We are British and in our sixties. This was our 18th cruise; the 9th with MSC. We have always enjoyed the cosmopolitan experience that is indicative of this Italian line. The main national groups on this cruise were British, Dutch, German, Italian, French, Spanish & Portuguese. The multi-national aspect does not bother us, apart from the tedium of public announcements in 6 languages! This was our second sailing aboard the Opera and overall, despite disappointing weather, we had a most enjoyable and satisfying cruise.
ITINERARY - Southampton (UK) - IJmuiden (near Amsterdam, Netherlands) - Guernsey (Cannel Islands - missed due to inclement weather at this tender port) - Vigo (Galicia, NE Spain) - Lisbon (Portugal) - Getxo (near Bilbao, Basque Country, NW Spain) - Le Havre (Normandy, N. France) - Southampton.
EMBARKATION & DISEMBARKATION - Superbly fast, friendly & efficient. This is helped by the fact that on this route the ship picks up and drops off passengers at most ports - therefore, it is never having to load/unload everyone at a single terminal.
PARKING - Southampton - it worked a dream! Dedicated car park, minibuses and baggage vans adjacent to where directed to park - 2 minutes shuttle to terminal. Reverse on disembarkation.
CABIN 9137 (Balcony) - Rather bijou, but well maintained and the cabin steward did his job well. We are pleased we insisted on not being 'upgraded' to Deck 10, which suffers more roll and being under the pool deck is much more noisy.
MAIN DINING ROOMS - L'Approdo is at the aft of Deck 6 and La Caravella is midships on Deck 5. The latter is probably better for a smoother ride. It is the only MDR used for breakfast and lunch. We preferred the ambience of L’Approdo, where we dined each evening. After 10 years since we were last aboard Opera, both restaurants still appeared fresh and were spotlessly clean and well maintained. Dinner is served over two sittings - 6.30 pm & 9.00 pm. We always choose the late sitting, but this was a little too late - whilst some were out by 10.00 pm, we never left before 11.00 pm. So it was bed time on a full stomach!
There are no premium or speciality restaurants on the Opera and this was a disappointment as we were celebrating a special occasion.
We noticed that part of the L’Approdo is cordoned off for Anytime Dining. When we enquired about this we were told it could only be booked through our travel agent. We booked direct and nobody had told us about it. We were only interested in this for our special occasion, but decided against making an issue.
BUFFET - Not to be recommended! Whilst the food may be perfectly okay it is invariably a scrum down! Pushing and shoving, a cacophony of sound and inadequate table clearing and bar service. So we kept well clear!
CUISINE - We really do not understand why we read so many negative reviews about Opera's food. Including this one, 8 of the 9 cruises we have taken with MSC have delivered really good menus, with lots of choice and superb quality. The evening menu can be best described as International with an Italian twist. Presentation is now much improved and without exception, MSC has the best bakery at sea - breads and patisseries to die for! Our last cruise earlier this year was on Cunard's Queen Elizabeth. We found Opera to be better!!
DRINKS PACKAGE - As part of the booking incentive, we were provided with the entry level ‘Cheers’ package. In addition to draft beer, soft drinks and bottled water, this supposedly offered a choice of 2 red, 2 white and 1 rose wine at lunch and dinner. In the MDRs this seemed to be reduced to 1 of each, unless one insisted - which I did!! The whites and the rose were drinkable, but both reds were absolutely awful! We're used to good Italian wines on MSC ships and in the past, if we have not wanted a whole bottle, we've been perfectly happy to buy a carafe of house red, which has been perfectly acceptable. But on this cruise no such options were offered to us. So it was incongruous that we should have such wonderful food accompanied by such impossibly poor wines.
MDR SERVICE - as with all ships on all lines we have sailed with, we found service at breakfast and lunch to be hit and miss - sometimes impressive, sometimes rather poor. However, service at night was delightful - a good mix of professionalism & friendliness and so obliging. And again - much more welcoming than the QE!
OTHER PUBLIC AREAS - We found all areas fresh, clean and well maintained. Perhaps the brassware and mirrors are not as gleaming as they used to be, but there were a lot of kids with sticky fingers! Deck 11 (Pool, Buffet, etc) - given the time of year, we knew it would be heaving with families, so we kept well clear and therefore had no surprises or reasons to moan! However, we cannot help but observe how over-crowded some of the bars/lounges get in the evening. Eight to ten years ago, we recall Lirica Class ships having a max capacity of c. 1700 passengers - they are a lovely environment with 1500 guests. Yet now they seem to carry over 2000, although the ships have not expanded (yet!).
