I don’t mind admitting that when Explora Journeys was initially introduced back in 2022, I was completely captivated. Here was a new cruise operator that pledged a novel approach to luxury cruising, fortified by more than three centuries of maritime and seafaring expertise, courtesy of the Aponte family, who also own MSC Cruises and the Mediterranean Shipping Company. I was drawn to their vision of how the onboard experience would distinguish Explora Journeys from the rest, drawing inspiration from the world’s most renowned hoteliers to forge a comprehensive luxury lifestyle brand.
Around the same time, I was lucky to be walked through a series of artist renderings showcasing the accommodations and public spaces. I remember thinking if Explora Journeys could successfully bring this vision to life, they might just become the pioneering cruise brand capable of appealing to individuals who feel equally comfortable in a Belmond or Four Seasons and seasoned cruise enthusiasts seeking a unique and fresh experience.
Fast forward eighteen months, and I was ready to embark on my first ‘journey’ aboard the flagship vessel, EXPLORA I. Sailing from New York to Quebec for seven nights, I had the opportunity to experience the Ocean State of Mind as a guest on an itinerary that had long been on my bucket list. What follows are a series of observations from my time onboard, and I hope they provide you with a better idea of what to expect if you’re considering your own journey in 2024 or beyond.
My Inaugural Journey
When it comes to seeing a ship for the first time, few settings can rival a sunny afternoon in Manhattan. This was the last glimpse of the sun I would have for some time, but that became irrelevant because my first sight of EXPLORA I left an indelible impression. The ship’s deep navy hull, pristine white decks, and tasteful gold etchings provided a spectacle that undoubtedly attracted envious looks from passengers aboard the nearby Disney Dream.
After check-in, I took the opportunity to embark on a self-guided ship tour. Eager to explore as much as possible, I ventured from top to bottom, marvelling at how the design team had brought those early artist renderings with impressive accuracy to life. It’s worth noting that, in terms of decor and layout, this ship easily rivals many operated by more established ultra-luxury cruise providers. Despite EXPLORA I being categorised as a mid-size vessel, the level of attention to detail and elegance compares favourably to what you would expect on a ship half its size.
Furthermore, there was no misdirection regarding Explora Journeys’ early promise of providing guests with a luxury hotel at sea. Take The Lobby, for example, which looks more like something you’d find in a Shangri-La or a Renaissance. Likewise, the breathtaking Conservatory oozes spa-style sophistication and is a world apart from your typical pool deck. The wellness facilities are idyllic, featuring a thermal pool, sauna, steam room, and a Himalayan salt room. There are also multiple treatment rooms and many services available on a reservation-only basis.
My favourite space on the ship changed almost daily. The Explora Lounge offers all the homely comforts one could desire, enhanced by the flood of natural light through its floor-to-ceiling windows. Likewise, the Astern Lounge proved to be the perfect spot for afternoon lectures, while the Crema Cafe exudes undeniable class with its European cafe-style ambience and an extensive menu of speciality coffees, pastries, and sandwiches.
I must also mention the abundance of outdoor space on EXPLORA I. With three swimming pools, multiple hot tubs, and expansive open decks, the ship will truly shine in warm weather destinations. There’s a plethora of space and every conceivable variety of seating, not to mention nearby bars for refreshments. I’m particularly impressed with Explora Journeys’ decision to position the hot tubs facing the sea instead of the traditional circular arrangement, eliminating any potential awkwardness of being directly opposite your fellow attendees.
Throughout my time onboard, I had the chance to view many of the accommodation categories available on EXPLORA I and can say wholeheartedly that Explora Journeys have gone above and beyond in providing a range of options that will satisfy the needs of any discerning traveller looking to spend time on the high seas.
From the entry-level Ocean Terrace Suites, measuring an impressive 377 sq.ft., to the grand apartment-style Residences, every category is graced with amenities that provide unmatched comfort and luxury. Featuring spacious living areas, private balconies, and the best onboard entertainment system I’ve ever experienced, Explora Journeys has spared no effort in creating accommodations that guests will want to spend their time in.
