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Sunday,  July 21, 2024 10:18 AM 

On Location: “An ocean state of mind”: What travel pros are saying about the new EXPLORA I


On Location: “An ocean state of mind”: What travel pros are saying about the new EXPLORA I
From left: Caroline Hay, GM, cruise, Trevello Travel Group; Patricia Di Benedetto, business relationship lead, Canada, Explora Journeys. (Supplied)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and DailyXtra.ca. Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

“Everyone is enamoured with this brand,” said Caroline Hay, general manager of cruise at Trevello Travel Group, speaking to PAX, via audio link, from a “beautifully-appointed suite” aboard EXPLORA I, the first ship to join the fleet of Explora Journeys, which is MSC Group's new luxury lifestyle brand.

Hay is among a lucky group of travel professionals, from executives to top-producing travel advisors, currently at sea experiencing Explora's new 461-suite vessel as it commences its maiden journey – a seven-night voyage that began Aug. 1 in Copenhagen after a delayed start

This week, the itinerary includes stops in Lerwick, the Shetland Islands and Kirkwall, Orkney, and it concludes in Reykjavik, Iceland.

Lerwick is the main town and port of the Shetland archipelago, in Scotland, and it’s here where Hay, on Thursday (Aug. 3), took a break from enjoying luxe life at sea to speak with PAX about her first impressions of EXPLORA I. 

The new EXPLORA I set sail on its maiden voyage this week. (Explora Journeys)

“They’ve really embraced the concept of having an ‘ocean state of mind’ by creating a relaxed environment with home-like comfort,” said Hay, an authority in cruise ship commentary (the EXPLORA I inaugural just happens to be Hay's 87th cruise).

The MSC Group first revealed its new luxury brand in June of 2021, at the height of the pandemic, when uncertainty clouded the future of cruise travel. 

READ MORE: Explora Journeys appoints Patricia Di Benedetto to spearhead drive in Canada

A lot has changed since those dark days, and despite hiccups in the industry’s restart, Explora pushed ahead with its plans, sharing updates on its progress to becoming a new and innovative player in the luxury travel market.

Modern, contemporary interiors on board EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

Explora Journeys was born from a long-held vision of its founders, the Aponte Vago family, whose nautical heritage dates back more than 300 years.

The family curated the design of EXPLORA I’s upscale suites, penthouses and residences to embody what it calls an “Ocean State of Mind” concept that utilizes light, colour, space, privacy and, above all, a connection to the sea.

This dreamy concept immediately caught Hay’s attention during her first few hours aboard EXPLORA I.

Elegant touches on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

Inside the lobby of EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

“One of biggest things that struck me was how you can actually see the ocean from different areas inside the ship,” Hay said. “You can’t always see the ocean while inside most ships. Whereas on EXPLORA I, if you’re at the lobby bar, and look over at the Rolex boutique store, there’s a beautifully-built window, looking out at the ocean.”

“I have never been on a ship where the shops have windows,” Hay said. It's a feature that gives EXPLORA I a “light and airy feeling.”

READ MORE: Explora Journeys announces onboard activity & entertainment program

“It constantly feels like you’re seeing water," Hay continued, "which is why I think many of us cruise lovers love to cruise – because we love being on the water." 

Pools connected to the ocean on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

Poolside on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay )

It’s no wonder Dr. Sylvia Earle, a world-renowned oceanographer, explorer, and conservationist, was named godmother of EXPLORA I.

She’s a celebrated pioneer of deep-sea exploration who has dedicated her life to ocean conservation.

“Homes at Sea”

EXPLORA I blends Swiss precision with modern European craftsmanship and vibrant design, offering what it calls “Homes at Sea” that range from 377 sq. ft. on the Ocean Terrace category up to 3,014 sq. ft. for the Owners Residence.

And all of the suites come with ocean-facing balconies.

READ MORE: "Homes at Sea": Inside EXPLORA I's Ocean Penthouses & Residences

“It’s like a small boutique hotel,” Hay said of the ship, which will visit 132 ports in 40 different countries during its first season. “It has comfortable seating and it’s beautifully designed with beiges and pops of colour.”

“They pull it off in a very elegant and contemporary way.”

Exploring EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

EXPLORA I’s lead-in category, the Ocean Terrace Suites, and the 420 sq. ft. Ocean Grand Terrace Suites feature their own private terrace, between 75 to 118 square feet, creating an extension to the living space complete with daybeds and an alfresco dining area.

The design’s function is to bring guests closer to the ocean, and some suites can connect for multi-generational family bookings. 

READ MORE: Explora Journeys names adventurer Mike Horn as brand ambassador

Ocean Penthouses range from 463 to 732 sq. ft, while Ocean Residences range from 753 to 1604 sq. ft.

The Ocean Residences, for one, offer a panoramic oceanfront terrace with a private outdoor whirlpool, a dining table and sun loungers.

There's also a sprawling Owner’s Residence complete with an infinity whirlpool and a dining table for eight guests.

Caroline Hay's deluxe penthouse suite. (Caroline Hay)

Bathroom in the Owner's Residence. (Explora Journeys)

All suites have walk-in wardrobes, seated vanity areas, a Dyson Supersonic hairdryer, heated floors in the marble bathrooms, binoculars, a personal mini bar (replenished according to guests’ preferences), an espresso machine with biodegradable pods, a kettle and teapot, and a refillable water bottle.

Dining room in the Owner's Residence. (Explora Journeys)

Hay loves the “beautiful finishes” and simple touches in her suite, from the abundance of outlets (include bedside) for charging devices to the storage tray in her safe.

“Every room came with a bottle of champagne, Moët, upon arrival,” she said.

