What appeals most about a cruise in the Mediterranean in January isn't so much the tropical weather. Early weather reports predict that temperatures in ports on our itinerary, like Barcelona, Lanzarote, Tenerife, Madeira, Rome and Malaga, won't get much higher than 16 - 20 degrees. If we're lucky. Sunshine, too, may be hard to come by; cloudy days seem to dominate the predictions.
No, what's most intriguing about this cruise on MSC Cruises' new MSC Fantasia is that it represents a change of pace and a change of place. Already winter weary, I'll go anywhere that's heading south at this point. And yet this cruise is more about the ship than the trip. Many of the ports are familiar. MSC Cruises on the other hand is new to me. The largest cruise line owned by a European company, it's quite well known to travellers from Italy, Spain, Germany, France and beyond, but not so well entrenched with English speaking passengers (though it was interesting that the first people I met onboard were a couple from Sydney!).
The idea of cruising through Europe on a ship that genuinely represents Europeans is intriguing.
This cruise, taking place in what's considered "low season" (just after the Christmas and New Year's holidays, and a month or so before schools let out for winter breaks), is close to full, and since we're talking 3,300 passengers -- and a dodgy economic climate -- that's saying something.
Genoa surprised me. The northern Italian city is an important homeport for MSC Cruises (as it is as well for Costa Cruises, a rival Italian cruise line that calls the nearby town of Savona home for some of its ships). It's not necessarily a major Italian tourist destination.
And yet it's full of charms. Even on a quick overnight here -- too little time to really sample Genoa's pleasures -- the town was captivating. It's got the relatively recently re-designed harbourfront -- called Porto Antico -- where you can find everything from video arcades to Bigo, a panoramic lift that offers city-wide views. There's a maritime museum, the Genoa Aquarium, and whale watching expedition boats headed out on daytrips.
During winter, there's an ice skating arena (it was packed with skaters of all ages); in summer an outdoor theater hosts performances of varied styles. This vibrant "square on the Mediterranean," as the city bills it, is a bit of magic and particularly suited to families.
A couple of travel notes: For Brits cruising out of Genoa, flights are not too much of a haul. Ryanair offers nonstops from Stansted, and British Airways goes direct from London's Gatwick. But because of flight schedules you probably will have to factor in an overnight as we did. It was no hardship.
Lodging-wise, after spending way too much time on TripAdvisor trying to decide where to stay, we narrowed our hotel choices down to two places. The three-star NH Marina is as the name would suggest right on the harbourfront and in the middle of the Porto Antico action. The Bentley, a relatively new hotel in a refurbished 1930's building, is one of Genoa's few five-star digs and is located in a more genteel part of the city. Both charged about the same rate (Marina's pull is its water-based location); travelling without kids, we went with the Bentley and it was marvelous (hip ambience, lovely small pool and fitness complex, terrific bar scene and a relatively easy walk to the main tourist points).
Families, though, would be better off at the Marina hotel because it's more kid-friendly.
MSC Fantasia is so new that its christening ceremony (starring Sophia Loren, a serial godmother for MSC Cruises) only took place three weeks ago. That's good news if you like really new ships (and the new ship smell is still quite intoxicating on Fantasia!). It's not been such an easy time, however, for the new ship. English and American passengers on its maiden voyage, a Christmas cruise, have already posted universally disastrous reviews of their December trips on CruiseCritic.co.uk and other Web sites.
Embarkation was a particular nightmare on that first trip, with waits to board reportedly topping an astonishing four hours. Food quality and service were derided. And despite the fact that on a maiden voyage, when crew is typically still trying to find its way, there will be hitches, most of the negative reviews focused on major problems rather than minor ones needing a little bit of seasoning.
So I was a little nervous about what to expect on my first MSC cruise ever -- and on the brand-new ship, as well.
First impressions after a day and a night onboard? So far, I'm loving this cruise! Sure, it's a mass-market ship and it's crowded. Just when you think that no one else can cram onto an elevator a family of three shows up -- and pushes on. Chaos occasionally rules. And embarkation, which was by no means a repeat of the disastrous maiden voyage, still takes a while (though on this trip there were refreshments available and plenty of chairs to sit on).
Forget that for now. The ship is beautiful. The atrium area is lofty and towers five decks. I love the colors in the public rooms and cabins -- vibrant yet not gaudy. The Aurea spa is huge! It's got a gym, a room dedicated to yoga, a spa bar and a whole range of treatment rooms, areas for relaxation, and steam and sauna. The adult-only Gaudi whirlpool complex, located aft and decorated in a colorful, nutty scheme that evokes the famed Spanish artist, is totally tempting. Or would be in the balmier weather I hope we experience very soon.
And though the chilly, cloudy day in Genoa meant that most of us weren't hanging out outside, Fantasia offers one of the industry's highest ratio of staterooms with private balconies (they'll come in handy once we get past Barcelona, our first call). Cabins are sleek and contemporary with an earth-tone color scheme that's brightened up with lots of yellows.
You get a sense that the company's heard about Fantasia's appalling first cruise -- and so its staffers seem pretty determined to please. The buffet food was satisfying; there were plenty of open tables and not too many queues. Kids (even now there are lots of them) were splashing in the indoor pool. The bars, from Il Transatlantico (a pub-like place) to the jazz-focused Manhattan, all featured live music.
And I'll be frank: Dinner in Il Cerchio d'Oro, one of two main dining venues, was outstanding. Each night the menu is focused on a particular region of Italy; this evening's was Emilia Romagna. The lasagna was basically the best ever; the soup, featuring tortellini in broth, delicious, and the prosciutto with melon starter was as good as anything I've had in restaurants onshore.
