Having just returned from our twelfth cruise with the eastern Mediterranean route on the MSC Divina, we are stumped at the abundance of negative reviews we had read in advance. Our experience was just the opposite. No cruise is perfect but the MSC Divina came pretty darn close for us.
Yes, we had some reservations prior to our departure. First, we've always been most comfortable on ships averaging 1,500 to 2,000 passengers (MSC Divina carries around 4,000). Second, we've been spoiled in the past by lines catering almost exclusively to the American passenger. But the allure of the MSC Divina design coupled with the Venice base and very appealing ports including Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik clinched the deal for us.
The ship is a beauty. Sleek, understated, elegant and full of surprises (and after a year, still with the feel of a sparkling, brand new ship). The MSC Divina feels very Italian and yet very international all at once. The staff, somewhat reserved (but as you get to know certain members of the crew, you'll find some great, friendly personalities), is always right on top of your requests and always striving to be as accommodating as possible. The crew is just as international as the passenger roster, unique to most cruise lines - you'll find nametags from Bali to Bosnia, South Africa to Scotland. Some of the bartenders weren't always at the top of their game - but with so many bars and so many attendants, just hop over to the next; you'll soon have your favorites (and they are quick to recognize you after a day or two).
Embarkation in Venice was a snap. Of course, it helped that we took a private water taxi to the dock from our hotel (the wonderful A Tribute to Music hotel) to the private dock located next to the ship (great tour and what a way to arrive, all for about 70 euro). Your luggage is immediately tagged at the private water taxi dock so you skip the long lines to check in luggage at the terminal and immediately head up to registration. It's a quick confirmation at registration -- just make sure all information such as dinner seating time and any drink packages are printed on your cabin card. Mention that you arrived by private water taxi and instead of waiting for your boarding number to be called (group numbers are handed out at the crowded luggage check-in), you are immediately shown to the front of the line to board the ship. Embarkation with registration was a matter of 20 minutes for us - and after we boarded and grabbed a quick bite, we were amazed to find our luggage already at our cabin door in less than an hour.
Our MSC Divina cabin 13038 could not have been better. Designed in beautiful dark brown, orange and gold tones, the cabin seemed a bit more narrow than other cabins we've had (from our favorites with Holland America, Celebrity and NCL to the "unique" Costa Fortuno to the not-so-hot Carnival) but certainly more comfortable. Plush sofa, ample storage and cabinets, compact but convenient bathroom (exceptionally clever design to fold in the shower doors when not in use to expand the bathroom space), thick carpeting, beautiful lighting options and comfortable seating on what seems to be a bigger-than-usual veranda with jaw-dropping views (and ideal privacy dividers from your neighbors). And the bed - the bed! - wow, just about the most comfortable bed we've ever had on any cruise. It was a plus that the forward cabins on the 13th Cupido deck are on hallways that dead-end with the captain and upper management rooms, so the hallways and cabin are dead quiet. Just ideal.
Not sure how they did it - or when they did it - but our cabin was always clean, bed made, spotless bathroom, ice bucket filled, and turn down service with next-day information packets always waiting for us no matter the hour we returned at night. Our balcony and large windows were thoroughly scrubbed down twice on two port days.
The best deals on the MSC Divina, as frequently mentioned, are absolutely the all-inclusive allegrissimo drink package (which also includes fantastic gelato from various stations) and the laundry package (20 items per cabin during the cruise cleaned for 25 euro total, and all came back to our cabin on the same day).
While many cruise lines seem to be scaling back on entertainment and shows, MSC pulls out all the stops on the Divina in the sophisticated Pantheon Theatre with lavish and large (very large) productions. No live orchestra means more performers, singers and dancers on stage. I can't remember the last time we went on a cruise and went to every evening performance. On the Divina, the highlights for us included a spectacular Moulin Rouge Cadeaux show, mind-blowing Michael Jackson tribute and beautiful Sogno Italiano of Italian arias and operas. Astounding that in one week we saw everything from "Swan Lake" to Cirque-like aerials, can can dancers to electronic violinists, swashbuckling pirates to Italian tenors, all spectacular!
The MSC Divina has a wide variety of bars, each with distinctive decor and entertainment in the evening. Our favorites turned out to be the Golden Jazz Bar (still amazed at the unique glass bubble chandeliers), Black and White Lounge (terrific dance band) and of course, the atrium bar with those gorgeous Swarovski crystal staircases and an ever-changing entertainment line-up from a concert pianist to a chamber orchestra to opera singers.
