My wife and I recently sailed on a 3-night voyage on the MSC Divina, and this special introductory cruise sailed from Miami to Port Canaveral, where we remained onboard due to the inclement weather, and then headed to Great Stirrup Cay (Norwegian’s private beach island), where the stop had to be canceled due to high winds and rough seas.
As you may have seen or heard if you keep tabs on the happenings in the cruise industry, there was a tremendous amount of fanfare, and an extensive marketing effort by MSC, well in advance of the arrival of the Divina in the United States. Following a lengthy Trans-Atlantic voyage the ship, which is being heralded by MSC as “a Diva like no other,” sailed into Miami early on the morning of November 19th. A video of the ship’s arrival, where it was accompanied by a flotilla of Fiats that had actually been turned into zippy little motor boats, can be seen on MSC’s web site.
MSC really pulled out all of the stops for this celebratory voyage. There was a great seven-piece band from Miami playing on the pool deck on the day of departure, and prior to heading to sea we were treated to a fantastic fireworks show. Sticking to the Diva theme which has been established for the Divina, MSC also went to the expense of hiring about half a dozen models for the occasion. These lovely young ladies were dressed in slinky red dresses, high heels and beautiful hats, and they spent their time strolling around the ship and posing for pictures with the obviously overjoyed and excited guests. All of these pre-cruise activities, combined with the open bar and the wait staff freely distributing cocktails, created quite a level of excitement and anticipation as our beautiful ship headed out to sea.
Because the ship had been sailing from Europe for almost three weeks prior to our voyage the mix of passengers on our short cruise was also very different from what it will be in the future. Many of the passengers who had sailed on the Trans-Atlantic voyage remained onboard for the additional three days when we were sailing, thus there were a large number of guests from Australia, Turkey and China in addition to many other travel agents and other invited guests, media folk and industry bigwigs.
Of course, when the Divina starts to sail from Miami on a regular basis, the vast majority of the passengers will probably be Americans. In addition, since children age 11 and under sail for free with MSC, and kids between the ages of 12 and 17 sail for reduced rates, there will be plenty of families sailing with their children.
The Divina, as advertised, is an absolutely beautiful ship with unique and truly stunning décor in virtually every public area. There is a dominating black and silver color scheme in many areas, and, as on many other MSC ships, there is an extensive use of chrome and mirrors throughout the ship. As you navigate the ship and closely examine the décor, lighting, furnishings and fabrics you cannot help but be impressed by the skills and creativity of the design team that created this vessel. The numerous clubs and lounges that offer all types of live entertainment are beautiful and the main theatre is absolutely stunning with excellent sight lines from the orchestra or the balcony. The seats are offset to provide for better viewing although it would have been nice if the theatre had been designed with enough legroom to actually cross your legs.
The public decks include angular or double entrances into many of the venues which are located in the center or on the outer edge of the ship. The ship is quite long, and with walkways often weaving back and forth I found that getting a handle on the layout was more difficult than usual. In addition, many of the balcony staterooms either extend out or are set back from the side of the ship which results in hallways which include blind 90 degree right and left turns as opposed to the typically straight hallways from bow to stern.
The ship’s three-story atrium is extremely attractive with stunning Swarovski crystal embedded staircases and a crystal chandelier being the primary decorative features. Deck 5 is the lowest level of the atrium and it includes the guest services reception area, a small bar, an extremely small Internet center and the lower level of the Black Crab restaurant in the rear of the ship.
The second level of the atrium (Deck 6) has another bar, the shore excursion desk, the future sales center and the upper level of the Black Crab. As you head towards the front of the ship you will find numerous boutiques, the Piazza del Doge (for drinks and small group musical entertainment), a cigar bar, more shops, the casino and the main entrance to the Pantheon Theatre.
The third level of the atrium (Deck 7) includes more bars and shops, a small jazz club, a coffee bar, the art gallery, the dueling piano bar, and the balcony of the Pantheon Theatre. Heading towards the rear of the ship on that deck you will find the Eately Restaurant (a creation of celebrity chef Mario Batali), and a small specialty food store where you can purchase imported pasta, vinegars, olive oils or some truly delicious biscotti. This deck also includes the photo gallery and the beautiful Black & White Lounge which is a lovely spacious club with a large dance floor that is used for live music and special activities.