After setting off from Genoa at 5:30 p.m., we're heading to Barcelona for an afternoon visit, spending the morning at sea. We'll check back in tomorrow.
MSC Fantasia, Day 2: Navigating the New Ship; An Afternoon in Barcelona
No question, MSC Fantasia is a big cruise ship. You can almost forget you are onboard a vessel -- and not in some sort of sprawling resort. The ship is 333 meters long (only Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas class of ships and Cunard's Queen Mary 2 stretch further, and not by much). The length is good news -- my husband Teijo tells me -- because it means the ship will be more stable that way.
It was definitely stable throughout last night, even as the wind howled, yelped, shrieked and screamed, depending on how fast we were travelling (at daybreak, anticipating that passengers would wake up and start moving around, the captain slowed down and all was quiet). Contrary to the reaction one would expect (Fear? Irritation?), the effect -- while we were tucked in bed under crisp sheets and a snowy blanket -- was ultimately quite cozy.
The weather's since been mercurial through the morning, gloomy and forbidding, with occasional sunbursts, and the most colourful and joyful place onboard is I Tropici, the ship's magrodome-covered pool.
We've arrived in Barcelona. As we slowly crept into the port area, warm sunlight bore down on us and it chased the clouds away. I could almost imagine grabbing a bathing suit and heading up to the outdoor whirlpool at the Gaudi adult-only area. But once MSC Fantasia was securely docked, and shore excursion tours began departing, the weather changed again.
Suddenly, it was raining so hard it looked like snow. Wait. It was snow! Then it became sleet as ice particles were jumping off the table on the balcony. I offered a silent thank you to the universe for whatever impulse it was last night that instructed me not to book the cycling excursion around Barcelona that would be starting … just about now.
It was warm and comfy in my cabin, and very pleasant to curl up on the big yellow couch, considering the possibilities of the day ahead. A nap sounded good, and then there were the two new novels I picked up in the library -- and that new massage treatment in the Aurea spa that uses candle butter instead of oils sounded intriguing.
Cruising in the Mediterranean in January may be unpredictable, but who says it's not fun?
One of the big surprises so far about this cruise on MSC Fantasia is the restaurant scene onboard. Beyond the traditional main dining venues, which include the set table, set time Red Velvet and Il Cerchio d'Oro, there are a range of other alternative options. Africana and Zanzibar, the buffet eateries, are of course on offer during breakfast and lunch (and largely closed at dinner time).
But, unlike most cruise lines that market to Brits, Americans and Canadians, the specialty eateries here -- including L'Etoile, for elegant French dining, La Cantina Toscana, the Italian wine bar, and El Sombrero, with its Tex-Mex quesadilla and burrito offerings -- don't levy any kind of alternative restaurant surcharge, which on those lines can range from $5 - $30. That's good. But here's the difference: On Fantasia, the restaurants all operate on an a la carte basis. Instead of a blanket service fee you pay for every menu item you order.
Prices for the most part are extremely reasonable and are to some degree subsidized by your cruise fare. At El Sombrero, a huge burrito with freshly grilled chicken -- which could comfortably feed two hungry adults and a couple of peckish kids -- was about 5 euros. Grilled red snapper was 6.80 euros, a quesadilla starter cost 3 euros and orange flan was 4.90 euros. At lunchtime, when the queues were piling up at the L'Africana and Zanzibar cafeterias, El Sombrero, also open, was absolutely deserted. I was the only diner of the day.
Most Europeans, as my European husband told me, won't pay extra to dine on a cruise ship. Indeed. Anxious about getting a last-minute reservation for L'Etoile last night, where a foie gras starter (also delicious) was 15 euros, an escargot starter was 6 euros, a delicious rack of lamb (whose crust tasted succulently and delicately of mint) was 9.20 euros and puddings, a range including profiteroles and crème brulee, were in the 5.40 euro range, I was shocked on arrival to see that we were the restaurant's only customers, at least for an hour or so. For food costs that, if you skipped the foie gras, would ring up no more of a tab than a service fee for two at Cunard's Todd English restaurant, we had an amazing experience. Excellent food, superb service, great wine list (wines of course do cost extra) -- and an utterly memorable evening.
Europeans' loss -- as it relates to a lack of interest in the ship's alternative restaurants -- is our gain if that means we can sample the fare more often. On P&O Cruises, Celebrity Cruises, Royal Caribbean, Cunard, Carnival and Princess Cruises, all lines that have terrific alternative eateries, and charge handsomely for the experience, we'd have been lucky to get in.
Tomorrow we spend the day at sea. A gathering of Cruise Critic members (take a look at our roll call forum to see if fellow members are aboard your next cruise) at Il Cappuccino Coffee Bar is the only commitment on the schedule. I'm planning to check out that spa, for sure, and want to hit the shops onboard. Stay tuned....
On the surface, a sea day on MSC Fantasia is not a whole lot different than sea days on other cruise ships. There's bingo, an art auction, line dancing classes, shop sales, cocktail workshops and more. But there is undoubtedly a European flavour to it all. When a fitness instructor, leading a stretching class at the Liquid Disco directs participants to hold a count, he does so in any number of languages (eins!, zwei! drei! or uno! dos! tres!).
What makes the cruise onboard MSC Fantasia so different for me is just that multinational flavour. Sure, it can occasionally be annoying to hear everything in five languages (the safety drill's a trial; I was grateful that our muster station was in the Sports Bar -- there was EuroSport coverage of swimming and diving championships being broadcast on flat-screen tellys!). And yet at the captain's welcome party last night I could only listen in awe and envy as he smoothly and without notes gave the speech first in German, then English, Spanish, French and Italian.
