By David Barclay | January 18, 2024
If you are a regular reader of my blog posts, you may have noticed I’m a little late getting this one out this week. I’ve been sailing on Explora Journeys’ new EXPLORA I on a “workation” in the Caribbean for the past week and I’ve fallen a little behind on my online marketing as I’ve focused on exploring the ship and experiencing a few of the ports, while still working on my clients’ trips during the day.
I’ve decided to change the format of today’s Cruise News newsletter to focus on my current trip, this ship, and also the concept of a “workation” at sea. If you are looking to get out of the cold weather (and I apparently planned this trip for the perfect time given the temperatures in Chicago this week) I’d be happy to discuss a similar trip for you.
If you aren’t familiar with Explora Journeys, please read my January 2023 blog post “Spotlight On Explora Journeys“. The EXPLORA I is the first of six sister ships Explora Journeys plans to launch in the next several years. EXPLORA II launches this summer and I’m sure will deliver a very similar experience to the one I’ve had this week.
Below are my initial thoughts on this new luxury cruise ship and the Explora Journeys cruise line.
What I Like About The EXPLORA I
I’m not going to give an exhaustive list as you’d be here all day reading this newsletter! Needless to say, there’s a lot to like about Explora Journeys and the EXPLORA I. Competing with well-known ultra-luxury lines like Seabourn, Silversea and Regent Seven Seas, Explora Journeys designed its ships and service to deliver what ultra-luxury cruisers expect.
The food is wonderful, I’ve eaten at every restaurant, with last night being the highlight, when we dined at Anthology. Anthology has a rotating menu from two- and three-star Michelin “guest” chefs who bring their cuisines to EXPLORA I for a few months. The current menu is from Chef Emma Bengtsson of Aquavit in NYC. The previous night we dined at Marble & Co., the onboard European steak restaurant. My wife and I split the 800g, 45-day dry aged porter house and it was cooked perfectly (seared and rare) and sliced exquisitely for us to easily share. I’ve eaten dinner and several lunches at Sakura, the Pan-Asian restaurant and the sushi is as good as what I can get near my home in Chicago. The Med Yacht Club’s name may imply simple fare, but don’t be fooled by the name, it offers very tasty and eye-catching Mediterranean cuisine. Fil Rouge offers wonderful French cuisine, including delicious soufflés for dessert (I may have had one or two this past week). While the dinner menus at each restaurant have some staples, I noticed that at least 50% of the items change each time I return to a particular restaurant to dine.
I was also excited to try and pleased with the experience at the Chef’s Kitchen. A few other lines offer a similar experience on a few of their ships, but Explora Journeys will have a Chef’s Kitchen on every ship, where guests can take cooking classes from an expert chef. We decided to take our class on a sea day, and it’s a wonderful experience to cook a great lunch while watching the waves roll by. Our class was focused on French cuisine, and we learned to make onion soup and poulet cocotte, all in less than 2.5hrs. Then we were able to enjoy the fruits of our labor next door in the private dining room, sharing stores with our fellow classmates.
The spa is first-class, and very big. I’ve been on other ships where the spa seemed more of a secondary thought with only a few treatment rooms, meaning you had to rush there the first day to make appointments or you might not get the treatments you wanted. On this cruise, my wife and I had no problems booking treatments for the days we wanted, and the spa experiences were among the best we’ve had at sea.
One of the reasons I decided a “workation” would work for my wife and me is the EXPLORA I has the latest in communication technology and uses the Starlink satellite system. The Wi-Fi has been rock solid the whole cruise, and I’ve had no issues with Zoom calls, phone calls over Wi-Fi, FaceTime, or streaming shows at night.
It’s one thing to read all of the literature, memorize all of the ship specs, and even send clients on a new ship and hear their feedback. But for me, experiencing a ship first-hand is the best way to truly understand the cruising experience and what makes that ship unique. So, I love it when I’m pleasantly surprised by something I didn’t know before boarding.
My first surprise was from our first time lounging at a pool on the weekend, the few days we decided not to work. We went to the Conservatory pool, which has a retracting roof, enabling its use in any weather. I noticed I was more buoyant than usual when I took a dip, and soon discovered that it’s a salt-water pool. While I’ve sometimes swam in a salt-water ocean off the back of a ship or boat, this was the first time I swam in a salt-water pool on board.
The second surprise was told to me by a client who sailed on EXPLORA I earlier this year, so it wasn’t a complete surprise for this cruise. The spa area (pool, sauna, steam room, etc.) is open to any guest on any day. It’s not restricted to just those guests that received spa treatments that day. I’m not a huge user of those facilities in a spa, but it’s nice to know they are included in the all-inclusive fares from Explora Journeys. I did spend a little time in the spa area because I wanted to experience the Salt Cave, which has Himalayan salt bricks lining the walls and allows guests to inhale salt-infused air containing negative ions. It’s the first Salt Cave at sea and at a minimum provides guests with interesting bragging rights when they get back home.
Because of the rock solid wi-fi and the multiple entertainment venues, for the first time the ship live streamed the NFL payoff games on a large screen for guests to watch. I had expected to sit in our suite, hoping the connection was good enough to stream the games from our Tivo back home. Instead, my wife and I watched our Packers in wonderful luxury, with the crew bringing us drinks and snacks throughout the game (and in another pleasant surprise, our underdog Packers beat the Cowboys and will continue to play in the playoffs next week).
