I was astounded to read that MSC have only a 54% passenger satisfaction rating, so was apprehensive when I booked an outside balcony cabin for a 17 night Transatlantic cruise for the bargain price of just £770. My wife and I have cruised twice with P&O who set the bar very high, but we were not disappointed. On the contrary, the MSC experience was better in almost every way.
We bought a cruise-only package and flew to the embarkation port of Genoa a few days early in order to enjoy exploring the ancient Ligurian port.
Our balcony cabin was a pleasant surprise and with room for a sofa it was only slightly smaller than a P&O Superior Deluxe cabin, tastefully decorated with 2 mirrors and 2 cheerfully bright, colourful prints. There was ample storage space and a decent-sized fridge but no kettle or tea/coffee making facilities. Fortunately, thanks to a review on this site we knew this so packed our old kettle. The flatscreen TV had no reception while crossing the Atlantic (unlike P&O), but a free film was available daily, or alternatively films could be viewed ‘on demand’ for € 7. I would like to see free Wi-Fi being offered aboard. However a daily newspaper could be delivered freshly printed for just €2.50 a day. We enjoyed the privacy of not having cabins overlooking our pleasant balcony, with its table and 2 chairs.
Unfortunately no utility room was available with machine machines and an ironing board, and laundry cost a whopping €25 for 20 items.
Almost half of the passengers were Brasilian, and 11% came from Argentina. Other nationalities included French and Germans (8% each), Swiss and Dutch 5% each, and British 4%. Tannoy announcements were kept to an absolute minimum, with the Italian captain keeping a refreshingly low profile. Two entertainment officers kept us up to speed before shows, each making announcements about upcoming events in 3 languages. No smoking is allowed on board, so smokers made a bee line for one side of the pool deck where it is permitted. There are disinfectant dispensers outside the restaurants and a very grown up attitude prevailed, with no one forcing you to use them.
There is no ‘Freedom Dining’, and mercifully no so-called ‘Celebrity Chef’ restaurants. You choose whether to have dinner at 18.30 or 20.30 and are allocated a table with compatriots, in our case a table of 4. The menu was a revelation, with a wide choice of mouth-watering European fare such as outstanding risottos and a large variety of fish. Popular choices such as spaghetti with garlic and pepper were always available. The wine menu was biased towards Italy, with 11 of its 20 regions represented. We particularly enjoyed our waiter’s recommendation of white Falanghina Campi Flegrei DOC ‘Cantine Farro’ from Campania (€23). Italy does not have a tradition of serving pitchers of tap water, and the Orchestra reflected that, serving good quality San Benedetto still and sparkling mineral water. Coffee and petit fours are not included. There are a couple of pay-extra speciality restaurants aboard but we enjoyed the included restaurants so much that we never tried them.
The dress code was very relaxed. British males generally lack dress sense so enjoy P&O formal nights where a dinner suit is like a universal uniform. Many passengers aboard the Orchestra did not bring a dinner suit, yet everybody looked stylish and smart on the few formal nights.
The buffet restaurant was exceptional. Breakfast choices always included both oat porridge and semolina and fresh fruit such as pears and mandarins. Inexplicably bananas only appeared once, as fortunately did a batch of rotten peaches. There are no trays. You grab a large plate and help yourself. There is a good selection of teas and good Magforte Segafreddo coffee. The salad bar had an extensive selection of leaf salads and vegetables, with olive oil and balsamic vinegar a most welcome alternative to the likes of blue cheese sauce. There were slices of proper pizza, served straight from an electric oven and delicious ‘gelato’ (ice cream). Cakes were OK, but P&O wine hands down in the bakery department.
In the Savannah bar seat fabric is imitation leopard skin and nouveau-riche lamps grow out of baby leopards. Yet the ship is furnished in the best possible taste, with one bar bleeding seaslessly into the next on Deck 6. Three drinks packages were offered: ‘Cheers!’ for drinks with meals (£32 for 2, including obligatory 15% service); ‘Alegrissimo’- drinks and ice creams (£45) or, for serious drinkers and alcoholics, an ‘Allegrissimo Premium’ package of drinks including champagne cocktails, whisky, brandy. Ice creams and room service. Moreover with this last £81.50 a day package you are entitled to clean out the entire contents of your cabin mini-bar every day! Yet amazingly we never saw anybody rolling around drunk and disorderly.
Mercifully there were no Art sales aboard ship so no ‘limited edition’ Rolf Harris prints to peruse. Passengers enjoyed shopping for perfumes and watches from tables set up right by the pools, and here you could also watch cookery demonstrations or participate in aerobics. Alternatively you could attend a dance class downstairs.
Service was universally first class, even when judged against the excellent largely Indian P&O crew. A gratuity of €12 per day was automatically added to our onboard account. MSC discourage tipping individual crew members, however we wanted to show our appreciation to our cabin steward and waiters.
As soon as we boarded we bought a £205 pass entitling us both to use the saunas, steam rooms and 3 indoor jacuzzis in the Spa. The sauna was heated to only 70°C and the 2 steam rooms were on rare occasions cool and a bit draughty however the facilities were never crowded. On one occasion we enjoyed a massage in the Spa by one of the Thai masseuses. From the spa we took dips in one of the on-deck pools and we really enjoyed that they filled with sea water, with all its therapeutic benefits. There was always an animated holiday atmosphere on the pool deck, and no fights over the plentiful sunbeds.
Drinks are not allowed in the magnificent large theatre and there was rarely a scramble for seats; MSC shows are short, just 35 minutes, and mostly feature lip syncing, yet the dancing was divine. However we yearned for the superb live musicians on P&O Ventura! Shows featuring acrobats and strongmen were impressive. By contrast P&O's ‘Headliners’ troupe of dancers impressed us by their sheer hard work, the variety of different hour long shows they stage and live singing, but the downside is simplified, angular movements. Overall we preferred MSC's entertainment programme.
Our cruise had an impressive roll call of port calls: Marseilles, Barcelona, Lisbon, Las Palmas, Recife, Maceio, Salvador de Bahia, Ihla Grande and finally Santos. Yet having 6 official languages made it impossible to hold the port talks at which P&O excel. The greatest fault was the lack of port maps showing where the ship docked. P&O distribute maps to cabins the evening before arrival together with basic sightseeing and transportation information. With MSC you either sign up for a shore excursion or you are on your own, so make sure that you do your research before you leave home if you intend to be independent. Moreover MSC gave no information about free shuttles to city centres. Fortunately I had my binoculars to view the free port shuttle, so saved €32, the cost for the two of us to ride the MSC-chartered bus to Marseilles centre. (The cost of an MSC shuttle, where required, was usually around €6 per person).
Disembarkation went very smoothly, and was more comfortable than embarkation, when we had to stand in line for an hour or so in a cramped departure lounge, albeit in a pleasant mood of anticipation. (Anyone with special needs was fast-tracked).
Overall this cruise was a fabulous, relaxing experience. We loved our cabin, the delicious food & wine wine, great entertainment, fine facilities of the spa area and the invigorating sea water in the on-deck pools. We enjoyed the multi-national atmosphere which made a welcome change to the largely Daily Mail-reading passengers of Middle England with whom we cruised with P&O. And it was outstanding value for money!