Most North Americans have never heard of MSC Cruises, even those familiar with the cruise industry. MSC is looking to change all that, and the MSC DIVINA is a key component of that strategy. She is one of the newest and largest ships of the MSC Cruises fleet, and she has been dedicated to year-round cruising out of Miami. This move is quite a bold statement regarding MSC's future ambitions in North America, competing with industry giants such as Carnival, NCL, and Royal Caribbean. The fact is, MSC Cruises is no small potatoes. They are enormous in Europe with some twelve ships and two newbuilds coming down the pipeline. In terms of overall marketshare they are neck and neck with NCL at least for the moment. MSC has actually held a presence in North America for years, but only on a seasonal basis and with limited advertising it was very much a niche operation. Along with DIVINA's arrival came significant planning, expansion, and marketing to ensure she is a success. Per diems are actually quite low for the moment which is not surprising for a relative unknown entering the market. I expect that to change as word gets out and MSC's sales and marketing efforts in North America take hold. To compliment the efforts shoreside, significant changes to DIVINA's onboard programming were implemented to appeal to North American tastes while retaining the Mediterranean flair and style that MSC Cruises is renowned for. Some of those changes include a broadened variety of buffet options along with expanded hours; hiring bands, entertainers, and musicians with a greater North American appeal; serving water at mealtimes; enhanced smoking restrictions; adding the option of coffee after dinner; serving the salad prior to the main course; changing signage around the ship; and adding a phone app where you can check the daily activities as well as your shipboard account. I'm sure there have been countless other changes, tweaks, and enhancements as well, and these have all added up to a very enjoyable atmosphere onboard where I think both North Americans and Europeans would feel equally at home.
If I were to choose one aspect of DIVINA that impressed me most, it would be the entertainment. DIVINA truly is a ship of music, and I don't recall any other ship where I have encountered such a great variety of live music. This is especially refreshing when many other lines are cutting back on live music and replacing it with far less expensive DJ's. If I want DJ's I can listen to the radio! A typical evening of music on DIVINA might look something like this. Classical music in the Atrium, a lively duo in the Piazza, a piano singer in La Luna Piano Bar, a Latin Trio in the Black & White Lounge, a solo sax player up in Galaxy, Dueling Pianos in the Golden Jazz Bar, a DJ in the disco, and a wonderful solo guitarist and singer (my favorite) under the stars at the Garden Bar. Not to be outdone by all the music, the evening's live production shows are second to none. They are truly a feast for the senses with an extremely large cast featuring the usual singers and dancers, but also acrobatics and illusionists. Dialog is kept to a minimum to appeal to an International audience, and in its place is a visual blowout that captivates you from start to finish. My personal favorite was called Wonderland, but the audience favorite seemed to be Starwalker. All the shows received a standing ovation which is something you rarely see on a cruise ship these days. One evening there were actually two different shows, with the second being a condensed version of the opera La Traviata. I thought it was fantastic and something I never expected to see on a mass-market cruise ship sailing the Caribbean. In my experience, the only cruise ship shows comparable to MSC DIVINA have been on Disney and certain Broadway performances on Royal Caribbean. To showcase these incredible shows, the Pantheon Theater is an impressive facility. State of the art sound and lighting along with impressive hydraulic stage lifts. Audience seating is comfortable with hardly a bad seat in the house. There are two aisles down the center and two more along the sides. This is something I never thought of much before, but after sailing on ROYAL PRINCESS where the side aisles have been eliminated I realize how important they are. If there was one truly unexpected delight regarding my experience on DIVINA it was the music and entertainment!
The DIVINA herself is an extremely attractive vessel. Her decor is more European in flavor with a lot of suede fabrics in muted tones of grey, rust, orange, and brown. This is accented by lots of shiny surfaces such as marble and chrome. The result somehow reminded me of the 80's and perhaps it is not entirely to my taste, but it works quite well for a mass-market cruise ship and everyone I encountered raved about how beautiful the ship is. Decor aside, the layout is exceptional and the variety and quantity of lounges and bars is almost unprecedented. I believe there are 22 different bars onboard DIVINA which is surely enough to satisfy anyones thirst no matter where they are on the ship. There are four separate stair towers and 17 passengers elevators to get you where you need to go with ease. This bucks the trend of many large ships with only two stair towers and also being underserved by the amount of elevators available. My March 22, 2014 sailing was a full ship, and I was informed the sailing was at the highest capacity since the ship started sailing from Miami. I rarely felt crowded with the exception of the dining room. Here the space is simply too small for all the tables and chairs, which meant cramped seating and waiters that simply could not perform their duties adequately as they could not squeeze between all the chairs to serve properly. Deck chairs and deck space are at a premium during sunny sea days, but this is the norm on every mass-market ship these days. DIVINA actually has quite expansive outer decks and a massive amount of loungers. You can certainly find one even on the busiest of days provided you're ok with not being directly next to one of the pools. There are four pools onboard, each one part of a unique area. The Aqua Park is the main outdoor pool area. It's very attractive and includes a large pool with smaller wading areas along with a large video screen. It's the most active outdoor