The Lirica Class ships (of which Opera is one of four) will be undergoing a ‘Slice & Stretch’ programme of rebuilding over the next two years. This will increase capacity by 200 on each ship. Unless adequate provision is made, this is likely to cause the public areas to be further swamped.
RECEPTION TEAM - invariably in the past we have found the Reception Desk on MSC cruises to be a barrier to customer satisfaction. We have seen gradual improvements over time, but there has always been an underlying curtness/defensiveness and a sense of 'Us & Them'. For the first time on this cruise we finally found that they seemed to be on the same side as their customers!
ENTERTAINMENT - The THEATRE SHOWS were so very, very good - not everything was our choice, but production, performers and costumes were all of excellent quality. There were some fine musicians/singers in the bars/lounges too.
The ANIMATION PROGRAMME was delivered with its usual juvenile character - okay for those who like it, if confined to the pool area, but in bad weather (and there was a lot) games & competitions were moved to one of the lounges and the woman screeching into her mike resounded throughout the ship!! Certainly, this was an intrusion for many fare-paying passengers - it would be good if this could be managed better.
'CULTURE WHILE CRUISING' - I think this may be an experiment to offer an enrichment programme for English-speaking guests - we’ve not come across this on MSC before and it is a welcome development. However, I didn't notice anything for other languages. Lina Mookerjee delivered a very interesting, diverse and accessible range of talks. Sadly she was sometimes addressing no more than 20 or 30 people! She has a nice style about her and the content, I would have thought, was pitched about right for the customer profile. Perhaps the term 'culture' gave a wrong impression as this can imply 'high brow', which MSC guests can seldom be accused of!! Her talks were billed as 'lectures', which I doubt that MSC holiday-makers are looking for!
SHIP'S TOURS - We had pre-booked three tours online through the MSC website, some weeks prior to sailing. Tickets for the first two were delivered to our cabin, but not the third for Lisbon. Then we realised that the missing tour was not featured in the tours brochure distributed on board. Upon enquiry it became obvious that the excursion had been withdrawn, but nobody thought to explain this to the Tours Desk or to inform people like us who had booked it! After giving the poor soul on the Tours Desk a bit of a hard time, we accepted an alternative tour, only to be informed the next day that it would not run due to lack of bookings from English-speaking guests! In the end we did a full day trip by taxi which proved the most enjoyable tour of the cruise, and more comprehensive, flexible and cheaper than the original MSC offering. In all, we did three MSC tours and each was in two languages - I understand why, but no matter how hard the guide may work to be linguistically even-handed it really did detract from enjoyment.
PORT INFORMATION - Sadly, this is lamentably lacking. Some years ago MSC used to produce good printed information and maps, but clearly they became a cost-cutting measure! On this ship there were no general destination presentations, either live or recorded for TV (other than MSC tour publicity). We found that the Excursion Office and Reception teams often had no idea what was on the other side of the gangplank unless it was written in MSC tour descriptions! They couldn’t even tell you whether there was a bus or shuttle service laid on by the port, or how far it was to the dock gate or town centre!
MARKET DIFFERENTIATION - MSC is unashamedly Mass Market. It clearly targets families and the ongoing new-builds and rebuilds make it clear that the Company is focussed on economies of scale. However, this concerns us if we are going to continue patronising the line. We do look for greater peace and quiet and more decorum at sea than is likely on ships into which the greatest number of passengers are squeezed.
However, the Opera and her Lirica Class sisters would make great adult-only cruise ships and if anything were to persuade us to sail more with MSC it would be a programme of cruises that are kids-free (rather than 'kids go free'!!!)
ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS - Finally, I would like to salute certain members of the crew that helped to make this memorable and enjoyable cruise:
MANDY-LEIGH CASTLE, Guest Relations Manager, who has clearly done a good job in helping to improve the passenger/crew interface;
JEANNOT & IGOR, our waiters in L'Approdo MDR (Table 45) - they had a lot of tables to cover and they worked tirelessly and cheerfully to keep us all fed, watered and satisfied;
OLHA, a rookie member of the Excursions Crew - just a couple of weeks into her first MSC contract and far from her family in troubled Donets, eastern Ukraine - she was so enthusiastic in her job and she has such a pleasing personality - a great asset;
ANOUK, a very competent and personable Dutch member of the Reception Team and able to put our minds completely at rest on any subject;
LINA MOOKERJEE, whilst a guest speaker and not a permanent crew member, she actually performed very well in delivering five very interesting and accessible presentations in the 'Culture While Cruising' programme.
THANK YOU LADIES & GENTLEMEN FOR HELPING TO MAKE OUR CRUISE SO ENJOYABLE.