A trio of finback whales curving over ocean swells drew Captain Diego Michelozzi's talk to a halt. I and others ran to the window of Explora Lounge, not swift enough to photograph the shiny creatures swimming alongside Explora 1 before diving out of sight.
The timing was auspicious, as Captain Diego was in the midst of describing Explora Journey's environmental and sustainability attributes, including RINA Dolphin underwater noise reduction and siting protocol to avoid marine mammals.
He had just said, "For some mystic reason they are attracted to ships, especially in these east coast Pacific waters." Captain Diego's call to meet in the 11th deck Explora Lounge was perfect, its panoramic curve of windows shining with brilliant views destined to arouse an "ocean state of mind" – the distinctly seductive mantra for Explora Journeys.
This bright sea day we were cruising enroute to Halifax, Canada, after having embarked in New York for Explora 1's North American debut and official naming ceremony by Dr. Sylvia Earle, noted marine biologist and oceanographer.
We were delighted by the intimate chance to mingle with handsome Captain Diego, who'd navigated the 922-passenger ship from the Fincantieri Shipyard in August 2023. We learned about his time working on yachts and for other cruise lines including six years at Regent Seven Seas Cruises. Banking on that luxury cruise experience, he approached MSC, and was surprised when MSC owner Gianluigi Aponte offered opportunities to captain the line's first luxury ship and participate in the design of the bridge and decks.
Inducing a new generation of guests
Gianluigi Aponte himself started as a ferry captain, eventually launching MSC in 1970. Today, Geneva-based MSC Group owns a fleet of 23 cruise ships, plus some 1,000 container ships operating globally.
Launching Explora 1 – the first of a fleet of six ships, with the second debuting in 2024 – fulfills the Aponte family's vision to "redefine the luxury cruising category."
As Pierfrancesco Vago, executive chairman, MSC Group Cruise Division explained: Explora's ambition is to induce a new generation of discerning, cosmopolitan travellers who previously shied away from cruising, but love holidaying in the world's finest hotel resorts and relish having varieties of international restaurants nearby.
To lure such elite clients, Explora was envisioned to create a decidedly sumptuous yacht-like, "floating resort"– emulating, say, the Four Seasons, Ritz-Carlton, or Belmond brands – and provide a generous passenger-to-crew ratio of 1.24-1, combined with unique eateries.
Every interior detail was personally overseen by the Aponte-Vago family, particularly by Alexa Aponte-Vago, daughter of founder Gianluigi Aponte and wife of chairman Pierfrancesco Vago. This includes the gold MSC floral Mandala painted on the ship to signify tranquil transformation of an ocean escape.
The ship's yacht-like ambience combined with Explora Journeys' roster of awe-inspiring itineraries are destined to give guests transformative ocean experiences for an "ocean state of mind," explained Michael Ungerer, CEO of Explora Journeys.
Sumptuous hotel-resort style hubs
At first impression, Explora's interior exudes an opulent urbane aesthetic with a variety of hotel-like hubs.
Upon entering from the gangway, the 5th deck Crema Café feels like a chic continental espresso bar. Walk its length to find yourself standing at a black lacquer Steinway grand piano overlooking the lofty Lobby Bar, stunningly designed with a come-hither allure to its cocktail bar. The social heart of the ship on Deck 4, the Lobby Bar is perfectly positioned for mingling and lingering for pre- or post-dining at nearby restaurants, visiting the casino, or browsing in shops gleaming with Cartier, Piaget or Rolex watches, all decisively anchoring Explora's luxury lifestyle brand.
A short walk leads to Journeys Lounge, the largest entertainment venue. Unlike typical ship showrooms, this lounge has the aura of a swank supper club, its lower level lined with cushy tub chairs, its upper ring set with gilt-framed chairs and a long cocktail bar. Notable for advisers who plan group events, the lower level seats are movable.
In total, Explora 1 has 12 bars and lounges, each a distinct but ample venue to host a reception.
The curved Explora Lounge – with its vast ocean views and outdoor deck – is favored by guests who want to read, use their laptops, or enjoy afternoon tea or an afternoon aperitif to the tune of live piano music. The outdoor Sky Bar on Deck 14 is a gorgeous venue for sunset cocktails by night, and a lively spot by day for guests relaxing after outdoor workouts or soaking in the whirlpool. The contemporary Astern Lounge changes moods by night with colored lights, depending on the DJ or entertainers. The decor is decidedly masculine in the well-stocked Malt Whisky Bar, where guests can purchase a rare cigar from the walk-in humidor, and smoke it in an adjoining room.
The main staircase is designed to dazzle, its onyx steps illuminated by a loopy, free-form crystal chandelier. It leads back to Deck 5 and more restaurants via a long hallway cleverly positioned with a series of curved walls to create the Galleria d'Arte.
Pools and whirlpools galore
Explora's resort atmosphere shines with the positioning of its pools: three heated outdoor pools, one heated indoor pool, and a total of five whirlpools. Each has ample chaises for sunbathing and clear windows to glean a sense of place anywhere in the world. Scattered among the pools are over 60 cabanas that can be curtained for privacy.
Largest of all, the 11th deck indoor Conservatory Pool & Bar is weather-protected by a retractable roof, wonderful for brisk days. It has two ocean-facing hot tubs and a large video screen at one end that can be used for screening movies under the stars. It also houses the Gelateria and Creperie Bar.
