(10:20 a.m. BST) -- Luxury isn’t a term typically associated with Marella Cruises, the TUI-owned cruise line popular with British holidaymakers. The line has become a byword for value for money, home comforts and package holidays. But luxury? Yes, that too, as we discovered on the latest ship, the adults-only Marella Explorer 2, which debuted in April 2019.
As Marella introduces newer ships, gradually phasing out its much older vessels, we’re seeing more upmarket experiences introduced. With a passenger to crew ratio of 2:1 -- a proportion that is more aligned with luxury cruise lines -- the level of service also remains consistently high. (On Explorer 2 the passenger capacity is 1,814 and there are 780 members of crew.)
Here are six luxury experiences we found on our four-night Mediterranean sailing.
1. Champneys Spa
The line’s partnership with Champneys, a brand that has five well-heeled spas in the UK, feels elevated on Explorer 2 thanks to the addition of a gorgeous ocean-view infinity pool in the Thermal Suite. There’s also a Herbal Sauna, Aromatic Steam Room, Laconium (dry sauna), two Experience Showers and an Ice Mist (where you apply ice from a fountain to your body to improve circulation). There are also two Relaxation rooms in the spa; one with low lighting and waterbeds and the other with ocean views.
We were blown away by the space, which feels as luxurious as any upmarket land-based spa we’ve visited, and we especially love the price tag: £15 for a day pass or £10 when you book a treatment, so although the space feels exclusive it’s accessible to all budgets.
2. Dine on Fresh, Expertly-Prepared Cuisine
All bread, pasta and gelato is made fresh onboard. For us, this is an indication of the quality of the food overall. Even in the main dining room, Latitude 53, which can seat 1,000 passengers, we enjoyed a delicate chickpea and chicken fritter and a Caesar salad -- simple dishes executed incredibly well.
At Nonna’s, the new Italian restaurant where passengers concoct their own pizza and pasta dishes, we watched the chef rolling fresh dough in the background. This gorgeous spot felt authentically Italian, which we loved. We dined on a glorious plate of freshly made sushi at Kora La; tucked into a succulent salmon and prawn Espetada (Portuguese skewer) just as the sun set at Beach Cove; and sampled plump scallops and a perfectly-pink and tender filet mignon at Surf & Turf.
The line also partners with Ian Pengelley of London’s House of Ho (an upmarket Fitzrovia restaurant known for its exceptional pan-Asian cuisine), who creates and oversees the menu at Kora La -- but it’s not a partnership in name only. The chef joined the ship the day we disembarked to check up on the restaurant. Pengelley will also hold cooking demos while he’s onboard.
3. Book a Royal Suite
A private dining room, kitchen, walk-in wardrobe, dressing room and hot tub on the balcony are just some of the features in the ship’s two Royal Suites. With extravagant marble, opulent finishes such as gold taps in the guest bathroom and a gorgeous ocean-facing King-size bed in the separate bedroom -- these suites really do feel very regal. And at 94sqm the suites are so big you could find yourself getting lost -- as we did (twice) by trying to exit via the walk-in wardrobe.
Given that the space includes a grand six-seat dining table and a kitchen, we would like to see the line offer private in-suite dining -- even if just once per sailing.
4. Hire a Private Veranda Cabana -- But Just for the Day
Explorer 2’s six private Veranda Cabanas offer a gorgeous ocean-view enclave, sealed off from the rest of the ship. Inside, there are two sun loungers with towels and a buzzer to conveniently order your next cocktail. There’s also a sun canopy, which can be drawn out or pushed back to create shade.
The price is steep -- £99 for the day or £400 for the week -- but it's worth it for a day (especially with the free access to the Thermal Suite). There’s a beach club vibe on the Veranda Deck, where the Cabanas are located, and it feels more exclusive, with complete privacy when you’re tucked away in your own patch of deck space. You also get access to the spa’s divine infinity pool, which gives the Veranda Cabanas added value.
The space is perfect for honeymooners or a couple celebrating an occasion that want to add a touch of luxury and extra privacy to their day. Our tip is to book a Cabana on a sea day, when the Pool Deck is likely to be even busier than usual, and as soon as you get onboard as there are only six. Unless you plan to spend every day of your cruise in the Cabana, we still feel a week’s pass is steep.
5. Press for Champagne at Flutes
If a glass of fizz before dinner is standard practice on your cruise holiday, you’ll enjoy Flutes and its quirky concept. One of the line’s new venues, Flutes is centrally located by the Atrium, featuring a nightly pianist and decorated in a cool and calm (and very on trend) palette of mint, gold and pink. The best part is arguably the tableside “Press for Champagne” buzzer that allows passengers to order their drink at the press of a button. What’s not to love?
With the feel of a trendy, upmarket Champagne bar and a buzzy atmosphere, Flutes became our favourite spot on Explorer 2 for pre-dinner drinks.
6. Play Golf Like a Pro at 19th Hole
When we heard one of Explorer 2’s new venues was styled on golf -- with golf-themed craft cocktails and golf buggies for seats -- we couldn’t help but think it would seem gimmicky.
However, what makes it special is the golf simulator experience. In another first for the line, it offers passengers the chance to play on 48 of the world’s best golf courses, including several Ryder Cup courses -- with the help of a pro. The instructor will even buddy up passengers with a similar handicap to compete on high-level courses together.
19th Hole didn’t seem to get busy on our cruise, but we can see it becoming more popular on sailings when the weather turns cooler. We also like that it wasn’t overcrowded, service was quick as a result and there was no wait time for the simulator experience, which cost £25 for one hour.
Bottom Line -- Who Will Enjoy This Ship?
Brits who still want their home comforts -- a battered cod worthy of your favourite local chippy, Yorkshire teabags and HP Sauce -- but have the budget to spend a little more on experiences that will take their holiday up several notches.