Some suite categories have a wellness component – Hay’s suite, for one, came with a duffle bag full of Technogym fitness equipment. 

Technogym equipment spotted in Caroline Hay's suite. (Caroline Hay)

The Wi-Fi, too, has been “spectacular,” she said.

Hay, in fact, has been sharing her onboard experience with Trevello advisors this week, via live stream on Facebook, and says she hasn’t yet encountered a glitch in her connection.

Curated experiences

EXPLORA I has 11 culinary experiences across six restaurants (plus in-suite dining), as well as 12 bars and lounges (eight indoor and four four) and a Chef's kitchen.

It’s also an all-inclusive format – elements like alcoholic beverages, gratuities and Wi-Fi are included in the fare (with some exceptions).

Journeys Lounge on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

Throughout the year, wine selections will reflect the regional areas where the ship sails.

Onboard venues include Marble & Co. Grill (a European steakhouse that “blew me away,” said Hay); Sakura (Pan-Asian cuisine), Fil Rouge (French-inspired international cuisine); Med Yacht Club (Mediterranean, with Italian, Spanish, Greek and French influences), and the Emporium Marketplace (all-day dining, with 18 cooking stations).

There’s Anthology (a seven-course dinner curated by three-star Michelin Chef Mauro Uliassi), which is not part of the inclusive culinary experience.

 Fil Rouge restaurant. (Caroline Hay)

And there's the Chef’s Kitchen, an oceanfront private kitchen setting for 12 guests (which also costs extra).

EXPLORA I has a spa, four swimming pools, with poolside dining and lounging, as well as holistic wellness and fitness facilities. (“It’s an outdoor gym,” Hay remarked).

And while it’s an “adult vibe” on board, families are still welcome as there’s a dedicated a space (the Nautilus Club) for youngsters, Hay added.

Outdoor exercise equipment on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

Outdoor running track on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

Travellers with disposable income who are (or who are close to becoming) empty nesters will likely gravitate towards the new brand, Hay suspects. 

"It's for people who want an affluent lifestyle while travelling, but not in a stuffy or buttoned-up environment," she said. "It's warm and welcoming. It's not a luxury line that is standoffish and formal." 

Nautilus Club. (Caroline Hay)

“Every detail has been thought out”

Mary de Almeida and Pat Probert of The Bob Family Travel team at TravelOnly are also among the guests experiencing EXPLORA I this week.

Probert sent PAX a picture of the ship’s lead-in suite (see below), calling the space “amazing.”

EXPLORA I lead-in suite, as captured by Pat Probert. (Pat Probert)

“This ship will not disappoint the cruise enthusiasts who love travelling in luxury,” Probert wrote PAX in an email. “Every detail has been thought out, from Dyson hair dryers in each suite to heated marble floors in the washrooms.”

Probert loves the food and beverage venues, how his bedside table has outlets for charging up devices, and the Billy Joel tribute show Explora organized one night.  

Detailed hallways on EXPLORA I. (Pat Probert)

He’s “honoured” to be on EXPLORA I’s maiden voyage, travelling with “our great partner Ensemble” and so many leading suppliers and agents from across North America.

READ MORE: Explora Journeys partners with Chef Mauro Uliassi to curate culinary experience

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime trip to be able to network and be on a maiden voyage at the same time,” Probert said.

Mary de Almeida and Pat Probert of The Bob Family Travel Team at TravelOnly experience the new EXPLORA I. (Supplied/Pat Probert)

Mary de Almeida, manager at Bob Family Travel, also praised EXPLORA I’s attention to detail, calling it “endless.”

“This ship needs to be on your radar for your clients,” she said. “It’s like being at an exclusive boutique hotel, travelling on the water, from country to country.”

"Speechless"

Toronto-based Patricia Di Benedetto is Explora Journeys’ business relationship lead in Canada. She’s also on board this week.

“The experience has been both spectacular and surreal to finally see all her beauty with my own eyes,” Di Benedetto told PAX. “The elegance of the decor and the exceptional service of our hosts has left me speechless.”

Pools connected to the ocean on EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

She said this week’s guests have been “captivated” by the seamless service they have been receiving from the moment they stepped on board.

“Our hosts are committed to taking care of their every need and addressing them by their name, which adds a personalized touch,” she said. “Our suites are not only spacious, but also have so many beautiful details and touches that make this truly feel like your home at sea.”

Di Benedetto said EXPLORA I's culinary offerings are “a true highlight.”

“Each dish is beautifully presented, and most importantly, delicious and receiving rave reviews,” Di Benedetto said 

Anthology restaurant. (Explora Journeys)

Growth mode activated

EXPLORA I will spend several weeks in Northern Europe and then cross the Atlantic Sea and spend the winter in North America and the Caribbean Sea before returning to Europe in Summer 2024 for voyages in the Mediterranean

And there's more ships on the horizon. 

The hydrotherapy pool on board EXPLORA I. (Caroline Hay)

EXPLORA II is currently being built in Italy and will come into service in August 2024. EXPLORA III, meanwhile, will become the first of two LNG (liquefied natural gas) powered vessels to join the Explora Journeys’ fleet with the ship due to be delivered in 2026 and EXPLORA IV in 2027.

"It's very exciting," said Caroline Hay. "It's not often you see new cruise brands being launched." 

If anything, the introduction of Explora Journeys is indicative of the cruise industry's steady growth and resilience, Hay noted. 

"Those of us who have focused on cruise as our niche are set for phenomenal growth in business," she said. "I’m happy for the Explora team for building an idea and bringing it to reality." 

"The story they've been telling is rolling out exactly as we all anticipated." 


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