If there are hiccups -- and I've seen a few -- it's due more to clashing cultures and language challenges than it is to ineptness. So far, that seems to affect English speaking passengers more than the others, and from my experience most issues can be resolved easily if one is patient (and speaks slowly and distinctly, which is a lesson I'm struggling to learn). And also it's important to note that the service culture on this ship (and others in fleets like MSC and Costa) is really different from that on -- especially -- American-based cruise lines. Cruise Critic member Heinbloed, who's onboard, told me that the difference could be summed up thusly: "On Holland America, if you ask 'where's the restroom' a crewmember will literally take you by the hand and guide you to it. On MSC, they'll basically point to some spot far beyond and move on to the next passenger."
If you expect HAL-style service here you're going to get cranky. The service onboard Fantasia is efficient, if not warm -- as is generally the case in most places in Europe. It works just fine.
Speaking of Cruise Critic members, we had an informal gathering this morning at the Cappuccino Bar; there were six of us, two from Germany, two from Bosnia, one from Finland and one ... American. The regional diversities were symbolic of what I'm really loving about the MSC experience.
Back to expectations. My first experience at the Aurea Spa -- where I tried a funky massage that used candle-butter instead of oils -- was jarring, though ultimately wound up being quite satisfactory.
Again, comparing against previous cruise experiences (a serial habit for most of us), the typical procedure with most lines is you book a treatment, show up for it, spend a few minutes in some kind of relaxation room, have the treatment, get a hard-sell from the therapist to buy overpriced beauty products, pay the bill and a gratuity (often added for you) and depart.
Here, when I booked my massage (billed as serenity-inspiring with use of candles for ambience as well) -- no problem finding availability on the first sea day by the way, the first (pleasant) surprise -- I paid upfront at time of booking. There's no relaxation room component; you just sit in the "lobby," also known as the spa cafe. It's a sprawling space bordered on one side by the gym's glass walls and others by treatment areas -- not terribly serene.
But the treatment was outstanding (despite the fact that using candles to light the room is quite a waste -- how much can you see when you are lying face down with your head in a hole?), and I loved the fact that when it was over there was no product sell, no bill to sign, no gratuity to worry about. Indeed, the sense of harmony that engulfed me during the treatment lasted long afterward.
Prices at the Aurea Spa are rather bizarre (unlike the standardised fees in most cruise line spas, almost all of which are run by U.K.-based venders Steiner Leisure and Harding Bros.). Some treatments, like my 50-minute massage, which cost 110 euros, are right in line, cost-wise; others, such as a pedicure that was 78 euros, were way overpriced.
Another difference here is that yoga is offered, but there are no classes unless you can put a group together (a staffer will lead ten passengers in a workout for 20 euros apiece -- that's pretty pricey). But daily aerobics and stretching classes, not to mention a terrific range of dance lessons that are great exercise, are complimentary and are actually held in the Liquid Disco rather than the spa.
This is the first day of two we'll spend at sea, before we begin a heavy dose of port calls (Madeira's Funchal, Tenerife's Santa Cruz and Lanzarote's Arrecife). It's not necessarily a school holiday period, so it's surprising to see how many kids (a lot of teens) are onboard. The children's programme is in full swing and kids are generally quite well-behaved and engaged.
This morning, our second sea day, we're cruising to the southwest, no other ships in sight, just off the coast of Portugal. The Mediterranean feels so much more vast than it looks on maps; all we've seen since we left Barcelona are the occasional cargo ship and one passenger ferry.
The sun sets at around 6 p.m. -- what a difference from the long winter evenings I left at home -- but oddly doesn't rise until about 8:30 a.m.
First thing I noticed today: There's a balminess to the temperatures today that for sure hasn't been there since during our turns in Genoa and Barcelona.
It's not tropically hot by any means, but it sure is pleasant (passenger garb outside varies wildly, from one woman in a fur coat to another in a bikini). The outdoor pool area, with its gorgeous blue-green tiles and fanciful curved pools and railings is abuzz for the first time and passengers are energetically fast-walking around the deck like a parade of ants. But there is an absence of something that I just can't put my finger on.
It takes me a while to figure out that what's missing onboard is any sense of urgency. Lounge chairs are being set out on upper decks, and there's no mad dash to snare one (nor have passengers left tatty paperback or well-worn flip-flops on deck chairs to claim them). The aerobics class doesn't start until 9:30 a.m. Indoor activities don't really gear up until 10 a.m. or later. Passengers saunter through the shops at the Piazza San'Georgio, and the Atrium, play a game of Cluedo or Taboo in the Sports Bar, or languidly play cards at round tables on outer decks.
What's missing is a sense of the "let's grab every moment" energy that definitely has permeated many sea days on American and Brit ships. There's time for a long lunch (all the specialty restaurants are open and just as lightly attended as dinner the first few days), there are movies on the television, naps to take, and hot and toasty whirlpools to soak in. Life is very good.
Tomorrow, we dock at Funchal.
MSC Fantasia, Day 4 -- Madeira and La Cantina Toscana
It's been said that sighting Madeira is most splendid in the dark -- and it's true. As we approached the Portuguese colony in the blackness of pre-dawn, lights glittered like the Swarovski crystals that are embedded in the staircases in Fantasia's atrium. In the dark the island, which is built vertically up mountains, suddenly looms out of nowhere; it's almost like an illusion.
After spending two full days on the vast, flat Mediterranean, this new reality was welcomed.
Funchal, the isle's main city, is fairly pretty at daybreak, too, with its lush, green landscapes interspersed with bright, pastel-coloured houses with red roofs. But if ancient and intricate lace (Madeira's is well-regarded), gorgeous gardens and the fortified wine of Madeira are relics of the island's storied past, the building boom that's plainly obvious on a tour around the city and its suburban outskirts may be Funchal's less picturesque contemporary legacy.