area on the ship. Le Sirene is adjacent to the Aurea Spa and it's a large pool with a retractable glass roof making it appealing in any weather condition. All the way aft is the Garden Pool with fantastic views over the stern. This was designed to be an infinity type pool with water reaching the aft glass windshields, but the pool was never filled high enough for that to be a reality which is a shame. The Garden Pool is the most quiet onboard with the exception of The One Pool, which is all the way forward and reserved exclusively for Yacht Club guests. Top 19 is a fairly new concept for MSC. It takes the open deck space above Galaxy Nightclub (there is no shade) and turns it into an exclusive sun deck for adults only. There is a daily charge to use this space. The problem is that it doesn't feel very exclusive. There is no bar, no shaded areas, and the deck chairs and towels are the same as those used on the rest of the ship. Upgrade the loungers and linens and offer some exclusive bar services and this concept could really be successful. Princess Cruises does it right with the Sanctuary and even Carnival's free version called Serenity is a step up from what MSC is offering. Also topside is the Aurea Spa. MSC Cruises is one of the only lines that doesn't concession its spa to either Steiner Leisure or Canyon Ranch. They use a different concessionaire and while I didn't purchase a spa treatment, I did tour the facility and used the gym several times. The spa is very attractive and the gym offers all the bells & whistles along with great views. One unique feature of the spa is a bar and lounge area offering a variety of smoothies for the health conscious. Lacking are complimentary facilities such as steam and sauna, and even lockers, changing rooms, and showers. These all exist of course, but MSC recently changed their policy and there is now a charge to use any of these facilities. I hope they reconsider this policy.
Standard cabins on DIVINA are a delight and I was impressed when I walked into 8091. The cabin seemed wider and longer than average, with a very pleasing decor & color scheme, and plenty of storage. A full size couch along with a very comfortable king bed made relaxing and sleeping an easy task. MSC uses a bed topper so there is absolutely no space between the two twin beds when connected to form a king. There is an interactive TV with a variety of on demand movies for a fee, but unfortunately no free movies and no viewing of your shipboard account. A safe and mini-bar along with two US style outlets round out the standard amenities. The balcony was a nice size and included two chairs and a table. The bathroom is unique in that the shower doors are glass and can be folded into the shower when not in use creating more room in the remaining space. Bath amenities include a shower cap along with liquid soap and shampoo. Even at the sink there is a dispenser for liquid soap and there is no bar soap available except in the Yacht Club staterooms. Storage space inside the bathroom is excellent with shelving above and below the sink. Like many new ships, a key card must be inserted into a slot by the door to activate the cabin power. Unique to MSC DIVINA is that the card also activates a small light outside your door letting your cabin steward know if you're inside or outside the cabin. This worked very well and our cabin steward did an excellent job making up the cabin without us ever knowing he was present. Missing at night were chocolates on the pillow and the towel animals you see on so many lines these days.
Food and service overall were quite good. I found the staff to be very accommodating and at all times friendly. "Jane from Ukraine" was a favorite and interacting with her daily at the Caffe Italia was a highlight. What a fantastic person and a true asset to MSC Cruises. As mentioned earlier the variety of bars onboard DIVINA are quite impressive, but so are the menus that accompany the bars. Each bar has its own menu and besides the standards, different speciality drinks can be found at each bar. It makes bar hopping onboard DIVINA that much more fun and interesting! We dined at late seating on the lower level of the Black Crab dining room. Unsuccessful in obtaining a table for two (they are very limited), we really enjoyed our new friends and table mates at a table for eight. The dining room itself is unremarkable and again seating is just too crowded. I enjoyed all my meals and service was excellent. The staff really did a nice job considering how crowded everything was. We dined a few times at the aft Villa Rossa restaurant for lunch, and I found this dining room to be the more attractive of the two. Both serve the exact same menu. Topside is the Calumet & Manitou buffet restaurants. The layout is excellent and finding an open table was never a problem even at peak times. The variety and presentation of food was excellent, and MSC's efforts in making this space more appealing to North Americans has really paid off. Something I have never seen on a ship before is individually wrapped burgers like you would get at a fast food restaurant. I really liked the burgers and the presentation is far superior to a large tin of burgers sitting in grease like you see on many ships. The fries as well were presented in individual containers again making a very nice presentation. Additional dining options include limited room service, the sports bar, Pizza Eataly, Piazza del Doge for gelato, Galaxy Restaurant, Ristorante Italia, and Eataly Steakhouse. All these additional venues required a charge except for room service during regular hours. We dined at Pizza Eataly one evening for truly authentic Napoli style pizza crafted by a chef from Napoli! It was excellent. Another evening we dined at Eataly Steakhouse, which along with Galaxy are the premium speciality restaurants onboard. At Eataly our steaks were superb and service was excellent, but the physical space lacked any ambiance and felt more like a bright cafeteria. The basic surroundings didn't do justice to the excellent cuisine. This might explain why the space appeared empty every night. I think in general people are willing to pay extra for a special meal onboard, but they want a special ambiance that matches the quality and presentation of the meal itself. In this respect Eataly Steakhouse was a failure.