The main, two-level dining room is named the Black Crab and there is another dining room called Villa Rossa which is located at the rear of the ship. The Black Crab has unusually low ceilings and the tables are spaced too close together which makes the room quite noisy when it is filled to capacity. The Villa Rossa, on the other hand, has a more spacious feel and offers a broad panoramic view of the ocean.
The main pool deck has tables and chairs along the outer edges of the ship and loungers closer to the multi-level area where the pool and hot tubs are located. There is a band stand for live music and scheduled activities, plus a movie screen where MSC’s promotional videos were shown during the daytime and where regular movies are shown in the evening.
Further forward there is a second pool and seating area with a retractable roof. On many ships this area is a solarium where one can escape from the noise and activity at the main pool, but on this ship there was music blasting there as well. There are two bars on the pool deck as well as the gelato/sorbet counter and a couple of free-standing stations where sodas and alcoholic beverages are available should you wish to procure them yourself. This is sometimes advisable since while there are plenty of cocktail waitresses on the pool deck we found that you can wait quite a long time for them to bring you a drink.
The buffet, which consists of individual stations that offer a wide variety of hot and cold foods, is located on the pool deck and it extends for almost half of the length of the entire ship. The food and seating areas closest to the pool tend to be extremely crowded, and there can be quite a traffic jam where the people waiting at a counter to be served interfere with those guests who are trying to walk through the area towards the pool or the rear of the ship. The buffet area towards the rear of the ship is much quieter and well worth the extra steps that it takes to get there.
We also discovered that you will often find completely different types of food in the rear section of the buffet than in the area closest to the pool. In addition, there can be different foods on one side of the ship compared to the other side. One would be well-advised, therefore, to take a long slow walk around the entire buffet to become familiar with the layout and the location of the many food stations in advance of actually having a meal.
Heading forward from the pools you will enter the absolutely stunning Aurea Spa and the fitness center. This beautifully designed area includes an expansive health bar with a lovely seating area for relaxing before or after your workout or your massage. They offer an amazing variety of presumably remedial herbal beverages, there are individual rooms for all types of spa, hair, and facial treatments, and there is a terrific exercise area with lots of weights and equipment and a wonderful 270 degree view of the sea.
The Divina does have a few other rather unique areas on the highest decks of the ship. Towards the rear of Deck 15, for example you will find an infinity pool and a nice service bar, plus the various venues that comprise the children’s center. Directly above there is a peaceful solarium with a couple of hot tubs and additional lounge seating. That deck also includes the sports area, the 4D cinema, the F1 racing simulator, and the Galaxy night club. The layout of the entire ship is a bit more complicated than most, so studying the deck plan and the relationship between particular elevators and specific public areas is definitely recommended prior to sailing on the Divina.
We stayed in a balcony cabin which was about average in size, or perhaps a bit smaller than similar accommodations on other large ships. The décor was very clean and pleasant with nice wood furniture, attractive fabrics, a large sofa, a refrigerated mini-bar, a small flat-screen television, and a large floor-to-ceiling mirror across from the bed which made the cabin appear to be much larger than it actually was.
One European feature of the cabin is a small box on the wall near the door where you insert your room key when you enter your cabin. Doing this enables you to use the lighting in the cabin, and it also activates a small light in the hallway above your cabin door. This is an excellent idea since the light lets your cabin steward know when you are in your cabin and when you are out so that he can perform his housekeeping duties while respecting your privacy. We had to figure this out on our own, however, since our cabin steward never explained anything about any of the features of the cabin when we met him later in the afternoon.
The amount of closet space was quite limited and the number of drawers in the closet and in the tiny nightstands was far less than one would like, or need, especially if you were sailing on a 7-night or longer cruise. The bathroom included a very narrow counter with a sink plus there are three hanging shelves and one lower cabinet for your belongings. The shower was unique in that it is made of two rotating Plexiglas doors which remain open or closed when a magnet on the top of each doors latches on to another magnet on the ceiling. Opening and swinging back the right-hand door when you are not in the shower provides you with more space to move around and this is also beneficial because the toilet is installed next to the shower door. The cabin steward did not tell us about this either.
