We are British, in our mid sixties with a dozen cruises to our name and have sailed with MSC on eight occasions, four in the last 4 years. This most recent experience was with two back-to-back cruises: a) West Caribbean; & b) TransAtlantic Repositioning via East Caribbean & West Mediterranean
Whilst the line has its shortcomings, we are attracted to MSC because of its stylish ships, Italian cuisine, exciting itineraries and overall value for money (outside of the high season).
Having published reviews of the Poesia and her sisters before, I did not wish to repeat myself, but rather to draw a broad comparison of our experiences.
MSC has a very international following and generally has 20 to 30 nationalities aboard each sailing. On these cruises the primary groups were:
West Caribbean - American, Canadian, Various European - Families;
TransAtlantic - American, Canadian, British & Various European - Mature/Seniors.
EMBARKATION & DISEMBARKATION
At Fort Lauderdale embarkation is always pretty good (4*), whereas in Italy there continues to be much room for much improvement.
After West Caribbean - Ft Lauderdale - Shambles - 2*
After TransAtlantic - Genoa - No Problems - 4*
Disembarkation from the West Caribbean was no doubt hampered by there being seven huge cruise ships (each with 3000 or more passengers) disembarking at the same time, so I guess the Customs and Immigration resources in Ft Lauderdale were somewhat over-stretched that Saturday morning. We got off okay, but were unable to get near a taxi to go into town, so we gave up and re-boarded the ship.
Balcony Cabin 10245 at the rear - Average - 3*
We were upgraded at no additional cost to a cabin in the same position on the deck above, because 9227 was not available. Incongruously, whilst normally costing more, the cabin was smaller. Further, there was more noise and vibration at the back of the ship in 2012 over 2010.
Fruit Bowl was replenished daily. Bathrobes supplied on all cruises with balcony cabins.
Pool/Sun deck Areas - Decks 13/14/15
The pool areas on both sailings were well frequented, but for the West Caribbean it was heaving! However, it was spring school break week in Florida, meaning there were lots of families. We were relieved to be able to hide away from the madding crowds by keeping to our balcony. We generally find that the deck areas on repositioning cruises are comfortable, but on high season cruises in Europe and the Caribbean these areas are best avoided if you do not have children with you.
Internal Public Areas
All the MSC ships we have sailed (large and mid-sized) are very similar in their contemporary design, apart from different coloured decor. A distinctive aspect of all MSC ships is the clean, modern, Italian style of the decor, with lots of sparkling mirrors and brassware.
The Poesia showed minor signs of wear and tear since we were last with her in 2010, but nothing significant. However, the gleam was not as spectacular on this cruise vs our previous experiences - there did not seem to be quite the same visibility of cleaners.
A criticism of all this class of ships (Musica Class) is that the Bars are all situated with thoroughfares going through them, so there is nowhere to have a quiet drink or to listen to music without a general hubbub passing through.
Similarly the Lounges where cabarets and entertainments take place are large and noisy, with music/singing competing with passenger laughter/conversation taking place under somewhat low ceilings - the result is a bit of a cacophony!
On each of the ships in the class there are two Main Dining Rooms (MDRs) - Deck 5 & Deck 6. IMO Deck 6 has the better table layouts, furnishings, noise barriers and general ambience. Do not be afraid to ask for a change if you are unhappy.
The Buffet Restaurant (self-service cafeteria) is on Deck 13 - very large, utilitarian and noisy. Crockery (melamine) and cutlery are functional (to put it kindly) and are a contrast with the tastefulness to be found in the MDRs.
The Premium Restaurant is situated behind the cafeteria and doubles as an extension to the Buffet, except in the evenings when the serveries are partitioned off. This restaurant lacks ambience as it is under-utilised as a premium restaurant - it has a capacity of over 200 but on all ships when we have dined there, there has been no more than a dozen diners. It needs promoting. IMO they should award meals here for winners of games, quizzes and competitions. It would cost little and would be far more appreciated than the silly plastic MSC logo prizes that are dished out by the Entertainments Teams. Having introduced people to the fare, they may be more inclined to pay to return there later in the cruise (or on their next cruise) and to tell others about it. The cost of $20 is reasonable.
