety of cooking classes for up to 12 guests. Sakura, Marble and Fil Rouge are open for lunch in addition to the Emporium, and Fil Rouge is open for breakfast in addition to Emporium. There’s a sweet creperie and gelataria.
Each of the restaurants have dishes that are exquisite. As an example, the duck confit and lobster pad thai and shrimp tempura sashimi at Sakura are standouts. (We most enjoyed Sakura and the Mediterranean Yacht Club.) The menus are set and don’t change, though a special dish or different pastry may be offered.
As to the food options, filet mignon is offered for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Lobster is available every night. There are chia bowls and different yogurts and fresh juices and health drinks. There’s wonderful pizzas and several freshly-made pastas made-to-order each day.
While there is enough variety to have different dishes on a 10- to 14-day cruise dining around, some guests may find a lack of variety after dining two or three times in each of the included venues.
There’s a variety of complimentary wines and champagnes for lunch and dinner, in addition to three saki choices at Sakura. Premium wines for a charge are available.
Fitness and Health: Wellness is certainly a focus onboard. The fitness center is beautiful, the best looking one I’ve seen, featuring TechnoGym equipment. There is also outdoor exercise equipment. Guests booked in Penthouse level and above also receive a TechnoGym kit in their stateroom. The spa offers a variety of treatments, some unique to this cruise line. Daily yoga, plus mindfulness and pilates classes were available, as well as personal training.
Entertainment: It’s hard to know if the exquisite entertainment we experienced on our cruise is atypical. An arrangement with Steinway & Sons enables Explora to call upon the many Steinway pianists to delight guests onboard. We had five pianists, from classical to pop, performing. Dominic Ferris is an exceptional performer, and we couldn’t get enough of Worbey & Farrell. The concert by the cruise director, Tanya Roberts, a professionally trained opera singer, was simply beautiful and first rate.
As with any new product launch, there’s things that could use some tweaking, which management will address. As for what I didn’t like, the prices are set very high for spa treatments, destination experiences, Chef’s Table, etc. E.g., the minimum Blackjack bet in the small casino was $25. (Delivering an inclusive luxury experience should not have to equate to prices beyond what other luxury hotels or ships charge.) Some of the destination experiences were poor and not well handled.
Keeping in mind this is not just a new ship but also a completely new brand, Explora Journeys is a beautiful new product that can readily compete with the best in the luxury cruise space, and is carefully listening to and garnering insights from guests and others on how to continue to improve the brand as it builds five more Explora ships.