Document boards the Explora I for its Naming Ceremony, as it embarks on its path to redeem the at-sea getaway
The Explora I feels like a very well-equipped hotel: 12 bars and lounges, five pools and five whirlpools, and six restaurants—counting Sakura (Pan-Asian), Marble & Co. (steak), Fil Rouge (French), and Anthology (a rotating culinary experience, currently helmed by Emma Bengsston of Aquavit) among its ranks. The guest-to-host ratio is an astounding 1.25:1. The smallest room available is 377 square feet, tastefully decorated, with a walk-in wardrobe, coffee table and sofa, rain shower, and private sun terrace. Its sweeping views, in this instance, survey the dark-blue Atlantic.
It was my first time on a ship of this scale, sailing from New York’s Pier 88 to the charming port of Halifax—Nova Scotia’s capital thanks to the British Navy, members of which settled there for its deep and ice-free harbor (something hard to come by this far north). Today, it’s a haven for cruisers, making their way up to Québec City or Greenland, venturing on land to sample local lobster or to gaze, sipping Aperol, at the stark and grassy landscape. Explora I has been at sea since July; apparently, a couple in their 30s had just disembarked after a two-month stay. While the crowd wasn’t what you’d call young, it certainly wasn’t what I expected from this particular travel niche (cabals of retirees, families with screaming kids), its clientele more akin to that of a posh, all-inclusive resort.
A few writers were invited to attend Explora I’s Naming Ceremony—a very important milestone in the life of a ship. It’s like a christening, but in the place of holy water over a baby’s head, a bottle of champagne is smashed on the bow. There’s a godmother, too. Explora’s is Dr. Sylvia Earle: oceanographer, conservationist, recipient of 27 honorary degrees, and world record holder for the deepest walk on the seafloor, as well as deepest untethered dive. Those in the field call her “Her Deepness.”
Of course, cruises are known to be environmentally damaging; Alejandro de la Garza notes that these “battleships of pleasure” emit the equivalent of 12,000 cars’ worth of greenhouse gasses, dumping “toxic sludge” off coastal cities’ docks. Some activists have gone so far as to dedicate their lives to abolishing the industry once and for all, paddling out in kayaks to delay vessels’ dockings.
It’s true that cruise lines are but a drop in the ocean, compared to the tons of criss-crossing commercial ships the world’s economy relies on. And there are many reasons why one might prefer to see the world by sea—low mobility, fear of flying, dietary restrictions difficult to communicate or accommodate. Zero-emission vessels emerge as the compromise, for lovers of nature at odds with a love of cruising. Earle vouches for Explora’s commitment in that regard: “We share the same values, and have the same objectives: to deepen people’s relationship with the ocean. To explore, protect, and restore.” As they work together towards a carbon-neutral future, MSC—the Swiss shipping giant behind Explora Journeys, which has plans for five additional members of their fleet—has banned single-use plastic on the Explora I, and boasts an advanced wastewater treatment system, discharged exclusively on land.
The central proposition, from what I gathered: Fostering what Explora calls The Ocean State of Mind renders the conservation effort personal, perhaps offsetting per capita pollution with the good guests are inspired to do once they’re back on land.
“We share the same values, and have the same objectives: to deepen people’s relationship with the ocean. To explore, protect, and restore.”
So what is the Ocean State of Mind? Just like spiritual enlightenment, it’s different for everyone—you know it when you feel it. Soon after coming aboard—following a lunch at the Emporium Marketplace which served, among a thousand other things, raw oysters, lobster claws, lamb chops, filet mignon, and made-to-order sashimi—we heard from a few of the ship’s big names: CEO Michael Ungerer, CCO Achille Staiano, and CSO Chris Austin. The Ocean State of Mind, for them, harkens back to MSC’s strong maritime tradition; the sense of peace Explora I instills; a passion for the sea! When asked what set the vessel apart, it came down to the details: It houses, for instance, the world’s first Rolex boutique at sea. They have a partnership with Steinway, with pre-programmed pianos sounding off exactly as legendary artists once played them. (We were, by some definitions, hearing Elton John live.) The hairdryers are Dysons. The entertainment, never repeated. On a given day, you might attend a cooking class in the Chef’s Kitchen, learn iPhone photography, practice open-air yoga, attend a sleep seminar, dance bachata, hit the tennis court, or solicit advice on your screenplay from TV star Willie Aames. There are excursions, too: During a stop in Boston, we could tour Harvard or Quincy Market, go up in a helicopter, get shuttled down to Cape Cod…
You’d think the choices would overwhelm, or that you’d feel trapped despite the 14 decks. Surely, this assumption can be traced back to the fact that cruise ships get such a bad rap—almost unanimously across the spheres of media. Most obviously, there’s David Foster Wallace’s scorching “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” in which the writer despairs over excess and the notion of mandatory fun; more recently, Lauren Oyler’s dispatch from the Goop at Sea cruise, which turned out to be a rather regular cruise with branding and skincare samples slapped on top (featuring a brief appearance, admittedly, from Paltrow herself, jetlagged and dressed in a gray sweatsuit). There’s Titanic. Triangle of Sadness. And then those aforementioned kayakers. But Explora ventures to side-step the associates altogether—because it’s not a cruise. It’s a journey: self-determined, undertaken responsibly, at a leisurely pace.
To be sure, it’s a very big boat. But Explora seeks the private yacht experience without the sacrifice of choice. They’re measured with their semantics, switching out words like cabin for suite, crew for host, client for guest. “Everyone in the industry knows that any ship starts with a blank piece of paper,” said several higher-ups across several contexts. The classic cruise was never their blueprint.
If I were to go on another at-sea getaway, it’d certainly be the Explora. Smaller boats seem too rocky. Bigger ones, rather impersonal. One thing that really stood out over my five-night voyage was that the ship felt distinctly uncrowded; you could lay sideways on a two-person sunbed at any time of day; go in the sauna by yourself; get a table flush against the window, and have a bartender solicit your drink order within two-and-a-half minutes. And they were nearly at capacity.
Rather than mandatory fun, you could call it mandatory relaxation. Falling asleep during a two-hour massage. Having three dessert courses and going straight to bed. Letting the “Ocean State of Mind” roll off your tongue, part of your new maritime vernacular.