After eight times aboard Norwegian ships, we were ready for a change…
We recently returned from our ninth cruise to the western Mediterranean and our first cruise aboard an MSC vessel, the world’s fourth-largest cruise company, biggest non-US, (Switzerland based) with distinctive Mediterranean roots.
We had been happy on the NCL ships, even though there had always been things to aggravate us. On the last cruise, we were particularly unhappy with the booking process and the cruise line’s service before boarding and were, therefore, looking elsewhere. Over the five years, we’d been cruising with NCL, their customer service simply declined to a point where we were unwilling to spend more money with them.
I often see MSC shipping vessels in the port of Gothenburg, and I know they’re a fairly big company having branched out into the cruise industry as recently as 1989. We booked ourselves on the Divina from Genoa, the same port where a certain Christopher Columbus got his sea legs. We had booked a suite in the Yacht Club, which is the MSC equivalent to NCLs Haven. More about that later.
Off to a bad start
We had arrived in Genoa the day before the cruise to see a bit of the city itself (we’d never been there before) and to be relaxed in the morning to get off to a great start. After breakfast at our hotel, we strolled down to the port to see where we’d have to leave our car. I had pre-booked parking and wasn’t entirely sure how it would work. Every port is different and while it’s easy enough reaching a terminal by cab, it can get dicey in your car. The offered valet service seemed easy enough, even though we first drove to the wrong place and had to make a detour, before we found the Yacht Club tent and drove up to it, unloaded our luggage and sort of expected the car to be picked up and parked.
No such luck. I was asked to move my car and after the third person had told me to move my car elsewhere, I sort of lost it and began to curse in fluent Italian. It was scorching hot (first heat wave of the summer) and I wanted to get out of the sun and my car. I guess they are not accustomed to that sort of reaction and we managed to resolve the situation. Let me just say that this was the only trouble we had all week. After these strange ten minutes, everything else was near perfect, and I don’t say that lightly (and I’m not paid by MSC either…)
I always wondered about the never-ending queues when boarding an NCL ship. While we would be whisked past them to the Haven check-in, you’d still spend a good half-hour to register credit cards, have your pictures taken, etc. MSC works differently. First of all, on this itinerary, they board new guests at pretty much every port, so there aren’t that many people boarding in the first place, even though the Divina is a pretty big ship at 333 m, with 3,500 passengers. We were brought aboard almost instantly by a butler who took us from the parking lot to the terminal and then onboard where pictures were taken as we walked onto the ship.
The keycard to our suite was waiting for us in the cabin. To register your credit card there are several machines on the ship and you do it in just a few seconds whenever it suits you within the first twenty-four hours aboard. I can add that disembarking was equally fast and painless. The whole process until we were at our car (parked next to the ship) didn’t take more than fifteen minutes.
Now, I’m not saying other cruise lines and their processes are worse, just different. At least on NCL, we got to enjoy the beautiful spread of snacks and drinks as we were waiting.
The ship: the MSC Divina
She’s beautiful, one could say she’s divine. S’all I’m going to say. Some of the staircases were laced with Swarovski crystals and made you feel like the ship’s godmother Sophia Loren every time you climbed one of them. The important thing though is that she’s in amazing shape. Wooden rails are shining (not always the case on Norwegian ships), furniture, fittings, and the entire ship’s décor is just stunningly beautiful. Seven years old, but you’d think she left dry dock yesterday. Check out the pictures and make your assessment.
The Yacht Club experience
Picture a ship within a ship. Three decks in the front of the ship are provided exclusively to Yacht Club members. The staterooms are not necessarily bigger than a balcony room in the rest of the ship, but you also have access to a private sundeck with bar and buffet restaurant, a small pool and a couple of jacuzzis. There is a huge lounge serving snacks twenty hours a day, with amazing views forward, free drinks and live music every night. We spent pretty much every evening there, talking and getting to know one of the butlers (who turned out to be gay.)
