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Friday,  April 19, 2024 11:39 AM 

VIDEO: “We needed something like this”: Agents unpack EXPLORA I's "homes at sea" with Explora Journeys

VIDEO: “We needed something like this”: Agents unpack EXPLORA I's "homes at sea" with Explora Journeys
From left: Lisa & Nancy Zupancic and Barbara Trotter of Direct Travel experience the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)
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 Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The exterior design of the EXPLORA I is so open to interpretation that even the captain is perplexed.

“From the outside, it looks like a yacht,” says Captain Diego Michelozzi, master of the first vessel of Explora Journeys, a new luxury cruise brand launched by MSC Group. “It’s deceiving. You think it’s a yacht, but then you come on board, and there’s so much space.” 

For the record, the 461-suite EXPLORA I, which debuted in August 2023, is by definition a ship – a medium-sized one, Michelozzi confirms, that harmoniously blends Swiss precision with modern naval engineering.

It’s a ship that thinks it’s a yacht. No wait, maybe it’s a yacht that thinks it’s a ship?

Now we’re just sailing in circles.

The 461-suite EXPLORA I is like a giant yacht. (Pax Global Media)

As PAX learned during a glam voyage around the Windward and ABC islands of the Caribbean Sea from Nov. 27 to Dec. 6, the chic and elegant EXPLORA I encapsulates both vessel types.

READ MORE: On Location - “Ocean state of mind,” activated - PAX, agents unpack EXPLORA I with Explora Journeys

The superyacht – let’s call it that – was born from a long-held vision of its founders, the Aponte Vago family, whose nautical heritage dates back more than 300 years.

Inside the glowing lobby of the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

It also arrived at a weird time. The MSC Group formally announced Explora Journeys in June 2021, at the height of the pandemic, when uncertainty clouded the future of cruise travel (a climate that has since improved).

Despite the timing, the concept was attention-grabbing nonetheless. Promising a fresh take on high-end cruising, Explora debuted with new terms and taglines, such as “homes at sea” and “ocean state of mind.”

The main pool area of EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Homes at sea refers to the brand’s super spacious suites, which have living rooms and ocean-facing balconies, ranging from 377 sq. ft. in the Ocean Terrace category to up to 3,014 sq. ft. in the sprawling Owners Residence.

PAX can confirm that the suites are, indeed, home-like. A luxurious home at that.

READ MORE: Explora unveils new experiences in C. America, Canada-U.S. Pacific, Hawaii

They have walk-in closets, book shelves, sculptures, cashmere blankets, vanity areas, king-sized beds (with nearby charging ports), motion sensor nightlights that activate when you step out of bed, and heated floors in marble-covered bathrooms, which have walk-in showers.

Ocean Terrace Suite Premier Penthouse. (Pax Global Media)

Suites come with walk-in closets. (Pax Global Media)

Accommodations come with binoculars, a mini bar, an espresso machine with biodegradable pods, a kettle and teapot, and refillable water bottles.

There’s even a powerful Dyson Supersonic hairdryer, stored away like a top-secret James Bond gadget, in a customized drawer.

 “Ocean state of mind,” meanwhile, is the brand’s philosophy.

“It’s when you lose yourself, to find yourself,” Captain Michelozzi told PAX, explaining the cruise credo, during our voyage. “It’s when you feel tranquility and you’re fully emerged in relaxation and serenity.”

Captain Diego Michelozzi, master of the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Crystal customers are impressed

Those feelings are easy to find on EXPLORA I, which arrived in Miami in early November after crossing the Atlantic Ocean. (The ship debuted last summer with voyages in Northern Europe).

The main takeaway is that Explora Journeys is absolutely nothing like a traditional MSC cruise.

Chic design on board the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

The brand, a separate company, charts its own course, offering a mostly all-inclusive experience, without complex food and beverage packages, in a 24-hour butler service-oriented environment.

The EXPLORA I welcomes families (although, it’s definitely made for adults) and even Crystal customers – arguably the most discerning (and wealthiest) bunch in cruising – are crossing over.

