Don’t Like Cruising? This New Boutique Ship Could Be Just the Cruise for You

Newly launched cruise line Explora Journeys designed its vessels specifically with the cruise averse in mind. Here’s a first look.

Exterior view of Explora Journeys' Explora I vessel

Calling all non-cruisers: Explora Journeys wants you onboard.

Courtesy of Explora Journeys

You won’t find any buffets aboard Explora I, the first of four ships from Geneva-based cruise company MSC Group’s newly launched cruise line Explora Journeys. Nor will you find any single-use plastics or shows that you need to rush to finish dinner to see. Gone are many of the hallmarks of a typical cruise ship, in favor of a more boutique, tailored experience.

“We’re creating a brand for the future luxury traveler,” said Jason Gelineau, head of product for Explora Journeys, during a media round table discussion in the ship’s Malt Whiskey Lounge in August, as he explained how the cruise line aims to appeal to people who have never cruised before.

I am one of those people. Aside from a journey aboard a 40-passenger ship cruising the Amazon River and an even smaller boat sailing along the Nile, I’ve never cruised. The idea of being stuck aboard a massive, impersonal ship, and herded around by a flag-toting guide on the kind of group tours I routinely have to maneuver around in my hometown of Rome never appealed to me.

Essentially, I am Explora Journeys’ target audience.

And I was skeptical, to be sure. But all in all, I think that for a non-cruiser like me, Explora Journeys offers a nice introduction to cruising—or rather, what the company prefers to call an “ocean state of mind.” When creating the brand, Explora looked not to other cruise ships, but to yachts and luxury hotel brands like Belmond, Cheval Blanc, and Ritz-Carlton for inspiration. It was also consciously designed to feel like a European brand, from the subdued interiors to the entertainment programming and the choice of incorporating European brands like Frette linens, Illy (the well-known Italian espresso brand, which is served throughout the ship at all the restaurants and in the suites), and the first Rolex boutique at sea. Quite fitting, as MSC is a Geneva-based family-run company created by Neapolitan ferry captain Gianluigi Aponte.

Explora I’s maiden journey kicked off in Copenhagen in August 2023 and it’s currently in the midst of a grand world tour. I was able to get a first look at the ship on a sailing from Hamburg to Southampton in August—and these were my main takeaways.

The Explora I lobby features soaring ceilings and a central bar area

The Explora I lobby makes a striking first impression.

Courtesy of Explora Journeys

First impressions of ’Explora I’

Seen from afar, the 922-passenger Explora I cuts a rather sleek silhouette. Upon boarding, I found myself in the lobby, which manages to feel grand and intimate at the same time with its soaring ceilings. The design is sophisticated and timeless, with a muted color scheme and artful touches like an installation by British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare of books from the British Library’s collection wrapped in African fabrics. An art gallery on deck five displays rotating exhibitions of paintings and photographs from the destinations throughout the world where the ship docks.

I was pleased to discover that the ship has plenty of outdoor spaces, including three outdoor pools. Of the total 178,680 square feet of public space, 67,275 square feet (more than a third) is outdoor space. I spent some time relaxing by the Atoll pool flanked by plush sunbeds on deck 10, and though it was a bit too chilly for me on the North Sea, there were plenty of people out there sunbathing. The pools will be a major asset when the ship is sailing in warmer destinations such as the Mediterranean and Caribbean.

As someone who spends a lot of time visiting boutique hotels throughout Europe, and especially loves road tripping, I struggled a bit with the idea of having only a few hours in each port. But I appreciated the similarities between this vessel and land-based resorts and the appeal of not having to unpack and repack my bags at every stop on a trip.

the Sakura restaurant on the new Explora I boutique cruise ship features an elaborate cherry blossom tree decoration above the seating area

The pan-Asian restaurant Sakura was the writer’s favorite onboard dining venue.

Courtesy of Explora Journeys

Where to eat on ’Explora I’

Explora I has nine dining options, in addition to five bars and lounges. According to Gelineau, the idea was not to have one main restaurant but rather a collection of distinct dining outlets, each with its own concept.

Emporium Marketplace is the closest thing to a buffet. Open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, it has a handful of stations where guests can choose from items like pastries, freshly made juices and smoothies, and eggs made to order. Then there are four sit-down restaurants where you order á la carte. Of these, my favorite was Sakura, the pan-Asian restaurant where I sampled sushi, lobster pad thai, and slow-cooked short rib beef Penang curry. At the Med Yacht Club, I enjoyed Middle Eastern-style mezze and the pasta of the day. Marble & Co. is a European-style steakhouse that serves German and Swedish beef, as well as seafood and caviar. The French restaurant, Fil Rouge, serves breakfast á la carte, unlike the other sit-down restaurants, which are not open for breakfast.

