New horizons
EXPLORA I, Explora Journeys, North Sea


 

What is an ‘ocean state of mind’? We find out aboard Explora Journeys’ all-new EXPLORA I … the cruise they don’t want us to call a ‘cruise.’

While this isn’t my first time on a cruise, it is my first time on what is billed as an ‘ocean journey’ – a cruise that we’re not supposed to call ‘a cruise’ – on the first new cruise (oops!) line to launch in more than 20 years.

I experience some firsts. I learn a lot about ship etiquette by breaking the first unwritten rule of ‘cruising’ and befriending the very first person I meet on board. A fellow solo traveller, she’s a first-time seafarer – albeit a seasoned luxury vacationer – wooed by what promises to be the antithesis to mega-ship ocean cruising.

My new friend makes the blunder of referring to the ship as a boat – and I learn firsthand the difference is that “you can fit a boat on a ship, but never a ship on a boat.” It is from her second gaffe (she whistles on a visit to the bridge) that I find out it’s bad luck to do so. Apparently, it could bring on a storm. Turns out maritime folks are rather superstitious.

I meet fresh-faced, eager crew members (in figure-hugging designer uniforms… I have to admit ogling the handsome ship-security team members far more times than it is appropriate), excited to be making their first working trip on a ship due to a recruiting strategy resulting in 60 per cent of front-of-house staff coming from luxury landlubber resorts. Unversed in the ways of competitor cruise lines – including that of Explora Journeys’s parent company, the Italian cruise stalwart MSC – they bring with them an entirely different way of doing things. I wonder if they too fall foul of the obscure superstitions of life on board, or if it’s all in their Ecole hôtelière de Lausanne (the finishing school for hospitality) training manual. It’s right there on page 5… “no bananas, and always step onboard with your right foot first.”

I also learn for the first time how to accessorise my dinner jacket with a life preserver, should it be required (unlikely with the amazing ship tech we saw on the bridge and now that we know not to whistle onboard). I celebrate completing my first-ever AI Technogym (custom-built to withstand saltwater conditions) workout in a hot tub on the ship’s top deck against a vermillion sunset – no filter. I hear my first Nebraskan accent as a couple ask the pool attendants if the ship’s retractable, glass conservatory roof can be activated so that they can prove via FaceTime to their friends back home that the sun shines differently in Belgium than in the Netherlands – and spend the afternoon pondering the quandary for myself. I marvel at the powerful WiFi that allows them to call home on my first time at sea when my internet hasn’t resembled an old-school dial-up connection. 

I bake my first soufflé under the tutelage of one of the ‘master chefs of France.’ I add ‘Belgian chocolatier’ to my list of skills on a visit to a chocolate factory in Brugge on a land excursion. I hear the dulcet sea shanty of a German all-pensioner, all-male-voice choir in the port of Hamburg. I extol the virtues of a close-to-six-figures-Euro, limited-edition Swiss watch to a fellow guest in the world’s first floating Rolex boutique. I eat (and boy do I eat…) rather well too, savouring the best food I’ve ever had on a ship. I discover my love for Italian biological red wine, paired with a long-anticipated meal by renowned chef Mauro Uliessi and his protégé Michel Rocchi. I celebrate a fellow traveller’s birthday twice while crossing between timezones. We drink the bar dry of absinthe. I watch in awe one evening as a couple of octogenarians twerk at the disco.

An ocean journey

As with the Rolex, I understand why discerning travellers want to shell out for this luxury ocean journey. There’s a widespread attitude of ‘saper vivere’ (experiencing life to its best) on board – an apt term to use given the brand’s Italian roots. It’s appropriate because Explora Journeys encapsulates a more European approach to contemporary luxury hospitality, taking a big step away from the gilded, old-world expectations of legacy cruising.