Unfortunately, the amenities that were provided in the bathroom did not even come up to the level of a basic Best Western. There are dispensers of body wash and shampoo on the wall inside the shower but MSC does not even provide their guests with a wash cloth. There was a liquid soap dispenser next to the sink which did not work properly even after we asked our cabin steward to have it repaired, and this problem affected many other passengers that we spoke to during our cruise.
With the soap dispenser being completely useless we then discovered that there are no bars of soap on the ship even though there is a soap dish on the wall next to the counter. As a result, we had to reach into the shower and pump some body wash onto our hands any time that we wanted to wash them. Lacking a wash cloth made cleaning ourselves in the shower, or in my case shaving, a far more time consuming and inconvenient procedure than it should have been.
In addition, MSC did not even provide a nice welcoming tray of body lotion or hair conditioner which one will find in any basic hotel room. One would think that if they can afford to let hundreds of children sail for free that they could afford wash cloths and bars of soap and little bottles of conditioner and hand lotion for their guests, and the omission of these items was very disappointing. The evening turndown service was also lacking in that there were no chocolates or other treats placed on our pillows.
The most expensive accommodations on the Divina are found in the exclusive MSC Yacht Club which is a private enclave located on Deck 15 and 16 at the very front of the ship. This “ship within a ship” concept enables guests to enjoy complimentary wine, drinks and beverages, a private pool, hot tubs and sun deck, a special room service menu, a complimentary mini-bar, butler service, their own private restaurant and a private elevator to transport them to the spa. You do receive complimentary champagne and canapés upon your arrival and special edible goodies during the day on the sun deck. As a really nice extra benefit, you and your luggage are personally transported from a special greeting area outside of the cruise terminal directly to your suite by a butler when you arrive for your cruise.
The grand entrance to the Yacht Club features a circular concierge area and a stunning Swarovski crystal staircase which leads to the second level of accommodations. The suites themselves, however, were only a bit larger than the standard balcony cabin where we were staying. There was more closet space and a fancier bathroom but the balcony was no larger than ours. My overall opinion of these accommodations is that it is quite a stretch to refer to them as suites.
A few unusual aspects of this “exclusive sanctuary at sea” left us quite mystified and less than impressed. On the private sun deck, for example, all of the lounge chairs are out in the sun and the only shade that is provided is near the bar where there are tables and chairs under a large awning. Since this ship will be sailing in the Caribbean year-round one would think that guests would be provided with an area where they could stretch out on a lounger without being in the direct sun, but apparently this thought did not occur to the designers of this space.
The other truly inconvenient feature is that the Yacht Club’s private restaurant, The Muse, is located all the way on the other end of the ship as opposed to being in close proximity to the suites. The restaurant, which is open for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, wraps around the rear of the ship. However, far from being an elegant, private venue, the floor-to-ceiling windows actually look out on to a public sun deck, where people of many shapes and sizes wearing bathing attire can be viewed while you are eating.
Inconsistent is the first word that comes to mind when I think about the many different meals that I had while on the Divina. The ship’s galley definitely has its strengths (most of the Italian dishes and their excellent pizza and gelato), but while some of the dishes can be excellent, other preparations and the way that they are plated leave a lot to be desired.
Our culinary experience began the day that we boarded when we discovered that lunch was being served in the Black Crab restaurant. Rather than head for the buffet like the vast majority of arriving passengers, we headed for the dining room and enjoyed an absolutely wonderful meal. The appetizers were excellent, I had a fantastic filet mignon as an entrée, and we devoured a lovely selection of Italian desserts that included panna cotta, a small cannoli, and a delicious tiramisu. The breads were excellent, the maitre d’ was charming, and the service was precise and professional.
After the disappointing dining experiences that I had experienced on my only other MSC cruise (Orchestra – March 2009) I was absolutely blown away by this meal. Skeptic that I am, I asked the maitre d’ if this was a typical daily lunch menu on the ship or whether it had been specially prepared for our 3-night voyage. Based upon his assurances that it was similar to the regular lunch menus, I left the table looking forward with great anticipation to my future dining adventures, for if MSC had really gotten their culinary act together, so to speak, then we really might be in for something special over the next three days.
