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What’s it really like sailing on the world’s newest luxury ship, EXPLORA I?

Explora Journeys – the new luxury cruise line from MSC Group – has launched its first ship EXPLORA I. Sailawaze went onboard to find out what it’s like.

Words by Harriet Mallinson

Somewhere off the west coast of Iceland I start to feel a bit drunk.

Even though my last glass of Moët was more than 20 hours ago, the classical music, the warm hands kneading away tension and the aromas of lavender and peppermint fuse in a heady hit and a high blooms through my brain like that first intake of hot holiday air. Hang on, have I inadvertently reached the ocean state of mind mid-massage?

This Elysian state is what new luxury line Explora Journeys promises guests, but it’s not mere marketing jargon – escapism is inescapable onboard the brand’s opulent first ship, EXPLORA I.

The spa isn’t the only place where you can get your serenity fix, either. Try sipping rosé as relaxing beats wash over sunlit loungers, swimming through pale jade waters under a retractable glass roof, sinking your teeth into an impossibly creamy tiramisu from a Michelin-starred chef…or, well, anything onboard really.

Guests are cocooned in refined luxury immediately upon boarding EXPLORA I – you’re greeted with a glass of champagne and the brand’s oh-so-delicate yet delicious signature fragrance – and the sensation lasts throughout.

I spend my week sailing Northern Europe onboard EXPLORA I in an Ocean Suite (the ship’s entry suite category – pictured above left) and relish not just the stylish surroundings – from curated books to plush Frette robes – but also the little practical touches.

There are the rubber-coated rails in the wardrobe to avoid noisy clanking on stormy waters, enough mirrors to keep the Wicked Queen in her element and seductive mood lighting at turndown… not to mention the powerful hairdryer (Dyson), the marble bathroom floors (heated) and complimentary bottles of alcohol (full-sized) – everything is thought of.

Not that you’re short of libations on this ship, Explora Journeys is an all-inclusive cruise line after all. The Lobby Bar [below, left] proves a popular spot for aperitifs accompanied by guest musicians while the Malt Whisky Bar (complete with a walk-in humidor and some of the rarest whiskies) is where those in the know head for post-dinner drinks.

Indeed it’s here I witness first-hand the much-vaunted service onboard EXPLORA I. When an off-menu beverage is requested the smiling barman dashes away to source the right ingredients and even hand-whips cream before our eyes.

He’s not the only one. In Asian restaurant Sakura (exquisitely Instagrammable with its cherry tree blossom canopy and gold Japanese-style wallpaper – pictured, below right) the friendly maître d’ goes the extra mile, holding up napkins to shield guests’ eyes from the sun and personally reversing a mobility scooter to ensure an easy exit for one disabled passenger.

Of course, the food itself in this eatery deserves its own commendation. I can confidently say I scoff every piece of sushi rustled up in Sakura and am not once disappointed (if the waiters judged my excess they did not show it); plus, you can see it all being concocted thanks to the vast open kitchen.

This easy intimacy is a theme throughout EXPLORA I and its restaurants; there’s no main dining room or buffet here, each joint is stand-alone (and stand-out). French offering Fil Rouge plates up the best soufflè I’ve ever tasted, classic steakhouse Marble & Co. Grill [below, left] boasts a superb lobster brioche and all-day dining concept Emporium Marketplace [below, right] is a veritable room of requirement for the taste buds.

For even more “wow” food, you’ll want Anthology, where three-Michelin-star Chef Mauro Uliassi, in collaboration with Head of Culinary Franck Garanger, transforms cuttlefish into tantalising tagliatelle and raw red shrimp into citrus-infused perky pink slivers that quiver and glisten sensually on my plate.

Fancy learning how to cook like a culinary maestro yourself? Sign up for an Explora Journeys Chef’s Kitchen class to create anything from onion soup to Skyr crème brûlée. I have a riot making, shaping and filling tortellini and ravioli under expert tutelage; “You must have fun,” the chef tells us firmly as glasses of paired wine are handed out – and I can’t help thinking my school cookery lessons were missing a trick.

What elevates the experience further are the floor-to-ceiling windows opening out onto the sparkling ocean, flooding the room with sunlight. This is something you can expect across EXPLORA I, guaranteeing that ocean state of mind will always be brought to the fore, whether you’re languishing to a sea view in one of the huge indoor whirlpools or working up a sweat on an al fresco rowing machine.

Don’t just limit yourself to Explora’s ship-bound benefits, however. The brand also provides a plethora of shore excursions so guests can explore ports of call to the max.

During our Icelandic stop in Ísafjörður, I opt for a small-group Explora Journeys whale-watching destination experience and we motor past towering swathes of wind and rain-buffeted lands, icy waters foaming like charging huskies beneath our bow while sea birds wheel above, until we spy these majestic beasts.

Up their enormous bodies come, twinkling in the sunshine and rolling with the glossy waves until – yes! – their tails swoop into view, spraying water droplets diamond-like into the air. And then – look! – another joins in, as two then three humpbacks dive like synchronised swimmers.

Eventually I lose count of how many whales we see, as we rush from one side of the craft to the other in a bid to take in the elegant animals. Luckily our exertions are rewarded with regular glasses of champagne – the lavish cherry on top of the afternoon.

Another Explora Journeys highlight is a visit to the deserted village of Hesteyri [above, left] – an Eden you’d never locate if left to your own devices. Untouched Icelandic beauty at its finest, the undulating hillsides are carpeted in green grasses speckled with purple and yellow flora, rocky plateaus are painted piebald-like with snow, and the water is as clear as anything you’d find in the Mediterranean.

I spot a jellyfish wafting ethereally through the limpid shallows but elsewhere the only signs of life are the few traditional buildings studding the shoreline – solely inhabited during summer months when the descendants of those who once lived here return. There’s the graveyard too, of course, but those residents stay silent.

There’s more spectacular scenery to be found in Akureyri, where I hop aboard an Explora Journeys excursion to Goðafoss waterfall [above, centre]. One of the most impressive in Iceland, this horseshoe cascade got its name in the 10th century when idols of the Norse Gods were thrown in as the country converted to Christianity – but there’s something undeniably deific about the spot to this day.

From a distance Goðafoss resembles a steaming witch’s cauldron and only when you near the ravine does its almighty power strike. Glacial waters hurl over the rocks at full speed and clouds of mist billow upwards before the falls calm to blue-green lagoon-like swirls below. I half expect to see a divine being emerge from the thunderous veil!

Less imposing waters can be found over in Skagen, Denmark [above, right] which serves up seaside paradise in spades. Here the sand dunes, adorned with grasses and rose hips, beg to be skipped down barefoot while the wide golden beach is perfect for strolling along hand-in-hand as the fresh sea breeze caresses your cheeks.

There it is again, that ocean state of mind. Somewhere on the northern tip of Denmark, I start to feel a bit drunk.

Set Sail

Iceland & Greenland Journey with Explora Journeys

Duration: 16 nights

Where: Reykjavik, Iceland | Akureyri, Iceland | Isafjordur, Iceland | Paamiut, Greenland | Nuuk, Greenland | Qaqortoq, Greenland | Sydney, Canada | Saint John, Bay of Fundy, Canada | New York City, USA


Price: From £8,000 pp

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Published 24.08.23