Over on Facebook and Twitter, we had some fun discussions about MSC Cruises and its newest ship, Divina, which departed from the shipyard at St. Nazaire, France, on Saturday. One Cruise Critic poster called the Switzerland-based MSC the Carnival of Europe. It’s not. Costa, which is actually owned by Carnival Corp., gets that nod; it shares ship platforms and, except for the upcoming Carnival Breeze, an interior designer.
It’s my feeling that MSC Cruises is the industry’s most misunderstood line. The style of its ships and service is European through and through, and it’s quite different from the more service-centric lines in the U.S. and U.K. The line, which has debuted eight ships in its eight years of existence, is on a major growth spurt. Still, it’s had its challenges, particularly with service (though it’s working hard to address that negative, hiring more experienced crew).
So I wondered: If you could loosely compare the ambience, food, entertainment, sun deck and accommodations to a better-known cruise line, which would it be?
I’m voting for Norwegian Cruise Line. If you compare its newer ships (Norwegian Jewel, Pearl, Gem and Epic) with the contemporary trio of MSC’s Fantasia, Splendida and Divina, there are more similarities than differences. Both have a range of restaurants onboard, from traditional restaurants to boutique-style eateries. They have invested in major spa and gym facilities. Itineraries are mainstream (they spend most of their time in the Mediterranean and the Caribbean). And Norwegian and MSC are both betting that their ship-within-a-ship boutique hotels (the former’s Haven and the latter’s Yacht Club) will draw luxury-minded travelers to what are otherwise mass-market ships.
Onboard Environment. On Norwegian Epic and the Jewel-class ships, the onboard ambience is jazzy, cheap and cheerful. MSC’s interiors are more elegant and restrained — almost Milanese — using darker tones and schemes.
Winner: It’s MSC by a hair; its furnishings and materials are more quality-minded than those on Norwegian.
Dining Variety and Cost. On both cruise lines, the quality of dining increases as you spend more money. You can certainly eat in fee-free places, such as a station-organized buffet and the main dining venues, but if you’re picky you’ll want to ante up the extra cash to go to specialty venues. A big difference: On Norwegian, you’ll pay significantly higher cover charges — $25 per person — just to sit down. On MSC there are few service surcharges, but most specialty menus are priced a la carte. (For instance, at its burger joint on Divina, there’s a combo package — burger, fries and small beer — for 8 euros or about $10.)
Winner: Norwegian. It has more fee-free options (like O’Sheehan’s), particularly when it comes to casual dining, and its pricing is a bit more straightforward (though it does venture into a la carte pricing in some of its restaurants).
Ship Within a Ship. Not familiar with the concept? It’s when a cluster of cabins occupies a separate area on the vessel and includes such amenities as a private pool, sun deck and butler service. On Norwegian’s Jewel-class ships, it’s called The Haven. Norwegian Epic ups the ante: There’s a private restaurant and bar attached to the area. MSC’s Yacht Club is a similar concept, with suites clustered around the Topsail Bar and Lounge; there’s a private sun deck with two whirlpools and a small pool, plus an outside bar and snack area. There’s also a dedicated restaurant, open only to members of the “club.”
Winner: It’s a toss-up. Both lines do an incredibly good job of catering to a more luxury-minded traveler who wants the variety in entertainment, dining and kids’ club options that big ships provide and the intimate, pampering ambience of luxury vessels. Even at the entry level, Norwegian’s Haven cabins are quite spacious. The smallest come with separate living rooms, small inside sleeping rooms with two berths each and pretty bedroom/bathroom combos with vast beds, separate showers and whirlpool tubs (which are set into windows overlooking the sea). The Haven cabins offer more comfort and amenities than those on MSC, whose Yacht Club cabins are typically smaller. But Norwegian’s furnishings are a bit too cheap and cheerful, and they’re not as comfortable.
MSC’s ship-within-a-ship concept also offers more value: cocktails, wine and beer are complimentary in its Yacht Club bars and at its dedicated restaurant, whereas you’ll pay out of pocket for the same stuff on Norwegian.
How do you choose between them? Compare the fares! Pricing a one-week Mediterranean cruise in October, Norwegian Epic was $2,600 per person. MSC Divina was $2,500.
Ultimately, the nod goes to MSC’s more inclusive Yacht Club, because of its superior value-for-money quotient. If I’m paying top-dollar on a mass-market ship, I don’t want to be nickel-and-dimed every time I turn around.
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