Explora Journeys’ sailing itineraries are continuous. Guests join and disembark at any point – or even jump off and rejoin further along – without having to commit to the industry’s typical seven days and seven nights, Saturday to Saturday sailing. Clever scheduling means that destinations rarely repeat, and a more nimble ship allows for more unique ports of call. The aim is to do something different to the usual, cookie-cutter shore excursion – no tour leaders waving umbrellas, no talk-and-walk headsets. The excursions are all about local flavour and unrivalled access, whether it’s a ‘destination essentials’ tour or more of a boutique ‘little secrets’ tour. For adventurous (and affluent) souls, there are some ‘beyond boundaries’ excursions: renting a whole island in the Stockholm archipelago for lunch or an audience with a Zulu healer in Durban – that kind of thing. Then there are special escorted journeys, like tracing invisible map lines in the Arctic with Explora(/er) extraordinaire, Mike Horn. Other more cerebral expeditions take guests deeper into the sustainability and conservation work of the ship’s parent company’s social-responsibility arm, the MSC Foundation.

There’s an ethos of cultural intelligence throughout the onboard programming. Alongside the expected experiences like musical-theatre revues, sunset photography lessons, champagne tastings, and top-deck yoga, you’ll find holistic wellness journeys like Ocean Wellness, covering sleep, relaxation, mindfulness, energy, and immunity therapy, and horizon-expanding enrichment sessions with inspiring speakers. There are unique networking events too for teetotallers, solo travellers (Explora Journeys has got rid of traditional single-supplements on fares) and the LGBTQ+ community. I’m not really one for ‘organised fun’ but I like the way that the experiential initiatives tap into the idea that time away can be about self-improvement and self-care, while also cultivating camaraderie in newly forged friendships through daily doses of carefree hedonism.

A signature cocktail on the ship’s chic Sky Bar on the 14th deck? Why not? As the summer sun hits the horizon, I tip my sunglasses and glance at my friend’s new Rolex. It’s time to head down for the pan-Asian dining delights of Sakura. The evening roars before we realise it’s almost showtime at the Journeys Lounge. Before we know it, the curtain comes down. What next? Perhaps a tasting at the Malt Whisky Bar? Stargazing on the Explora Lounge’s deck? Dancing into the wee hours at the Astern Lounge, fueled by absinthe? Sure. In fact, let’s do it all.

All hands on deck

With a crew/guest ratio of 1.25:1 and a diverse team of nearly 60 different nationalities, service is jovial and more casual than on most cruise ships. As someone who hates the white-gloved, starched-tunic master-servant dynamic you sometimes get onboard cruises, I enjoy the more relaxed approach to hospitality here.

Hosts (as they’re called) are empowered to engage authentically with guests. Speaking to some Indonesian hosts (I habitually ingratiate myself to ship staff, especially ever since watching Ruben Östlund’s ‘Triangle of Sadness’), they seem happy to be part of the crew. Of course, I don’t expect them to say otherwise, but I’m told that they each get to experience what it’s like to sail as a guest during their induction. There’s a vibrant social life on board, and their sailing rotations allow them to return home to family much more often than other operators. In their cabins, they sleep on mattresses manufactured by sleep-science specialist Dorelan, similar to those in guest cabins. I’m glad that Explora Journeys are altruistic when it comes to staff well-being, which is refreshing, considering some of the stories you hear about life below deck.

They all come under the command of Captain Serena Melani – “Me-lA-ni” she reiterates – sure to distinguish herself from the Italian Prime Minister. She’s been sailing for 34 years as one of just a handful of women on a bridge, and she tells me that she still has to put up with misogyny in the industry at large. Even as we cast off on the Elbe River on this trip, the Hamburg port authority’s pilot boatman didn’t care to address her as a superior officer, when it is customary to do so. A champion of inclusion, she’s made a point of maintaining a 50-per-cent female quota on EXPLORA I’s bridge crew. I’m always in awe of powerful, accomplished women, and the ‘girl power’ aboard honours the ship’s godmother, renowned oceanographer Silvia Earle.

The captain tells me that she is currently reading a book by a celebrated Italian author about how to bring greater diversity into the minds of others. On her Spotify playlist, she listens to Dvořák and Donna Summer in equal measures. My admiration of her verges on fanboy.