I stayed in the Cove Residence, which personally provided everything I needed. I appreciated the little touches, such as the selection of photography books and literature scattered around the bookshelves and the complementary Swarovski binoculars, which came in handy in my (failed) attempts to spot whales and dolphins as we made our way up Canada’s northeastern coastline. I even took advantage of the dining table with a three-course meal from one of the ship’s speciality restaurants.
Unlike other luxury cruise ships, EXPLORA I has no main dining room. Instead, you have a choice of six restaurants, each offering a different style of cuisine and atmosphere.
The central dining hub of the ship is The Emporium Marketplace. It’s open during all meal times and offers an astonishing variety of freshly prepared dishes and sides. You can find stations for hot meals, regional specialities, sushi, pizza, and pasta – rest assured, you’ll never run short of options. Many guests choose to dine here in the evenings, which is not something you could say about similar venues on other ships.
The Marble & Co. Grill is Explora Journeys’ interpretation of a classic European steakhouse, offering prime cuts and freshly grilled fish with various sides and sauces. The Med Yacht Club is perhaps the closest the ship comes to having a main dining venue, with a menu heavily influenced by Mediterranean flavours. Alongside a selection of tapas dishes, you’ll find a choice of pasta, fish, and meat dishes, all finished with a fantastic dessert menu (I wholeheartedly recommend the Semifreddo). There’s also a French fine dining venue called Fil Rouge, and Anthology (a fee applies to this venue), which showcases creations from a frequently changing rotation of up-and-coming chefs.
On a personal note, my favourite dining venue was the ship’s Pan-Asian restaurant, Sakura. I dined here three times (twice for dinner and once for lunch), and it offered some of the best Asian cuisine I’ve had anywhere, let alone at sea. All meals are freshly prepared, with views of the busy kitchen. There’s also bar-style seating to watch the chefs create the sushi dishes. When it’s full, the atmosphere is lively and reminiscent of a top restaurant in a city like London or New York.
Launching a new luxury cruise brand is one thing, but the level of onboard service often determines whether guests return for a second, third, or even fourth voyage. This is certainly the case for many of our clients who remain loyal to a particular operator due to their love and appreciation of the service provided.
I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that the service on EXPLORA I was the best I’ve experienced in the past 15 years. I was warmly welcomed from the moment I stepped onboard, and this hospitality continued until I disembarked. Not only did the staff go above and beyond to ensure my comfort, but they also took a genuine interest in me personally, even finding out which football team I supported and the type of movies I enjoyed.
In particular, my Residence Host, Terrence, was a true gem and significantly contributed to making the onboard experience unforgettable. He was just a call away whenever I needed something, efficiently handling practical matters like booking venues with the utmost professionalism and minimal fuss.
I honestly believe Explora Journeys’ approach to service is spot-on, and it’s remarkable how quickly they’ve perfected it, especially considering they’ve only been sailing for a couple of months.
Is Explora Journeys right for you?
Since my return home, I’ve been contemplating the type of guest that Explora Journeys aims to attract. This is particularly significant as they strive to position the brand as something distinct from a traditional cruise line.
If I were to make an educated guess, I’d place the average age of EXPLORA I’s passengers between 50 and 65, notably younger than what you might find on other luxury cruise ships. This age demographic undeniably lends the ship an ambience akin to a small luxury resort, fostering a genuine camaraderie. Engaging in casual conversations was a frequent occurrence, so if you enjoy the social aspect of a cruise, Explora Journeys will undoubtedly appeal to you.
Furthermore, there’s the matter of the ship’s size, which may be deemed too small for some and too large for others. However, Explora Journeys has adeptly navigated this conundrum by designing a ship that feels wonderfully spacious yet offers ample facilities to keep guests entertained during sea days.
It’s also worth noting that a larger vessel doesn’t necessarily equate to less luxury. If you’re a frequent guest on other ultra-luxury cruise lines and have concerns that EXPORA I might not deliver the type of experience you’re accustomed to, I wouldn’t be worried. I’ve sailed on a few new vessels in recent years and can confidently state that Explora Journeys effortlessly compares to some illustrious brands in terms of elegance and that unmistakable feeling of exclusivity.
Let me know what you think.
Have you been considering Explora Journeys for your next holiday? If you have any questions or comments, leave them below or contact me directly by emailing David@cruiseline.co.uk.