PAX met quite a few Crystallites on board the EXPLORA I, and the same two words were heard often: “No complaints."

Exterior view of the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

20,000 interviews

Explora was built on research. In the brand’s early stages, some 20,000 potential guests were interviewed to gauge what they wanted in a luxury cruise line.

What “bubbled up to the top” was a desire for space, choice, new design and opportunities to visit different destinations, said Patricia Di Benedetto, Explora’s business relationship lead in Eastern Canada, who, alongside Lisa Willey (the brand’s Western Canada rep), and 40 Canadian travel advisors ("Pioneers"), was on board the EXPLORA I with PAX.

From left (of Explora Journeys): Lisa Willey, business relationship lead, Western Canada; Patricia Di Benedetto, business relationship lead, Eastern Canada. (Pax Global Media)

“We’re really transforming what the ocean experience could be in the luxury space,” Di Benedetto told us.

The EXPLORA I, with 14 decks, spaces out furniture, such as couches and sun loungers, to give guests plenty of breathing room.

Canadian travel advisors discover the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

The homey decor also extends into public areas, which are filled out with photography and shelves showcasing old books and knickknacks, like magnifying glasses, chess pawns and framed pictures of dogs and horses.

And while the ship’s maximum occupancy might say 922 on paper, it likely won’t ever hit that number, Di Benedetto said.

Knickknacks on display on board the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Homey decor on board the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Why? Because Explora’s single supplement starts at 15 per cent (whereas on mass market ships, it can be double or more). It’s a journey made for solo travellers.

“We will never run at full capacity because of that,” Di Benedetto said.

The low supplement lends itself to unique booking patterns. Friends, for example, will cruise together, but book their own suites, Di Benedetto said.

Poolside on board the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

“We’ve had husband and wife duos who book connecting rooms because one snores, and one doesn't, and they want their own space,” she said.

As for choice, EXPLORA I has 18 culinary menus and always-new entertainment in its nightclub (a Billy Joel tribute show and concert by Vegas-based soul singer Michael Washington were hits).

Passengers hit the dance floor with singer Michael Washington on EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

“We needed something like this”

Montreal-based travel advisor Pat Tsatoumas of Direct Travel said the ship “exceeded my expectations.”

“It’s beautiful,” Tsatoumas told PAX. “The food is excellent, it’s super clean, there’s lots of space…everything you need is within arm’s reach.”

Tsatoumas, who said she’s been on every luxury cruise line going, thinks Explora Journeys is perfect for travellers in their mid-50s.

“I’m happy there's something new,” she said. “We needed something like this.”

From left: Travel advisor Pat Tsatoumas, Direct Travel; Julie Skinner, VP, leisure sales & operations, Direct Travel. (Pax Global Media)

Toronto-based Nancy and Lisa Zupancic, Condé Nast travel specialists since 2021, also with Direct Travel, were impressed too.

“This ship is steady, the engines are calm,” Nancy pointed out. “For people who are unsure about cruising – concerned that a ship will rock – this is comfortable.”

READ MORE: An ocean state of mind”: What travel pros are saying about the new EXPLORA I

Captain Diego Michelozzi later supported this point, telling PAX that the EXPLORA I was designed to maneuver all sorts of weather conditions – including the bad ones.

The EXPLORA I is a smooth and stable ride. (Pax Global Media)

The ship can generate significant power and produce “an extra kick” when needed, he told us.

Lisa Zupancic compared the ship to a luxury resort.

“If somebody wanted to take a vacation at a high-end hotel, and they wanted to visit the Caribbean, here's your hotel,” she said. “The ship has everything you need.”

Poolside at sunset aboard the EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Ocean state of mind, activated

The EXPLORA I – the first of six ships in a developing fleet – is full of windows, boasting lots of natural light and a close connection to the water, activating that unique ocean state of mind.

The onboard retail stores, which includes a Cartier, have porthole windows – guests can literally see the churning sea as they shop.