The Yacht Club also includes a private restaurant in the aft of the ship, with different menus for every day of the cruise, and a menu-style breakfast for those who don’t like the buffet breakfast on the sundeck or the continental one in the lounge. Good wine and mineral water were included in every meal, and not just any water, but Aqua Panna, Italy’s finest.
Clearly, it can’t be as good as you say?
Does the sun have spots? Of course. LGBT travelers will be disappointed that there is no specific gathering for us. We were traveling as a family and didn’t mind, but I’m sure for some it could be a deal-breaker. We asked a butler on the first day about this and learned he was LGBT, too. He did look puzzled though when we asked as if it was an odd question. I guess MSC hasn’t even considered the need for it? The same can be said for other groups, like “friends of Bill”, etc. We got to know that butler quite well over the week, and formed an ad-hoc kind of group, chatting every night, as the lounge was often empty before 11 pm and the butlers were having time to speak with clients.
The food quality isn’t quite as high as on NCL. I’d give it a four out of five, where NCL scores a four-point-five in my experience. That doesn’t mean the food is bad, but there’s room for improvement.
I’ve also gotten used to hand sanitizers and “washy, washy, happy, happy”. MSC has them, too, but nobody reminds you to use them and most people don’t. An area of improvement. Who needs food poisoning (or any other illness) on vacation?
I love the NCL concept of being able to eat where and when you like. MSC isn’t quite there yet, and a ship as big as the Divina only has three specialty restaurants (Steakhouse, Sushi Bar & Pizzeria.) Strangely, we didn’t miss the choice. We had steak one night and found ourselves almost alone in the restaurant. I guess most people simply don’t want to pay the extra charge for a specialty restaurant.
Having previously sailed on NCL ships only, my horizon is limited with regards to comparing to other cruise companies, I’ll grant you that, but I’ve noted that the suites we’ve been in on NCL ships generally had bigger bathrooms and somewhat more floor space overall. To be honest, the bathroom was the biggest disappointment for me, particularly when there are three of us sharing one. But in the end, we spent so much time in the lounge that the size of the suite didn’t matter.
The boys at MeetMeOnBoard asked me to think about a question: why are many American MeetMeOnBoard disappointed with their MSC experience? I had a working theory before going on board and I was curious to see if it panned out. In Genoa, most people boarding were Italians, Germans, and Americans (plus plenty of people from other European nations.) In Rome and Palermo, more Italians joined, while Valencia and Palma were places for the Spanish to get on board and the French boarded in Marseille. On this itinerary, the Spanish, French and Italians were the overwhelming majority, but the ship as a whole “felt” very European.
Every announcement on the ship was made in five languages: English, Italian, Spanish, French and German. This was hilarious at the beginning of a show when the cruise director would introduce it. Allow me to linger with this announcement for a moment. On NCL, the announcer comes on stage and asks something along the line of “are you having a good time?” They do that on MSC, too, but while our Italian cruise director would be happy with the public’s response and move on to languages two to five, I’ve yet to see an American one who doesn’t add something along the lines of “I can’t hear you…” or simply asking the question again until they get an appropriately roaring response from the audience. To a European, that triggering can appear a bit “childish” or silly (my dad would always shake his head), while I’m sure Americans are bored having to listen to an announcement in five languages when they were barely able to understand the broken English one. Cultural differences. Neither’s better than the other, but they’re different. We may all speak English, but underneath the veneer of it all, there are cultural differences.
The same is true for things like service. On the American ships, even though they will charge a service charge ahead of time, the staff are still vying for extra tips, and the service can sometimes (to a European) appear to be a bit “too friendly”? On MSC, you pay a service charge and that’s it. No tips are expected (and even frowned upon we were told.) Service is very friendly but not intrusive.
Another “European” (I’m not sure if that’s the right explanation) thing was that we’d sometimes catch crew members smoking in a corner or that our staff at the outdoor bar would be chatting a lot and sometimes not pay attention to the customers. That is something I’ve never encountered on an NCL ship. Staff is kept on a shorter leash on US ships.
