Sara Macefield joins Craig David for the deck party to christen Marella Cruises’ new ship Marella Explorer
The arrival of Marella Cruises’ latest ship, Marella Explorer, in May – amid the fanfare of a dazzling deck party in Palma, Majorca headlined by singer Craig David and filled with the enthusiastic whooping of Tui agents – marked the latest milestone in the line’s transformation.
In just two years the former Thomson Cruises has undergone a name change and launched three larger and more modern ships, with a fourth to follow next spring.
Each one has upped the ante for the brand, ushering in notable facilities lacking on its older ships, which are steadily being let go.
Marella Explorer is the latest ground-breaker to join the fleet with its expanded choice of dining venues, a wider range of onboard shops (including the first Cath Kidston store at sea) and a ramped-up entertainment programme.
But the real star of this ship is its spa – the first Champneys at sea which has to be one of the most impressive pampering havens afloat.
This sybaritic retreat is a potent mix of opulence and indulgence, with a jaw-dropping thermal suite of Turkish-style hammams, an Arabian-styled rasul, steam rooms and one of the biggest saunas I’ve ever seen.
It’s also one of the best value. With treatments mirroring Champneys’ charges on land with 50-minute massages from £75 and day passes to the thermal suite costing just £15, rates are lower than on other ships.
Such plush pampering facilities are the legacy of the time Marella Explorer spent sailing for Hamburg-based Tui Cruises, when the spa was expanded to cater for its wellness-loving German clientele.
Marella Explorer is certainly big on all-round appeal
However, this ship started life in 1996 as Celebrity Cruises’ Galaxy – the setting of the BBC reality series The Cruise, which propelled singer Jane McDonald to fame, before moving to Tui in 2009.
After joining Marella in April, the 1,924-passenger ship underwent a multi-million pound bow to stern revamp, emerging complete with the spruced up spa and a host of other new features.
Indigo is the other new headline attraction – a new cool bar, club and casino combo ideally positioned at the top of the ship with 180-degree wraparound windows.
At night it comes alive with a thumping nightclub vibe conducted from a DJ booth with a much-hyped transparent touchscreen DJ system called the Emulator – claimed to be the world’s first.
But there are plenty of other night-time haunts to choose from, including Marella’s first onboard pub, the Squid & Anchor, with its specialist gin and whisky bar; the speakeasy Aperitif bar; and The Lounge where pianists tinkle the ivories of the hot pink piano.
Passengers heading to the theatre can enjoy 12 new shows that turn up the beat, with themes from movie tracks and sing-alongs to pop icons and soul sounds.
My appetite is sparked by the 10-strong line-up of dining venues where the sophisticated Dining Club makes its debut, charging £34.95pp for its blend of experimental French cuisine. The new Umi Sushi restaurant serves Japanese fare for £9.95pp, but one of the most appealing new areas is the conservatory-like Mediterranean lounge where its two speciality eateries serve free pizza and pasta or Portuguese tapas for £9.95pp.
The range of cabins is similarly appealing, with 11 different categories catering for single travellers up to families of five, although I loved the cabins that came complete with hammocks strung across the balconies.
Marella Explorer is certainly big on all-round appeal, with its kids’ clubs and teen hangout zone, giant movie screen and blissful adult-only deck where iPad carrying waiters can be summoned at the touch of each lounger’s call button.
It’s not surprising that more agents are keen to sell the Marella product, but independent retailers complain that inhouse Tui shops are given preferential rates.
It’s a charge Marella managing director Chris Hackney disputes, stressing there is no difference in pricing between Tui shops and independents.
“The price in the system is the same regardless and third-party agents get their commission on top,” he confirmed.
Despite Tui Group chief executive Fritz Joussen voicing his support for in-house distribution, Hackney is keen to push sales outside TUI’s own retail network. “Third parties have always been important from a cruise perspective and we have seen significant growth in the last two years with volumes rising by 25 per cent. Over the last 12 months, third-party sales have grown by 60 per cent,” he added.