We opted for our usual late dinner seating and chose the smaller of the two dining rooms, the Villa Rossa. It's an elegant room of deep reds with black and gold trims, and surrounded by panoramic windows - and have to say the Villa Rossa was far more elegant and not as cramped as the "signature" dining room called the Black Crab (don't get me wrong - it's a beautiful room but the Crab seemed crowded, somewhat claustrophobic and very understated in black and very muted plum and gold colors).
Service in the Villa Rossa was of course impeccable and friendly, and that dining crew works darn hard to keep your meal flowing and anticipating your needs. The menus were varied, interesting and extensive. Sure there were some misses (our dining captain could tell I was having a tough time with a certain dish, whisked it away and immediately replaced it with another choice), but for the most part all the selections ranged from good to great. I am still dreaming of an incredible smoked gouda risotto'loved it so much I had a second helping and then for dessert, a third serving! Somewhere along the line, the MSC Divina got a reputation for serving dishes only lukewarm to cold. Not in our case - every hot dish was just that - hot! Amazing, by just our second night, our favorite bottles of wines, dishes of ice and favorite breads were waiting for us every evening.
The big (and I mean BIG!) grand buffet sprawling over the Calumet and Manitou wings can be overwhelming. I would guess it extends about a third the length of the ship of the 14th floor deck, and you will be blown away by the selections of entrees, Mediterranean and international specialties, salads, wide variety of pizzas and pastas, meat carvings, unique Italian sandwiches, desserts, and expansive and truly fantastic cheese selections. Yes, the buffet can get very crowded - name one ship when a breakfast or a specific lunch period isn't crowded - but just take a breath and keep proceeding to the rear of the buffet into the Manitou sections (with stylish American Indian motifs). This buffet is smartly designed and selections continue to repeat themselves throughout the wings -- you'll find the rear portions much less crowded (and quiet) with more than ample window and booth seating.
The MSC Divina is a marvel of not only design but also management of a large passenger ship. The many pools and tiered decks were never overly crowded (you'll always find outdoor seating - the attendants go out of their way to find comfortable spots for you). To escape the action of the unique Aqua Park, head aft to the Infinity Pool and hot tubs (always pretty quiet). The MSC Divina interiors have a variety of easy, comfortable seating (loved the silver two-person banquettes in the Black and White Lounge as well as lounging on the large full-body cushion sofas of the Golden Jazz). Exiting at ports was a breeze -- just wait ten minutes after port doors open so that the excursion groups can pour out first. I might guess tendered ports could be a bit challenging with so many passengers, but fortunately we didn't have to deal with any tendered ports.
The only time the ship felt somewhat crowded was that hour or so between the 1st dinner seating/1st show and the 2nd dinner seating/2nd show. The beautiful and oh-so-comfortable 1,600 seat Pantheon Theatre is located at the front of the ship and the two dining rooms at the rear, so of course there is the intersecting flow from end to end during that evening interval (and there can be some gridlock pending the great opera singer or dance band in a lounge, or how good someone is bowling in the sports bar, or a jackpot being hit in the casino).
Some good (and some not) surprises we discovered aboard the ship:
- This is one spotless, sparkling, always white glove clean ship, at all hours of the day or night. Like others, we couldn't help but marvel at how the crew was always subtly cleaning every inch of the ship (never before seen attendants appearing from nowhere with handheld vacuum cleaners).
- We are not fans of the White Party, but the MSC Divina's is so different: all ages having a great time, dancing with crew members and performers, fantastic bands, wonderful service and just a great spirit that is so inclusive of all ages, all nationalities, all types of folks (at one point I was dancing all at once with a very senior woman from Stockholm, a Japanese businessman and one of the reception desk attendants).
- The Aurea Spa is one of the most elegant spas you'll ever see. We took a tour and were blown away - and had every intention to indulge (we were so intrigued by the coconut and opium saunas) but simply ran out of time.
- Do not miss the 4D HD theatre - it is a hoot! We took in the "canyon ride" film and were hollering and grabbing the sides of our seats! Loved it! It's a six euro charge for the wild ride.
- The first gala night is definitely a dressy affair (this international passenger roster took it seriously!) - the second gala night was a bit more subdued when it came to the 'glamour' quotient.