Our ship, along with Saga Holidays' Saga Rose and Fred. Olsen's Black Prince, was docked at the cruise ship pier that runs parallel to Funchal's harbourfront. The walk to town is a very pleasant, 15-minute constitutional (taxis, which charge a flat 7.50 euros between city center and port, are also readily available).
But before you get too far, note the presence of a bus stop just outside the port's gates for a "Hop-On Hop-Off" double decker tour bus; for 10 euros, you can ride around and, as the name implies, "hop off" at points of interest. Convenience aside, it's also a terrific way to get your bearings. The major sights to see in and around the city are all stops. You are given a map (so you can follow along) and ear buds to insert into a console at your seat. These "tour guides" speak in an impressive array of languages, including Finnish and Russian along with the more common Spanish-French-German-English.
I rode around Funchal, spying main sites that ranged from the Mercado (market) to the funicular station (for the ride up to El Monte), and from the scenic Pico dos Barcelos (a panoramic vantage point halfway up a mountain that was so high up, frankly, I felt like I was sitting on the wings of an airplane) to numerous sprawling jardins.
Because the city of Funchal itself is marvelous, I abandoned my list of "must sees" and spent the rest of the day wandering aimlessly through its narrow, cobbled alleyways. These led to cafes redolent with the smell of garlic; Portuguese boutiques; a handful of bookshops; and the fabulous Mercado, at which I stopped to admire the home-grown (and home-fished) foodstuffs. The flower market there is, as you'd expect from an island whose location is in the midst of the Gulf Stream and so enjoys a temperate clime, bountiful. And despite more unique blooms, for some reason it's always the geraniums that catch my eye -- and you see them everywhere in the world! Perhaps it's the comfort of the familiar.
One day is way too short for Madeira. Check out more about the lovely island in our Madeira port profile.
While MSC Fantasia was being constructed at STX Europe's shipyard in France, the MSC Cruises publicity juggernaut made much fuss about the aforementioned atrium staircases with their crystal decor. I thought then that the idea of embedding sparkly clear crystals into a clear glass-like staircase was a bit silly. In reality? It's absolutely glamorous, transforming the banal act of walking up or down the stairs into a Cinderella-like experience.
The pair of staircases arch and curve from deck five to deck six to deck seven. I find myself going out of my way to find excuses to walk the stairs. Last night, a formal evening, a photographer was even stationed at the base of the staircase to take photos.
One of the funnier moments of our day in Funchal was seeing my husband Teijo get completely tongue tied over the language in town. Locals there speak Portuguese, of course; but after cruising from Italy (on a ship in which Italian is the native language), visiting Spain, and then stopping in a colony of Portugal, Teijo's effort to say thank you to a pleasant shop girl took numerous turns, starting with grazie, then gracias, then danke schone (we've spent some time with some fun German passengers we met onboard) until finally managing to spit out the Portuguese "obrigada".
On a cruise ship, I've never quite experienced a restaurant like La Cantina Toscana, which is, come to think of it, a wine bar first and foremost. Open at lunchtime and then again in the evenings (it's also the ship's designated wee hours eatery), it's got a terrific Italian wine list (plenty of reasonably priced bottles and by-the-glass options). And if you're in the mood for a change from more formal "cruise food" in the dining rooms, the food menu is terrific too with choices that range from foie gras to a plate of Italian cold cuts to a range of tapas.
The ambience could stand an improvement, though.
The same soundtrack of banal American pop tunes that you hear all over the ship plays incessantly here. One night, sitting at the bar and sipping a delicious glass of Brunello (and wincing over the accompanying music) a Spanish guitarist, on a break from his gig in the atrium, stopped in for a glass of water and began strumming. The tune, a melodic instrumental that reminded me of other Mediterranean-influenced songs, was so perfect for the room! If only his break had lasted longer....
Tomorrow we head to Tenerife, one of Spain's Canary Islands.
MSC Fantasia, Day 5 -- Santa Cruz de Tenerife
This morning, a misty rainstorm passed over the lush and jagged terrain of Santa Cruz, the main city on the island of Tenerife, and in its wake left a rainbow of primary hues. It seemed like a good omen.
I might have been a bit too hasty.
One of the challenges of exploring the world via cruise ship is that on a typical weeklong to ten-night itinerary, you'll have four to seven ports of call on the schedule. There's always going to be one (or two) destinations that get lost, that get locked out of serious pre-trip planning, that you find you've completely forgotten about until it appears outside your cabin window. Tenerife is just that port for me. While I spent time plotting out my days in Genoa, Barcelona and Madeira, I sort of blanked out on Tenerife, the largest of Spain's Canary Islands.
Another tricky bit about cruise travel is that you have just a day in most ports. There's not really time to get lost or go on adventures, at least in most cases.
With a vague idea about renting a car and touring on our own (Teijo had spent a week here some two decades ago and wanted to relive memories), we set off from the port, looking for the Hertz office we'd been told about. By the time we'd walked aimlessly all the way to the city's north end, with nary a tourist outlet (hotel, car rental company, etc.) in sight, we knew that we needed a new plan.
Paco, the pharmacist at Farmacia Anaga, in the Santa Cruz neighbourhood of Anaga, was the angel-sent architect of our day ashore. We stopped in at the farmacia (I've found in Europe if you need help in English a pharmacist is always a good bet) to ask directions to Hertz. We walked out with a couple of new toothbrushes, a can of talc and a new itinerary for the day that included a map he'd downloaded from the Internet, a recommendation for an authentic local tasca for lunch and directions to give to a taxi driver.
