Luxury … With a Twist!

Explora I’s Lobby Bar soars midship from Decks 4 to 5 but it doesn’t call to mind the traditional cruise ship atrium with its riotous activity and zooming glass elevators.  This inviting space, the social heart of Explora Journeys’ first ship, is part living room, with plush seating and cocktail tables, and part sophisticated cocktail lounge.  Its collection of libations is displayed artfully against a backlit grid, bottles alternating with sculptures and objets d’art.   I could just as easily be sipping my flute of Moet & Chandon in the elaborate lobby of a Ritz Carlton as aboard a ship sailing from New York City to Quebec.

The shopping arcade that surrounds The Lobby Bar is another surprise, with outposts of luxury shops like Rolex, Cartier, Piaget, Panerai, and The Journey, a series of “variety” stores that feature some of the world’s most prestigious products.  Unlike most cruise ships, you won’t find sundries here, nor racks of souvenir t-shirts and hoodies, or a display of Pringles.

I’ll admit it.  When I boarded the recently launched Explora I, I was most excited that a nearly-$500 Dyson Supersonic hairdryer was standard in every suite.  No matter what this 14-deck, 63,900 grt, 922-passenger ship held, at least my hair would look fabulous.  What I discovered, however, is a new approach to luxury cruising with many of its most impressive features drawn not from the line’s ocean-going competitors, but from posh hotels and resorts around the world. 

A Sea Hotel

Explora I is the first of six newbuilds planned by Explora Journeys, a Geneva, Switzerland-based high-end line from family-owned MSC Cruises. She may have been constructed at the cruise-ship crazy Fincantieri shipyard in Italy, but her composition is the brainchild of some of the world’s foremost superyacht and luxury-hospitality masters.  The result is home-like comfort and effortless elegance throughout. A subdued color palette is interrupted only by the occasional and unexpected design element:  a massive swirl of crystal hovering above a staircase or British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s extraordinary art installation, a multi-shelf series of books, bound in brilliant, kaleidoscopic, Dutch-African wax-batik cloth.

Explora I’s accommodations are among the largest at sea, ranging from the 377-square-foot Ocean Suite to the jaw-dropping 3,014-square-foot Ocean Residence.  A welcome bottle of Veuve Clicquot Yellow Label Champagne awaits Ocean Suite guests while those who occupy an Ocean Penthouse will find Moet & Chandon Grand Vintage 2015, and Ocean Residence or Owner’s Residence guests score a bottle of Dom Perignon Vintage 2013.  In every category, however, luxury abounds with private sun terrace (with day bed), dining area, luxury Frette linens and bathrobes, marble bathroom with heated floor, a stocked minibar, Illy espresso machine, and a walk-in wardrobe with seated vanity that, in its top drawer, holds that spectacular Dyson hairdryer!  Handy wireless charging stations are located bedside and smart TVs include an infotainment system and on-demand options. 

Continental Flair

Explora I touts a “European” style of cruising.  Some aspects of this — understated elegance, a commitment to sustainability, a special appreciation for family travel with The Nautilus Club for guests aged 6-16 as well as a number of adjoining family suites, and even the offer of heated milk in coffee — delighted this veteran American cruiser.   Other aspects — onboard prices quoted in euros, and a daily program which lists events by a 24-hour clock rather than a.m. and p.m. — were not as appreciated.  Speak to crew members — “hosts” they’re referred to aboard Explora Journeys — and you’ll discover that few, if any, possess previous onboard experience, with stints at luxury hotels around the world filling their resumes.  And while service is exceptional, honed through Explora Journey’s partnership with the world- renowned Geneva- and Singapore-based EHL Hospitality Business School, some are still trying to find their sea legs!

Explora I’s comparison to a luxury resort rather than a cruise ship is most evident in what the ship doesn’t offer—production shows, for instance.  Entertainment is subdued, with music provided more as backdrop at many of the ship’s 12 bars and lounges, much of it focused on the “artistes” who perform on one of the many Steinway & Sons pianos scattered throughout the ship, a guitarist tackling acoustic pop and late-night DJ dance parties.  Interesting — and unexpected — lectures fill days at sea:  On our sailing, actor, film and television director Willie Aames took us through how to write a screenplay. 

Dining and Differences

Instead of a main dining room, you’ll find specialty venues including, at no additional charge, the Pan-Asian Sakura, the European steakhouse Marble & Co. Grill, the Mediterranean flavors of Med Yacht Club, the French-inspired Fil Rouge, and Emporium Marketplace, an all-day dining venue that eschews the traditional buffet in favor of a series of live cooking stations.   (Interestingly, while most of the ship’s “hosts” have not worked on ships before, its culinary staff have … including Head of Culinary Franck Garanger, who has served aboard ships of food-centric Silversea Cruises and Oceania Cruises.)

In terms of onboard dining, however, Anthology is in a class by itself. This is the first restaurant at sea to feature Michelin-starred chefs taking the helm in terms of menu and technique and personally training Explora I’s sous chef both on board and on site at his or her restaurant ashore.  At the time of my sailing, Michelin two-star chef Emma Bengtsson, of New York City’s widely-acclaimed Aquavit, presented a magical seven-course tasting menu. In March, Bengtsson is replaced by Claude Le Tohic of the Michelin-starred One65 in San Francisco.  The luxury of Anthology doesn’t come cheap though:  Cost per person is approximately $200 plus $75 per person with fine wines — it is the only onboard dining venue to which a fee applies.  In fact, the entire Explora I experience is largely an all-inclusive one, with all beverages (including wines, beers, premium spirits and specialty coffees), gratuities, and Wi-Fi included in fares.

Aboard Explora I, luxury travelers will find both the expected and the unexpected.  Shoot some pool at the table at The Astern Lounge, work out al fresco (or indoors, if you prefer) at the Ocean Wellness Spa, try your luck at the small casino, relax in any weather at the large swimming pool protected by its retractable roof, or destress while immersed in one of Explora I’s innovative infinity whirlpools. 

Explora I is a welcome addition to the luxury cruise category, a stunning combination of luxury hotel, megayacht, and cruise ship.  Aboard her, you’ll find outstanding aspects of all three.

By Judi Cuervo


This is an excerpt from the latest issue of Porthole Cruise and Travel Magazine. To continue reading, click above for a digital or print subscription.

Judi Cuervo is a New York City native who fell in love with cruising in 1976 during her first sailing aboard Carnival Cruises’ Mardi Gras. Twenty years later, she began her freelance cruise writing gig and, since that time, has covered mass market, ultra-premium, riverboat and expedition ships for regional, national and international publications as well as cruise websites.