On Musica Class ships there is an Oriental Restaurant at extra charge - Sushi on Poesia - in each case delightfully appointed, but sadly under-frequented. We have found the choice limited, the quality unexceptional and a sorry lack of atmosphere.
The Photoshop this time around was extraordinarily good - much improved on previous MSC cruises. The photo team was active, but not in your face - Portrait Work Superb (excellent Romanian team, especially the females) - 5*. Apparently, from January 2012, MSC have taken over direct control of this activity - previously sub-contracted to a third party. Pricing is now more competitive.
Dress Code - MSC advocates 3 dress codes - publicised in the Daily Programme:
Casual: Gents - Sports Shirt, Trousers/Jeans; Ladies - Dress/Trouser-Suit or Sports Outfit;
Informal: Gents - Jacket & Trousers; Ladies - Informal Dress or Trousers & Blouse;
Formal: Gents - Tux, DJ or Dark Suit & Tie; Ladies - Dressy Outfit, Formal Gown or Cocktail Dress.
On all cruises, generally women seem to make more effort than men. Further, we found Informal & Formal dress code were adhered to much more diligently on the TransAtlantic sailing rather than during the West Caribbean one. On all recent MSC cruises we have been disappointed to find a minority that attended formal functions and gala dinners inappropriately attired - its an insult to all those who do make the effort.
On Poesia in 2010 the Buffet was not open for Dinner, but now a modest offering is availabl - MSC bending to demand! We were surprised at how many people preferred this casual setting for dinner - not our choice at all.
Dinner Sittings - There are two sittings running simultaneously in each of the MDRs. Timings differ according to the nature of the cruise (amount of ports of call) and the region of operation. This time the sittings reflected the proportion of sea to port days - sittings were later for the West Caribbean week (5 port days and 2 sea days) than on the TransAtlantic cruise (7 port days and 8 sea days). On South American cruises the sittings are much later, reflecting the cultural differences of the clientele.
Cuisine - Whilst ostensibly an Italian cruise line, MSC seems to offer different approaches according to the markets being served. They also seem to change their minds from season to season!
Poesia 2012 - Caribbean & TransAtlantic - A choice or combination of Stars & Stripes (American) or Pseudo Regional Italian (Pseudo because only 3 or 4 courses, and the main course being Meat or Fish & Two Veg - not the true Italian way) - International alternatives - quality generally pretty good - 4*
Highs & Lows:
Fish disappointing; Meat great, Cheese outstanding, Galas excellent.
Salads were swimming in oil - don't be afraid to ask for your dressings on the side. We also found the desserts generally disappointing.
We have always found MSC's vegetarian offering very limited with little choice. In fact their provision of vegetables is not overly generous at the best of times, so I recommend having salad most nights to get your greens! Alternatively, whip up to the buffet as well!
We have long enjoyed the quality of MSC's breads - a great choice changing daily, freshly baked and very fattening!
In the Caribbean and TransAtlantic from West to East there is unlimited iced water, coffee and iced tea at the table at all meals without charge. Elsewhere on MSC, you have to pay for it - a source of disproportionate objections by English speakers!
North Americans and Brits travelling on MSC's Mediterranean routes may have difficulty coming to terms with the Italian style of menu - compared to the normal three courses of an American/British meal you get 6 courses: Starter/Salad, Soup, Pasta/Risotto, Main (Meat or Fish), Cheese, Dessert. No courses are obligatory, but all are relatively small, so you eat no more, but it is probably better balanced and more easily digested.
Food Presentation is not MSC's strong point.
We have found wine, beer and soft drinks packages on the Caribbean and West to East TransAtlantic routes pretty good - better to purchase in advance to avoid the 15% service charge applied to onboard drinks purchases. Also available, but not publicised, are half-litre carafes of house wine (US$9 / 7 Euros in Europe + 15%) - a reasonable alternative.