He sent us to San Cristobal de la Laguna, designated a World Heritage Site by Unesco. It's a gorgeous old city (dating back to the late 15th century) that was, for a few hundred years, the island's capital. La Laguna is now Tenerife's cultural hub; there are numerous museums, historic churches (such as the Cathedral), art galleries and a handful of shops. The island's major university is also here. It's a thriving, busy place (the Mercado was packed to the gills with Saturday morning shoppers and here, as in Madeira, a vast collection of locally grown flowers and plants were for sale).
La Laguna, though much smaller, reminded me a lot of Puerto Rico's Old San Juan, though the latter city has much more shopping and dining. But La Laguna, with its aged patina, colourfully painted and well-maintained historic houses, and pedestrian-friendly cobbled streets, exudes a similar ambience. When in the center of town, it feels as if you've stepped into a film set of a flick set hundreds of years ago.
If, for a few minutes in La Laguna, we felt like we'd discovered some secret hideaway on Tenerife, that notion was quickly dispelled. Soon after, throngs of MSC passengers on ship-organised shore excursions arrived, all wearing logo stickers with bus numbers (3, 5, 7, 6, 9, etc.). Still, the town, an easy 20-minute taxi ride from port, was a perfect half-day jaunt, especially on a rainy day that made a trek to the island's lofty Mt. Teide rather unappealing.
When we got back to the ship, and the mercurial weather brought another mist-storm to the area, the resulting rainbow -- this one reaching end-to-end in the harbour in front of our ship -- spoke of a magical day in port, thanks to the angel of Paco.
Why is it that so many maitre d's in cruise ship main restaurants act as if they're doing you a favour by finding you a table? This morning I showed up for breakfast at Red Velvet, one of two main dining venues. Though it's set seating in the evenings, breakfast and lunch are open, which means you can sit (or rather be ordered to sit) anywhere.
As I stood at the entrance, a huddle of maitre d's discussed who knows what -- the weather? -- while ignoring my existence. Finally, saying "excuse me -- do I just seat myself?" one turned around, beckoned me to follow, and pointed to an eight-top at which five fellow passengers were sitting, speaking in German. "May I sit at a table by myself?" I asked him. I didn't want to intrude on the other passengers (with whom I may or may not have been able to converse), and I really, really wanted to enjoy a quiet breakfast with a good book.
"No!" he barked. "We're full" (quite visibly, the restaurant was not).
The issue of hospitality as it relates to cruise ship maitre d's is not, alas, limited to MSC Fantasia on this particular morning. Just off the top of my mind I can remember seriously rude maitre d's on ships ranging from the brand-new Celebrity Solstice (the service at Grand Epernay, its main restaurant, was a nightmare) to Carnival Liberty. I don't even want to remember an incident on Celebrity Century that I wrote about on Cruise Critic a few years back. And I've heard similar tales from numerous other travellers. Feeling invisible. Out of hand dismissals. Barking orders ("sit here!"). Ignoring requests.
How did this type of passenger "service" became pervasive in cruise travel? How is it that these crewmembers are permitted to behave in this manner? How is it that cabin attendants, across the board, are generally excellent, but maitre d's are often unpleasant? Why don't cruise lines put a stop to it?
Those who can't keep eyes propped open until midnight (or thereabouts) are missing out on something special on MSC Fantasia. This is a ship that really seems to bloom at night; every lounge has some kind of entertainment, and the Theater L'Avanguardia, true to its name, features musical and acrobatic shows that are somewhat otherworldly (even a straightforward classical concert, by a trio of women, featured dramatic stage-dressing).
In the L'Insolito Lounge, energetic dancing rules. One night passengers were taught the cha cha and on another -- which I caught on an in-house television channel -- was a dubious recreation from "Grease."
The only place that's even remotely quiet in the immediate post-dinner timeframe is the Liquid Disco, though not for long. The music doesn't start much before 11:30 p.m. On one visit this week my night owl of a husband told me that by midnight the dance floor was jammed. With kids. It was, he said, family hour; parents and children dancing wildly while "observers," all under 1 year (MSC is one of the few cruise lines to welcome kids under six months), slept soundly in strollers.
Tomorrow, we head to moon-like Lanzarote -- and explore MSC's new Yacht Club concept.
MSC Fantasia, Day 6 -- MSC Yacht Club, Family Cruising
"This experience onboard," Teijo says a couple of days after we embarked on Fantasia, "is better than on Silversea."
It's not often -- or perhaps ever -- that MSC, the big-ship, value-for-money cruise line, is positively compared with the likes of Silversea, Seabourn, Regent Seven Seas Cruises, Hebridean or Hapag-Lloyd (for Europa), all among the toniest of luxury lines. But on this cruise we've been "members" of Fantasia's Yacht Club, MSC's interpretation of a ship-within-a-ship concept, and the experience has been five-star-worthy all the way.
The idea of cruise ship "boutiquing" is just starting to catch on. It was pioneered in the contemporary arena by Cunard's Grill Class in an effort to appeal to luxury-minded travellers who want all the amenities and options of a big ship without the resulting mass market hassles. NCL launched the Courtyard Villa concept, its own version, a few years ago.
The offerings by Cunard and, now, MSC (on Fantasia only; sister ship Splendida will have the Yacht Club when it debuts this summer) are different from the extras bundled into higher priced cabins on lines like Celebrity, Holland America and Royal Caribbean, such as butler service and a concierge lounge. This experience is genuinely like being on a small luxury vessel. There are a lot of perks and extras, from private bars and dining to priority embarkation and concierge services. In many cases, these passengers even have their own pool areas -- so there's no need, even on sunny sea days, to fight for a lounge chair or wait in line for a hot dog. And yet at the same time you have access to all the best big-ship stuff such as kids' programs and a variety of entertainment and dining venues.