Ship shape

Master (yes, sadly the language is still gendered) Melani talks a lot about the ship tech, which, while a little over my head, engrosses several other guests, mostly male, bald, and dinghy owners, I suspect. Fair play to them; this is the ultimate in superyacht Top Trumps, but even the talk of bow size and thrust does not titillate me. I do, however, appreciate that EXPLORA I has unrivalled manoeuvrability. Serena drops a timely joke about three-point-turning in the Suez Canal, and the group guffaws. This lady is for turning though – as she did spectacularly right in front of Hamburg’s iconic Elbphilharmonie building, putting us right up close, nose-to-nose even, with concert-goers having a beer on the festival hall’s balcony. 

Serena is very fond of her vessel; she says it’s a ship with soul. It’s easy to see why. EXPLORA I is glorious: on the outside, she looks like a superyacht, with her tiered design in sleek blue and white, a far cry from the mega-cruise operators’ gargantuan floating blocks. She also uses innovative, environmentally supportive technology – hybrid power generation (think of a Toyota Prius) and selective catalytic reduction (think eggy exhaust pipes, but better) that enables a reduction of nitrogen oxide emissions by 90%. Future ships in the soon-to-grow fleet are already primed to adapt to alternative energy solutions and a commitment to achieve net zero by 2050. Then there’s the bit that makes me “aww.” EXPLORA I is ‘dolphin certified,’ meaning very minimal underwater noise and waste.

The interior architecture and design, deck upon deck, are best in class, blending elements of Swiss precision, contemporary European artisanal flair and universally exquisite comfort. EXPLORA I’s public spaces are beautiful and considerately appointed. The shipbuilder Fincantieri, has really ‘pushed the boat out.’ But the news is that her younger sisters will be a step up. EXPLORA III and IV will be powered by liquid natural gas, so they’ll be slightly bigger ships. With added space, they have room to introduce 55 more cabins, but they’re only increasing room inventory by 11. So, there’s going to be many more communal spaces to play in and apparently, some market-defining surprises to come. As if a 700sqm / 7,500sqft spa and four enticing pools aren’t enough opulence.

My ‘Home at Sea,’ (I’m lapping up the marketing speak) is a Premium Penthouse which outscales some of the hotel rooms I’ve had the pleasure of staying in. No portholes here. Every room has a balcony with floor-to-ceiling windows and a sea view. There are no inside rooms. My penthouse is generous (at 61sqm / 655sqft) and is considered a ‘mid-level’ category accommodation. Suites are entry-level (with a Veuve Cliquot welcome amenity), then penthouses (with Moët & Chandon Grand Vintage 2015), then the residences at the top of the tree (Dom Perignon, of course) – the names and champagne that come with them indicate the level of luxury to be expected at each tier. 

The Residences offer the best size, design, appointment and elegance, with private whirlpool baths on their balconies. All homes are packed full of high-end facilities and amenities: Frette linen and bathrobes, Dyson Airblades, in-room Technogym, signature house ‘Mandala Blue’ toiletries, fresh flowers, a boudoir-style walk-in-wardrobe/dressing room and a shiny Italian marble bathroom. It prompts me to think that no stone is left unturned, or unpolished even. It’s particularly true as my (long-suffering) Cabin Steward picks up after me so fastidiously and frequently, even though I barely see him. I know he sees me though, because whenever I leave my home and return – even for a split-second – every crease on the bed is ironed out, every cushion fluffed, all my clothes are folded or hung meticulously in colour graduation, and my toiletries rearranged like a model city.

Food and beverages on board are a dream, with six distinct high-end eateries, 12 lounges and a chef’s table for classes and demonstrations – and that’s all on top of in-room dining. I enjoyed the EATALY style gastro-food hall Emporium Marketplace with its 18 cooking stations. I often say that I like to eat from the buffet of life. But every outlet – from the French-inspired Fil Rouge to Nobu-wannabe Sakura, to Scandi-beef touting steakhouse, Marble, to the ‘harbourside’ Med Yacht Club – is an epicurean’s dream. This is underpinned by Explora Journeys’ philosophy of not wanting chefs who sign cookbooks onboard, but ones who deliver great food. Even when the superstars come in, it’s all about the cooking, not the personalities. Anthology’s open kitchen is the seafaring home to renowned culinarians Mauro Uliassi and Emma Bengtsson, for example. Dining here does come at a premium, but it’s worth the small extra.