The Emporium Marketplace on the Explora I cruise ship with tables lining a wall of windows looking out at the sea and a server walking by

Passengers can grab a more casual meal at the Emporium Marketplace.

Courtesy of Explora Journeys

If guests are feeling hungry between meals, they can grab a snack and Illy espresso from Crema Café or head to the Gelateria & Creperie by the Conservatory pool to satisfy a sweet tooth.

In addition to these, there are two gourmet options that come with an extra charge: the Chef’s Kitchen and Anthology, the latter of which operates as a sort of pop-up concept with rotating chefs who sign on for a three-month stint. While we were onboard, the chef in residence was Mauro Uliassi of the Michelin three-starred Ristorante Uliassi on Italy’s Adriatic coast. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to try either of these options, but my companions who had the tasting menu at Anthology raved about it. A cooking course at the chef’s kitchen costs €150 per person (US$161, based on current conversion rates), while Anthology’s tasting menu costs €190 per person (or US$204) with an optional wine pairing for €75 per person (US$80). Reservations are recommended for lunch and dinner at all the sit-down restaurants to ensure that they can accommodate all the guests.

Image of a suite on Explora I with a bed, sitting area, and balcony

On Explora I, there really isn’t a bad room, er suite, in the house.

Courtesy of Explora Journeys

All-suite accommodations

There are 461 suites, penthouses, and residences across five categories on the Explora I. All are oceanfront, with floor-to-ceiling windows and a private terrace with a daybed and dining area. The entry-level suites are among the largest for ocean ships of this size, at 377 square feet. In addition to a comfortable bed, small sofa, bathroom with bespoke bath products, and a walk-in closet, the suites all have thoughtful amenities like a Dyson hair dryer and Illy espresso machine. The most opulent is the Owner’s Residence, which measures 3,014 square feet and has a living and dining area with a fireplace, a private terrace with a whirlpool, and butler service.

A street in Bruges Belgium

The writer enjoyed a chocolate-making workshop and private visit to the Adornes Domein estate during a shore excursion in Bruges, Belgium.

Dan V/Unsplash

Explora Journeys’ take on shore excursions and sustainability

MSC Group has pledged to achieve net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Explora I is equipped with catalytic reduction technology that reduces nitrogen oxide emissions by 90 percent. Like MSC World Europa, future Explora Journeys ships (Explora III, Explora IV, Explora V, and Explora VI) will run on liquified natural gas (LNG), which is currently the cleanest marine fuel available at scale and has the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 25 percent. And those same forthcoming vessels will also be hydrogen-powered, according to the company. Explora Journeys’ ships are being designed with an eye toward a greener future. They have a dedicated space for battery storage to allow future hybrid power generation when that technology becomes more widely available.

In Explora I’s staterooms, large glass bottles of water are replenished daily and reusable Explora Journeys-branded bottles are provided so guests don’t need to buy plastic bottles of water onshore. Throughout the ship, LED lights and high-efficiency appliances have been put in place.

For Explora Journeys, sustainability is not only about reducing emissions and energy consumption but also about inclusivity and making sure that the ship doesn’t have a harmful impact on the ports it visits. Inclusivity is especially important to Captain Serena Melani, who told me that 50 percent of the staff working on the bridge with her are female.

According to Sacha Rougier, head of itinerary planning and shore experiences, the biggest challenge is creating itineraries that balance the famous destinations that entice people to book with under-the-radar ports that don’t get more than one ship per week. Though Explora Journeys will go to some ports that suffer from overtourism, like Venice and Dubrovnik, the company will try to avoid the busiest days or find other ways to escape the crowds, by arriving in the evening, bringing guests ashore for night tours, and departing early in the morning before other ships arrive. It is also asking the tour operators it works with to do Travelife’s sustainability courses, which helps tour operators manage and improve their social and environmental impact.

As to be expected with any new brand, there are still some kinks to work out. Though Rougier told us during a media round table that the company wants to avoid big bus tours with headsets, that’s exactly what we found on a shore excursion in Bruges. I did, however, enjoy the chocolate-making workshop and the private visit to Adornes Domein, where we were granted exclusive access to Count and Countess Maximilien de Limburg Stirum’s private mansion, which has been in the family for 17 generations.

A world tour

After crossing the Atlantic this month, Explora I will stop in New York and Canada before continuing south along the Atlantic coast toward the Caribbean for the winter. It will then cross the Panama Canal, head north along the Mexican coast, and spend spring 2024 sailing the Pacific coast and Hawaii. before traversing the Atlantic again to spend summer 2024 in the Mediterranean, Aegean, and Adriatic.

A “hop-on-hop-off” system is not currently in place, but guests can combine multiple journeys, creating extended itineraries. The average starting rate is €650 (US$698) per person per night.

Laura Itzkowitz is a freelance journalist based in Rome with a passion for covering travel, arts and culture, lifestyle, design, food, and wine.
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