It works beautifully onboard. But Yacht Club is not without its controversies. We have heard complaints from Yacht Club passengers about the cabins. While the range includes everything from standard verandah staterooms to the spacious royal suites, a significant number do not actually have balconies (picture windows predominate) because they face directly forward. It seems odd that on a ship with one of the industry's highest ratios of accommodations with private balconies, passengers booked in some of the more expensive actually go without.
Interestingly, Queen Mary 2's Queens Grill, its top category, has a similar issue; some of its nicest suites face forward into the teeth of the wind.
Another point of contention on Fantasia -- and this is for those passengers not cruising in Yacht Club staterooms -- is that the exclusive areas, such as the sprawling Top Sail lounge and eatery (located on many ships where an observation lounge would be) and the private pool/whirlpool area on Deck 18, occupy prime front-of-the-ship real estate. As a result there are no public spaces open on the bow. There's a bit of grumbling about that and it's understandable.
Beyond these flaws, Yacht Club is an exceptional concept on this ship. Yes, passengers staying here pay three, four, five times the going rate, but the extras and perks -- that go beyond even those offered by Cunard in its top categories -- make it a splurge with value.
Would you pay a premium to cruise in a "yacht club"-style ambience? Tell us here.
I've really enjoyed the relatively laid-back ambience onboard and it occurred to -- nine days into the cruise -- that one of the reasons for this is MSC's "minimal" public announcement policy. There are no annoying reminders about bingo or pleas to join art auctions, which, on a ship where the safety drill is repeated five times in five different languages, could be maddening if the same approach were required. When we arrive in port there's no one on the squawk box to tell us it's okay to get off the ship. The info on schedules and events is listed very succinctly in our daily programs and we're expected to read them.
And: Kudos to MSC for opting not to include with each day's program sheets of paper advertising art auctions, spa sales and inch-of-gold bargains.
If your kids are coming onboard Fantasia and expecting a Royal Caribbean-style experience -- surf park, ice skating rink, sprawling facilities, fast food eateries and sea days that are chock-full of activities -- this may not be the ship for your family. The program, divided into four categories (under 3's, 3 to 6, 6 to 12 and 13 to 18), is more limited. There are some kid-friendly features, like a sports court and a small, corkscrew water slide, but there's nothing elaborate.
And yet here's what impressive: wandering around the pool deck on a sea day on Fantasia, I don't see any kids. There is no one causing the kind of havoc I've experienced on other cruise lines. They're clearly engaged; Davio, a passenger who hails from Sarajevo and whose teen daughter is in the program, told us she was having a ball. One major appeal, especially for teens, is the chance to meet others from different countries. Another difference I've noticed here -- and it's important to remember that we are cruising in what would be considered "off season" (rather than during school holidays) -- is that aside from the older teens, you see a lot of families doing things together, whether it's playing board games in the sports bar, swimming or dining...
...or, as experienced this morning, taking in a movie. But this isn't just any kind of flick. Fantasia's 4-D XD Theater offers a "motion ride experience". It costs 6 euros for about a five minute showing and the "ride" varies, from "Haunted Mine" to "Cosmic Coaster." It's more like a ride in an amusement park than a film; indeed, you're advised to strap yourself into the space capsule-like seat and to hold on to the handles. It's good advice.
Watching the latter, a cross between the scene in "Star Wars" where Luke takes out Darth Vader and some kind of "Jetsons" car rally, the seat moves, shakes and jolts you, a fan blows wind in your face and the sound level, with all attendant space racer screeching, is deafening.
The kids loved it though I'd suggest you try not to visit the 4D theater immediately after a large meal.
Speaking of kids, for the child in all men, the other major attraction in the Virtual World center on the ship is the Formula One race car simulator. You climb into a real (though modified, naturally) Formula One-style car and choose from a variety of race courses, from Monza to Monte Carlo to Montreal. The car shakes and jolts obligingly as drivers maneuver via the steering wheel, which is connected to a computer program that displays progress on a big colour screen.
Teijo's been seven times already and the cruise isn't over yet.
Tomorrow we call at Lanzarote....
MSC Fantasia, Day 7: Walking on the Moon ... or Lanzarote
Most photos you see of Lanzarote, one of the smaller Canary Islands, focus on its otherworldly, lunar landscape. The island is defined by the volcanos that erupted in the 18th and 19th centuries and is primarily marked by the eruption of 1730, one of the longest on record.
What the photos don't really show you is how diverse -- and stunningly beautiful -- Lanzarote is. It reminded me of a moonscape crossed with the Greek island of Mykonos. Lanzarote's towering conical volcanic mountains, with sides eerily bare of vegetation, are contrasted by seaside villages consisting of clusters of stark white houses with nautical blue or green trim.
The major tourist draws here are primarily nature-focused or volcanically-inspired and not so much about culture, history or great shopping opportunities (though it was pretty weird to spy a huge Ikea, amidst the moon-like terrain, just outside the port's gates). Lanzarote is also amazingly well organised when it comes to its attractions, particularly for cruise visitors, starting with a port facility that houses makeshift car rental counters (with cars just outside). Rental companies include Cicar, Hertz and Avis. There was also -- first time in any port on our trip -- a long table fairly groaning with all manner of maps and brochures. Roadways are well-paved and well-marked. For do-it-yourself shore tour organisers, Lanzarote is a dream.
There are four self-guided tour options on Lanzarote. As first-timers to the island, we chose to explore the "North Land of Contrasts," and it was an excellent place to start. This area is home to a cactus park, the panoramically situated El Mirador del Rio and two different volcanic caves.