Breakfast in the MDR - In the 9 years we have sailed with MSC I cannot recall a change of breakfast menu! However, there is a good selection and everyone should be satisfied with the choice; although on this trip it did get a bit samey after 23 days! What comes out from the kitchens can be pretty mediocre in quality and presentation - in particular, boiled eggs were frequently sent back for being either overcooked or undercooked. Rating - 2.5*
Lunch in the MDR - In the past we have been very satisfied with the offerings on MSC, but on this trip it wast pitiful - the same standard menu was offered every one of the 23 days of the two cruises with about five choices of mains, plus an extra dish of the day that got repeated weekly. The quality was unexceptional and the presentation poor. 1*
RESTAURANT & BAR SERVICE
Dinner Service - a far higher level of service is enjoyed in the MDRs for dinner than other meals: West Caribbean - 3.5*; TransAtlantic - 6* - we changed tables and restaurants and were so lucky to land a truly great table for 8 with superb service from the Head Waiter, Silvio from Italy, our Senior Waiter Suweda and his bus boy Tega, both Indonesian. They immediately became aware of individual preferences and dietary considerations; they were respectful, attentive and efficient, whilst displaying a happy and pleasing sense of humour. They were quick to replace or change anything that was not to someone's liking.
MDR Breakfast & Lunch Service - When one knows and experiences good to exceptional service at dinner, it is a mystery to me why this cannot be replicated at other mealtimes. It just seems that they can manage formal/set seating at dinner, but cannot cope with open seating at other times. Worst of all, they didn't seem to care, unless you were lucky enough to be seated with a waiter you knew - he might then put in professional effort. I suspect that waiters are not concerned to deliver good service to people who are not on their dinner tables. This is not an issue exclusive to MSC - we have encountered it on Cunard and Princess too. My rating - 2*.
There were often long gaps or waits between courses; frequently the waiters brought two or more courses at the same time; the food was too often cold; and it was usually difficult to gain a waiter's attention.
Bar Service - Generally we found this good - consistently 4*. However, we are not massive users and more frequently used them for the occasional beer or cocktail, soft drink and excellent coffee. I must particularly commend one of the bar stewards in the Rendez-Vous Bar - Nataliya from Ukraine was excellent - always bright and cheery, great personality and sense of humour, always remembered our names and our orders - 6*.
Entertainment & Activities
Theatre Shows - We can remember shows aboard MSC ships that were really very good, and of course the theatres on board are as superb as ever. However, the quality of show has declined, even taking into account the challenges of putting on events for a multi-cultural audience. Singers, dancers and other artistes were all rather average.
On Poesia 2010 there was an exceptionally good Cruise Director fronting the shows, Anna - we were sad to learn she was no longer with the ship. This year the West Caribbean sector was co-presented by an American man and Italian woman. The man signed off after that week and the lady carried on across the Atlantic. In Barcelona she was replaced by another Italian lady. The performance of all three was unexceptional - 2*.
Evening Entertainments - these have changed little over the years and are rather down-market for our liking. You can expect to find 'fun and games' such as 'Mr Made in Italy' and 'Grease' in the show/cabaret lounges in which the fattest, oldest, loudest and ugliest members of the audience are induced by the entertainments team to come out and generally demean and make fools of themselves to the amusement of those watching - not our cup of tea!
There is a wide range of music of various genre played live in the various lounges and bars, although the acoustics and audience chatter do not lend themselves to good listening. The exception is the classical music in the atrium, which is rather lovely to listen to and watch. On this cruise there was also a Swiss-Canadian gentleman of 95, Egon, a retired professional musician and long-term paying guest of the ship, who delighted passengers at 4 pm each day, with his exceptional talents on the grand piano in the Atrium.
Overall rating - 3*.
Activities Programme - the intensity of this of course depends on whether or not one is in port, but there is always something going on. However, the adult entertainments are frequently rather childish and whilst I have no objection to some fun, I do wish they would put on something that contained more enrichment. On Poesia in 2010 the entertainments team was predominantly German and they came over as rather dour at times, but this year it was the usual collection of Italian gap year students, who whilst putting their hearts into their job, did come over as though they were entertaining a group of 12 year-olds - not mature and senior folk, many of whom had a lot of world experience!
We participated in the 'World Champions Quiz' put on by the Italian entertainments team with stereotypical Italian organisation! They had immense trouble, when on numerous occasions the participants challenged the answers offered. However hard they tried to make us behave like compliant children, the participants were having none of it. Hilarious - but we came second, so it couldn't have been that bad!
