It's ship season here in the UK, which means that favourite vessels are returning, and new ships are launching. With so much going on, it's difficult to stand out from the crowd, but Marella Cruises has done just that with its newest and largest ship, Marella Explorer.
Explorer is the third of four ships to launch for Marella Cruises in as many years. It follows on the heels of Marella Discovery and Marella Discovery 2, which debuted in 2016 and 2017, respectively. What's great about the almost back-to-back launches is that the line has been able to learn more about what its cruisers want and find ways to improve a bit more with each subsequent launch over a relatively short period of time.
We're just back from a sailing onboard Explorer. We boarded with promises of technology, upgraded entertainment and a vessel that had been refurbished throughout, but what we weren't expecting was to be so pleasantly surprised by how well the line was able to turn a 22-year-old ship into something modern, fresh and, frankly, outstanding.
Below are five reasons why Marella Explorer should be added to your cruise bucket list.
1. Shows mix kitschy with contemporary.
New ships usually lure entertainment-lovers by touting one or two new shows, but on Explorer, passengers can look forward to a whopping 13 new offerings, including one that's family-friendly and one that's just for kids. In addition to impressive stage sets and more than 1,000 costumes, the talents of a dozen singers, dancers and singer-dancers are augmented by LED screens, voting apps and scents like popcorn and freshly mown grass, which are piped into the theatre.
On our two-night sailing, we watched "Bud's Diner" -- a modern take on a 50s theme, complete with checkered floors and roller skates. There were a few decade-appropriate numbers intertwined, but the majority were contemporary hits, which meant it appealed to all audiences and had just enough current appeal to keep it from being cheesy.
2. Food is an art form.
Passenger favourites Kora La and Surf & Turf have returned and feature delectable cuts of meat, cheeses, seafood and Asian-fusion. Everything is artfully prepared, but our sweet tooth drew us to the unique desserts, which included quirky and chocolate (read: edible) butterflies and tubes of lipstick, as well as ice cream sandwiches, which were literally scoops of ice cream pressed between two sides of a warm brioche bun. (We went back for seconds.)
If we had an award for the most impressively prepared dishes, it would go to The Dining Club, a new for-fee eatery fit for foodies, with a menu that includes dishes like consomme of rose and hibiscus with pink pepper caviar and edible flower petals, chateaubriand with potatoes and baby vegetables, and a pineapple igloo with coconut ice cream -- served inside a dome made of real ice.
A similar award would go to new restaurant The Mediterranean for atmosphere. The light, airy, pastel decor gives a garden-esque feel to meals, which include tapas and pizza. Located in an area that formerly housed an indoor pool, the restaurant has a retractable roof, allowing for an open-air experience when the weather permits.
3. The spa is superb.
The ship's partnership with land-based luxury spa brand Champneys speaks volumes in itself, but nothing -- short of a first-hand experience -- can do justice to the sheer scale of Explorer's spa. It features 13 treatment rooms (including doubles with their own saunas) for everything from massages and facials to acupuncture. Cruisers will also find hair and nail services, relaxation rooms, saunas and steam rooms, a Persian garden, a Turkish bath and a fitness centre with a variety of machines and personalised classes.
We tried a deep tissue massage, and it was wonderful, removing all of our aches, pains and knots. Our therapist, who worked for Champneys for a couple of years pre-cruise, was knowledgeable and -- best of all -- didn't bombard us with a sales pitch afterward.
4. Indigo works well. Really well.
When we heard Marella's plan to combine a bar, nightclub and casino, we were concerned about whether the concept would work. We're happy to report that it does. The dance floor area is larger than we've seen in many other ships' nightclubs, and it was twice as crowded -- a testament to the just-right mix of 90s and more contemporary music played by the DJ on the vessel's new DJ emulator. The podium-style gadget looks like a giant iPad on a stand, and its touch screen allows the DJ to select and mix a variety of songs, as well as play music videos to accompany them. The emulator is the only one of its kind on a UK ship and will also be used to teach music mixing classes as part of the onboard teen programming.
Positioned just outside of the nightclub but in the same space is the lounge and bar area, which provides plenty of seating and a swanky colour palette of blue, yellow and (of course) indigo. It works perfectly for anyone wishing to take a break from the dance floor. It's lit just enough so you won't fall on your face as you grab another drink, and while you can still hear the music, it comes through at a low enough volume that you won't have a scream to hold a conversation.
Marella has tapped famed London bartenders Neil Lowrey and Neil Garner -- who came in second to Paul Potts in the first season of "Britain's Got Talent" -- to create the drinks menu for Indigo, and they didn't disappoint. With drinks themed for different countries, from Holland to Thailand, there's something for every palate. We particularly enjoyed names like Great Balls of Fire and Saturday Night at the Movies, which serves five and comes in a popcorn bucket with citrus slices. (It's topped with Fizz Wiz, too, so watch out for flying candy!)
5. There are hammocks.
If you book a balcony cabin, chances are pretty good you'll have a hammock to call your very own for an entire week. Not only will you be able to enjoy sea views from your room, but you can do so while lying down and gently swaying with the rhythm of the ship. This is a first for the Marella fleet, and it's such a simple yet welcome innovation that we wonder why cruise lines didn't think of this ages ago.
But nothing is perfect, right? While just about everything onboard was gangbusters, there are two minor things we should point out.
The first: Indigo's casino seems like a bit of an afterthought. It's tiny, with just a couple of tables and a handful of electronic slot machines tucked away in a corner of the lounge area. We think it could stand to see a little more love, in terms of both size and variety.
The second: There's no ATM onboard, and we were told the ship is not equipped to provide cash advances via credit card. While the ship operates on a cashless system, we were disappointed that we had no way to obtain money for tipping or shoreside purchases without first going ashore. A cashpoint would be a welcome addition to the vessel's amenities.
--By Ashley Kosciolek, Editor