Review of MSC Armonia, September 28, 2012
This is not a cruise for the average American, but if you know what you are getting into you can have a very good time. Moreover, Italian cruise lines (MSC and Costa) are often right now an amazing bargain, partly due to the fear caused by the resent Costa Concordia disaster, one of the worst since the Titanic. As usual, people always over-react to bad news, and the Italian lines are probably now the safest in the world due to new and stringent safety measures. For example, both Costa and MSC now have the most exhaustive muster drills you have ever seen. You are given a card to turn in at your muster station and if you don't show up you will be required to attend a make-up session. Everyone must correctly don their life jacket and show that they know where to line up for their lifeboat.
Some good things about MSC:
1) You get a chance to meet folks from lots of other cultures. Americans were only about 1-2% of the cruisers on our Italy and Greece cruise and about 20% on our Caribbean cruise on MSC. The MSC Armonia cruise was about 50% Italians, 20% German, 10% French, 5% British, 5% Czech and 10% other (mostly Eastern European) countries.
2) Internet is amazingly cheap, about 12 cents per minute in a package, about 1/5 the price of American-owned cruise lines. It is also much better with speeds varying from .5Mps to 8 Mps, and very reliable.
3) Service at the front desk is better, with large separate desks for accounting, purser, and shore excursions staffed with lots of knowledgeable people.
4) Most MSC ships have lots of open outdoor space at the back of the ship on almost every floor, great for quietly getting away from poolside crowds. American ships tend to turn that stern space into cabins.
5) Embarkation and disembarkation is a breeze on MSC, much better than American ships. They have special secure places to leave your carry-on luggage while you eat, and they don't rush you off.
1) Italian ships have a lower space per passenger ratio, so rooms can be smaller and public space is definitely less, so that the ships can be crowded.
2) It is annoying to hear messages again and again in 5 languages, though MSC is one of the few lines with no messages in the rooms.
3) Service is a little gruff, especially in the dining room. This is partly due to the fact the Italians believe that supervisors and management can only be Italians, so there is no opportunity for advancement for the rank and file. For example, one virtually never sees non-Italian head waiters or Maitre'd.
4) Food is not as good as on the American-owned lines, even adjusting for European tastes.
5) The pools are not heated, making for some very cold morning swims.
6) There is virtually no entertainment, other than the major shows, and those are a little strange for US tastes. With passengers speaking 10 different languages, you can't really have comedians, magicians, mimes, etc., so standard shows include a hula hoop artists, jugglers, contortionists, clowns, and a very strange man dressing up in cardboard mockups of famous women's outfits (we called him the cardboard drag queen"), who was extremely popular with European audiences. However, the singers are occasionally of opera diva quality, as was the case with the female singer on this ship.
7) For similar reasons, there will be no Karaoke, trivia contests, photography classes, computer classes, galley or bridge tours, backstage theater tours, art, ice carving, etc.
Specifically, our latest cruise on MSC Armonia would rate a B-, or 3 Â½ out of 6 stars, compared with all of our 22 cruises. But it was nevertheless, amazing value for the money since we paid under $400 for an inside cabin including all taxes in late September. This was for a 7-day cruise which included port stops every day in Greece, Italy and Montenegro.
Embarkation. Embarkation was relatively easy, with reasonable lines and only one more stop for customs after checking in. Venice is a nice place to visit before the cruise (everyone should see Venice before they die, though the amazing crowds there sometimes make you want to die). Boarding the ship, the Israeli security team was smooth and efficient. A head cabin steward met us and brought us to our room, which was a nice touch. We had only hand luggage since we had spent a few days in Venice before and didn't want to be dragging large bags all through the narrow streets and rivers of Venice. A large portion of the ship was given over to shopping stores. The ship had excellent stability and we experienced almost no rolling, even in mild-moderate waves and wind.
Cabin: Our cabin steward was excellent, and constantly asked what else he could do to meet our needs. He performed almost at the level of a personal butler. The room was very plain, with almost no art, but was very well laid out. There were two 110 volt and two 220 volt European style outlets at a well-laid out desk. The night stand had no drawers, only shelves. There was an older tube style 15-inch TV with only 2 English channels. Bathroom size was ok, but with the smallest shower stall we have ever seen on any cruise ship. The shower head, pleasingly, was high enough that it could be used by non-midgets. There was no bar soap or toiletries in the cabins. Robes were only supplied to balcony and suite patrons, but our cabin steward managed to sneak two of them to us. Toilets were unusually quiet for a cruise ship; we didn't feel like we would be sucked in and blown out the side of the ship.
