Gary Buchanan exclusively reviews Explora Journeys' first ship, EXPLORA I

The most anticipated new cruise line in many years is undoubtedly Explora Journeys. The privately owned, ultra-luxury lifestyle brand of the Geneva-based MSC Group was conceived in 2018 when the Aponte family assembled a stellar team with luxury credentials to fulfil their dream of creating a modern European ocean travel experience for a new generation of discerning travellers.

Following a €3.5 billion investment, a fleet of six vessels will be launched over the next four years, each equipped with state-of-the-art environmentally friendly and progressive marine technologies. Explora Journeys have an ambitious intention to reinvent the customary cruise concept and plan active experiences in places rarely accessible to aesthetes of indulgent land travel.

The creators of this fleet of ships have had the benefit of starting from scratch. At the intersection of architecture and design, each of the initial four 922-guest vessels boasts an embarrassment of riches for a ship of their size. The ambiance is one of a grand European hotel with a modern residential vibe. Veteran British yacht designer Martin Francis has conceived each ship's aquiline profile, which evokes a super-yacht rather than a traditional cruise ship. 

Explora Journeys' mantras create a sense of this being a luxury resort at sea: voyages are known as 'journeys', shore excursions are 'destination experiences', and the crew are 'hosts'. Cruises are all-inclusive encompassing five of the six restaurant (supplement for Anthology), alcoholic beverages, gratuities, and Wi-Fi.

With 110,266 sq ft of indoor space spread across 14 decks, the 922-guest EXPLORA I has one of the highest passenger space ratios in the luxury ocean category at 69.3 GRT per passenger. To put this in context, Silversea's Silver Nova has a ratio of 75; and Seven Seas Grandeur comes in at 67.9.

The vessel’s design aesthetic features pearlescent marble and glistening crystal and its palette of chocolate brown, pale champagne, brushed gold, dark grey, and black exudes opulence, not kitsch. From a design perspective, this debonair ship is as close as any vessel can get to being an über-luxurious hotel on water.

Having conceived the design specifications for MSC Cruises' vessels, it was only natural that De Jorio Luxury & Yacht Projects of Genoa should design all the ship's accommodations. It's no surprise that De Jorio won the 'Best Cabin' award for Explora's Ocean Suite design at the recent Cruise Ship Interiors Awards

Cocoon Suite Explora Journeys

The 461 ocean-front Suites, Penthouses, and Residences all have a spacious terrace with daybeds and an alfresco dining area. These come in four categories: Ocean Suites  - among the largest entry-level suites at sea - at 376 sq ft (Ocean Grand Terrace Suites feature a larger terrace of 118 sq ft); Ocean Penthouses from 462 sq ft; Ocean Residences at 753 sq ft, with private whirlpools; and an Owner’s Residence, aft on Deck 8, at 1,668 sq ft with a 1,345 sq ft terrace. There are 82 connecting suites for multi-generational groups; as well as nine accessible Ocean Terrace Suites and one accessible Ocean Penthouse Suite.

Brimming with muted elegance, guest accommodation revels in artistic design features and Italian furniture, including signature items from the prestigious Molteni&C collection and Manutti deck furniture in the upper echelon suites. The cloud-like Flexform beds have high thread-count Frette linens and there is a pillow menu on request. The walk-in closets are large and have an easily accessed safe, a Dyson supersonic hairdryer, a glass-topped drawer that’s ideal for smaller items, and a seated vanity area. Bathrooms, with under-floor heating, have wide, walk-in rainforest showers. A selection of suites in all categories have full-size baths. The Mandala Blue amenities, custom-created for Explora Journeys, have a fresh sea breeze scent.

A welcome bottle of vintage Champagne greets guests in Suites, Penthouses and Residences. A mini-fridge comes stocked with wines or spirits on request, and there's an Illy coffee machine plus a kettle and teapot for preparing speciality infusions. Fresh water is delivered in carafes and there are refillable water flasks. The bedside table wireless charging points are handy, so too are binoculars and a Moleskine monogrammed notebook. Penthouse Suites and higher have a Technogym Case Kit for working out in private.