Overall rating for Activities: 2.5*
Cocktail Parties - The Captain's Cocktail Party is, I regret, a bit of a sham these days, primarily due to the volume of people on these large ships. It is good that guests can enjoy their 'cocktails' (a choice of cheap sparkling wine, one type of cocktail or non-alcoholic fizz) in any of the bars and lounges, before going into the theatre (past the optional photo opportunity) to witness the parade of officers and a halting welcome speech in 5 languages by the Captain. There is little opportunity to mingle and no chance to chat with officers, so I do wonder what its all about!
There are cocktail parties for repeaters and there is an end-of-cruise reception, held in the big lounges, but they are just events with low quality drinks, where the captain and a couple of other officers turn up, make a standard speech and sell photo opportunities with the captain - not sociable and pretty meaningless really. The best part is getting dressed up!
Overall rating: 2*.
Health & Safety
Lifeboat Drills - On each of our recent MSC sailings the passenger emergency drills have been held on the day of sailing in one or other of the public lounges or theatre. Each venue is typically attended by 500 or more passengers of all nationalities. Instruction is given by means of a public announcement in each of 5 languages. Crew are on hand to demonstrate how to put on a lifejacket. Following the Concordia disaster we were keen to see whether MSC had upped its game in this important coaching for passengers.
Sadly, IMO, it hasn't - there was a lack of leadership in our muster station and passengers commonly and discourteously talked over the public announcement if it was not in their own language, thus impeding the learning of others. Many people didn't bother to put on their lifejackets or did not do so correctly - there was no intervention from crew members. There was no notable understanding of what else to do in the event of an emergency, other than to proceed on foot to a muster station and put on a lifejacket. There was no explanation as to what to do if you found yourself at the opposite end of the ship to your muster station. There was no explanation as to how disabled and infirm passengers should proceed when the lifts were out of bounds. Or if information was given, I never heard it! We were told that it is not mandatory for passengers to attend these drills - they are invited and encouraged, but there is no roll-call or other mechanism for ensuring attendance.
We put these points to the Guest Relations Manager and the Officer in charge of safety, but it seemed that they were listening with closed ears.
Overall ratings: West Caribbean - 2*, TransAtlantic - 2.5*. The improvement on the second 2012 sailing was due to the better behaviour of passengers, rather than the performance of the crew.
Hygiene - One of the great concerns of any cruise ship is the risk of infection spreading through the vessel. They cannot control the exposure of passengers to illness prior to boarding or at ports of call. They cannot ensure hygiene observation and practice by passengers or even crew members. So IMO ships need to be unapologetic in the promotion of good practice. MSC ships have hand sanitation dispensers on boarding and at the entrance to restaurants, but not enough and sometimes we found them empty.
Cleaning around the ship has previously been meticulous on MSC, but less visible on this cruise. Cleaning of our cabin was adequate, but not as thorough as on previous sailings.
Sadly a particularly nasty chest infection and rasping sore throat manifested itself and a great many passengers were laid low by it. The discomfort was exacerbated by the AC and no doubt this helped its distribution too. I suffered for 9 days, while my wife and sister were still suffering two weeks after the cruise ended. Friends reported a similar lingering problem.
There is an ambiguous policy regarding smoking. There is a designated smokers lounge on each ship and part of one of the show lounges is given over to smokers. Smoking is permitted on certain parts of the sun decks. Elsewhere it is 'discouraged', meaning what? We had several dog ends land on our balcony! I suspect that due to MSC's massive European clientele they prefer to sit on the fence. (Continental Europe still has a much greater propensity for smoking than is the case in USA and UK).
Perhaps most telling overall is that in 2010 the Poesia received a 100% rating from CDC's health and cleanliness ratings (U.S. Public Health Service), whilst in 2012 it had dropped to 94% - quite significant. My overall rating - 4*.