Admittedly, the philosophy is a good one, but I do think they need to balance it with creating more atmosphere in their restaurants. While each space is handsome with themed, noteworthy interiors, I find that their ambience teeters on ‘dining room’ at best. In my marketing days, hotels and restaurants often talked about ‘restaurant-ainment’, creating memorable moments beyond the eating. My humble opinion is that EXPLORA I’s eateries could do with some of that.  

It’s not all smooth sailing

It’s my job to be nit-picky… and there are a few things to highlight about my experience with Explora Journeys that need improving. I am cognisant of the fact that this is a maiden voyage, so there are bound to be opportunities for refinement. While Explora Journeys excels onboard, it could do better on land.

Luxury land-based resorts work very hard to cotton-wool their guest into their world from the moment they start their holiday, right up to when they return home: branded transfers, private terminals, six-star concierge services and VIP lounges, with scented towels and ice-cold water at every turn are just some examples. As an Explora Journeys passenger, I don’t really feel special until and unless I am onboard.

The check-in and boarding experiences are wholly ordinary, and nothing has been done to make the hangar-like cruise terminals less depressing.

The onboard concierge staff know less than I do as a first-timer to the city of Rotterdam beyond the excursions they sell… to the extent of not even if I am to turn left or right out of the terminal.

My return from an excursion in Brugge was chaotic, to say the least, with thousands of travellers, including those from other ships, thronging in the terminal and no Explora Journeys staff to be seen.

I understand that it’s hard to enhance the experience with existing port infrastructure and with the volume of guests, but my opinion is that more effort is required of the brand to uplift itself above the rest. If the likes of Belmond can do it in inner-city train stations, and upscale river cruise operators can do it in a village in the middle of nowhere on the Mekong, then surely Explora Journeys can do it too. You would think that because of their relationships with the land-based authorities, it would be something that an MSC-owned company would excel at.

And… let’s talk about Brugge – an excursion sold to me as an immersive look at this cultural city. As I step off the bus, the first thing our exuberant guide does is hand me a talk-and-walk headset and beckon the group forward with her with a paddle (remember, both are on the list of Explora Journeys no-nos). To top it all off, the headsets crackle violently with every word she barks, and I can’t hear a thing she says. We’re marched frenziedly through crowded attractions – “we’re on a tight schedule” – she yells. While Brugge is beautiful, the way I engage with it with Explora Journeys is far from cerebral. It seems old cruise habits die hard.

Our group is, however, granted access to the private family home at Ardonesdomein, which is special. But what should have been a 15-minute visit here, stretches well over an hour and I pace the historic room, too scared to sit on any of the antique furniture..

Back in the cocoon of EXPLORA I, I tell myself to invest far more time (and perhaps more money) at the ship’s Experience Centre.

An ‘Ocean State of Mind’

“You know, travelling on water represents an embodiment of the sublime, a reminder of the vastness and majesty of the natural world,” exclaims my now BFF at breakfast on the last day of the journey.

Stunned, I put my espresso down to contemplate her conversion into a fully-fledged ocean explorer. But she’s right: the sea beckons to our adventurous spirit. And when you’re on it, you experience a sense of awe and humility at the almost ethereal expanse, not to mention the places it brings you. I’ve always believed that travelling on the sea is not merely a physical endeavour; it is a profound and inspirational exploration of self and a testament to the indomitable human spirit.

Explora Journeys is indulgent, there’s no doubt about that. But with each of its ocean journeys comes a blend of relaxation and stimulation that inspires calm and joy in lavish measures. The canny copywriters on the brand’s marketing team have dubbed its signature benefit an ‘ocean state of mind’ … which, while a tad Prozacesque, neatly sums it all up: effortless luxury, exploration on the water and transformation of inner and outer self, with rewards that are physical, intellectual and spiritual.

Yet sometimes I think that you have to call a spade a spade. What Explora Journeys offer travellers – despite all the holistic marketing jargon – is still a cruise. A bloody good one at that, perhaps even the best one I’ve had the pleasure of travelling on and most definitely one I’d recommend to traditional cruise-nay-sayers or those sitting on the fence. And I’m confident, with time, that their approach to cruising could well define the industry.

www.explorajourneys.com

Photography by Uwern Jong and courtesy of Explora Journeys




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