Full disclosure here: If given a choice between visiting a cactus garden and a couple of caves or exploring art galleries, interesting boutiques and historic monuments, I'm going to pick the latter just about any old time. But here's what's really special about Lanzarate, in general, and more specifically the north coast, where we spent our day: The major attractions here are a blend of art and nature.
That's due to Lanzarote's most famous citizen. Cesar Manrique, an island native born in 1919, was a true Renaissance character -- a proficient painter, sculpture, interior designer and architect, among many talents. His vision, which you can see in attractions and buildings all over the north coast, is one that shows a clear aim at creating harmony between design and environment. Add a dash of whimsy, too. And his creations, which include the Jardin de Cactus, the volcanic caves of Jameos del Agua, La Cuerva de los Verdes, and the panoramic spot of El Mirador del Rio, are all located within an easy, 20-kilometer drive from our ship.
We started our day with a stop at the Jardin de Cactus. This cactus garden offers somewhere in the range of 1,400-plus different types of the spikey plant. What I found more intriguing than the cacti themselves was the setting. They're all tucked into an amphitheater comprised of volcanic stone; when you enter, you're at the top and look down onto the wavy gardens, with some cactuses so huge and so oddly shaped they're like sculptures. You walk on paths lined with lava dust. Other cool spots here include a windmill, a lake, numerous sculptures and a fantastic shop that sells Lanzarote-made soaps (out of aloe vera) and other local handicrafts. If you have time, enjoy a drink or a snack at the outdoor cafe.
Next we moved on to the Jameos del Agua, the first natural wonder that Manrique rescued. This volcanic tube was created when the roof of a volcanic cave collapsed.
The tube is illuminated underground by spots of sunshine and specially coloured lights, and the ambience is dictated by soft new age music that's piped through the cave. The most intriguing part is the lake than runs through it. It's so crystal clear you can see the tiny white (and blind) crabs who reside here swimming around.
On to another cave. La Cuerva de los Verdes was part of the same eruption that carved out the Jameos del Agua (created between 3,000 - 4,500 years ago). It was, in the more recent 17th century, used as a place for locals to hide when pirates approached the island (the government is working now on cataloguing a lot of the artifacts, such as china and glassware, that were left behind). It's huge; our tour, which was about an hour, only took in a small portion of it. There's a lot of climbing up stairs and down again, quite a few spots where even the shortest adult had to walk, bent over halfway, so as not to clock one's head with a volcanic stalactite, and a few fantastic surprises which I'll not destroy for you.
Our last Manrique-inspired stop today was the first that took us up -- instead of underground. The panoramic site of El Mirador del Rio was once an old military and artillery spot -- because from here you can see literally forever (beyond its scenic value, it's also a good place to check out potential pirates and other invaders).
Today, a gorgeous, stark white structure built into the mountainside features wide balconies and decks, and other viewing perches, offering a breathtaking vista over much of Lanzarote, the Chinijo archipelago and also the nearby island of La Graciosa.
The day, the most serene and relaxed of our forays into ports of call, wound up with a lazy lunch in the atmospheric seaside village of Haria. This village, a favoured haunt when Manrique was alive, is distinctive on Lanzarote, with its groves of palm trees and a surf so thunderous that spuming salt water flew through the sky. Better yet, it's past lunchtime. Down toward the marina where fisherman have docked their trawlers, the rich and tart smells of garlic and fresh fish at a handful of cafes swirl around the sidewalk. Try the head-on shrimp, so fresh you'll swear they were literally just steamed.
Back onboard we begin the trek "home," at Rome's Civitavecchia, where we'll debark.
MSC Fantasia, Day 8 -- The Cruise Is Over, Reflections
Cruising the Mediterranean during winter is a relatively new itinerary option. A decade ago those ships that did stay in Europe during the cold season were typically older, pokier vessels with few modern amenities. But cruise lines have lately embraced the region -- most notably MSC Cruises and Costa Cruises, its closest competitor -- and both offer its newest, most contemporary ships on this route. They're designing their ships with features like magrodomes, the glass roofs that cover pool areas, which can be opened in warm weather and closed in cold.
And so winter cruising in the Mediterranean is becoming more popular.
However, I suspect that life onboard MSC Fantasia has a completely different vibe to it, depending on which season you cruise. In our case, the I Tropici indoor pool was the center of activity for everything from daily Aquagym pool aerobics workouts to playtime for kids. The main outdoor pool was genuinely lovely with its festive nautical color scheme and aqua park, but I never saw a soul in it the whole trip. Stacks and stacks of outdoor chaises were never even set up.
Our itinerary was 11 nights long and headed primarily toward the west -- Barcelona, Malaga, Madeira and the Canaries. There were four sea days tucked into the plan, which meant we spent a lot of time onboard. But come spring and summer, MSC Fantasia's schedule changes. At that time, the focus shifts to ports such as Naples, Palmero, Tunis, Palma de Mallorca, Barcelona and Marseilles; these seven-night cruises will feature a port a day. There won't be nearly as much time spent on the ship (save for sleeping) as off.
And its important to remember that MSC Fantasia is marketing itself very strongly as a family-friendly experience, with "kids sail free" promotions that will definitely change the ambience during school holiday times, including summer. While there were kids onboard our January voyage -- not a mainstream break time for schools -- there weren't enough to materially change the tempo of the trip. During holiday periods ... expect that there will be.
One MSC Cruises policy that's relatively unheard of for American and British cruise lines is to permit passengers to choose where they embark/debark. We got on, with the majority of the others (most of whom hailed from Germany and Italy) in Genoa; it was a fairly easy drive-to port for these travellers. On the other hand, we met a London couple who'd boarded in Barcelona -- it was an easier and cheaper flight for them. As we arrived in just about every port, you'd see suitcases lined up on the gangway.