However, when I was discussing my superb lunch later that afternoon with some Australian passengers who had been sailing on the Divina for the past three weeks, they informed me that they hadn’t seen any filet mignon during their entire cruise and in general they were pretty unimpressed with the food that they had been served. One couple had even upgraded to the Yacht Club mid-voyage and they did not have anything complimentary to say about their dining experience in the private restaurant.
Sadly to say, my lunchtime euphoria lasted only until dinner that evening. The food was no better than mediocre to good, dishes arrived lukewarm, and the service was something that had to be endured rather than enjoyed. Dinner the first two nights was fair to good, but on the final evening of our cruise, the meal, which included a superb baked Alaska for dessert following the traditional parade, was excellent from start to finish.
Besides our evening meal in the dining room we had breakfast and lunch in the buffet. The breakfast selections were about the same as on most cruise ships but many cooked items were set out in serving trays where they cooled off far too quickly. Cold pancakes, rock-hard French toast, and horrid scrambled eggs may be suitable to some people, but a cold breakfast of fresh fruits, cheeses, breads and cereals would be a much more reliable and satisfying way to start the day. On a positive note, however, MSC’s coffee, which is available at well-positioned, recessed service areas, was far better than that which I have had on many other cruise lines.
Lunch provided many more hot and cold choices including MSC’s excellent pizza which was prepared and served at two large stations in the buffet. There are usually four to six different types of pizza being made at any one time, but they cool off very quickly after they are sliced and then placed onto serving platters under heat lamps. One would be advised, therefore, to hang out at the counter and grab a slice or two immediately after a pie comes out of the oven when it is nice and hot and really, really good. Pizza was being made late into the evening and many people were enjoying it as a midnight snack on every evening of our cruise. MSC does offer thirteen varieties of pizza and you can order a whole pie and have it delivered to your cabin or enjoy it for lunch on the pool deck for a nominal extra cost.
Through the years, difficulties communicating with the onboard staff, poor service and problematical attitudes at the guest services and shore excursions desks have been some common criticisms of the cruise line. MSC continues to crank out new ships at an amazing pace, but staffing each of them with thousands of experienced people, and training them to provide passengers with the level of service that is available on other major cruise lines, has been one of MSC’s continual challenges. What may be acceptable in Europe simply is not going to cut it when the vast majority of passengers are Americans who, as we know, want what they want when they want it and generally do not easily suffer fools.
The Divina is going to be sailing from Miami year-round, so to accommodate the needs of the North American cruise passenger MSC has eliminated the constant migraine-inducing barrage of announcements made in five or six languages. They brought an English-speaking cruise director onboard in Miami for our voyage and all of the announcements, except for the one made during the mandatory lifeboat drill, were in English. To accommodate their foreign-speaking guests MSC has gone to the trouble and expense of printing their daily program in six different languages and they should be commended for taking this step.
Where the vast majority of the dining room, housekeeping and deck staff are concerned, it appears that MSC has basically airlifted a good percentage of the population of Bali, Indonesia to work on the Divina. These people are very sweet and sincere and they work extremely hard, but despite MSC’s claims to the contrary the vast majority of them still have a very limited ability to communicate in English. When it comes to providing crisp, choreographed, professional service in a dining room many of them are obviously inexperienced and they were clearly not provided with adequate training after being hired to work on the Divina.
The Divina’s return to this country has, of course, been in the planning stages for a very long time. This ship has been sailing for almost a year and a half, and that should have been more than enough time to drill the most basic tenets of dining room service into the heads of even the most inexperienced waiters and busboys, even if they were honing their skills in the Mediterranean.
One would have thought, therefore, that by the time that the Divina arrived in Miami that everything related to passenger communications and service would have been hitting on all eight cylinders, especially for this inaugural cruise where MSC would be trying to impress all of the travel agents whom they will be relying upon to fill the ship every week.