Facing forward on Deck 12, the enchanting Helios Pool and Bar is accessible to adults only. Also on Deck 12, two long whirlpool hot tubs are strategically placed, one on each side for spectacular views. The Ocean Wellness spa also has an indoor hydrotherapy pool.
Explora's 461 all-suite accommodations each feature floor-to-ceiling windows with a walkout to a private terrace with day bed, table, and chairs. The interior spaces are designed to emulate Italian contemporary residential style, with soft-grey tones juxtaposing walnut cabinetry, and bookshelves tucked with binoculars, books and objets d'art. As for amenities – including the stocked mini-bar, Nespresso machine, and luxe Frette linens, towels, and robes – guests raved about the Dyson hairdryer.
Four main categories of suites include 74 connecting suites for families. The 3,014-square-foot Owner's Residence spans the entire aft, with living and dining areas, fireplace, whirlpool, and butler service. Twenty-two Ocean Residences have butler service and a balcony whirlpool, and all but the smallest Cove category have a tub, shower and bidet.
The 67 Ocean Penthouses come in various sizes. The 371 Ocean Terrace and Ocean Grand Terrace Suites start at 377 square feet with an average size of 453 square feet.
For guests with mobility issues, 10 accessible suites have wide showers to accommodate wheelchairs.
International dining options
When Chef Franck Garanger was tasked as Head of Culinary with designing Explora's culinary program, he opted to eschew the typical main dining room for a variety of diverse culinary concepts, all focused on using fresh, sustainable local products.
The Emporium Marketplace buffet evokes a gourmet food hall with cooking stations for an array of made-to-order dishes. For those who hate dressing for dinner, it's possible to eat every meal here without feeling bored.
Offering steakhouse fare, Marble & Co. Grill serves up fish, seafood and meats, including an incredible 28-ounce Porterhouse steak.
Under a ceiling dripping with silk cherry blossoms, Sakura specializes in pan-Asian dishes, while FIL Rouge presents continental French cuisine. Nautically designed Med Yacht Club serves up Mediterranean specialties.
Between-meal dining is available at Crema Café or via the ship's 24-hour room service.
Explora's culinary offerings also include immersive culinary classes for up to 12 guests at Chef's Kitchen, for a rather significant fee (190 Euros on our journey).
For gourmet aficionados, Anthology restaurant offers a changing roster of Michelin-starred Chefs de Cuisine who train the restaurant's sous chefs to create famed dishes from their menus. The tasting menus are then offered along with wine-pairings for three to six months. On our sailing, Anthology's tasting menu cost 190 Euros per person with optional wine-pairing for an additional 75 Euros per person, plus options for premium wines at an additional cost.
On our sailing, the Chef de Cuisine was two-Michelin-star chef Emma Bengusson, acclaimed for the Nordic-style cuisine of Aquavit, her New York restaurant. Her menu will remain until March, 2024, when she is replaced by one-Michelin-star Chef Claude Le Tohic, famed for his French-inspired One65 restaurant in San Francisco.
My sumptuous and satisfying dining experience at Anthology proved Chef Bengusson had successfully trained Explora's sous chefs to present her culinary vision. During our dinner, the sommelier served six international wines for the seven-course feast, starting with a flute of sparkling Ruinart Champagne Brut from Reims, France.
Itinerary planning done differently
Keeping in mind the ship is a destination unto itself, Explora Journeys aims to allow guests to feel more exhilarated than exhausted by going at a slower pace, and staying longer for a transformative experience, said chief sales officer Chris Austin. Rather than rush to a destination before dawn, arriving later allows guests to enjoy a beautiful coastal sail in.
"The product is unique. Arrive later, depart later at high-profile ports like Venice to avoid busiest times and be sensitive to environmental impact," said Captain Diego.
Itineraries include Northern Europe, UK, Iceland, Greenland, Canada, America's East Coast, Caribbean, Hawaii, and the Mediterranean.
Located forward on Deck 5, Explora's lavish Ocean Wellness Spa features various holistic programs to calm or invigorate guests, as well as rejuvenating and therapeutic treatments. The Spa itself includes a Finnish sauna, hydrotherapy pool, salt cave and ice fall. All guests have access to the spa thermal area.
Fitness facilities exist indoors and out. On Deck 5, the Fitness Centre and Studio have Technogym and Pilate's equipment. An outdoor running track loops around Deck 12, which also has rowing machines set to enjoy ocean views. Beyond the Sky Bar on Deck 14 are the sports court and dedicated fitness zone with benches, equipment, and cycles. Energetic types can even have fitness equipment delivered to their suites.
Adult oriented, family friendly
Although luxury lines rarely include children, in Explora's quest to lure an elite young generation of travelers – say 40s to 60s – the line is promoting a family welcoming attitude, including connecting suites, to accommodate up to 80 children on any sailing. Youngsters of ages 6 to 17 will find plenty of fun in the Nautilus Club, outfitted with a pool table, the latest video games and gizmos, plus an area for arts and crafts. Educational activities on improving ocean and planet sustainability are also offered by MSC Foundation guest speakers.
The cruise fare for all Explora Journey's voyages include all on-board gratuities; complimentary Wi-Fi; dining in all venues and room service (excluding Anthology); and unlimited beverages, wines, spirits, and specialty coffees, plus a stocked mini-bar and Veuve Clicquot Champagne on arrival.
Guided shore excursions are not included, however Explora promises complimentary shuttle services from port to city center where required and available.