MSC Caters to U.S. Tastes By Susan Milne February 22, 2006
After MSC Cruises' first 18 months of marketing its ships to Americans, I cruised aboard the MSC Opera on a one-week Caribbean sailing Overall, the experience was good -- I found tasty food, good entertainment and a larger-than-average contingent of Europeans who added liveliness to the voyage.
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MSC markets its ships "Premium Class" but they are far from the high levels offered by Celebrity, Princess or Holland America. Cabins are very tiny, there are few private verandas and mattresses are uncomfortable for many. And, these ships are not the homogenized, standardized vacation experience offered by major cruise lines catering to Americans. Announcements are in five languages and entertainment is multi-lingual. However, the price is right: with one week Eastern Caribbean cruises starting at $495 per person, double occupancy you'll get a lot for your money.
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MSC has made changes designed to align its Caribbean cruise experience with American tastes. Smoking, often a problem for Americans on European lines, has been restricted to five small areas on the ships, with restaurants and show lounges smoke-free. Dinner seatings are 6:00 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. in the Caribbean -- earlier than in Europe, where later dining is the norm. The Grill is open until 9:30 p.m. for those seeking an alternative to the dining room, and there's a light, supper buffet in the Cafeteria from 6 to 8 p.m. --although food in the dining room is far superior to the casual offerings.
The Caribbean Aboard Opera
On my recent Opera Caribbean cruises, I found a beautifully decorated and immaculate ship with a European ambience; Italian officers and mostly Italian crew; outstanding and varied entertainment; some of the best regional Italian cuisine at sea (in the dining room), inspired by the "slow food" movement; and excellent Balinese Spa treatments by Balinese staff. The cruise experience is traditional and quiet. There�s no pressure to spend money, and onboard products are well-priced, including quality Italian fashions, sunglasses and jewelry, as well as a variety of duty-free liquors, cigarettes and cosmetics.
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Breakfast and lunch are open seating, with early and late dinner seatings (6:00 p.m. and 8:15 p.m. respectively), plus casual alternatives in the lido cafeteria and grill. Dress code is resort casual except on formal nights � there are two on a one-week cruise. Currently the passenger mix is about 80% American and 20% European in the Caribbean, with the reverse numbers in the Mediterranean. There was a range of age groups on our cruise, with many couples under 50. The median is 55 on seven-night cruises and 60 on 11-night sailings.
The entertainment on Opera deserves special mention. The onboard performers are outstanding. Every evening, musicians perform in the various lounges including a jazz trio, Latin trio and solo piano in addition to the disco. The Caruso Lounge is particularly lively in the late evening, with the audience joining in the fun and games. Two classical concerts were well attended with standing ovations for both. The tenor was so popular that some passengers showed up for the rehearsal of the second classical show.
A large deck area behind the swimming pools is used daily for games and dance classes. The cruise staff called Animators or Pagliacci are also entertainers and create a lot of light-hearted fun and mischief around the ship. Art auctions and bingo are available but understated, with no hype about the snowball jackpot.
The pre- and after-dinner shows, performed each evening in the theater, are created by Arts Media of Milan. Artistic Director Alberto Sprduto and choreographer Claire Simpson have designed highly imaginative, colorful programs for MSC and they are performed with great passion. The quality of performers is extremely high, with classically trained Russian, Romanian and Spanish dancers who can perform any style of dance. Accomplished acrobats perform Cirque du Soleil-style spots during most of the shows.
Aboard MSC Opera, there were complaints about the hard beds and small showers and cabins (most are 140 sq.ft. and the ocean-view rooms with balcony do not have an indoor seating area). Also, shore excursion details were unavailable which kept most of us from buying them.
New Musica To Enter Service
In July, 2006, 89,600-ton Musica will enter service with larger cabins and more verandas. She'll sail from Ft. Lauderdale one seven-day voyages from fall to spring, joined by Lirica, which will repeat this year�s program of 10/11-night Southern Caribbean sailings.
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Musica will also bring more amenities to the Caribbean including a Sushi Bar; a wine-tasting bar; cigar room; aromatherapy, thalassotherapy and chromotherapeutic hyro-massage in the Spa; a larger, three deck theater; an art gallery; electronics shop; tennis court and golf simulator. There will also be a supervised children's and teens' program for three age groups, and teens will have their own games room and disco -- a welcome addition to a line that offers reduced rates for children 12 and under. (At present there are supervised play rooms for ages three to eight, open three times a day. Older children and teens have an arcade of virtual reality games and only a few activities with the cruise staff during the cruise.)
Passengers who want to duplicate the experience they enjoy on Carnival, NCL, RCI, Princess, HAL or Celebrity may not find what they want on MSC. There's no freestyle cruising or Signature of Excellence upgrades or a supper club with dancing. However, those looking to try something new, who want good value, and who enjoy Italian cuisine and culture should not be disappointed with an MSC cruise.
From now through April, Opera sails round-trip from Ft. Lauderdale to San Juan (an evening stop and big disadvantage for those who want to go sightseeing), St. Maarten, Dominican Republic and the cruise line's private island. Effective April, 2007, Lirica will home-port in New York year round sailing to the Caribbean, Bermuda and Canada/New England.
For reservations, contact your travel agent. Information may be obtained by visiting www.msccruises.com.