In the main dining room, however, we experienced and observed service that can only be described as uncoordinated, erratic, and unprofessional. Even on the first evening of the cruise, when one’s waiter traditionally introduces himself to the guests at the table and tells them what a pleasure it will be to serve them during their cruise, our waiter simply walked over and asked us if we were ready to order after we had been sitting there for at least ten minutes. This oversight can be forgiven, however, since it turned out that our waiter had been promoted from his position as a busboy only one day earlier, and thus he was not familiar with the standard operating procedures of his new position.
Amazingly, one of the most basic rules of serving food, where a dish is served by reaching over a guests’ right shoulder, had not been ingrained into the heads of the staff. As a result almost every dish, from bowls of hot soup to entrees, was served by reaching across another person to serve the person seated next to him.
In addition, the waiter or his assistant would often arrive with the entrees and then ask, for example, “Who gets the veal?” This demonstrates nothing but laziness on the part of the order taker and is the type of service that one might expect when having a meal at a roadside diner in New Jersey. Ordering a pre-dinner cocktail was yet another disaster, as it took a full twenty minutes for the cocktail waitress to appear at our table to take my order after I had asked my waiter to send her over, and it then took another twenty minutes until the cocktail actually appeared long after I had already eaten my first course.
Perhaps I am being overly critical here, but Americans can be an impatient and often demanding lot. If this ship, therefore, is going to effectively compete with Carnival, Norwegian, Princess and Royal Caribbean, for example, their service and food quality had better be at least as good, if not better, than that which these other cruise lines currently provide.
Speaking of guest relations, MSC has also gone to the trouble of producing some wonderful promotional videos where they show the ship’s officers strolling the decks, stopping to straighten the towel of a bikini-clad sun worshiper, and pausing to greet couples, families and their children as if they were long lost relatives. What I saw was quite different, however, as I constantly observed officers walking the decks talking on their walkie-talkies or to one another, and rushing past the passengers as if they didn’t exist at all.
One aspect of our cruise where MSC really did an outstanding job was by providing live entertainment that truly offers something for everyone. The smaller lounges offer performances by solo artists, duos, and larger bands, and the dueling pianos bar was an extremely popular gathering spot in the evenings. There was a steady stream of recorded and live music on the main pool deck which made it an extremely noisy place throughout our cruise. The best live band, which is based in Miami, was only brought onboard for this introductory cruise as was the Abba tribute band which performed once in the main theatre.
We saw all of the production shows in the main theatre and found them to be extremely entertaining and enjoyable. The shows are, however, quite different from the standard singing and dancing, often Broadway-based song and dance productions that are found on most major cruise lines.
For example, the first show began with the ships’ troupe singing and dancing while dressed as pirates (which was the advertised theme), then all of a sudden there were four male acrobats tumbling across the stage. Their appearance was then followed by four female gymnasts contorting themselves in a way that no human body should be able or allowed to do. Confused and not knowing what to focus on at that point we soon realized that the show really had no plot at all and that we should not bother searching for one.
The next show, entitled the Witches of Paris, began with the lead female singer treating us to a truly superb number. This was a much better show than the previous one, and this young lady and the lead male singer are truly exceptional talents. Every number that they performed by themselves, or as a duet, was as good an exhibition of professional quality singing as we have heard on any cruise ship.
The final show was a Michael Jackson tribute and this was undoubtedly one of the best shows that we have ever seen on any cruise ship. The male lead reenacted every move and dance step that Michael Jackson ever did and then some, and the background dancers, great costumes, interaction with the audience and the superb music made the show one that richly deserved the standing ovation that it received.
MSC appears to be focusing more on visual effects, acrobatic and gymnastic performances due to the higher than average number of foreign-speaking passengers. Their stage productions are thus quite different from what is presented on most other cruise lines, but if you take it all in and enjoy the talents of the various performers that take the stage you will definitely have an enjoyable time.
Looking back at our 3-day experience on the Divina, one thing that we can say for sure is that we really did have a good time. We loved the ship, thoroughly enjoyed the entertainment, and we met a lot of great people. While we were obviously less than pleased with a number of aspects of our onboard experience, I believe that the Divina has the potential to become a great cruising experience and an excellent vacation value.