Courtesy of Explora Journeys
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Courtesy of Explora Journeys
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Courtesy of Explora Journeys
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Courtesy of Explora Journeys
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Courtesy of Explora Journeys
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Explora I 

Our Ship Review
Deal Expert / Travel Blogger

When is a cruise not a cruise? When it’s an “ocean experience.” So says Explora Journeys, the new luxury brand launched by the parent company of mainstream European cruise company MSC Cruises in August 2023. With its first ship, 922-guest Explora I, the company seeks to differentiate itself from other luxury cruise lines by appealing directly to a new-to-cruise clientele (median age 53) that typically vacations at land-based luxury resorts and books via travel advisors who specialize in high-end experiences.

Explora I is, however, a cruise ship — a very posh and beautiful one designed with a European sensibility in the sleek style of a megayacht. Does it have the look and feel of a hotel or resort? In many ways, yes. The ship’s layout is quite spacious and its two-level lobby, with its multiple sofa groupings and sleek marble bar backed by a towering display case, resembles a high-end boutique hotel that could be in New York, London, or Milan. The fact that there’s no main dining room but rather six smaller restaurants also veers away from standard cruise formats (although more and more vessels in the premium and luxury cruise ship categories are doing the same). But where you may notice the “not a cruise” credo the most is in the guests Explora I aims to attract, many of whom have never been at sea before.

Accommodations onboard Explora I are generously sized and range from 377-square-foot Ocean Terrace Suites to the 3,014-square-foot Owner’s Residence. In between are four categories of Ocean Penthouses and four categories of more spacious Ocean Residences, the latter of which feature a private whirlpool on their terraces. The ship also features nine accessible Ocean Terrace Suites and one Grand Penthouse designed for guests with disabilities or reduced mobility.

Explora Journeys encourages guests to embrace an “Ocean State of Mind” — a unique energy inspired by the sea — while enjoying a mostly all-inclusive journey. Food, beverages including premium spirits and 19 wines by the glass, access to the Ocean Wellness Spa’s thermal suite, gratuities, and high-speed Starlink Wi-Fi are all part of the cruise fare. Additional upscale touches include the first Rolex boutique at sea (Cartier, Piaget, and Panerai also have shops) and The Journey, a highly curated emporium selling items from global brands with compelling backstories and mission statements. It all adds up to be an elevated cruise experience, even if Explora Journeys prefers not to call it that.

What We Love

The Multiple Pool Options: Explora I shines when in sunny locales, but even when the weather is cool or inclement there’s an inviting spot to enjoy a swim. Most ships of similar size feature two pools, but Explora I has four, each with an adjacent bar and comfortable chaises and cabanas (64 in total). There are three outdoor pools (the Astern Pool on Deck 5, the Atoll Pool on Deck 10, and the adults-only Helios Pool on Deck 12) and a large indoor/outdoor Conservatory Pool on Deck 11 with a cantilevered glass roof. The ship also features five infinity-edge whirlpools and the Ocean Wellness Spa has a jetted thalassotherapy pool.  

The In-Suite Details: Anyone who has ever stubbed a toe while making their way to or from the bathroom in the dark will be thrilled with the motion-activated nightlights in each of Explora I’s 461 suites. Ditto for those who appreciate wireless bedside recharging on the nightstand and heated flooring in the bathroom. But the designers have also included several thoughtful and creative details, beyond the sumptuous Frette linens and aromatic custom Mandala Blue toiletries. For one, the drawer-style safe is easy to access, fits a laptop, and features a velvet-lined tray for jewelry. Equally convenient is the glass-topped pull-out drawer in the walk-in closet that’s the perfect place to store smaller accessories like socks, belts, and scarves. The closet, which leads to the bathroom in many suite categories, also has a vanity equipped with a Dyson blow dryer. And don’t miss the hidden story in the artwork, a large collage of bookshelves: Pop the cork on your complimentary bottle of Champagne (Veuve Clicquot in Suites, Moet & Chandon in Penthouses, and Dom Perignon in Residences) and read the book titles in order from left to right. 

The Choice of Dining Venues: With six restaurants and three cafes, Explora I offers something for everyone, including those craving a Michelin-starred indulgence. There are five complimentary restaurants: Fil Rouge, an elegant venue serving modern French-inspired international cuisine (also open for a la carte breakfast service daily); Marble & Co. Grill, an atmospheric European-style steakhouse; Sakura, a Pan-Asian eatery with a Japanese focus and beautiful cherry-blossom décor (also open for lunch); Med Yacht Club, an airy space with a wide-ranging menu of Greek, Italian, Spanish, French, and North African specialties (also open for lunch); and Emporium Marketplace, where 18 cooking stations offer everything from salads and pizza to meats, fish, vegetable sides, and pasta prepared a la minute (open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner). The sixth restaurant, Anthology, is an intimate showcase for a revolving roster of Michelin-starred chefs, with multicourse set menus priced from 190 euros per person and 75 euros for wine pairing.

