We planned on spending 5 weeks in Italy and then sailing home (Rome to Galveston) on the Mariner of the Seas. We booked time in Venice, Naples, Sorrento and Rome during that time and then found this cruise to Greece and Montenegro at a very reasonable price. After reading some of the reviews and speaking to our travel agent, we were somewhat concerned about the negative comments made about MSC in general and the Armonia specifically. This is our impression of the trip.
We embarked at 12:30 PM in Venice and it may have been the easiest boarding we have ever encountered. The staff was wonderful, the process was well managed and it took less than 20 minutes before we were actually led to our cabin. Other lines could learn something here! Lunch was served, we took time to walk around the ship and returned to our cabin to find our luggage already in the room. This was around 3:00 pm. We actually had time to unpack prior to the lifeboat drill (jackets required) and still had time to change before dinner. All of this was a first in our cruise experience, and a pleasant one at that.
Meals were our concern, mostly because of the reviews, including the water and language issues. It is apparent that most of the negative reviews are from American travellers who have never truly immersed themselves in the culture of another country. We had no problems whatsoever, the food was very good, the entertainment was first class and we were always seated with English speaking guests when possible. We received a large mineral water each day which was more than enough for dinner, and were able to get all the drinks we needed at breakfast and lunch. Complaints about the cost of water were puzzling. They charged Euro 2.70 for a large bottle which was comparable to, and in cases less expensive, than we paid in most restaurants in Italy. Our waiter, maitre d and captain at dinner all spoke passable English and were professional, friendly and competent. The menus were better than the Mariner on most days, and the portions were just right. The wine prices seemed to be on a par with most other cruise lines, as were the soft drink prices. I would rate the food in the top 25% of all cruises we have taken (50+).
We chose the cruise for the ports. In order:
We never book ship excursions, so I cannot comment on how well they are run, but people we spoke to on the ship had only positive things to say about them. If there was one issue, it was that we had short times in port, but we did a LOT of ports and were able to visit everything we desired while there. One definite positive was the late arrival and departure in Santorini. We were able to get to the top of the mountain (the girls via donkey, and the boys via cable car)and take the bus to Oia for the sunset. We had plenty of time to explore both Thera and Oia and the sunset is one of the world's great wonders! We were the last ship in port, and everyone else left without having that opportunity. This alone was the worth the price of the trip.
Ancona was a pleasant surprise, and you can see the old city on foot without a tour guide pretty easily. The same can be said for Kotor -what a beautiful setting. We made arrangements for travel to Athens, only to discover that the city was closed because of the arrival of the German Chancellor, but the Acropolis was open, so we spent the day there and at the new museum in the city. All in all, the ports were what we expected and we couldn't have been more pleased with the experience.
Now about the ship. Again, there were some negative reviews, most of which we found to be totally inaccurate. First, the ship was spotless. I have never seen a ship this old kept this clean or well maintained. Obviously it was an aging vessel and did not have many of the "amenities" of the newer vessels, but the line could not have done a better job of maintaining the facilities. Our cabin was large enough and had plenty of cabinet and wardrobe space. Beds were a little less comfortable than some of the major lines, but still acceptable. Staff were friendly and helpful, and the bars, shops and public rooms nice in every respect. Interestingly, the library had more books in English than any other language, and has an honor system for check out - which was very convenient. The entertainment was general in nature, and held every night of the cruise. This is an older theater, and does not have the stadium seating you may be used to. Get there early for the best seats, and there is bar service through most of the show. Most was in English, even on Italian night, so we never had an issue. The cruise director spoke 5 languages, so we got to hear about the show in all of them every evening. Since my wife and her sister seemed to be in love with him, it did not appear to be a problem!
Disembarkation was as well handled and easy as the boarding process. We took our time getting off, since our train to Naples didn't leave until after 1pm. It was well organized, plenty of waiting areas and the staff never pressed us.
In all respects I would give the ship a solid 9 on a 10 scale.
This is the caveat for MSC. This is an ITALIAN cruise line. It very much resembles daily life in Italy and adheres to the customs of the country in most ways. If you have never, and do not want to travel as a local, embracing the culture of this country and understanding the people and the cuisine, you will hate this cruise. We saw it happen. It is unfortunate, and lends credence to the "Ugly American" stereotype we have created abroad. If you understand that you are not at home, remain open to new experiences and prepare to make allowances for things you won't find here (iced tea and hamburgers come to mind), you will have a great trip at a very good price.
We will sail with them again if the opportunity arises.