Explora Journeys connects guests to the ocean. (Pax Global Media)

Cabanas face the ocean on board EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

First impressions, beyond complimentary bottles of Moët, start in an opulent lobby, which glows with modern, crystal-like lighting.

The ship has a spa, four swimming pools (including infinity-style whirlpools, overlooking the ocean, that are rectangular so you don’t have to awkwardly face strangers), poolside dining and lounging, as well as fitness options, such as an outdoor running track and a gym.

Infinity-style whirlpools overlooking the ocean on board EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Equipment, like rowing and cycling machines and weights, are placed outdoors. Technogym fitness kits are also included in suites for guests who prefer working out in their own space.

Outdoor fitness equipment on EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Peaceful pools on board EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

The best food at sea?

Premium alcohol (like Grey Goose), dining, gratuities and Wi-Fi (high-speed Starlink) are all included in the fare – with some exceptions.

The restaurants are Marble & Co. Grill (steak), Med Yacht Club (Mediterranean), Emporium Marketplace (like a buffet, except the dishes are served by staff, and there’s daily Chef’s creations), Fil Rouge (French) and Sakura (a Japanese restaurant with cherry blossom tree décor that guests love).

Fresh sushi at Sakura. (Pax Global Media)

Cherry blossom tree decor at Sakura. (Pax Global Media)

“Colleagues have told me that this was the best food they've ever had at sea, and I can echo those comments,” said Julie Skinner, Direct Travel’s vice-president, leisure sales and operations, adding how luxury cruising has been one of the largest-growing segments in travel in recent years. 

Emporium Marketplace on EXPLORA I. (Pax Global Media)

Explora also has in-suite dining and a Chef’s Kitchen – a culinary class that unfolds in an ocean-front private kitchen setting for up to 12 guests (this has a fee).

Explora offers a Chef’s Kitchen culinary class. (Pax Global Media)

The one restaurant that costs extra is Anthology, a “culinary journey” that’s curated by leading chefs from around the world.

Every three to four months, Explora reveals a new partnership, and the latest is with Michelin-rated Chef Emma Bengtsson of Aquavit restaurant in New York City. 

Anthology restaurant. (Pax Global Media)

She brings Nordic-style dishes to Anthology, which PAX experienced in the form of a seven-course tasting menu.

From caviar topped with potato crumble to a rich lobster bisque to jersiaise beef with rosehip puree to an “Arctic Birds Nest” goat cheese parfait and blueberry sorbet dessert, the meal was a home run.

Jersiaise beef with rosehip puree at Anthology. (Pax Global Media)

Anthology costs $190 Euros (about $283 CAD – all pricing on board is in Euros) per person, or $265 Euros (about $395 CAD) per person if you include a wine pairing option. Bottles of wine can also be purchased (wine is not sold by the glass).

Senior travel advisor Barbara Trotter, of Direct Travel in Victoria, B.C., noted how genuine the staff are on board.

READ MORE: Explora Journeys unveils sailings for EXPLORA I and II through to April 2026

“I’ve had clients cruise with Crystal and they went back because of the staff. I think this is comparable, if not better. Everybody seems to be happy working here,” Trotter said.

Explora’s guest-to-host ratio is 1:1.25. (Pax Global Media)

Explora’s guest-to-host ratio is 1:1.25, which means staff are usually three steps ahead.

What Explora Journeys doesn’t have is a main dining room (which may matter to some), and the fitness room is also somewhat small for a cruise line that revolves around wellness.

With the company actively gathering guest and agent feedback, the gym is one amenity that could possibly expand on future ships. 

Because Explora Journeys is in it for the long run.

The EXPLORA I is one of six planned ships. (Pax Global Media)

EXPLORA II is set to launch in summer 2024, while EXPLORA III and EXPLORA IV, powered by liquefied natural gas, will debut in 2026 and 2027 respectively.

EXPLORA V and EXPLORA VI, both hydrogen-powered, will bring the fleet to six by 2028, representing a total investment of $5 billion CAD.

Journeys upon journeys

So, what puts the “journey” in Explora Journeys?

