My time on Explora Journeys’ Explora I hasn’t just been about the ship. It is also about the Journey.
And it has been a journey, both with local experiences and, yes, more culinary masteries. In fact, the most incredible dishes and some breathtaking scenery have been part of this Journey.
Hverfjall Volcano, Akureyri, Iceland
My flights to Copenhagen, Denmark were fairly uneventful. I just encountered the now typical delayed flights and running to my connection only to find that my connecting flight was also delayed…at the last minute. But I got there and so did my luggage.
I stayed, once again, at the Axel Guldsmeden Hotel near Tivoli Garden. It is a funky eco-friendly hotel with warm staff and a nice interior garden to have cocktails and breakfast. While I don’t take baths, I do love the huge stone bathtub that resides at the foot of my bed in the Junior Suite.
And, once again, I dined at Formel B, a Michelin-star restaurant located nearby. I don’t keep going back because of the star, but the warm and friendly service along with creative, delicious, and unpretentious cuisine with unique wine pairings. Words just don’t do it justice, and I also want to focus more on the Explora I experience, so here is just one of my favorite dishes:
My journey of 15 days was not what I had originally planned; not only because the Maiden Voyage – which this was – was supposed to be two weeks earlier, but because my consortium, Ensemble Travel, was having its recognition sailing for its top 25 producing agencies. So not only were many friends onboard, so were executives from Seabourn, Silversea, Regent, and many others. Hence it was a networking party for eight days. Combine that with the invitations from various Explora Journeys executives and ya’ might say it was a bit hectic!
Our first port was Lerwick, Scotland; a tiny island. I had been there before and have mixed memories as it is charming, but also one of my dearest and oldest clients suffered a heart attack there a few years ago. Nonetheless, life goes on and so did I.
After a nice 3-mile walk around the coast, I ran into a group from Ensemble and did it again. I think it was my flower photography that encouraged them. lol. We then met the group at a local pub for a few beers and headed off for fish & chips. I, however, with extensive knowledge of Scottish cuisine, advised that meat pies and sausage rolls were better. And they were!
Our next port was Kirkwall, Scotland. In 2016 I arranged an amazing Highland Park Whisky tasting (including a 60+ year-old whisky) as part of a Goldring Travel Culinary & Cultural Cruise. I thought I might head back there until I saw the price for simply tasting two whiskies now being 1,300 Euros. A lot more than inflation was involved! So I simply had a lazing morning – as there isn’t much to do in Kirkwall itself – and then headed to Helgi’s, a great Scottish pub right on the quay.
I ordered Haggis & Cheese Chips and a local beer. (I also ordered the seafood platter, but alas tourist cuisine is what I asked for and unfortunately received. My fault…and I knew better!) I suggested the spot to a few friends and when locals wearing kilts came in for a beer or a wee dram before a wedding showed up, there was no question that a real Scottish experience was to be had!
And to make sure the experience was true, quite a few drams of Highland Park 18-Year-Old Whisky were poured!
That evening I was invited to a Secret Culinary Experience with some of the Explora executives and a few other invited guests. I was told that I was to say nothing to anyone, but since nobody else seems to have followed that rule – and just imagine that I did! – I will now give you the details.
Chef Franck Garanger, along with Chef Jean-Louis Dumonet, and three sous chefs created an amazing evening. It started with two types of caviar, including one from Madagascar – a new favorite – along with Black Foot Iberico Jamon (the best in the world!) and vintage champagne.
We then entered the Dining Room attached to the Chef’s Kitchen where four courses were prepared…all a la minute! First up was Scallops and Foie Gras with Truffles and Potato Foam.
This was followed by North Sea Lobster Ravioli in a Bisque Emulsion.
And then “The Show”: Fresh Local Halibut in a Salt Crust with a Beurre Blanc sauce that was, without question, the best I have ever enjoyed.
Not to be outdone, Chef Franck then created a Raspberry Mille-Feuille as we watched…and it was not only picture perfect, it was delicious.
We then finished with some beautiful Mignardises.
During our time at sea, I decided to engage in the Chef’s Kitchen, which is a wonderful fun experience with two world-class chefs. In fact, while I included the Mussels Six Ways as part of the Goldring Travel Culinary & Cultural Experience, all of my clients went back for more culinary experiences! (I wrote more about it in Part II of my articles on this journey.)