Food: There was a restaurant for those with fixed dining, but, unlike on American or Northern European cruise lines, the waiters were not trained to get to know the passengers or their preferences. We never even met our Maitre'd and they and the head waiters seemed to serve no obvious function on this ship. Food was sometimes barely palatable to American taste, with tough, fatty meats. A few dishes (mostly Italian food such as eggplant parmiagiana, most pastas, and zuppa di past y fagioli, were home runs. Omelets, bagels, pasta stations and other staples of most cruise ships were not available. Seatings were at 6:30pm and 9 pm, late for American standards, but it worked well. The cafeteria on the pool deck served decent food, but variety was not great from day to day, except on the entrees. The ship charged for ice cream, crepes, and juices other than watered down breakfast juice. The ship only had two ice machines and one of those was usually broken. As a nice gesture they gave all North Americans coupons for 7 free 1-liter bottles of water (I guess they figured out we like cold water, but are not used to paying for it). We were well-matched with our 6 other table mates, the only other middle-aged Americans on board.
Activities and Entertainment: As stated above, there were essentially no activities other than the main shows, some lounge acts, and an occasional dance class. The lounge acts wouldn't pass muster in suburban Denver. The one exception was the jazz pianist/sax players, who were truly excellent. Unfortunately, they camped permanently in the only full-smoking lounge on this ship, which was terminally uninhabitable, except for the emphysematous cruiser. The big theater, La Fenice was attractive, with a good sound system and lighting. Unfortunately, it was designed very poorly with only 300 seats, half of those with terrible sight lines. This on a ship with 2000 passengers, most of whom had to stand or leave every night. If you could find a seat, the quality of the big shows was surprisingly good, with near Las Vegas quality dancers. The male singer was ok, but Italians seem to have a surplus of truly diva-quality female singers and the MSC Armonia was no exception. Claudia was a 10, whether singing pop, opera, or show tunes. The other performers stayed on the ship all seven days and performed most nights. These included a hula hoop/acrobatics girl and the above-mentioned cardboard drag queen. Rounding out the troop were two Cirque de Soleil quality acts: 2 strongmen who performed graceful and amazing lifts and contortions and the best juggling act I have ever seen. The jugglers actually got dressed and undressed while juggling 4 pins plus their clothing.
Disembarkation: Amazingly simple: just get off when you want. Lots of exits with no waits at all.
1) Ancona, Italy: Not the most beautiful city in Italy, a little gritty, but very interesting and nice that we dock right in the town. It is a popular ferry port for boats to Croatia, Montenegro and Greece. We climbed the hill to the very attractive church were we enjoyed a festival with a local choir and hiked over to Hadrian's Arch, perfectly preserved from 200 AD, and larger than the Arch of Titan in Rome.
2) Corfu, Greece: A beautiful island very walkable main city with 2 fantastic 15th century Venetian forts, a beautiful synagogue, nice Esplanade and constant games of cricket, made popular during transient British rule.
3) Santorini, Greece: Arguably the most beautiful island in Greece. The town of Oia is the one on the cover of almost every Greek guide book. The ship anchors at the "old port", 1000 feet below the cliffs that make up the island (most of the island sunk into the sea around 1500BC causing the tsunamis that helped bring an end to Minoan civilization) and the sunken part may represent the "lost" city of Atlantis. Take the donkeys (only 5 euro) up the path to the city of Fira, and then take the bus to Oia. MSC nicely arranges this stop from 3:30pm to 10:30pm, so that you can enjoy Oia's famous sunsets.
4) Athens: The ship is only in port for 5 hours, so we took the fast Metro from the port of Piraeus to Athens (a one mile walk from the pier and a 15 minute subway ride) to the Acropolis and did the free Rick Steeves iPhone walking tour of the Acropolis and wonderful new Acropolis museum. The cafe in the museum is fantastic, with good WiFi and reasonable prices with an amazing view.
5) Kefallonia, Greece: The beautiful island where Captain Corelli's violin was filmed and takes place. The main city is not very interesting, so we rented a car (much cheaper, only 25 euros, if you do it in advance) and explored the beautiful island. Very easy driving with courteous people, signs in English, and beautiful scenery.
6) Kotor, Montenegro: Surprisingly, the highlight of the trip. The beautiful inland bay of Kotor is rightfully considered one of the most beautiful in the world, a cross between San Francisco Bay and the Amalfi Coast. We took the on-off bus to little towns in the bay and it was wonderful. Don't miss this port if you get a chance to see it.
7) Venice, Italy: Venice is always wonderful, though it is much more crowded than our visit of 7 years ago. The streets are totally gridlocked with people and the constant flooding makes it impossible to move around.