- If you attend one of the 20-minute daily cooking demonstrations (interesting watching the chefs create dishes, but alas, no sampling), you'll qualify for a 15% discount at the upscale Galaxy restaurants or the Sacramento TexMex steakhouse. We opted for the Galaxy one night and found the dishes somewhat interesting but the setting and service lacking anything close to "upscale" or special (we definitely do not recommend it). The Galaxy is just the very hip Galaxy Disco's adjoining bar made over for the dinner hour. We were going to try the Sacramento TexMex steakhouse one evening but 1) it always seemed empty, which we didn't take as a good sign; and 2) we were simply enjoying the Villa Rossa dining room too much.
- Yeah, yeah, yeah. No matter the ship, parents of all nationalities (yes, that includes you American parents, too) have a tendency to let their little monsters run loose now and then, thinking it's cute and that others will also enjoy the dancing tyke sprawled on a dance floor or pounding their spoon against a table. Just smile, shake your head and move away.
- The MSC Divina doesn't push photo opportunities (too much), and there are mostly fixed positions for photo sittings and not cameraman climbing all over the decks. And give it a try - have to admit this ship's photographers are very stylish, very creative and very professional with some truly great photography!
A word about the ports (and they can be short - but then again, every port stop is too short when you are truly enjoying yourself):
Bari, Italy: fascinating old town and some glorious cathedrals to visit - then wander into the old town neighbors, down colorful alleys, and you'll glimpse Italy from decades gone by (and on this Sunday, there were local bands playing on hidden corners throughout old town Bari). Easily accessed from the port by taxi, bus or on foot.
Katakolon, Greece: we wisely skipped Olympia (knowing Ephesus lay ahead the following day) and enjoyed the quaint town right on the port with some fantastic (and very reasonably priced) shopping. Also loved an open air tourist train ride from the town into the Greek country side, with fantastic views and stops at a beautiful vineyard and a breathtaking beach resort.
Izmir, Turkey: we're not one for the ship excursions but prefer to book private (and much less expensive) tours. We scored big time with booking a private tour of the astounding Ephesus and Artemis along with a fantastic buffet lunch through Gizem Gencer at www.ephesustours.biz (and insist on Erman Gokbora as a guide - wonderful, knowledgeable and gracious guide).
Istanbul, Turkey: once again, the massive mass ship excursion were not for us, so we booked a sensational private Byzantine tour and lunch with Ender Boz at www.privatetoursinistanbul.com. Regret to say we can't recall the name of our wonderful hostess, but we saw all the major historical sites of Istanbul in a knowledgeable, whirlwind tour tailored to our interests (and our guide knew how and when to maneuver past long lines and avoid the crowded mass tour times).
Dubrovnik, Croatia: so this was our one trip-up. Had booked a private tour through Pero Klaic at firstname.lastname@example.org and his www.dubrovnikshoretrip.com. He was a no-show (luckily we had no deposits with him - definitely a tour service to avoid!) and were about to panic when we luckily discovered that for only 50 euro (compared to Pero's 150 euro trip), we could get a private one and a half hour taxi tour of the views, historical sites and then the jaw-dropping old town and walled city of Dubrovnik. Just hail any taxi at the port gate and make the request.
And finally, disembarking in Venice. Well, all good things come to end. And all good procedures, too. This is where the MSC Divina stumbled a bit - disembarking was a chaotic mess. No one seemed quite sure where to go, when to go, who was to go, etc. We were one of the lucky ones (sort of), as all cabins on the 13th floor Cupido are for some reason marked as Gray One for priority disembarking. The 8 am disembarkation time became 9 am and then finally, finally, Gray One group was allowed to leave (and yes, our luggage was right there waiting for us as we departed). Now in all fairness, there could have been good cause for the confusion and concern that morning. There were massive and disruptive news-generating protests all day long by Venetians, protesting the arriving and departing cruise liners as being destructive to the Venice environment. Seeing how many (there were nine ships in port on our arrival in Venice) and how close these ships sail to the Venice docks and canals, I somewhat agree with the protestors that there are just too many that are sailing too close for comfort. And the MSC Divina seems to be always singled out of all ships by the protestors because of her enormous size and her namesake "godmother' Sophia Loren (many are demanding their beloved Sophia have her name removed from the ship).
So we are privileged to offer a counter to those negative reviews of the MSC Divina and instead marvel at and appreciate the extraordinary experience aboard this glorious ship. We're excited to now be MSC Club members!