MSC Divina - Conclusions

| Monday, 25 Nov 2013

After my full introductory cruise on Divina we have new and exciting details to reveal

It took a full three days to discover the big and accurate picture of MSC Divina. The idea with this ship is to give American cruisers a new and different option in the Caribbean, beyond the usual Carnival, Norwegian or Royal Caribbean cruise. If you are looking for a ship with posh surroundings, leisurely and elegant dining experiences night and day - and with a wide variety of entertainment choices, this is a true alternative.

I had a nice discussion with Rick Sasso – the CEO of American operations for MSC Cruises. Rick is a very well-known cruise executive who has worked for a number of different American cruise lines. Rick told me, “Divina means ‘Mediterranean-style cruising for Americans.’”

What does this mean exactly?  According to Rick it is a chance to slow down and “enjoy the moments in life.”   The point, according to Rick, is that it would do Americans a lot of good to find the time to reflect on what they are doing while they do it. I have to agree that is an art many of us have lost in recent years.

Here is an example. As I sat down with a scoop of real gelato and a delicious, hand-made (not by a machine) macchiato I enjoyed a delicious afternoon wake-up call. There was a quartet of lovely young ladies playing classical music on piano, violin, viola and cello. I realized such musicians do not become that proficient without spending untold numbers of hours practicing each and every note I was now hearing.  That made me appreciate the little things in life that I rarely have the time to appreciate in daily life.

That style of music, that dedication to the classic arts, is the epitome of European lifestyle. This very old-fashioned, provincial, non-English speaking person is the exact market for which Divina was designed.

Staffing Challenges and Fixes

Divina was originally filled with crew people trained to service Europeans where service people are not used to working for gratuities. The word tip used to be an abbreviation for “to insure promptness,” and that is essentially what Americans expect from a server; prompt attention to detail; serving their order as nicely and efficiently as possible.

European service people often do not feel like “servers.” They are more likely to see their customers as equals, which means they may take longer and be somewhat chattier at times. Logically, European customers also seem more accepting of that attitude, which we in America might consider “bad service.”

Divina Dining

Our first dinner in our main dining room was very slow (“Mediterranean-style”). Our seating time was 6:30 and we did not leave the dining room until it ended at 9:00 p.m. The reasons were varied, but mostly it had to do with the very long time between courses. By the way, Divina only has “traditional-style” dining, no open seating or “anytime” dining offered in a main dining room (there are two of them).

There were five courses at dinner, served in European-style portions.  The carpaccio plate was large enough for everyone at the table to have plenty. The third course; pasta, was so large we would consider it a complete meal in the U.S.  The pasta Alfredo was a full plate of heavy, thick noodles swimming in a rich and creamy Alfredo sauce with fresh garlic and basil wafting into the room. The lasagna came in a five-inch square piece that was several layers tall. In both cases most of us left most of the pasta on the plate, uneaten, rather than chance not having enough appetite for the main course.

As it turned out, the main courses were made to be proportionately much smaller. I had ordered lamb chops and I was only served two small ones, barely two bites per chop, like an appetizer serving in a regular restaurant. I am not complaining, I am just saying that our expectations were different from normal American cruises.

Dessert was the fifth course at dinner each meal – and if I recall the “three course meal” is considered standard in America. Dessert choices included crème brulet, gelato, a fruit torte or the cheese plate plus a dessert, and coffee, if you wanted it.

Yet word must have gotten out about the length of this meal. The next two nights we had the same amount of delicious food (and if anything, the quality of the food became even better), but all five courses were also fully served in just over an hour. After that the only challenge was finding something to do until show time at 9:30.

Specialty Dining                                                                   

Beyond the main dining room is a special steakhouse called “Eataly.” We had a luncheon there. There were five courses just like a dinner; a salad, carpaccio, a pasta dish, a meat entrée and a dessert. But in this case the meat entrees were huge, and one could have easily split this meal with another person. I had a 10-ounce tenderloin filet that melted in my mouth. Another option was a 35-ounce T-bone steak meant to be shared with another person. This meal was delicious, but when I added up the a la carte prices it appeared that each one of us would have paid $54 - before you add in the wine. But I have to say that in normal life I would have never ordered that much food.

“Eataly” also has a separate fine dining section where the pris fixe dinner costs $34 per person, In retrospect this seems like a real bargain. This area has a completely different preset menu every night of the cruise.

There are other dinner options as well which we did not have a chance to try, but that look good. “Genesis” is served up in the nightclub disco and has three different pre-set dinners, at three different prices ranging from $30 to $55 per person.

The buffet area is open 20-hours a day, but it can be hit or miss. At times the selection seemed fresh and enormous, but at other times the food selection was sparse. This happened to me one night at 6:00 - when a lot of Americans would expect a decent dinner selection, but on this European ship 90% of the stalls were closed. The hamburger I tried was not appetizing, but I assume that if I had gone there at 7:30 the dinner selection would have been fresh and vast once again. You have to remember the ship is running on European, not American time.

 

Other Cruise Options

Room service is going to be a real challenge on the upcoming Caribbean cruises. In Europe, MSC now charges European cruisers about $3.50 per room service item. The same will be true in the Caribbean, but only for Europeans!

For American cruisers (the ship will be able to track this) there will be no room service delivery charge. Yes, that will be awkward if the Europeans find out the rules are different for the Americans, but MSC feels this will work since Europeans are used to paying extra for room service anyway.

Everyone will be charged for stateroom delivery of freshly baked pizza pie from the special pizza restaurant. Pies start at $8.00 for the basic cheese and go up to $13 for the “any or everything” pizza. Breakfast orders are also complimentary for Americans.

Another stateroom charge is for “pay per view” movies – but the price is a bit of a shocker. In Europe MSC charges 12-Euro per movie, in the Caribbean the price is $8 for an older movie and $16 for a recent release movie.  The biggest drawback to this deal is the size of the stateroom television screens – they appear to be only about 24-inches. Some staterooms have them mounted right in front of the bed, but other staterooms (the ones meant for added third and fourth cruisers) place them all the way across the room on the far corner above the balcony door – almost as far away as possible. I could never watch an $18 movie on this TV.

When you compare this to the new Royal Princess, which has 36-inch televisions in front of the beds in every stateroom as well as FREE pay-per-view for any movies, including recent releases, there is no question that MSC is not the same caliber.

Entertainment

The stage show presented the first night was impressive. The surprisingly large cast, about 20 people, was designed to include some of the specialty acts onboard to do their own shows. This includes four beautiful ladies from Mongolia who can twist their bodies in the most amazing ways, and four male gymnasts apparently from the Caribbean who also do amazing things with their bodies.

Big on visual statements, but light on logical context, the shows are most enjoyable when one stops trying to make sense out of them. In the end, it helps to remember that these shows were designed for an audience of people that speak five different languages.

Beyond the main showroom was a small Jazz Bar that alternated between a couple who sang American standard songs like “Blue Moon,” to a pair of pianists with back to back baby grand pianos. Unfortunately, the “dueling” piano players seemed to be on different planets – so the duets didn’t really work.

In the Long Run

It should be noted that the service people who were trained in Europe are not adept at American-style service. For example, they rarely seem to remember that Americans prefer to have washcloths in their rooms. To make up for this, the line added a large number of crewmembers hired from other cruise lines like Celebrity that have far more experience in dealing with American cruisers. Most of them came onboard not long before Divina arrived in Miami.

And the long run is where we will see whether Divina can make it in the Caribbean – it will be up to the crew and the management decisions. I am hoping for the best – we need as many alternatives in the cruise world as we can get.

 

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