The chic Ocean Penthouse Suites have a separate living space that features a dining table for up to four guests. The Ocean Residences exude a convivial élan, with a separate master bedroom, living room, a panoramic ocean terrace, and a private outdoor whirlpool. Guests in Residences receive a welcome bottle of vintage Dom Pérignon Champagne, a cocktail-making set, and complimentary private butler services from the ship's Residence Hosts. Additional benefits for those in the Owner's Residence include unlimited priority dining reservations (in all the ship's restaurants), one treatment per person at the ship's Ocean Wellness Spa, round-trip home-airport-home; and hotel-port-hotel transfers (maximum 50 miles each way), private car driver (ashore), plus pre- or post-cruise overnight hotel stay.

From EXPLORA I's imposing lobby to the impressive lounges and bars, there's a wealth of intrinsic elements designed to create a glamorous aura and assert the ship's suave yet warmly relaxing personality.

Journeys Lounge Explora Journeys

With its mood lighting and warm hues, the Journeys Lounge is a far cry from the tiered show lounges normally found on ships, this plush room forward on Deck 4, features individual seats and drinks tables with bar service from a team of hosts manning the adjacent bar. A semi-circular thrust stage offers an up close and personal environment for 210 guests enjoying after-dinner cabaret shows rather than Broadway revues. On my cruise, the 'Tribute to Carole King' and 'Tribute to Billy Joel' played to a packed house. Guests can stay for the entire show or take in snippets depending on how the mood takes them. By day, this is the venue for enrichment talks in the Reflections programme, as well as mixology classes.

With its floor-to-ceiling windows affording 270-degree views, the luminous Explora Lounge at the forward reaches of Deck 11 is an essay in classical yet mellow cosiness. A pianist or singer accompanies elegant afternoon teas. Later, as the sun sets, this enticing room is perfect for a cocktail or two.

Malt whiskey lounge Explora Journeys

Just aft of this popular meeting point is the vibrant Whisky Bar, where bartenders entertain the crowd. This is the hot ticket for after-dinner banter, quaffing an amber-coloured digestif. A Premium Whisky tasting, featuring top-shelf selections from Scotland, France and Japan, takes place one night each cruise. The adjacent Humidor Lounge with comfy leather seats is a perfect place to savour a Monte Cristo cigar with a rare single malt or fine cognac. The casino, with two blackjack tables, one roulette table, and slot machines, is tucked away on Deck 4.

The Astern Lounge on Deck 5 with a resident jazz band is another late-night haunt for tributes to musical genres such as R&B, disco and funk. There's Karaoke and disco when guests can lose their inhibitions and burn the dance floor. In a corner of this room is a gyroscopically-stabilised pool table, which one regular player told his pot-black companions, costs a mere US$75,000.

As a rendezvous throughout the day and night, the centrally situated Lobby Bar is unmatched on the high seas. This two-deck-high space bathed in light from Lasvit chandeliers has an artistically illuminated onyx tower, modelled to showcase an apothecary of fine art and spirits. At the top of the staircase leading to the Lobby is a Steinway Spirio piano that's played as guests gather for cocktails.

Surrounding this 'statement area' is the Journey Boutique, which stocks chichi brands of clothing, accessories, and fragrances. Flanking the other side are four dedicated outlets showcasing the precision craftsmanship of timepieces and fine jewellery from Cartier, Panerai, Piaget and Rolex. There's also a Galeria d’Arte with exhibits including the Instagrammable 'British Library' by Yinka Shonibare.

Sky Bar Explora Journeys

The panoramic Sky Bar on Deck 14 is ideal for outdoor cocktails, whilst the secluded adults-only Helios Bar, forward on Deck 12, is also a popular hangout for a sundowner as the ship sets sail. The Astern Pool Bar is on Deck 5, while on Deck 10, the Atoll Bar offers a chilled vibe throughout the day. There's a Nautilus Club for junior cruisers aged 6 to 17 that's open from 9 am until midnight.

