...but the price was too good to miss and boy are we glad we booked it - we had a great time!
We have cruised extensively with P&O, RCI, Celebrity and NCL.
I will try to remain objective with my review (my first!) as had I believed most things that are written on this site I would never have travelled on either Opera or Poesia (Sept 2011).
MSC gave us free parking at Southampton on booking, but no directions were provided with the tickets and so we headed straight towards the ship! We were met by friendly staff who pointed us in the right direction to drop off the luggage and go and park the car. Immediately, a porter came over to us and whisked our luggage off - FANTASTIC! It then took us the best part of 2 hours to get through check in and security, and onto the ship itself. Disappointing seeing as we'd checked in online before we left but we were all too excited about going on holiday to be too bothered.
The ship is just as beautiful as Poesia, albeit smaller. The public areas were constantly being cleaned and maintenance carried out. The staff are courteous, could be taken as miserable due to the lack of constant smiling BUT this is what I love about MSC - the staff are not "in your face" with constant smiles and "have a nice day" and are certainly not hard sell.
We booked an outside cabin with an obstructed view on deck 7. It was small and compact and I was tempted to ask them to make the double bed into 2 singles to give us more floor space and actually be able to walk around the end of my bed! The bed (and pillows) were comfortable and we slept like logs.
Storage space was tight for two of us BUT we had taken clothes for every weather eventuality and had more than usual for 1 week. I understand that the higher grade outside cabins have bigger wardrobes and more storage space.
Even with an obstructed view, the natural light came in through the large picture window. I loved that the cabin attendant was NEVER obtrusive - the room was made up by the time we'd had breakfast and turned down if we popped back mid evening and we hardly ever saw the guy.
TV channels and reception was good with a variety of entertainment.
The only thing that I'd say was tired about the room was the bathroom cabinet which had seen better days. Yes the shower's small (and the curtain a pain!), but what ship has a big shower unless you're in a suite? There were staff in cabins along our corridor - we only discovered this after the lifeboat drill when they were returning their life jackets - apart from that, there was not a peep and didn't present a problem at all.
The buffet restaurant was typical of all ship buffet restaurants! We always got seats at breakfast and lunchtime, the tables were cleaned and cleared quickly. The variety of food on offer wasn't as vast as say RCI, but I (a fairly fussy eater) always found something to eat and if I couldn't find what I wanted in the buffet, I could pop outside and grab something from Il Patio (sandwich, pizza, hot dog, burger) and bring it in. The bar service in the buffet was a little slow and it seemed that there weren't too many drinks waiters.
One point I have to make is that I had the best cups of tea I've ever had on a cruise ship! Your usual Lipton's teabags, served in a plastic mug, but the difference was that the water was piping hot and not lukewarm. My husband also commented on how good the coffee was.
Dinner in the restaurant (Deck 6) was excellent - the risotto course in particular was superb. Potatoes and veg with the main course were often lacking, but you only had to ask for more and you'd get extra each evening, but if you're indulging in all 7 courses you certainly won't need them! Very friendly waiters who couldn't do enough for you and had memories like elephants about your requirements.
As mentioned above, we'd previously been a little disappointed with the entertainment in Poesia's bars - was this because the average age was older on our transatlantic cruise? Was it because we were on for 2 weeks and it became monotonous? or because everyone seemed to go to bed at 1030pm? I don't know, but it made us a bit dubious about going on MSC again! Evenings on board Opera were MUCH more lively, offering something for everyone's taste and we had some great nights in various bars.
We're not ones for joining in the daytime activities on ships, but they were in abundance whether you wanted dance lessons, board games, quiz games, aerobics or just peace and quiet.
We used the gym which was well equipped and had a panoramic view at the front of the ship. The spa area was peaceful, but we thought expensive. On certain days half price treatments were on offer and we used the steam / sauna / relaxation rooms when they were on half price (8 euros for an hour) which was good value.
We also booked the all inclusive drinks package at 23 Euros per person per day - this was excellent value for money. Whilst we're not alcoholics, we like a beer or cocktail at sailaway and wine with our dinner. The package included bottled water, wine, coffee (from the "posh" coffee shop - delicious), a huge variety of cocktails, spirits and beer. It did not include the mini bar in the cabin or the water in the room, which we got charged for (madness when we could get the same water in the bars and restaurants). The higher priced package includes a wider choice, but we felt that what we got was more than ample and after a quick reckie mid week, we were pleased to see that we had made considerable savings on our bar, coffee and water bill!
We visited the theatre twice during the week and both shows were very good and the seats comfortable.
A couple of improvements I'd suggest to MSC - the sailaways are BORING in comparison to other cruise lines. Please play some appropriate music or make something of the occasion rather than let us sail out in silence to look at the view (many of which were stunning on this trip!).
Also, a couple of interesting lectures were put on in the theatre during the afternoon - 30 minutes after leaving beautiful ports and being surrounded by stunning Fjords and scenery?! Please can they be delayed so that we can enjoy more of the view?!
We don't do excursions off any ship, preferring to find our own way. What we hadn't quite banked on with this cruise was only having half days in Stavanger and Olso which was a great shame. Flaam is STUNNING - get off the ship early to buy your train tickets for a mid morning departure, jump back on for breakfast and get off again. The train gets fully booked - don't leave it too late and be disappointed!
My final comment is about the disembarkation at Southampton...
I thought New York was a shambles, but it seems that MSC (for whatever reason) do things differently to other cruise lines, even in our own country. We had to be out of our rooms at 7am (yikes) when the ship was docking at 10 (was this ship time or UK time - we were all confused, but accept they had to get the rooms ready for the next voyage). Immigration was done onboard and no one could get off until EVERYONE had been through it. Of course, there's always someone isn't there?! Nonetheless, we got off at the time it said we would on the information sheet - 1130?!?! What a frustrating end to a lovely holiday (MSC - please sort this out!)
Will I travel with MSC again - ABSOLUTELY. It's not big and brash like some of the american ships. It's different and cracking value for money.
We pulled into Ijmuiden (SP?) approx 1 hour away from Amsterdam. Having visited Amsterdam several times previously we did not get off the ship, but understand that Harlem is well worth a visit as an alternative and is only 30 minutes away (6 euros on the local bus).
Stunning panoramic views which took my breath away.
Do your own excursion on the Flaam Railway to Merdel (sp?). The station is 5 minutes walk from the ship. Get off as early as you can and book your train tickets for late morning. Get back on the ship for breakfast and off again for your train! It gets busy late morning and people couldn't get on if they hadn't already bought tickets. 1 hour each way on the train and the views are lovely.
A few shops, a museum and boat tours available also.
Not the prettiest of ports (or opera houses!) until you go into the centre - a 5 minute walk away OR get on the hop on hop off bus outside the port.
Coffee will cost approx Â(EURO)5 for a latte - be prepared!!