Since we first sailed with MSC in 2004, we have found that an ongoing inadequacy has been the way in which Front Desk or Reception staff handle the problems and queries brought to them by passengers. It used to be the case that all staff were Italian and where they were faced with a difficult situation they would be inclined to say 'No understand' in what seemed a rather brusque and discourteous manner. This invited a lot of complaints and over the years MSC has engaged a more international team of linguists for the Guest Relations Dept that can hold some sort of dialogue in up to 5 languages. We have noticed in our recent sailings a number of South Africans that can at least hold a sensible conversation in English. However, whilst they may have linguistic skills they do not necessarily have very good people skills.
Further, one must wonder about the management behind the Front Desk crew. We continue to find the response from Reception, when faced with anything other that a straightforward question, to be unhelpful. They tend to be defensive, obstructive and evasive. We certainly found this on Poesia, especially on the 2012 cruise.
I wont go into details of our issues as these are the subject of a formal complaint. However, let me say we were not alone in finding the Guest Relations Dept difficult to deal with.
I am sympathetic to the cultural problems of an Italian company working in a complex multi-national market place (something that American & British lines are less challenged by, as there is a general expectation that everyone has at least some skills in English). However, I suspect that MSC Cruises, as just a relatively small part of the huge Mediterranean Shipping Company (operating one of the world's largest fleets of container ships) is compromised by their corporate standing. They are just a minnow seated within a vast industrial operation, not particularly focussed on the leisure and hospitality business, which of course is what cruise ships are all about. Maybe there is a mismatch in the corporate culture which leaves the organisation insensitive to the need to put people and customer satisfaction truly at the centre of its business.
Itineraries & Excursions
We choose our cruises, primarily for the interesting itineraries, always wishing to visit new places. However, the Poesia in 2012 was a little disappointing. It was only our second time in the Caribbean and we had wonderful memories from 2005. This year all the Caribbean ports of call were new to us, but most we found totally ruined by mass tourism and too many cruise passengers - especially Cozumel, Roatan and St Maarten, where up to 18,000 passengers disgorged themselves at once onto tiny islands. We were pleased to arrive in European waters where, despite mass tourism too, the destinations could manage the volumes and offered more sophistication and substance.
We generally prefer to do our own thing at ports of call, either just strolling around the town or picking up local excursions - of course much cheaper than ships' excursions. On this trip I took a ship's excursion from Cozumel to Tulum (okay), whilst elsewhere we joined up with friends and either pre-arranged private tours by car with driver guide, or picked something up at the port.
My reviews for the first 8 ports of call on this trip (Key West, Cozumel, Roatan, Montego Bay, San Juan, Sint Maarten, Antigua & Madeira) are featured in the Port Reviews section of CruiseCritic. However, the system will only take 8 ports, so the remaining reviews are covered below:
Malaga & Granada - Again we have visited Malaga a number of times before, so on this occasion we prearranged an excursion with Barcelona Day Tours (Top-Day Tours Group) to La Alhambra in Granada. It is vital to prebook a trip to Alhambra, as timed tickets must be reserved in advance. We got up a small group through the CruiseCritic Roll Call and hired a small coach (14 passengers). Our guide, an English lady named Debbie, was absolutely superb and she handed over to a Spanish Guide within the World Heritage Site, who was also excellent. This proved one of the best excursions we have ever done and would recommend both Alhambra and Top-Day unreservedly. Rating - 6*
Alicante - We met up with my brother who lives on the Costa Blanca. We spent most of the day just relaxing / drinking coffee / lunching in a quaint cafe in a shady square just off the sea front. The port provided a shuttle from ship to dock gate, from whence the downtown area is easily walkable. A stroll along the harbour front is enjoyable, particularly at the weekend when the locals are promenading. Sta Barbara Castle on a hill above the city centre dominates. There is a local bus tour that includes the castle (too steep to walk unless you are young and very fit) - fare â‚¬7.00 (approx. UKÂ£6 / US$9). Rating - 3.5*
Barcelona - I hate it when a ship docks in such a magnificent city for just 5 hours. We could have dashed in and grabbed an hour in the Ramblas and Old City, but having been before we gave it a miss. A taxi to Parque Guell would have been wickedly expensive, so we gave that a miss too. A stroll along the moll in bright sunshine was enjoyable and our highlight this time was to watch the huge MSC Splendida slip into port before we sailed.