The architects have created a massive 26,909 sq ft of outdoor decks which enhance the yacht-like karma, nowhere more so than at the raked stern with its terraced decks. There are four heated swimming pools, complete with 64 private cabanas, plus four infinity whirlpools, as well as a hot tub. The ritzy infinity Astern Pool has hypnotic views of the ship's wake. Plush daybeds surround the rectangular Atoll Pool. Equally tempting is the shallow, half-moon Helios pool. The Conservatory Pool on Deck 11 is akin to an exclusive leisure club and the retractable arched roof makes this an ideal hangout, whatever the weather.

Explora Journeys spa

An indoor hydrotherapy pool is a feature of the Ocean Wellness Spa's complimentary thermal suite, which also has a Himalayan salt room, Finnish sauna, and misty rainforest shower. Located on Deck 5 at the front of the ship, this blissful sanctuary puts the 'treat' into treatment. Western and Oriental holistic therapies, including bespoke massages and facials such as the 'medi-luxe experience' by Dr Levy Switzerland, are the alpha and omega of revitalisation. There's also a beauty salon with hair rituals by Miriam Quevedo.

Gym bunnies will love the Ocean Wellness Fitness Centre at the stern of Deck 10, which comes with the latest high-performance equipment by Technogym. There's cardio and strength training apparatus, including an elliptical Artis Synchro, as well as two Pilates Reformers. Personal training sessions, plus yoga, as well as body composition analysis, take place in a studio. The Sports Court is a great space for touch tennis, half basketball, or a yoga ritual experience. An alfresco Fitness Deck comes with a phalanx of Group Cycle bikes, and Skillrow - the first outdoor rowing equipment designed to improve anaerobic power, aerobic capacity and neuromuscular abilities. Unimpeded views of the ocean envelop dedicated joggers atoning for excess as they pound the running track.

With 700 'hosts', service is another central element for EXPLORA I, which boasts an impressive 1:1.25 crew-to-guest ratio. The company has partnered with the world’s leading hospitality school, École Hôtelière de Lausanne, which provides an innovative and world-class Guest Experience Foundation training programme for all onboard employees.

No review of this outstanding cruise venture would be complete without referencing Explora Journeys' green credentials. Sustainability takes centre stage and sets an example for other cruise brands to follow. The ship uses marine gas oil, which has a sulphur content of less than 0.1 percent, thus complying with MSC Cruises’ pledge to achieve net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The vessel also has provision for battery storage to allow future hybrid power generation. Shore power capabilities permit the ship to minimise engine use at ports where shore-to-ship power infrastructure is available. EXPLORA V and VI will utilise liquid hydrogen in tandem with fuel cells. 

Other innovations include a selective catalytic reduction system that enables a 90 percent drop in nitrogen oxide emissions, there's state-of-the-art recycling and solid waste management to reduce, recycle, and reuse all waste aspects on board, as well as smart heating, ventilation, and air-conditioning systems.

This opulent all-suite ship has already won plaudits for its sophisticated spaces and luxurious allure, designed to woo the well-styled and well-heeled. It has achieved its aim of capturing the essence and flair of European luxury and bringing it to the oceans of the world. This is manifested in the onboard currency being the Euro, not the almighty dollar. EXPLORA II will debut this summer.

I was slightly dismayed in one aspect of my week-long sojourn from Barbados to Miami, as the itinerary featured only well-trodden ports on popular islands. Venturing to off-grid hideaways is a hallmark of Explora Journeys, as most of their cruises offer a realisation of discovery without the rigours of an expedition. Judging by the selection of touristy Destination Experiences featured on my cruise, there was a disconnect with that experiential attribute. I'm sure this was an anomaly, but 'Explora by name, explorer by nature' had a slightly hollow ring to it.

Explora Journeys restaurant Sakura

What was undeniable was the epicurean excellence that rivals many acclaimed restaurants ashore. The quality and variety of inspired culinary discoveries will undoubtedly give the coterie of established five-star ships a run for their money. Explora's corps of chefs is infusing fine dining with more than a soupçon of gusto. Bon viveurs embarking on this seagoing sophisticate have never had it so good.

Call Panache Cruises on 0161 513 8200 if you want to learn more about Explora Journeys.

Thanks to Gary Buchanan for the words in this article, and to Adam Arkinstall for the incredible photographs.

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