We elected to debark in Rome, a day short of our final day, and it was relatively painless; just 300 of us were getting off. I'd suggest that if you hate the whole ritual of that last morning on a cruise ship, consider debarking at one of the alternative ports....
When it comes to accommodations, we're told that MSC Fantasia's cabins are slightly smaller than the norm (a standard balcony stateroom measures 194 square ft., not including verandah), but that's actually not entirely true. On Royal Caribbean's Independence of the Seas, you can get a "superior" balcony cabin that measures 217 square ft. or a standard one that, at 177 square ft., is even smaller than those on Fantasia. But by and large, even the bigger suites on Fantasia are smaller than those on other lines.
Does it matter? Actually, yes. One of the innovations of Fantasia is its very high number of cabins with balconies. That's attributed to the fact that the actual super structure (in essence, the foundation) of the ship is fairly narrow, which eliminates many inside cabins.
Few passengers will ever choose a cabin with absolutely no natural light if it's not a budgeting issue. Because of the design of the ship, Fantasia has six full decks of balcony cabins (compare that with Costa's new Costa Serena, which has just three decks of verandah staterooms).
As well, squeezing out a few square ft. of space in each standard stateroom -- a move that's frankly indiscernible -- means that Fantasia can work in more cabins with balconies. The more such staterooms exist, the better the chance of booking them at a moderate price point.
In reflection, the following is a quick summary of our take on the MSC Fantasia experience. Stay tuned for a full on review to be launched in late winter.
Dining: The ship's two main dining rooms, which offer the standard set-seating evening experience, provide a brisk, efficient experience. Food quality ranged pretty widely; consistently the best dishes involved pasta (the lasagna is not to be missed and the spaghetti bolognaise, on the "every night" menu, was perfectly satisfying). Where the chefs missed most often were when they tried to get fancy. Breads and desserts were excellent. There's a light fare option on every menu and choices for vegetarians.
The Alternative Restaurants: Ambience was typically poor (please, turn the lights down some!), but the food was generally quite delicious. One tip: In almost every place, from the El Sombrero Tex-Mex restaurant to the Sports Bar, which served terrific burgers and shepherd's pie, the portions are huge. You can easily share....
Service: Brisk and efficient again describes service. Crewmembers, especially bar servers and cabin stewards (saw no stewardesses) work on salary rather than the wage structure common in the U.S., where earnings are nearly entirely dependent on tips. That means that servers aren't going to hustle you to buy drinks or overpriced spa products. It also means that you might have to wait for two bar servers to finish a conversation before you can order a beer. I occasionally missed the lively banter I've found on British and U.S. ship experiences, but I think it's more that servers struggle with English or that they're simply more reserved than it is that they're being rude. One told me that he could make $600 more a month if he worked for a line like Princess and Carnival, but he didn't think he could be a "salesman."
Where service was rather consistently poor was at the ship's information desk and its shore tours office (where staffers don't know much about tours and frankly could care less). These trouble spots, alas, plague almost all big-ship lines I've cruised on.
Accommodations: The rich color schemes (gold, burgundy, forest green), and a sleek, contemporary and un-fussy styling, made cabins quite pleasant. All had flat-screen televisions and private bathrooms with showers.
Shore Excursions: I meant to take a ship-organised tour, but aside from a tapas outing in Barcelona (and a bike riding trip there, as well), nothing appealed. There was little effort made to go beyond the standard tour of main tourist attractions. Prices seemed reasonable enough for a cruise ship, but frankly, booking your own private tour ahead of time (check Cruise Critic's ports forums for more information) will likely offer a better quality experience at a cheaper price.
Family Programmes: They're not ultra-fancy (with huge science labs or sports facilities like rock-climbing walls), but the kids onboard seemed engaged and didn't spend a whole lot of time pulling pranks or dominating stairwells.
Itinerary: I especially loved the Canary island calls at Tenerife and Lanzarote, and the stop at Madeira. All three were new experiences with enough going on that you could go back, time and time again, and find something new to explore. Barring the mercurial weather, however, I also enjoyed Barcelona and Malaga in January; like the ship itself, the mood in the cities was so much more relaxed than when I've visited during the summer high season.
Fellow Passengers: Because passengers hailed from different European countries (with a sprinkling of those from Britain and Ireland) and spoke a variety of languages, there wasn't an easy, social ambience. People pretty much stuck with the friends they were travelling with. But I sometimes find the forced sociality on more traditional ships to be exhausting, and so it was actually lovely to spend more time with Teijo and less on small talk.
I'll finish by answering a question posed by Teijo on the way to Rome's airport as our taxi pulled away from the ship in Civitavecchia: "What would you tell people who normally book on luxury lines about the Yacht Club experience?"
I'd tell them that if all you really want is an ultra-pampering, small-ship cruise with ultra-sophisticated fellow passengers and personal service, and an extremely upscale dining experience, you should stay on a traditional luxury line.
If, however, you're traveling with kids for whom meeting other kids, and a good children's program, is important -- but you don't want to compromise on superb service and some luxe retreats (like the private pool area and the superb Topsail lounge), Fantasia's a great bet. As well, the Yacht Club is a good compromise for couples who prefer different styles of cruising. Teijo loves the big ships, really wants a huge variety of dining options and an active disco (typically an oxymoron on luxury lines), not to mention lots of different kinds of bars. I prefer a smaller ship and lazier pace, with more personal service, less nickel and diming over a myriad of a la carte-priced stuff, and exceptional quality of dining over options.
On Fantasia, we each got the cruise we wanted.
On MSC Fantasia, we each got the cruise we wanted.