This cruise was to the Western Caribbean and the ports included Falmouth, Jamaica; Grand Cayman; Cozumel; and Great Stirrup Cay in the Bahamas. We never actually made it to Great Stirrup Cay as the seas were too rough for tender operations. MSC did a great job organizing embarkation and disembarkation in all these ports including Miami. Lines were never a problem and plenty of information was always available from a variety of sources to answer any questions. My only suggestion would be limit tender announcements to specific public areas of the ship and not broadcast them in cabin corridors. Having to listen to tender announcements every 15 minutes starting at the early AM hours while trying to have a sleep-in during vacation is not relaxing. MSC does use a silent disembarkation process for final disembarkation in Miami and it's an excellent process. Depending on your disembarkation arrangement, you are assigned a meeting place and time. You are collected from the lounge and led to the gangway when it's your time to disembark and there are no announcements over the PA. It would be great if a modified version of this process could be used for tender operations in ports like Grand Cayman.
There are many aspects of the MSC experience that really stood out as exceptional for me. Some have been mentioned earlier in this review, but I would like to recap and present some that I have not touched on yet.
- quick embarkation and disembarkation
- buffet layout, selection, and presentation (especially those burgers and fries!)
- coffee bar selection and service
- exceptional beverage menus
- fantastic shower door design
- excellent wifi speed and connectivity all over the ship
- MSC Traveler phone app for use while onboard DIVINA
- amazing, second to none entertainment with WOW factor!
- variety, quality, and availability of live music
- excellent Cruise Director, Cruise Staff, and entertainers
- fantastic ship layout and design
- wonderful variety of pools and availability of deck space
- state of the art fitness center with fantastic views
- super friendly crew with many staff that went above and beyond
- excellent air conditioning throughout the ship and cabin
- creative light outside the cabin to indicate occupancy to the cabin steward
- excellent gift shop merchandise selection - well beyond what most ships offer
There are always opportunities for improvement and MSC Cruises is no exception. I wouldn't call any of these suggestions deal breakers, but they are areas that I feel MSC Cruises could improve upon. One in particular I would like to touch upon. I don't normally cruise on mass-market lines in March due to the excessive number of kids, but for reasons beyond my control I ended up on a March cruise. As expected there were a massive number of kids onboard, in part due to most South Florida public schools being on Spring Break this week, but also because of MSC's "kids sail free" promotion. According to the crew it was the most amount of kids onboard since the ship arrived in Miami, and believe me there was no escaping them anywhere on the ship. Even on Disney Cruise Line where hundreds of kids are present on every cruise, the "kid factor" is much less in your face. Why is this? Two reasons. One is that Disney has an excellent children's program that keeps the kids well occupied. Two is that there are dedicated adults areas that are actually enforced. On the DIVINA, day or night you could not escape the kids whether it be in any of the pools topside or yes even in the nightclub at 1am! All three of the main pools on DIVINA became a massive kiddie playground from morning to dusk and there was no way to escape them if you wanted a swim. My suggestion to MSC Cruises is to create at least one adults-only pool (The Garden Pool would be an excellent choice) as well as a lounge or two in the evening and actually enforce the policy. Without question kids (under 18) should not be allowed in the nightclub after 11pm, and to see little kids running all over the place at 1am was alarming. Other cruise lines check ID's at the door to the nightclubs and perhaps MSC should do the same. It's not a safe environment for the kids, and frankly as an adult I have no interest in seeing small kids running around a nightclub at 1am. You might ask where are the parents, but that is worthy of a review of its own!
Some other areas of opportunity that may or may not have been touched upon in the review include:
- excessive tender announcements in cabin corridors
- only one towel stand on the entire ship. The Garden Pool needs its own or better yet, do away with this restrictive policy
- no pillow chocolates or evening towel animals
- no complimentary movies on TV
- dining rooms are too crowded to experience an elegant meal and service
- aft Garden Pool should be adults only
- Top 19 needs a bar and upgraded amenities to justify the cost
- Eataly Steakhouse has excellent cuisine and service but lacks any ambiance
- no complimentary lockers, showers, steam or sauna in the gym
- room service menu is very limited
- PLEASE create some adults-only areas and ENFORCE them!
So to answer my initial question, "Delighted by DIVINA?", I would say yes, I truly was. MSC Cruises has done a marvelous job bringing this beautiful ship to Miami for year round cruises. The ship will absolutely appeal to North Americans as well as a worldwide clientele, offering an experience that is slight different in a positive way, with a certain Mediterranean style and flair that is lacking on the competition. A few more tweaks and enhancements and the product will actually exceed most of the competition in almost every respect. Best of luck to MSC Cruises in this well established market, and for those of you with a passion for music and entertainment looking for something just a little different, I encourage you to book MSC DIVINA. Bon Voyage!
Very thorough, enjoyed it...although at first I thought someone posted spam advertising as it was not clear you were reviewing a cruise you had just done. :P
I am considering a cruise on MSC in europe due to their lower single supplement prices at the moment. Surely there will be less Americanizing on those ships but it's nice to know the differences one might expect to see.