As if there wasn’t enough culinary magic, I was invited to a second Secret Culinary Experience; this time with Captain Serena Melani, General Manager (and long-time friend) Heike Berdos, and the owners of AmaWaterways, Kristin Karst and Rudi Schreiner. And the menu was almost entirely different, starting with the most beautifully and deliciously prepared pink shrimp in an amazing tomato-based sauce.
This was followed by a decadent Foie Gras and Truffle Soup en Croute; an original recipe of, and homage to, the incomparable Chef Paul Bocuse. It was so sumptuous it is impossible to explain.
We finished with a Rum Baba that was breathtaking. It was like dining on clouds of flavor that quietly disappeared…so you needed to have more.
After time at sea, we arrived in Reykjavik, Iceland, where we would be overnighting for two nights. On the first day, I had a short wander around downtown with a friend.
But the second day was a Goldring Travel Culinary & Cultural Journey Experience: A Super Jeep Tour to Þórsmörk; known as The Valley of Thor. Talk about a true Icelandic Cultural Experience!
We departed in our Ford F-150 with a 500 horsepower engine, jacked-up suspension, 40 inches all-terrain tires for our 1.5-hour drive to an area that very few tourists visit; in part because you can’t do it without investing at least 10 hours. (I don’t think we saw more than 30 people the whole day.) By the way, this was not the typical tourist Super Jeep (as Icelanders call them) as it only holds four guests…and comfortably on both highway and off-road.
Our journey was a combination of breathtaking lush and lunar-looking landscapes. And – without question – this was a “Put the Camera Down!” experience as the views were just too magnificent to capture in a photograph.
In order to get there we had to traverse a number of glacial rivers and streams. Fortunately, the water levels were relatively low, but still too deep for ordinary 4-wheel-drive rental cars.
As we left the Valley of Thor we visited the famous Seljalandsfoss Waterfall on the way back to the ship. I’d been there before but it is an attraction! If you look closely at the photo, you can see people actually walk behind it and it gives you scale. (This time I decided to stay dry!)
It was just one of those days that makes you fall in love with Iceland. I could have spent a week camping in the Valley and still feel cheated for not seeing it all. Somehow I think I will be back!
The next day was Isafjördur, Iceland. Having just been there twice and the Windstar Star Pride being in port, I arranged to take one of the Guest Relations Ambassadors over to see the first ship she ever worked on…when it was the Seabourn Pride. Her excitement and nostalgia were just heartwarming.
The visit also put the size of Explora I into perspective. She is definitely not a large ship, but she is definitely not a small ship either. One definitely needs to balance the large suites and multiple dining venues, pools, bars, entertainment venues, shops, etc. still with an incredible amount of space per guest against the lack of most of that but the intimacy of a smaller ship. (Explora I is about the same size as Oceania Vista, but with 30% fewer guests.)
And then it was time to see another part of Iceland, Akureyri, on its north coast. I had not visited there before and thought it was the perfect time to experience an Explora Journeys Destination Experience.
Explora Journeys accurately described it as “extreme”. It was a 4+ mile hiking combination of lava fields and steep climbs and decent through some breathtaking scenery. (Yes, it was a “Put the Camera Down” kinda day!)
Although some tried to ignore the “extreme” description and were sent back to their suites to put on proper hiking gear, a few guests were more than challenged. And a few guests considered it a day of exercise, blowing past the guide and promptly getting lost…only to blame the innocent guide they arrogantly ignored left behind! None of that dampened what was a great day.
In fact, as four of us (a South African woman, a Belgian couple, and me – Explora Journeys is definitely an international experience!) were much faster descending the volcano and the guide had pointed out where we needed to wind up, so we had a great hike through lava fields and then time to relax before the others arrived for our lunch of poached fresh trout.
After a post-hike soak in my private hot tub, it was off to Anthology for a second Michelin-star quality dinner. (I mean I did have to check for consistency! lol)
With two full sea days and dense fog, I worked, got another excellent massage, and ate. In fact, until the two sea days, I had not gained any weight (a small miracle), but that went right out the window!
My last day onboard Explora I was Skagen, Denmark. It is basically an industrial fishing port with a small population of 8,000 and cute ochre-colored brick homes with clay tile roofs. Really not much to see. Except on our day the Disney Dream was also in this tiny port and, well, imagine Disney in Denmark.
I’m glad my tour of a big sand dune and a migratory bird center where there were no birds didn’t allow me time to wander the town. Yes, it was the better option!
With a final few whiskies a the Malt Whisky Bar and dinner, my time on Explora Journeys Explora I comes to an end.
Next up: Reflections!