(1:40 p.m. EDT) -- Sailing on Explora Journeys, you’ll hardly ever hear the word ‘cruise.’
Onboard MSC Cruises’ recently launched luxury sister brand, crewmembers are collectively known as ‘hosts,’ and no one answers to the title ‘cruise director.' Your onboard activities are instead led by an ‘entertainment manager’ who also happens to be an accomplished soprano. There are no cabins onboard Explora I; instead, your accommodations are ocean suites, ocean residences or ocean penthouses. And you don’t go on shore excursions; you partake in destination experiences.
Seasoned cruisers might roll their eyes at Explora’s seemingly capricious efforts to distance itself from traditional cruise lingo. But Explora Journeys and its debut ship Explora I are aiming to make a statement by identifying more as a luxury lifestyle brand than a cruise.
Cruise Critic is sailing on a 7-night cruise – I mean, journey -- from Miami to San Juan, which also happens to be Explora I’s first trip to the Caribbean. Here’s what we’ve learned so far about MSC Cruises’ posh sister brand, and how it hopes to reinvent cruising for the future luxury traveler.
The fact that Explora takes great pains to distance itself from a traditional cruise may have the benefit of making the brand appealing to first time cruisers who are more accustomed to vacationing at luxury resorts or boutique hotels.
Explora I’s hardware and design also goes a long way in making this link more evident. With its glamorous and contemporary look accentuated by a glowing two-story display of top-shelf liquor bottles, the Lobby on Deck 4 – essentially the heart of the ship – wouldn’t feel out of place in a chic hotel in a big city.
The ship’s four pools are also heavenly havens that add to the lavish resort feel of Explora I. With its retractable roof and relaxing spa aesthetic, the Conservatory Pool & Bar on Deck 12 is the centerpiece of the ship. But the combo of aft pools – Atoll and Astern on decks 10 and 5, respectively – offer more intimate settings. The forward-facing Helios Pool & Bar on Deck 12 is the ship’s adults-only and the best place to work on your suntan. After all, it owes its name to the Greek god of the sun.
Explora I also dials down the entertainment, which isn’t uncommon among luxury cruise lines. Shows in the theater – dubbed Journey Lounge – are closer to lounge acts than elaborate, Broadway-style productions.
And while ‘typical’ cruise activities are routinely hosted onboard –trivia challenges, dance lessons, DJ parties and enrichment lectures – Explora I’s wealth of nook and crannies invite independent-minded travelers to do their own thing.
Without a doubt, Explora’s greatest strength is its culinary offering. The ship has five restaurants included in the price – six, if you count the trendy coffee and pastries venue Café Crema -- and each one is consistently excellent. They’re set up thematically, with the décor reflecting the menu on offer.
Foregoing the concept of a main dining room, the ship offers two, side-by-side open seating venues on Deck 4: the French-flavored Fil Rouge and the pan-Mediterranean Med Yacht Club (a not-so-subtle nod to MSC’s Yacht Club), which specializes in Spanish, Italian, Greek and North African cuisine. On Deck 5, the steakhouse Marble and Co. Grill and the Japanese-inspired Sakura require reservations and are technically limited to one visit each per passenger per sailing.
Emporium on Deck 11 is roughly the equivalent of a cruise buffet. But made-to-order food stations stretch the concept to make it more akin to a luxurious market where you can fill your plate with delicacies like grilled lobster tail, truffle ravioli or octopus sashimi as well as well-stocked charcuterie, fromagerie, patisserie and boulangerie stations.
There are two extra cost culinary experiences on Explora. One is Chef’s Kitchen on Deck 11, which functions more as a culinary workshop than a restaurant. The intimate space accommodates 12 passengers for a hands-on experience with the ship’s head chef. During our sailing, the culinary classes focused on individual dishes or ingredients, like French onion soup and poulette cocotte, Basque pintxos, risotto and mussels.
The second extra-fee venue is Anthology restaurant on Deck 5 – a multi-course experience offering tasting menus curated by Michelin-starred chefs that rotate every three months. On our sailing, Anthology featured the culinary creations of Swedish chef Emma Bengtsson of New York City’s Aquavit restaurant.
To call Anthology’s décor minimalistic would be an understatement. But it works in service of the restaurant; the concept of having menus curated by different Michelin-star chefs makes Anthology a blank canvas easily adaptable to any cuisine. Plus, the austere white-on-white style places the focus squarely on the food.
While Anthology’s elevated experience is on a league of its own among the ship’s dining venues, I’d hardly consider it essential. And that’s no knock on the restaurant’s quality but more a testament to the strength of Explora I’s included restaurants and culinary offerings. There is also not much of a difference in price between the onboard venue and the land-based restaurant: a tasting menu with wine pairing in Chef Bengtsson’s Aquavit restaurant in New York City costs $285, while the similar experience at Anthology goes for €265 (or €190 if you decline the wine pairing).
While Explora I’s culinary bounty can easily impact your waistline, the ship also offers plenty for travelers who prefer to stay active and fit.
The ship has standard amenities like a walking/jogging track on the top deck and an indoor gym. But it also has an open-air fitness area on Deck 14 fully decked with Technogym equipment. You’ll also find a sports court on Deck 14 featuring a basketball hoop and a pickleball net, with accompanying equipment.
Moreover, some of the shore excursions are labelled as “high-energy” or “extreme,” requiring a certain level of fitness. On our sailing, examples included a canyoning tour at Acomat Falls in Guadeloupe and a zip-lining trek in Antigua.
Luxury cruise lines aren’t exactly known for catering to kids. But Explora takes steps to buck that trend, making the cruise line a good option for multigenerational travelers looking for a more upscale experience. While our Caribbean sailing only had a handful of kids onboard, the ship is built to address the needs and interests of the youngest cruisers.
The most obvious way is through Nautilus Club on Deck 11. Open from 9am to midnight, this staffed space welcomes kids from ages 6-17 and offers a wide array of video game and VR consoles, including PlayStation 5, Xbox, Nintendo Switch and Oculus Pro. There’s also plenty of board games, a foosball table, a pool table and a jukebox tablet connected to streaming platforms like Spotify and Apple.
Additionally, children aged 3-5 are welcome at the club for age-specific activities when accompanied by a parent or guardian. I was told by the staff that future Explora Journeys ships will feature multiple kids’ clubs in order to better serve the needs of children of different ages.
Elsewhere on the ship, kids can also enjoy three of the four onboard pools, the only exception being the adults-only Helios Pool & Bar on Deck 12. And the sports court on Deck 14 is also appropriate for kids.
Explora I’s 78 connecting suites are also multigeneration-friendly. These are available in the ship’s Ocean Suite Ocean Penthouse, and Ocean Residence categories. The ship also provides thoughtful in-cabin amenities for younger cruisers, like smaller bathrobes, slippers and hangers as well as age-appropriate toys for infants aged 6 months to 2 years.
Explora I has also built most of their shore excursions with children in mind. The options feature separate pricing for children, which are on average 20%-30% less than the adult fare (with some exceptions). Having said that, some shore excursions have age restrictions and aren’t appropriate for children below a certain age and, in some cases, for anyone younger than 18.
It’s a surprising move from a luxury brand – and one we’re happy to see.
Stay tuned for more coverage from Cruise Critic’s Caribbean cruise aboard Explora Journeys’ Explora I.