My last pleasant surprise is the infinity hot tubs on board. My wife and I love visiting the hot tubs when we have a little onboard pool time. I knew the EXPLORA I had several infinity hot tubs. What surprised me is she has both indoor and outdoor hot tubs (decks 11 and 12), the size of the hot tubs (large!), and the experience of sitting in one of those tubs relaxing and watching the scenery go by. It was hard to get out and get ready for dinner!
Pre-Cruise Concerns That Disappeared Once On Board
I did have a little trepidation about this cruise before we boarded. We’ve sailed on many wonderful ships to date, each with very nice experiences and I was concerned that the EXPLORA I might fall flat in a few areas. But I’m happy to report that she quickly alleviated my concerns with her unique charm.
My first concern was her size. She’s 50% larger than the largest ultra-luxury ship we’ve sailed on to date, with the capacity for 50% more guests. From the specs I knew the space-to-guest ratio would be as high as the best ships sailing for the other ultra-luxury lines. But I still worried she might seem too big and even with the extra space, she might feel crowded in some of the common areas. I also fretted it wouldn’t be possible to find a quiet place when we wanted some separation from other guests. I’ll admit it did take me a day or two to get adjusted to her size, and those same days to learn the layout of a few decks that are asymmetrical (and where I took a wrong path to get from the bow to stern and had to backtrack a little). But after spending my first few days on board, I came to appreciate her size and the extra common areas and other amenities she provides, especially for a cruise itinerary with multiple days at sea. I never felt any common areas were overcrowded, in some cases for portions of the day I might be the only one in the common area where I was working. And although she’s big, she has many bars and places to grab food, so it’s only a short walk to get a snack or something to drink (and at most times, you don’t need to go anywhere, the crew is checking on your frequently to make sure you have everything you need).
My second concern was the quality of the crew. Not that I didn’t think the EXPLORA I crew could eventually deliver world-class service, but since she’s only been sailing since August, I wasn’t sure their service skills would be fully polished. Other cruise lines have the ability to pull experienced crew members from existing ships when they launch a new one, but since this is Explora Journeys’ first ship that wasn’t an option. But somehow the Explora Journeys team has gotten the crew fully trained in a very short time and I’ve been very pleasantly surprised, the service has been outstanding and the crew very adaptable to any requests that I’ve made.
Lastly, I was concerned about the Emporium Marketplace, which is a collection of multiple food stations serving a variety of cuisines. Most ultra-luxury cruise ships will have a restaurant that offers more of a self-service/ station-based menu for breakfast and lunch, for those who want to avoid a full sit-down meal. But I was worried this new market concept would feel too much like a shopping mall food court. Again, I’ve been pleasantly surprised, with a huge variety of options available for every meal served in beautiful area of the ship. At breakfast, I can get a simple bowl of cereal, or have the crew make me eggs benedict. Lunch offers a variety of seafood, gourmet sandwiches, homemade pasta, or a burger for those who want something more traditional. The juice bar had some very interesting options and sometimes I’d just wander over to the Fromagerie station and had the server create a little charcuterie plate when I only wanted something light. We only ate there for dinner one night (after the Packers game, to grab a quick bite just before it closed for the evening). But I love that in the evening they have an oyster bar which was perfect for a pre-dinner snack of oysters, crab claws, and mussels, paired with a glass of champagne. If that doesn’t dispel any vision of a food court, then nothing will!
A Workation On A Cruise
Like many of you, my wife and I periodically need to work a bit while we are traveling. It’s nearly impossible to get away for an extended period of time and not have at least a few items come up that are better off addressed before we get back home. But the idea of working for a good portion of a cruise was a new thought we had, and honestly, I have to say it’s been a success. This is my first cruise of the Caribbean and it’s not the itinerary I would have picked for a full vacation. But in January, to get away from the cold in Chicago, it’s perfect. We’ve only been 1-2 hours ahead of Central Time, making it mostly seamless to communicate with those back in the Lower 48. And most days I’ve worked from the Explora Lounge on deck 11, with only a few other guests present and with beautiful 270-degree views of the islands and Caribbean Sea.
While I opted to work in the Explora Lounge, my wife frequently worked on the private veranda for our suite. Our suite’s veranda was larger than on other ships we’ve sailed, with a good-sized table, two chairs and a large daybed, providing many options for where to work outside while ensuring privacy. Our room attendant even brought her an extension cord so she would have power for her computer and iPad while working on the veranda.
This isn’t our first “workation” though. Historically my family traveled every year to Puerto Rico in February for a long weekend to get out of the cold, and during the pandemic when our kids were in remote schooling, we extended our stays to work/school in Puerto Rico. It was lovely and we loved being in the warm weather with the opportunity to spend some time in the ocean or pool each day. But once we ended our work/school day, we still had many of the obligations we have at home, such as preparing our dinners, etc. What is wonderful about doing a “workation” on a luxury cruise ship is the moment we end our workday, we can relax and be pampered by the crew. We can enjoy wonderful meals and then sit and enjoy wonderful music or listen to interesting guest speakers (and last Sunday night, watch a Packers game). We’ve liked it so much that I’ve already started searching for options for next January to repeat this experience.
As an experienced cruiser, you’d probably expect that I could find areas for improvement in the Explora Journeys experience, and there are some things that I think Explora Journeys will continue to improve and refine to elevate the guest experience.
But for this cruise, I really only have one complaint and that’s the fact that my cruise will end tomorrow, I’ll have to leave this wonderful ship and return to the cold weather in Chicago. But I can’t wait to take another journey on the EXPLORA I or any of her sister ships, she’s proven she can hold her own against the competition.
Owner, Barclay & Company Travel
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