The brand’s “destination experiences” (shore excursions) are exclusive to Explora, and the promise in each port of call is to offer guests tailored tours, organized into small groups.

The EXPLORA I anchored in Martinique. (Pax Global Media)

The excursion booklet is like a novel – on our voyage, “UNESCO Treasures Below and Above the Caribbean Sea,” each destination presented myriad tours, from wellness experiences to active adventures.

READ MORE: Explora Journeys launches co-branded websites for travel advisors

There’s lots to choose from, which was a tad overwhelming, but this actually serves a good purpose if, for whatever reason, a tour is cancelled. There are plenty of plan Bs and Cs.

Floating down the Indian River in Dominica. (Pax Global Media)

In unspoiled Dominica, the Eastern Caribbean’s “Nature Island,” mountains, waterfalls and green iguanas – masters of camouflage – converged.

We saw it all from a wooden paddle boat, on a safari down the Indian River — one of 365 that flow through this remote, lush destination.

Green iguanas spotted in Dominica. (Pax Global Media)

Scenes from Pirates of the Caribbean were filmed here.

In reef-lined Bonaire, a municipality of the Netherlands, a dozen of us traded the EXPLORA I for a private catamaran and cruised along the turquoise-blue coast, visiting two snorkeling spots in Bonaire National Marine Park.

Going face-to-face with exotic fish and coral was exciting, but it was the service on board that glowed.

Snorkeling in Bonaire National Marine Park. (Pax Global Media)

Catamaran rides are typically associated with cheap rum and cokes and ham sandwiches. This experience, though, offered all sorts of stylish sippers (prosecco or rose, anyone?). There was even a three-course BBQ seafood lunch.

The friendly crew made sure everyone’s glass was full, mirroring the same attentive service observed on the EXPLORA I.

Willemstaad, Curaçao’s colourful capital, was home base for one night, giving guests plenty of time to stay out late and explore the city’s old town, which has pastel-coloured colonial architecture. It’s like a mini Amsterdam.

Exploring Willemstaad, Curaçao’s colourful capital. (Pax Global Media)

Then, to magnificent Martinique, a department of France, also known as the “Island of Flowers," where a rainbow greeted us. 

French and Creole are heard in these leafy lands, where mountains earn stamps from UNESCO and customs, from multiple continents, form traditions.

A rainbow forms in Martinique. (Pax Global Media)

On location in Fort-de-France. (Pax Global Media)

With the help of Atout France, we visited Saint-Pierre, once destroyed by a volcanic eruption in 1902, and then Fort-de-France, the capital with colonial architecture and iron balconies.

Beauty blossomed at Jardin de Balata, a vibrant botanical garden, and then we headed north, to Habitation Céron, a family-run, farm-to-table restaurant, where all-natural dishes feature ingredients from the surrounding rainforest and sea.

Farm-to-tabel fare at Habitation Céron. (Pax Global Media)

Here, we came face-to-face with a (harmless) Antilles pinktoe tarantula. The surprise plus one!

In volcanic St. Vincent, of Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, guests split up. Some sailed off to the island of Bequia, known for its diving spots and luxury resorts. Others went kayaking.

Barbados, which bookended the voyage, unlocked tours in Bridgetown, a capital dotted with colonial buildings, and beyond.

Travel advisors go kayaking in St. Vincent. (Julie Skinner)

The destination experiences are not included in the price – for reasons that make sense. 

Explora’s research showed that high-end clients aren’t interested in getting off a ship, boarding a bus and doing the same things as everyone else, Di Benedetto explained.

Some travellers, especially luxury-minded ones, enjoy doing their own thing.  

EXPLORA’s target market is also reluctant to pay for things (like excursions) that they aren’t using.

Which is fair, because even when docking in extraordinary destinations, the EXPLORA I, with all its fabulosity, had a way of beckoning us to stay on board, sprawl out on a sun lounger and embrace some quiet alone time.

Or, rather, an ocean state of mind.

What's it like on board the EXPLORA I? Watch PAX's exclusive video reel from the voyage! 

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