Explora I’s culinary offerings are all beautifully presented (the dinnerware and glassware are exquisite and the service is attentive), but some dishes were less satisfying than others, mainly due to over-salting. Such inconsistencies are typical, however, for a new ship as the culinary team finds its groove and adjusts to its guests’ preferences. The sushi, sashimi, and traditional Japanese dishes in Sakura were terrific; the lobster pad Thai not so much. Salads, pasta, fish dishes, desserts, and many vegetarian options were also superbly prepared, especially in Med Yacht Club, which offers an extensive menu for both lunch and dinner. Soups in general and some dishes in Emporium Marketplace were disappointing, but the creative salads, tasty  flatbreads, freshly prepared pasta, and divine desserts were consistent winners. 

The Relaxation Spaces: Explora I is designed to allow guests to embrace an “Ocean State of Mind.” The four onboard pools, the serene 7,535-square-foot Ocean Wellness Spa (where access to the thermal area is complimentary), and the 2,900-square-foot Technogym-equipped Fitness Center certainly contribute to that, but so do an appealing array of bars and lounges. There are 12, with four located outdoors adjacent to the ship’s pools. The top indoor venues are the Astern Lounge, featuring a small stage, dance floor, and pool table; the Lobby Bar, a chic social gathering spot; the Explora Lounge, a panoramic space with a Steinway piano and comfy ocean-facing chairs; the adjacent Malt Whiskey Bar, a cozy den for sipping distilled spirits; and Journeys Lounge, the main entertainment space reminiscent of an intimate show lounge.

Best Known For

Creating a New Cruise Vocabulary: Explora prefers to call its itineraries Journeys (never cruises) and that’s just one of the ways it has ditched standard industry lingo. You are a Guest (never a passenger) and your onboard accommodation is a Suite, Penthouse, or Residence (never a cabin or stateroom). The person who provides daily activity updates is the Experience Manager (not the cruise director) while those who serve you and tidy your suite are Hosts (never crew). The ship also has “Resident Artistes,” as the singers and musicians who play the three Steinway Spirio grand pianos onboard are known as, and “Luminaries,” which is how guest speakers and VIPs are referred to. Semantics notwithstanding, the vibe onboard Explora I isn’t stuffy at all. In fact, it’s pretty mellow with no formal dress code and a collective mindset focused on relaxation, wellness, fine dining, and culinary exploration, including in an onboard Chef’s Kitchen offering immersive cooking classes (for an added fee).

Who It's Best For

Travelers Seeking a Resort-Inspired Experience at Sea: Explora Journeys’ unconventional approach to life at sea makes it appealing to affluent travelers seeking relaxation and pampering, a quality food and beverage program, and entertainment that prioritizes intimate performances vs. glitzy productions.

Don't Say We Didn't Warn You

Booking a Larger Suite Won’t Necessarily Get You a Larger Bathroom: While the bathrooms in all suites aboard Explora I feature generously sized walk-in showers and heated floors, most are the exact same configuration and feature a single sink. So, booking a larger and pricier Ocean Penthouse or even an Ocean Residence won’t score you more bathroom space. Only the top three categories — Serenity Residences, Cocoon Residences, and the Owner’s Residence — feature more spacious bathrooms with both a tub and a shower. Only the Owner’s Residence bathroom has double sinks along with a private steam room. All categories of Ocean Residences also feature an outdoor whirlpool. 

The Nightly Entertainment Starts Late: Explora I doesn’t feature traditional productions scheduled around early and late dinner seatings. Instead, its “Evening Experiences” in the Journeys Lounge, a sleek venue with a dance floor and stylish chairs and sofas, don’t start until 9:30 p.m. These performances have a low-key vibe and seem to still be finding their sea legs. Offerings include “An Evening By Candlelight” showcasing the ship’s Resident Artistes as they perform themes such as “The Music of Broadway,” and “Timeless Legends of Swing” amid hundreds of ambient faux candles. There are also “A Tribute To” concerts celebrating performers such as Whitney Houston and Billy Joel and guest performers singing jazz or swing classics. Every night, a duo also sings contemporary hits in the Astern Lounge and those with energy left to burn can dance to DJ-spun music starting at 11:30 p.m.

Style Can Thwart Function: Some of the sleek furnishings in the public spaces aboard Explora I might be a challenge for guests with mobility issues. A pair of sculptural sofa benches in the center of the forward elevator banks, for example, requires guests to quickly maneuver around them if a car on the opposite side arrives first. The chairs in Journeys Lounge are also low-profile and armless, so some guests may find it challenging to get into and out of them. 

Donna Heiderstadt
Deal Expert / Travel Blogger
Cruise Expert