My husband and I celebrated our 20th wedding anniversary with this 7-night cruise. After reading the older reviews here, we were more than a little worried that we'd made a bad choice. I'm happy to report that this cruise was as splendid as the ship's name!
The big concern in past reviews seemed to be that no one spoke English and that English-speakers were discriminated against by passengers and crew alike. We had the completely opposite experience. Every crew member spoke enough English to not just help us, but to chat with us. The mostly-European passengers also spoke English, and everyone was good humored about trying to communicate. The captain and all the key officers spoke excellent English, and when we boarded in Barcelona, there was a separate English lifeboat demonstration. There is also an English hostess on board, whose sole purpose is to make sure you get any info you need on shore excursions or ship events, but our daily newsletter was in English, and all the shore excursion brochures are in English. Heck, all the signs--even for the drink of the day--are written in English as well as Italian. Most of the crew hail from the Caribbean or Polynesia, so they know at least some English. There was no language barrier.
We stayed in one of the Yacht Club rooms. The service is extraordinary. The butlers, the concierge, and the bartenders are all friendly and eager to help. The food in the Yacht Club's dining room (L'Olivia) was gourmet, and we quickly learned that ordering an item from every course was too much for one person to eat in a sitting! I became quite addicted to the cheese course. In L'Olivia, the Yacht Club lounge, and the Yacht Club poolside bar, all drinks (including bottled water) are included. Wines and a few liquors could be upgraded for extra money, but all the alcohol was already top shelf, so why bother? Yes, it is a long walk from the cabin at the front of the ship to the restaurant at the back, and yes, you have to go down a few levels and then back up again to get there, but walking through the ship is hardly a chore.
The ship is beautiful. As even the negative reviews stated, it is sparkling clean. Although the ship is ornate, I think it stays in good taste. The Swarovski crystal staircases (silver in the main ship, gold in the Yacht Club) are beautiful focal points. The Yacht Club area is more subdued than the rest of the ship. We peeked in rooms on different decks as we passed them, and they were all the same spacious size as our Yacht Club room, and all were just as recently remodeled with fresh carpets, upholstery, etc. (The ship was only a few weeks out of a major dry-dock remodel.) Every cabin steward we passed would nod and greet us, even though we were just passing through. I cannot emphasize enough how friendly the crew were.
We made a point of going to the buffet, just to see the "crowded hell" that other reviews had described. Therefore, I was shocked that the buffet area covers fully half a deck of the ship. It's huge! And the stations repeat, so if the line is long at the first buffet, just keep walking and you'll hit the same food on a buffet a few feet away. We did NOT see people rushing for food and elbowing each other out of the way. Hard to imagine that, when there are roped-off lines (which everyone was using nicely.) The theming is well done, with Polynesian masks on the walls and Tiki-style tables and chairs. We went to the "Buffet Magnifique," which was the midnight dessert buffet with the carved fruits and fancy breads, and we stopped in late one night to try the pizza. Both experiences were good. The only negative is that the coffee was weak and I had to pick through a few mugs to find a clean one, but it was hardly the trainwreck we'd been led to expect.
The main lobby can get crowded, but there are several places on the ship you could hang out in that were nearly empty most of the time: the sports bar, the wine bar, the coffee bar, and the Tex Mex restaurant. We had a great time tasting wines one night as we chatted (in English!) with the staff. It was worth the extra Euros to try wines from Spain and Italy that we'd never heard of in the USA.
Prices for upgraded alcohol, by the way, are very reasonable, perhaps 6 to 9 Euros for mini wine flights or wine by the glass, depending which one you ordered. We easily pay that much in regular bars in our hometown, so it was not a big deal. And since Europeans don't add gratuities on every tab, it might even be a little cheaper!
Speaking of gratuities, yes, there was a 7 Euro per day gratuity charge. What a bargain. I felt bad, actually, that a measly 7 Euros was supposed to cover all the excellent service, and we tipped a few people on the side during our last day there. In comparison, at the end of a Disney Cruise, you are given envelopes and a suggested tip of hundreds of dollars EACH for the waiters, assistant waiters, maitre d, etc. Being charged 7 Euros and being done with it was a bargain in comparison.
We only attended one night at the theater, which is enormous and filled with very comfortable seating. The show was a "Cirque du Soleil" style show, and the costumes were striking, with great headpieces. The acrobats were amazing. The audience were...terribly rude. I've never seen so many badly behaved children jumping up and changing seats during the show. Is this MSC's fault? No. But I wish they had ushers to patrol the aisles and maybe keep the worst of the patrons quiet. On our last day, a family had boarded with a child who was running throughout the restaurant, nearly tripping waiters, and who did break dishes! Surely the crew could cite a safety issue and ask the family to restrain their child? I know they don't want to offend their passengers, but they must step in before one family ruins the dining experience for twenty other families. Maybe they did after we disembarked. We were just glad that family hadn't been on the whole cruise with us. Yikes.
The casino is a smoking area, which unfortunately limited our time there. We played some blackjack for a reasonable 5 Euro minimum during off-hours. Roulette was popular, too, as well poker-style table games. There is no craps table. English was the universal language spoken by all the dealers, and we never saw the casino too crowded. The pit boss quickly opened new tables when onlookers started accumulating. You can use your credit card to get chips in the casino, by the way. Very convenient.
There is music all over the ship. The main lobby has a grand piano and a violinist nearly every night. The violinist made an appearance in L'Olivio two nights. There were some excellent jazz trios and solo pianists. In the evenings, you can't get from one part of the ship to another without passing a live performer. Great music on board.
You also cannot walk anywhere in the evening without passing a ship photographer. Lines were never long, and you could get photos with props that related to the next day's port (like sitting on an Italian scooter the night before Rome), or with plain studio backgrounds, or with the ship's crystal staircase as the background. Head shots, group shots, family portraits...you name it, and the photographers were happy to shoot it. The prices were the same as other cruise lines I've traveled (Disney and Carnival).
Getting off and on the ship was very easy at every port. At no time did we need to give our passports to a ship's officer. Some ports require the ship's officers to hold your non-European passport, apparently, but none of the Western Med ports required this.
In Barcelona, embarkation was orderly and professional. For Yacht Club members, though, it is extra special. Next to the entrance for the main passengers, there is a red carpeted area with butlers in tails and white gloves. As soon as we said we were there for the Yacht Club, we were given juice, whisked onto the ship, and never touched our luggage again. A butler gave us a brief ship tour, and all was lovely. I did notice, however, that MSC had beverages for the main passenger line, too, and the port building was organized, orderly, clean, and professional. Most guests get on in Genoa, I think, and the port building there was spacious and modern, with escalators and plentiful signs. No worries about embarkation.
The only problem with disembarking was...we didn't want to go. It had been a great week on a beautiful ship with a truly friendly crew. I would absolutely repeat this cruise.