The ship at sea.
A Nordic sailing on the much-anticipated Explora I reveals the line’s city hotel vibes and local flair.
“Norwegians consider this hike medium tough,” our guide announces as our bus arrives at the trailhead for Pulpit Rock, the iconic cliff that rises nearly 2,000 feet above Lysefjorden just outside the oil-rich city of Stavanger. As someone who isn’t a descendant of Vikings, I can’t say I understand what that means, but I tighten my laces and optimistically take my first step of what is supposed to be a five- to six-hour adventure.
While the trek isn’t technically challenging – 300,000 people, including children, do it annually – it requires focus. The terrain changes rapidly. You start marching up a steep incline, your calves screaming for help, then you’re meandering around a flat field where there isn’t actually a designated path and you spot a small, pebbly beach where fellow hikers are taking a break. But you’re also scrabbling over boulders so big that, at five-foot-six, you practically have to do the splits. You stop to reflect: How are people doing this in jeans? Add wind and rain, and it’s an experience that feels more like a Norse epic, especially at the top. It’s a glorious vista of a shining, shimmering fjord, to be sure, but it’s packed. Watching dozens of people attempt to take selfies as a tempest swirls around them is almost as stunning as these iconic Norwegian surrounds.
Preach it, Norway: Pulpit Rock’s commanding view of Lysefjorden.
The Pulpit Rock hike is considered “extreme” by the destination team on Explora I, the first ship from brand-new luxury cruise line Explora Journeys. It’s the type of activity that might inspire nonbelievers to reconsider their stance on cruising – that it’s not just about following a flag-wielding guide around a castle-crowned European village. While there are basic city tours, Explora Journeys’ strength is its culturally relevant experiences that connect guests with the regions they’re docked in. These might include visiting a private art-restoration laboratory in Rome to see how historic works are brought back to life or learning about the First Nations history of Canada’s Prince Edward Island.
So that explains why, on a six-night cruise from Copenhagen to Hamburg, I’m cosplaying as Thor on a mountain. But on the hike down, my legs begin to quiver, and that same obstacle course I conquered on the way up doesn’t feel all that familiar this time around. At the bottom, the fitness app on my phone notes I climbed the equivalent of 150 flights – an achievement worth celebrating back on the ship.
Explora I’s 461 sea-facing suites and residences are among the largest sailing right now, there are nine dining options (plus 12 bars and lounges), the 7,674-square-foot spa has amenities such as a Himalayan salt cave, and, with a guest-to-staff ratio of 1.25 to 1, service is enviable. “The ship is large enough for passengers to have new experiences each day, but compact enough to still feel like a small-ship luxury yacht experience,” says Virtuoso travel advisor Bob Bradley, who cruised on it in October. With bona fides like that (there’s even a Rolex shop on board), it’s easy for Explora I to align with my personal rule about travel: I’ll do adventurous things when it’s go time, but I want to retreat to a cocoon of modern comfort afterward. This doesn’t automatically mean five-star extravagance, but I’m glad that here, it does.
Explora I channels a city hotel vibe with its lobby bar.
Explora Journeys modeled its ship after Europe’s stylish boutique hotels, and it’s obvious in the suites and residences, where designer Martin Francis has whipped up a medley of glamour and elegance. A subdued palette of warm-wood furniture and off-white tufted leather headboards is punctuated with globally inspired objets d’art throughout. Walk-in wardrobes with seated vanities lead to spacious bathrooms with heated floors and Frette robes. And the balcony on my Ocean Grand Terrace Suite is so big that I’m able to practice yoga on it – a convenient perk, considering the fitness center’s yoga classes are often fully booked.
But if a hotel’s greatness can sometimes be measured by the atmosphere of its lobby bar, Explora I finds success with its double-height, chandelier-crowned boîte. Nightly, I’m rubbing elbows with my fellow passengers, from retired and still-working couples to multigenerational families and boisterous friend groups. A fantastic bar is truly the perfect spot to get to know who else might be around, and it’s also where I begin to relax from the hike, with a sharp dirty martini.
Picking where to refuel, however, is entirely more difficult. I appreciate that the Emporium Marketplace offers 18 à la minute stations for made-to-order dishes. And my favorite, lunch-and-dinner Asian restaurant Sakura, is where I eat my weight in sushi, fried rice, sauteed noodles, dumplings, and bao buns almost daily. Anthology, the fine-dining kitchen, is the ship’s marquee reservation (and the only one that requires a supplemental fee), with menus designed by a rotating collection of culinary headliners. “Having a rotating residency from a celebrity chef is a fantastic touch – and an industry first,” Bradley says.
Swedish summer playground: The Gothenburg archipelago.
For this European leg, the chosen partner is Uliassi, the three-Michelin-starred restaurant in Ancona, Italy, whose team created an eight-course tasting menu highlighting seafood and wines from up and down the boot. The crudo of red shrimp drizzled with mandarin extract and the delicate cuttlefish tagliatelle topped with caviar will be great for another dinner. But after conquering the Pulpit, I opt for the Med Yacht Club, where a casual meal of thin slices of jamón Ibérico and a bowl of hearty, cheesy cacio e pepe is the comfort-food salve my body craves.
Another day, on an excursion from Gothenburg, I tackle a herring buffet before noon in a tiny, picturesque fishing village perched on Sweden’s craggy, forested west coast. It’s a light lift as far as excursions go, and as soon as I return to the ship, I decide to spend the evening floating from pool to pool. (Four in total and too many hot tubs to count – I try them all.) The Conservatory, the main indoor watering hole, is warm – almost humid – and full of plants as well as children. The smaller, outdoor, adults-only Helios offers panoramic views of the sea that make it a fantastic choice for lazy midday sunbathing sessions.
After a solo day clocking 25,000 steps in search of vintage treasures in Oslo’s hipster neighborhood of Grünerløkka, I rush back to the ship for a spa appointment. Is this what balance feels like? I don’t know, but when you’re cruising, the option is always there to do as little or as much as you want. On Explora I, I don’t have to feel guilty about leaning on one over the other. Choose both; the cruise delivers.
Explora Journeys had the entire pandemic to refine and finalize what it wanted to be in the increasingly crowded world of luxury cruising. For some, that means dancing the night away with the DJ at Astern Lounge. I, however, am heading to bed by 10 pm so I can make the fitness bootcamp in the morning, before spending the rest of the at-sea day drinking rosé by the pool and eating at Sakura. I’m not saying I’ve figured out cruising, but when that plate of dumplings materializes in front of me at lunch, it sure feels like it.