MSC Goes American

| March 21, 2005

The new U.S. management team at MSC Cruises has committed to making its product more suitable for Americans. Based on my recent MSC Opera cruise-- roundtrip out of Port Everglades to San Juan, St. Thomas, St. Croix and Nassau -- they have made great strides, and will continue to make more.

When I sailed on MSC Lirica in September, it was in Europe, at a time when MSC was just initiating changes to make the experience more suitable for Americas -- and to reach the premium category. Fewer than 10 percent of the passengers on that Lirica cruise were Americans; my recent cruise on MSC Opera was about 60% American, 10% Canadian and the rest European.

Three of the biggest issues in cruising with mostly Europeans in Europe during September were gone: rampant cell phone usage, unabated smoking and children running amok.

In addition, there are now far fewer public announcements, which previously were quite frequent -- and made in five languages. Dining and show time hours have been shifted around to be more suitable for the American audience.

MSC has also put a new emphasis on employee training, especially in making the serving staff more conversant in English. It's nice having an international team on board, but it's even better when they can fully understand what you want. It's not perfect yet, but the crew seemed friendlier and more willing to help out. The crew of 736 came from a wide variety of countries with the largest group coming from Italy (27%), and significant numbers from Indonesia (19%) and Madagascar (12%).

The dining experience has improved across the board. Dinner menus still have an Italian emphasis, but the range of items is eclectic. There is always risotto and pasta (the Bolognese sauce is terrific), with regional Italian specialties featured nightly. But you might also find oriental appetizers such as spring rolls and sushi mixed in. The "always available" sirloin steak is large and quite tasty. There is also much more consistency from evening to evening in terms of quality.

The senior dining room staff is all Italian, in keeping with MSC's goal of having an Italian Signature. Passengers can choose from a variety of buffets at night around the ship. Four on my cruise were outside: the grand buffet, a pasta night, and two buffets tied into themed entertainment presented late in the evening on deck. Lunchtime brings a wide range of buffet items, including lots of salads and a pasta station offering a specialty item. There's no evening alternative dining option, however, and many guests commented that longer hours for serving pizza (which has been significantly improved – it's now among the best at sea) would be welcome.

In this day and age of ever-increasing on-board prices, I actually felt the bar prices were reasonable. The wine list, which features an extensive array of Italian reds, is very nicely priced.

Entertainment is a big highlight of the cruise. Shows were offered every night, mostly of a variety nature, featuring the production crew of eight, a comic juggler, an acrobatic duo, a magic act and, outstandingly, an Italian tenor who was simply great. On two nights there were classical shows, as well as a daytime classical piano/violin presentation: all were excellent!

MSC has added more daytime indoor activities including some crafts, photography training and a lecturer (a former U.S. ambassador who talked about the Middle East and Africa). Adding these daytime items to the extremely well-done pool games, which get great audience participation, gives cruisers plenty to do. In the evening, in addition to the main shows and audience participation events like ‘Mr. and Ms. Opera' shows, there's plenty of action, including live music for listening and/or dancing in multiple venues. The casino is very popular despite having just one blackjack table (four other tables offering things like three-card poker). They've added a craps table, but it's the mini-style with one dealer that slows the action down too much.

Among other changes, MSC has eliminated the charge for room service -- although the menu is still somewhat limited; lunch and dinner items from the regular dining room menus are not offered. MSC also scrapped an annoying charge to use the sauna and steam room. There is still a charge for some gym classes such as yoga. The gym and workout areas are large, with wood and carpeted surfaces; there are four treadmills, four bikes and 15 other machines.

Staterooms (140 sq. ft.) and suites (240 sq. ft.) are small by industry standards but the layouts are very efficient, even for the inside rooms. An abundance of mirrors makes the rooms seem larger; the drawer and closet space is quite sufficient for a typical seven-night cruise. The number of suites on Opera (28 vs. about 100 on Lirica) is small, but more than 170 other outside rooms have balconies. Bathroom amenities are not overly luxurious. Showers in the staterooms are somewhat cramped and the shower height in the suites is low for tall people. There is limited TV or radio programming.

MSC has announced that it will maintain a year-round presence in the Caribbean, targeted at North Americas, but specific plans have not yet been revealed. The company has, however, issued preliminary information about its next ship, MSC Musica; according to MSC's USA President, Rick Sasso, it will "sail Caribbean waters, and many of the design features are ideally suited for the tastes of our North American guests." Among them are 1,300 rooms, including 85% outside and 65% with balconies. Themes will blend Art Deco and Art Nouveau with authentic Italian design.


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