Which is funny because the vast majority of the crew on board of these ships are neither European nor American. On NCL (except the Pride of America) crew members are often Filipinos or Indonesians and the ship’s senior officers Scandinavian. On MSC, the senior officers are predominantly Italian, while many of the crew come from Madagascar and Mauritius. Having said that, all these ships are extremely diverse with crew members from virtually the whole world. Yet the ships’ culture is very much influenced by the owners.
Is it this cultural difference aboard the ship that makes Americans feel disappointed? Maybe. Unlike a restaurant in Paris or Athens where you’re constantly reminded of being in a different country, a ship is still a ship and they all share common traits. Maybe it’s easier to forget that these steel and glass colossuses are saturated with culture, too, even though it’s as if it is the walls, invisible. As someone who’s always had one foot in both American and European cultures, I may not be the right person to provide the definitive answer. However, given that I live in Europe, I felt super comfortable on the ship and had it not been for the specific question asked by MMOB, I probably wouldn’t have reflected upon it.
Maybe it could also be the fact that some Americans prefer to travel with people from their own country? Maybe it’s just the language thing? The food offered (we had snails on the menu one night and quail eggs, but never a burger.) What is your take? It would be interesting to hear other people’s perspectives.
The itinerary and entertainment
We sailed from Genoa to Rome, Palermo, Cagliari, Palma, Valencia to Marseille and back to Genoa. It was the perfect itinerary for us, as we’d never been to any of these cities except Rome (and we figured that Rome was always worth a trip. Turns out it wasn’t, heat/crowd, but that’s a different story.)
We sailed on the back-end of the first heatwave of the 2019 summer and Rome and Palermo were unseasonably hot (35-40 degrees C.) But each city had a lot of things to show us and we now have a few new places we want to return to for a shorter city-break in the spring or fall.
With no sea days, the time to check out and enjoy things aboard ship was limited. We did see three shows (given twice daily) which were all good, a combination of acrobatics and song, differently themed. Once I got used to the thick English accents of the singers, I was fine.
The Divina has a ton of bars, and at night, they do get busy. They are all differently themed and beautifully decorated. I’ll be honest and say that the crowds there scared me a bit. I’m a bit of an introvert these days. We mostly stayed in the club and away from the crowds.
There’s a fair bit of shopping which is closed during the day for tax reasons. A bummer when you need something and don’t want to go ashore (especially since most ports aren’t exactly downtown.) There’s plenty of entertainment on the pool deck, things like karaoke, dancing, and whatnot, and the Divina has an adult-only infinity pool aft with its bar. No kids allowed if that’s your thing. What we didn’t see was the kind of adult games “know your spouse” and whatnot (see previous paragraphs on cultural differences.)
If like us, you travel with children, there’s a kids club open daily with loads of activities for various age groups. There are also video arcades, table soccer, and table tennis, etc. There’s also a tennis and a basketball court, plus two pools and a few jacuzzis (half of which is indoor with a retractable roof.)
We’ll be back!
We loved this cruise, and since the ship was so beautiful, we inquired about a follow-up cruise over the Holidays. Even though we’d already tentatively booked a suite aboard the brand new Celebrity Edge, we managed to secure a suite on the Meraviglia for a cruise to Mexico and Central America. I for one can’t wait to check out the largest ship in the MSC fleet. From what I’ve seen, she looks marvelous (pun intended!) I might tell you all about it after we’re back.
About the author:
Hans M Hirschi loves cruising, always with his husband and their six-year-old son Sascha. Hirschi is the author of contemporary LGBT fiction and a Stonewall Awards nominee. His most recent trilogy, The Golden One, is a new take on the fantasy genre. The final book in the series will be released this September. His travel and cruise experiences tend to find their way into his writing. He’s also working as a tour guide in his beloved Gothenburg. He lives with his family on a small island off the Swedish West coast.
Image credit: Author photo by Alina Oswald, New York.